One With Everything, Again

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-05-11 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

The post I made the other day about Hua-yen Buddhism strikes me, in retrospect, as something I must interrogate thoroughly. I know full well there are counter-arguments to this worldview that are powerful and meaningful. I went looking for them, and I ran into this statement:

... I am not of the same body as someone I meet on the street, or my best friend, or my lover. Not only is this the case, it is essential to realize it. I agree with Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy that recognition and apprehension of the Other is the basis of the ethical relationship. If we believe that we are One with the Other than we are subsuming him, making him over in our own image. It is only in the recognition of our separation, face to face, and our recognition of our responsibility, the one to the other, that ethics can be born. War is not the result of a failure to recognize Oneness but a failure to recognize Otherness, and the inherent right of Otherness. It is the tyranny of Oneness that causes war, because it is the desire to destroy the Other and to reduce him to non-existence. The demand of absolute unity is the source of murder. The issue is basic. It is the right to exist. We can only recognize the right of existence when we look into the face of the Other and accept that it is not our own.

I don't feel the purpose of Buddhism is to subsume others, or to make them over in our image. I feel its purpose is to recognize that other-ness is quite real in the day-to-day sense — and as such needs to be respected in the day-to-day sense — but that within ourselves, in the places that meditation is designed to get us to pay attention to, those distinctions only arise and fall away in our own minds.

The purpose of Buddhism, as I see it, is not to coerce others into one-ness, or to make a morality play out of such things. The purpose is to awaken an understanding of that within ourselves, individually — to recognize that the other is us, but still has a right to exist independent of any realization we might try to strong-arm onto them. There is a balance to be sought here, and the hedonic/utopian version of Buddhism that circulated in the West (and still does) ignores it.

Nowhere are we asking for the abrogation of common sense. No, I am not my neighbor in the day-to-day sense, in the world where I need to keep my dog off his property lest he shoot it.  And he is not me, in the world where he might come at me with the same gun if I look at him diagonally. But I am my neighbor in the sense that my existence and his are totally interrelated. All the more reason for me to respect his earthly existence where I can, and not to make a Utopian impossibility out of what we share. If we are already one, why force the point? And if it comes to the point where he refuses to share my respect, then I am obliged to not be a doormat. But it makes sense to live my life in a way that I do not have to force that point if I don't have to.

I thought also of Michael Ignatieff:

What it means to be a human being, what defines the very identity we share as a species, is the fact that we are differentiated by race, religion, ethnicity, and individual difference. These differentiations define our identity both as individuals and as a species. No other species differentiates itself in this individualized abundance. A sense of otherness, of distinctness, is the very basis of the consciousness of our individuality, and this consciousness, based in difference, is a constitutive element of what it is to be a human being. To attack any one of these differences--to round up women because they are women, Jews because they are Jews, whites because they are whites, blacks because they are blacks, gays because they are gay--is to attack the shared element that makes us what we are as a species. In this way of thinking, we understand humanity, our common flesh and blood, as valuable to the degree that it allows us to elaborate the dignity and the honor that we give to our differences--and that this reality of difference, both fated and created, is our common inheritance, the shared integument that we must fight to defend whenever any of us is attacked for manifesting it.

It is easy to make a hash out of Buddhist ethics by converting it into soppy idealism. But it is depressingly easy to do, because one can always find a way to shift ethical concerns that need first to be personal and intimate into top-down demands. Universalism is something best approached from within, not without.

Tags: Buddhism Emmanuel Levinas Hua-Yen Zen