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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Ultimate and Temporal Reality, and the Ultimate Fiction

Buddhists talk about ultimate and relative reality, but I find it more helpful when speaking with folks raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition and/or culture to speak instead of ultimate and temporal reality. It's not quite the same as the Buddhist concept, but it's certainly informed by it.

Ultimately, our lives are driven by fictions that we agree are facts - which doesn't change the fact that they are nothing other than agreed upon fictions. Take diamonds and gold, for example. Long ago people arbitrarily decided that diamonds and gold were valuable. In the case of gold, people decided it was valuable enough to base a monetary system on it. If we examine that decision we can see that it was arbitrary because people could just as easily have chosen another somewhat rare commodity and infused it with great, albeit arbitrary, value. What if gold hadn't been discovered until last week? Surely something different would have been chosen. What else is arbitrary?

National boundaries are arbitrary. I have written at other times about the experience of the first orbiting astronauts, who they looked at our planet from orbit and were moved by how beautiful it was without the boundaries arbitrarily inscribed on maps and globes. I can remember as a child being confused that the countries on the globe all were depicted in different colors, because the ground in America wasn't the color that was depicted on the globe. To compound my confusion, when I looked at a map of the United States each State was a different color - and the ground in Wisconsin wasn't orange! What's more, many of the names on the globe when I was a child - and some of the boundaries - have changed. What seemed ultimate was really only temporal.

Religions are arbitrary, too. Somewhere along the way people decided to follow this person while others decided to follow that person, and still others yet another person, while those people over there decided not to follow a person at all! After some time elapsed, new religions emerged. In some cases old religions disappeared, even though while they existed they gave hope to their adherents. One could argue (and I often do) that ultimately they were all pointing at the same point, but the arbitrarily chosen names, leaders, and founders made them appear to be different - or, to use another term, they are different temporally.

Human beings are all homo sapiens. Despite that, we find ways to make temporal distinctions that we believe are important - and sometimes, at least for a time, they may be. Problems arise when we set those decisions in concrete. One person is an American and so doesn't like Canadians, another is a Presbyterian and doesn't like Methodists, one is from the South and even more than a hundred years after the Civil War doesn't like "carpetbaggers" from the North. The truth is that every ethnic group newly immigrating to the United States took its place at the bottom of the social heap and was persecuted. In Milwaukee, where I grew up, German Americans told jokes about Polish Americans who returned the favor. When I moved to Boston in my twenties I was surprised to find the jokes I heard growing up about Polish people told instead about Irish people! In this century we have so come to equate ethnicity with skin color that we forget that ethnic discord is as old as human history - and a temporal, arbitrary choice.

The ultimate fiction is that separation exists at all.

In America our food gets to our table because someone in the Middle East drilled for the oil that was transported by a ship piloted by a captain from who knows where to a refinery in the US where people of different religions, ethnicities, and from disparate parts of the country worked to turn it into gasoline so that a truck driven by someone else could pick up produce harvested by migrant farm workers. The trucker delivered it to a food processing plant where still more people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs processed and packaged it for pickup by a different trucker for delivery to a warehouse where still other people from still different backgrounds shipped it off to the local store where employees readied it for purchase. Meanwhile a dairy farmer was milking a cow and oranges were being grown in a field to go through similar processes and end up at your store. Grain is grown in Nebraska that also gets processed and delivered to the store. We sit down to our morning cereal with strawberries and a glass of orange juice while fashioning ourselves quite independent. Temporal fictions may be romantic, but they are fictions nonetheless.

I believe that until we see the ultimate truth that everything and everybody are inseparably interconnected we don't have much chance of solving the world's problems. As long as we choose to buy into temporal fictions of disunity we will continue to perpetuate our own misery. Until we come to really internalize the truth that every species of plant, animal, and even mineral are all interconnected and so interact in a complex web that constitutes ultimate reality we will continue to shuffle deck chairs on the Titanic of temporal reality, believing that the son of a bitch over there is the source of our problems. Of course, he isn't our problem at all - we are our own problems. Black and browns and yellows and reds and whites and greens and blues all blame each other, but the truth is the distinctions we make that appear to justify our disdain for one another are arbitrary and temporal, not ultimate.

We blame one another for everything, failing to see that ultimately our habit of blame only piles yet another layer of obscuration over our ability to see our interconnectedness. We fail to see the truth of how governments and corporations manipulate and control culture because we are busy blaming one another, when in truth if we would see our deep connections we would never allow ourselves to be manipulated in that way. The truth is that we love our fictions more than we love the truth, because fictions require a lot less energy to perpetuate. A handy fiction is simply subscribed to and we are off to the races. Ultimate reality is only apprehended through spiritual practice, taking time for meditation, and looking deeply. It's much easier to have another beer and find another scapegoat.

Our future depends on seeing ultimate reality and living from it. Nothing less will do. To spread the word we need to practice and lead by example, not be evangelizing. Won't you join me?

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