Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Zak Stein’s article, “COVID19-A War Broke Out in Heaven”, published in Medium in March, early in the pandemic, talks about “the end of the world”, about liminality, and the “spiritual walk between the worlds”. I link to the article here, but I would like to focus on a section that I think is critically important for Buddhist Naturalism, and for Buddhism in general: Stein’s view of “non-duality”.
Spiritual Pilgrims: Get RealFor those identifying as spiritual or religious: yes, this is why you have been sitting on the mat, praying, and “working on your Self.” But the liminal may require you to re-examine your ideas concerning reality, especially the notion that you create your own. Likewise, if you balked at my use of the terms “good” and “evil” (or up and down), you are likely struggling to make sense of anything right now; socially constructed realties are exactly what begins to slip away when biology obliges you to enter the liminal. Living between worlds means dealing (again) with reality itself, which is not some featureless totality of oneness, but a complex non-dual whole in which every choice counts and has causal impact. This is one of the reasons our situation today demands actual self-transformation: you can’t bullshit yourself anymore. Now you will get to see if you actually know how to meditate and act in a selfless way; not when you want to, when you have to.
Stein’s view of non-duality is similar to what I have formulated: an interconnected wholeness in which everything has consequences. It’s not “some featureless totality of oneness, but a complex non-dual whole in which every choice counts and has causal impact.” This is my interpretation of what Bhante Sangharakshita calls “the ethical universe”, ‘ethical’ in the sense that everything is a cause and condition for something else and for the whole. I consider this to be the essential and defining feature of Buddhist Naturalism, that we abandon the “quest for Zero” and instead countenance an infinitude of diversity, interconnectedness and conditional wholeness.
Stein continues his ‘get real’ thesis with a call to ethical action:
We all know that the streams of wisdom that have come to us from the great religious traditions and elsewhere were never simply about ecstatic experience or personal fulfilment and meaning. There was always—in all traditions—the goal of service, care, and self-transcendence through right action. It is not only that one has an experience “beyond ego” in meditation; one must choose to act in ways that realise trans-egoic motives and values in the world. Make no mistake: you will have to choose and act, now more than ever, precisely in contexts where the fault line between good and bad will begin to cleft severely and in unexpected ways.
Stein continues by asking how we cope with the ethical complexities of this interconnected whole?
Finally, Stein zeros in on the immense task and dilemma facing us during the COVID crisis and the Climate crisis: the imperative to adapt, learn and evolve into new beings and new civilizations:
Finding meaning in tragedy is a perennial human task, as is the task of remaking of the self. We must learn to do both while creating a new world. Grief is warranted. Fear is warranted. Pain is inevitable. But in so far as the future matters, learning must become our primary process. Adaptation, evolution, transformation, rebirth, metamorphosis, metanoia, and change — we are in for all of it, and in short order. These are experiences one might seek out for adventure and growth during saner times; today they are thrust upon us all. Returning to reality is the nature of the liminal, and reality is relationship, not isolation
This is very much like Arundhati Roy’s notion that “Pandemic is the Portal”. It is an evolutionary portal to a new state of biological, cultural and collective being.