Thankfully, I recently started reading a book by Beatrice Lane Suzuki called Mahayana Buddhism which provided me with some clarity on this topic. In it, she investigates the writings of Nagarjuna, a Buddhist philosopher in ancient India, and the work he did in making Buddha's teaching of emptiness or sunyata easier for lay people to understand. I took a crack at explaining the concept in a previous blog post when discussing environmentalism. But the truth is that the idea of emptiness has always been difficult for me to put in words. In fact, I have a funny memory of reciting the Heart Sutra for my sister one day. I got as far as, “Therefore in emptiness no eyes, no ears, no nose, no mouth…” before she interrupted me and stated quite truthfully, “But you do have eyes, ears, and a mouth!” I’ll admit that I didn’t have a good response, so I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and continued chanting. Meanwhile, she just chalked it up to her weird, hippy brother talking nonsense once again! But according to Nagarjuna, we were both right.
Essentially, Nagarjuna separates reality into two parts. There is conditional reality which is our humdrum, everyday existence. And then there is absolute reality which is existence before we start putting labels on everything like Democrat, Republican, good, bad, etc. It's important to note, however, that the two are not separate entities. Conditional reality exists as a part of absolute reality. In other words, I do have eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth. However, that’s not the whole story. I'm also a part of every living creature that exists on this planet, and they are a part of me. In the realm of absolute reality, we are all connected in infinite ways that we'll never fully understand. The problem is that we get so wrapped up in our humdrum, everyday existence that we forget absolute reality exists.
I’d almost compare it to being a single leaf on a very large tree. Yes, the leaf is real. It has a life and it’s able to function to a certain extent all on its own. But it’s still part of a much larger entity which is the tree. In this example, the leaf represents conditional reality and the tree represents absolute reality. They’re both real. But if we focus too much on the conditional reality of the leaf without caring for the tree as a whole, then everything dies and we create suffering. On the other hand, if we focus solely on the rest of the tree (absolute reality) and ignore the leaves, then everything still dies. Either way, we suffer. Our challenge is to care for both the individual leaf AND the rest of the tree at the same time. In other words, we must live in emptiness but work in form.
Please don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that we should get rid of political discussion. Politics are an important part of conditional reality. The United States literally couldn't function without multiple parties with multiple viewpoints duking it out in the political arena. It's messy, but a certain amount of conflict is healthy in order to help us grow as a nation. But that only works if it is balanced by the knowledge that we are all children of the absolute. We are all leaves on the same tree, and the same basic goodness that lived in Buddha 2,500 years ago lives in all of us regardless of our political affiliations.
With this in mind, when I have political discussions in the future I'm going to focus less on the conditional reality of the other person's politics, and more on the absolute reality of their basic goodness. Furthermore, I'll focus less on the conditional reality that says I'm talking to a political opponent and more on the absolute reality that says in some small way I'm talking to Buddha himself.