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The Buddhist Teaching of Oneness

The teaching of Oneness in Mahayana Buddhism is one of the most important, and oft-misunderstood portions of the Dharma.  

If we understand it, then practices like compassion and loving-kindness naturally become part of our lives.  However, if we misunderstand it, feelings of fatalism are the result.

One of my favorite explanations of this teaching can be found in the Vimalakirti Sutra.  In it, a wealthy Layman name Vimalakirti falls ill, and it soon becomes apparent that he's going to die.  In his wisdom, Buddha sent Manjushri to Vimalkirti's home to see if anything could be done.  

When he arrived Manjushri asked Vimalakirti, "Why are you sick?"  And the dying man responded by saying:

This illness of mine is born of ignorance and feelings of attachment. Because all living beings are sick, therefore I am sick. If all living beings are relieved of sickness, then my sickness will be mended. Why? Because the bodhisattva for the sake of living beings enters the realm of birth and death, and because he is in the realm of birth and death he suffers illness. If living beings can gain release from illness, then the bodhisattva will no longer be ill. 

In this passage, he connects his well-being with that of all living beings. If they are sick, he is sick. If they are well, he is well. This is the case because they all live in the realm of birth and death known as Samsara. And because they all live in Samsara together, their fates are inextricably tied together.

One simple way to understand this is to look at the picture at the top of this article.  That plant is called a Syngonium.  As I write this, there are two of them hanging on the wall in my living room.  And I love them because they're drama-free, easy to care for plants with beautiful, multi-colored leaves.  But I also like them because they perfectly demonstrate what Vimalakirti is trying to say.  

Syngoniums reproduce through their root system.  If we start with one plant in a pot, it will expand its roots underneath the soil until a second one pops up a short distance away.  And if there's room, these two plants will expand their roots until two more Syngoniums pop up; for a total of four.  A skilled gardener might end up with dozens of plants in a single pot!

To the casual observer, it will look like a giant bush.  But the gardener knows better because they understand what's happening underneath the soil

So, if we look again at the picture at the top of this article.  We understand that there isn't just one plant in the picture, there are dozens.  But they share the same roots.  They live in the same pot.  And their fates are inextricably tied together just like the living beings that Vimalakirti talked about. 

This is the teaching of Oneness; a teaching that states all living beings live in the same pot, we share the same roots, and what benefits one of us naturally benefits us all.  Similarly, what hurts one of us hurts all of us.  So, we must practice Right Mindfulness and use our inner wisdom in daily life.  If we don't the results will be disastrous.

For example, if we cut down all of the trees near our home, our air quality will suffer, and it'll be hard to breathe.  If we poison our rivers, then we'll struggle to find clean drinking water.  Of course, we still have our individuality.  The river is a river.  The trees are trees.  And we're still human beings living seemingly separate lives.

But if we act as skilled gardeners; looking beneath the surface.  Then we see the Oneness of all things.  We understand that our well-being is tied to rivers, trees, and the people around us.  So, we care for them just like we care for ourselves.

This is the compassion of a Bodhisattva; compassion borne of the fact that we get sick when the world is sick.  It's a compassion that understands the best way to help ourselves is to help the people, plants, and animals around us. 

Namu Amida Butsu

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The Buddhist Teaching of Oneness


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