In respect of the opposites, when a subtle person has gone beyond,
Then all restraints dissolve for that realised one.
– Dhammapada, verse 384. Translated Christopher J. Ash
In my own development, and with my interest in human change processes, I’ve found it really helpful to clarify the uses of the word ‘acceptance.’ For a long time it wasn’t clear to me what the relationship was between acceptance and the necessary actions which change our lives. You’ve witnessed in these pages, how careful I am to note that total acceptance of reality, doesn’t mean being inactive in changing your life for the better.
It was particularly necessary for me, as a Westerner, to understand this, because two of my trusted Buddhist traditions – Zen and Dzogchen – recommend non-interference as the highest spiritual practice.
The verses of the Zen text called On Believing in Mind used to frustrate me intensely, when our group recited them, on retreat. It was written by Seng-ts’an, the third patriarch of (Chinese) Ch’an, who died 606 CE. The opening verses will give you a taste of what frustrated me, perhaps. This translation is by D.T. Suzuki, and the full text of this long and profound poem, is here:
The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise;
A tenth of an inch’s difference,
And heaven and earth are set apart;
If you wish to see it before your own eyes,
Have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
This is the disease of the mind:
When the deep meaning [of the Way] is not understood
Peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose.
[The Way is] perfect like unto vast space,
With nothing wanting, nothing superfluous:
It is indeed due to making choice
That its suchness is lost sight of.
Pursue not the outer entanglements,
Dwell not in the inner void;
Be serene in the oneness of things,
And [dualism] vanishes by itself.
Of course, we have here the same themes as we find in my many quotes from the Nikāya Buddha. On Believing in Mind, is in the same lineage, despite being written roughly eleven hundred years later in a far away country, and despite its Taoist flavour.
My difficulty, in those days, was the same as any intelligent Westerner’s would be. I thought: “I have to make choices in my life – as a householder, a parent, a teacher, a citizen in a democracy, and so on. And, as a person concerned about the ecologicial viability of human activity, there are things that matter to me, things I feel strongly about. It’s not good enough, to say (as I have heard a Zen Buddhist say) that Deep Ecologists don’t understand emptiness, if they protest the destruction of whales.”
And, I’m certainly not about to say that it’s fine to hand control of the U.S. military juggernaut over to just any fool (to wit, Donald Trump). So, what kind of ‘disease of the mind’ is it, to choose to discern and oppose ratbags? There must be a way to reconcile this, I thought; because, Buddhism, I reasoned, is a tradition that is supposed to help us end such ignorance, and my own aggression toward fools. So, how can a doctrine of radical acceptance help the ordinary person like me?
Eventually, I began to think that the poem was referring to different dimensions of mind. I reasoned that there had to be an understanding that took care of both the ‘outer’ layers of becoming, those layers of awareness involved in choosing; and, which also took care of the inner of the inner – Being itself – where surrender made more sense. It began to feel like heaven and earth could possibly be reconciled, after all. The doubt was resolved for me, when I pondered the second case of the Japanese Zen Mumonkan (which I’ll explain later). However, I also found a concept which helped, in an article by the French psychoanalyst, and interpreter of Zen, Hubert Benoit. And, it’s this I’d like to share with you today. (The article has been published in a few forms, but my copy was published in Parabola, volume XV, No.2 1990, Summer 1990.)
In the article, he speaks of: a temporal tendency, and an atemporal tendency toward being. He writes:
Thus I see that the two tendencies which are in me must have exactly opposite directions: the temporal tendency must naturally go toward constant modifying of my ordinary situation; the tendency toward “being” must go toward the total acceptance of this situation in each instant.
And, he notes that the problem for us is when our one hundred percent of our attention is given to the temporal tendency. The important thing to notice is that attention toward Being is in each instant; not hampered by time.
The tendency to modify my situation and the tendency to accept it would evidently be irreconcilable if they had to act on the same level. But this is not the case. The tendency to modify acts on the automatic level of my impulsive life; this happens first. The tendency to accept [however] acts on the level of conscious reflection, where I see myself, where I am subject for whom the impulses of my life are object. [My parenthesis.]
Different levels. I call them different perspectives on the unnameable, or different dimensions of the immeasurable. However, whatever we call them – this concept is very helpful. The point being that the tendency to being is dependent on releasing some of our attention (frontal cortex energy) for its purpose, for self-reflection on our total situation, our big situatedness. From that perspective, the life of impulse does not take up all of my attention.
So, my frustration was due to erroneous concepts, just as the Nikāya Buddha had taught Sakka. I had thought of acceptance as only opposite rejection; that is, that rejection could not be acceptance. On the surface level of experience, the impulse level, that makes sense. However, on the deep level of instantaneous awareness: Radical Acceptance does not hinder the life of the impulses, and its realm of temporal action. Pure reflection transcends and includes the life of impulse. (‘Transcend and include’ is an Wilberian ‘Integral’ concept.) So, it’s more like this (using a depth orientation):
And, so it is that some people have borne witness to feeling such a deep sense of complete joy while holding a dying loved one in their arms. Of course, on the level of impulse, there is the poignancy of loss, and in the depth of one’s being, found in combodiment, there is the joy of the whole life of Being.