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When Ultimate Truth Meets Relative Truth

Dalai Lama and Costco

by JANE STILLWATER

Since getting back from Iraq, I’ve been all grouchy and moody and sad. Every time I hear about another car bomb going off in Baghdad, it just breaks my heart. So I was all pleased to go off to hear the Dalai Lama speak in San Francisco on Friday and Saturday, hoping that maybe he would be able to cleanse my soul of the ugliness of Iraq.

San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is huge. I think it holds around 5,000 people. Its gigantic stage was covered with Buddhist monks and nuns — I counted 40 rows of them — all adorned with flowing, colorful gowns like so many flowers. The opening prayer was recited in Tibetan, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. And then the Dalai Lama started his lecture. And "The message I send is one of compassion," were the first words out of his mouth.

The thing that you gotta understand about listening to the Dalai Lama — and to most highly-trained lamas from the old school for that matter — is that he has the ability to use the sound of his voice like a scalpel, cutting through our garbage, our extra trappings and all our unnecessary stuff so that it falls away from us like a snake sheds its skin. So I sat back and let the DL work his magic. And I started feeling better already — just knowing that SOMEBODY cared about whether or not the world we know and love is descending into chaos, beginning with Afghanistan and Iraq.

"You have to understand the origins of suffering in order to eliminate suffering," he said. "It comes from karma and afflictions; afflicted mental states." And apparently the only forces that can oppose these mental afflictions are also mental — that in order to escape from mental afflictions you have to have a change in perspective, away from the distorted mental states. "Is it possible to cultivate a mental state that can see through the deception of the afflicted mental state and see the true reality of existence?" the Dalai Lama asked. In my case? Probably not.

"Which one of these mental states is the most powerful?" Hummm. I would bet on the afflicted mental states. I tend to hold onto my little peeves and grudges. "But the afflicted mental states are based solely on false appearances. The essential nature of the human mind is luminous." Is the Dalai Lama saying that Mankind is essentially good? Lord, I hope so. This is the hope that keeps me going — the ultimate perfectibility of Man.

"This is the heart of eliminating afflictions — to grasp the true nature of reality." And the true nature of reality doesn’t involve blowing up civilians in Baghdad. My mind keeps going back to the concept of getting blown up. Maybe I’ve got post-traumatic stress? If I do, then I’ve come to the exact right place to get cured.

"What should we do? We must understand the nature of suffering — and the Buddha isn’t talking about just ordinary pain but deeper suffering. One needs to cultivate a deeper understanding of suffering. And then once you understand suffering, then eliminate it." Hey, I’m willing. But then I fell asleep.

"Sleeping in the presence of the Dalai Lama is highly auspicious," I told my friend after she had nudged me awake, "because when you are asleep, what he says bypasses one’s mental censors and goes straight to the subconscious mind which needs this information the most." It’s called a mind-to-mind transmission — not just me being lazy.

"I’m thinking about lunch," my friend whispered back.

"At the fundamental level," the DL continued, "all things and events can only be understood through their interdependent nature." Oh. So that’s why this seminar is called Dependent Origination. "No individual thing possesses an independent nature of its own." All is cause and effect.

"There is conventional truth — relating to appearances and everyday experiences. But if we probe deeper into relativity, there is the Ultimate Truth." Apparently, one must tap-dance between these two truths. "This is called the Middle Way."

How does one dig around and arrive at Ultimate Truth? "Critical analysis." Mindfulness? Non-attachment? Which got me to thinking about going home and throwing out a whole bunch of junk. But who am I kidding? I’m attached. No enlightenment for me. But boy am I not alone in this aspect. Especially here in America. And in Iraq.

"Suffering must be understood and recognized at the level of conventional truth. Yet, at the level of Ultimate Truth, there is no suffering." So the great masters of the Middle Way school kept their eye on both types of truth and one foot in both camps. Don’t be frivolous on the one hand but don’t be a dharma snob on the other.

So. I combined relative truth with Ultimate Truth — the mundane with the sublime — and asked the woman sitting next to me, "Have you seen Richard Gere?"

At the break, my friend and I went to lunch at The Gyro King across from the fabulous new public library and had lamb kabobs. Then we street-hiked down to the south of Market Street area and went to Costco. "Isn’t it kind of unholy to go to a Costco on your lunch break while seeing the Dalai Lama?"

"But, Jane. I need contact lens solution!" This Costco was HUGE. Wall to wall STUFF. It’s been ten years since I’d been inside a Costco. They had EVERYTHING. And massive amounts of everything. Acres of everything.

"Uh, pardon me, sir," I asked the sales clerk. "Is this the Ultimate Truth aisle or is this where they sell the Relative Truth?" He thought for a moment and then pointed us in the direction of the aisle where they were giving away free desserts.

After the lunch break, the Dalai Lama got all into explaining the technical aspects of Relative and Ultimate Truth. It was like attending a physics lecture. But at least you couldn’t say he was talking down to us. And he also touched on the subject of karma, cause-and-effect. I could understand that part. "What goes around, comes around." Got that.

The next day, the DL told us how to distinguish between Relative Truth and Ultimate Truth. "The best way to achieve liberation is to reflect on ignorance and attachment to the objects of this life. We are chained to our obsessive preoccupation with the things of this life, our bodies and our feelings." Kindness and faith cannot bring liberation. "Liberation can only come by cultivating the emptiness that opposes the ignorance of grasping. Grasping at self underlies all our afflictions. When distinctions are drawn between self and other, a whole host of problems are caused by attachments. At the root of all our problems is ignorance of the true state of reality."

So there must be criteria for determining if something is ultimately real. "It is a combination of comparing [the truth currently under inspection] with conventional knowledge, conventional knowledge that cannot be contradicted by other conventional knowledge and knowledge that cannot be invalidated by an inquiry into Ultimate Reality." I think he was referring to such Golden Oldies as "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not steal".

After the talk, the Dalai Lama answered questions. I shoulda asked him what will happen to our poor sweet Iraq. But, taking the day’s teachings about karma into consideration, I think I have an idea of how to apply what he said to what is happening over there now. And here’s what I came up with: That ALL of the people now in Iraq — be they American, Iraqi, Peruvian, Sri Lankan or whatever — have basically been dropped down into a nightmarish, speeded-up karmic purgatory carwash where, if the DL is right about the causes and effects of karma, everyone there is either working off, paying off or accumulating their karmic debts at the speed of light.

If one believes in karma, just imagine what you must have done wrong in a past life to have been reborn in Iraq!

Just imagine the karmic crimes one must have committed to be born into a life that would either send you to that sweet hellhole if you are a non-Iraqi — or to be born there if you are. For those of us who have been to that terrible karmic cauldron, you know what I’m talking about. There, one’s individual handhold on the mountainside of karmic reality is being shuffled around at breakneck speed. There, instantaneous moments between life and death are everyday things. Your karma instantly ripens! If you kill someone, you are immediately hurled off the karmic cliff to the bottom of the bottomless pit — but if you help protect a child or save a life, then you are immediately sent to the mountaintop.

JANE STILLWATER can be reached through her website: http://jpstillwater.blogspot.com