Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tawhid, by the seat of a dutchman's breeches


Yesterday, a good friend and I got into a conversation about the question of unity. In our discussion, she used the word Tawhid, which I (maybe like you) had to look up on Wikipedia.

Per Wikipedia, this principle, from Islam, "asserts the existence of a single, absolute truth that transcends the world; a unique in being who is independent of the creation; a real being indivisible into hypostatic entities or incarnated manifestation."

The expression reminds me greatly of Dogen's description of the Dharma, and certainly reminds me of the teaching that "there is no "I", there is only truth." Anyway, we ended up in a general discussion about whether our perception of individuation is or is not illusory, as my friends K. and R. (and, of course, the philosophical branches of many teachings) maintain.

It is easy for us to intellectually agree or disagree with such a premise. It is much more difficult for anyone (who I know, at least) to claim first-hand experience that sheds light on the matter in any conclusive way.

I will agree that it definitely sounds much cooler and groovier to say that our perceptions of duality are erroneous. First of all, it rejects the entire world as we encounter it in its current state, a condition that one master after another suggests is necessary in order for us to step past our ordinary experience. Second, it's just about doctrinaire to assert this kind of thing if one is a "spiritual type." And third, it sounds weird and different; let's face it, human beings tend to be attracted to things that are weird and different.

Having agreed that this sounds a lot cooler than to sign onto perceived duality, I will even admit -- before I informally (and very casually) argue the possible points against this question -- that I think it is probably correct to say that our perceptions of duality are indeed erroneous.

After all, if I didn't, it would torpedo my pretensions of being a cool, groovy guy.

That leads me to the question, are we all one Being? Or are we individual entities, and are there other individual entities? If there is one Being, is it composed of aspects that manifest as individual entities? (That is to say, are our perceptions of this accurate?)

Or does everything we perceive need to be flushed down the metaphysical toilet?

Even within states of enlightenment like the one that Jesus Christ and Buddha inhabited, we (rather annoyingly) come across references that continue to hint at (or even just assert, damn it!) a universe populated at all levels by individuated personhoods.

To confuse things even more, if we take the concept of illusion to its logical conclusion, then Christ, Buddha, and everything they taught are illusory. All teachings are in fact illusory. (I think hear my old friend rlnyc snickering in the background at this one.)

Bearing all that in (our illusory) mind, we march straight up to the annoying conclusion that illusory beings have left us with with illusory teachings suggesting that everything is (or isn't) an illusion.

I think that in principle--cosmologically--it's true that there is only one thing. However, to know that from our perspective could prove rather difficult. We can examine it scientifically, and agree that there is just one whole universe, period, the end. If one could "go out"--expand--to a scale which is very nearly infinite in size (or become really, really tiny, as in planck-lengths tiny) this might become apparent. It works more or less the same way that, while an apple looks whole to us, it turns out to be made of cells, and then molecules, and then atoms, and then atomic particles, and so on. Once you get big enough to see it "from above," it's an apple. Up until then it's little bits of stuff: constituent elements. And if seen from far enough below, well, everything is pretty much an undifferentiated soup.

There's no way around it, however: in between, there are a way waaaaay lot of constituents.

Ergo, to argue in favor of the "one whole universe which is a single thing" theory--and to sign on to the premise of our helpless psychic wagon train drawn in a circle, surrounded by savage illusions all around--we might have to presume that no such constituents exist. That seems to be quite a stretch.

Wholeness, in other words, appears on every level to require constituent elements.

Presuming we want to argue that that is an illusion, then wholeness itself may be composed of illusions, and subject to the same evaluation--i.e., illusory, like all its constituents.

Hence even the cosmic unity which we espouse (as we all so enthusiastically reject our condition of individuation) does not actually exist. In a rather perverse manner, just bringing the subject up eventually leads us into an unexpectedly nihilistic cul-de-sac.

All of a sudden, there isn't anything.

You see, this whole matter gets sticky very quickly. We are like insects here who wandered into a sundew plant, thinking we were going to get a nice sweet snack, and discovering instead that we are tangled up in a big old mess that will instead have us for dinner.

In his time, Dogen was surrounded by "non-Buddhists" who presented many and various suspicious arguments of this nature, and he roundly rejected them. If anything, Dogen affirmed the essential perceived nature of reality, even as he argued that it is inherently transcendental.

Can we agree that it's fair enough to say there is something? Admittedly, we don't know what it is, but there is a something -- as opposed to nothing.

There is a something ...what is it? Perhaps it's no coincidence that that sounds like a Zen Koan.

And if all of this leaves you confused, well, at least there is a nice picture of flowers at the top of the post.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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