Walking Betwixt Two Worlds
As I read the Theravada Buddhist work the Dhammapada, I find myself thinking of Kierkegaard. Specifically, I find myself thinking of Abraham and the Knight of Faith, and the relationship between their predicament (as described by Kierkegaard) and the life-situation of the potential Buddhist Arahant. Both typologies, the Buddhist and the Existentialist, seem to me to offer as an ideal a way of “walking betwixt the two worlds” in which one lives as the being that one is.
Without going into too much detail, Kierkegaard’s Abraham (the potential “knight of faith”) is asked by God to kill the one thing that he loves the most — his son Isaac. Of course, as the story goes, he does so, or at least he tries to do so and is stopped at the last moment by an angel. What is remarkable about the story of Abraham, however, is often mistaken to be the actual action of the attempted murder. In truth, the “miracle” occurs afterward, in the story not told – in the lived experiences of Abraham from that point on after the big story is over, when he is back and re-engaged in the day-to-day of his normal family routine.
What is remarkable about his life emerges when we reflect on why we feel bad for Abraham. How can he enjoy being a father to this son any longer, when he has already abdicated this role on Mt. Moriah? Isn’t he miserable, in a way, realizing that there’s something about his relationship to his son that is now dead and not retrievable? After all — he was willing to kill him! We feel as if he is doomed to a life of resignation. Kierkegaard tells that our fears are misplaced. Abraham (like Camus’ Sisyphus) is happy. His relationship with his son, as a matter of fact, is intensified to a degree that it never reached before.
The Kierkegaard story is complicated (shameless plug for my book here, which explains it!). But the bottom line is something like this: Abraham has learned to live in the tension between two worlds. On the one hand, he is in the physical world in which he experiences connection to his son. He is, in this sense, “of the world” and so naturally forms bonds with it. But at the same time, he realizes that he is not “of the world” at all because he is also outside of it as well, independent of it. What he is, in a sense, is fundamentally disconnected from that world.
In a way, Abraham, after the encounter, learns that Issac is not his. He does not own his son. In fact, he learns that Issac is not “his son” because nothing is properly “his” at all. Abraham gives up control, he gives up possession. He realizes that Issac is God’s, and that everything about his relationship to the world is fleeting and, at any moment, the result of a kind of divine grace. Thus, it appears that one must be able to “join the two worlds” (being in and being out) without resolving the tension between them, and without rejecting one for the other.
I’m not suggesting that the Dhammapada is an Existential text, but it does have some similar themes. The Arahant (the Buddhist’s sage) too is called upon to be in the world while out of it. A central theme is to not form attachments to the world because such attachments speak of a kind of misguided egoism that the sage labors to be rid of. In poem five, “The Fool,” we read:A fool suffers, thinking, “I have children! I have wealth!” One’s self isn’t even one’s own. How then are children? How then is wealth?
The Arahant here is called to renounce his/her “self” as a fiction (Sage as Humean bundle!); as a result, one recognizes that one cannot “have” anything at all because there’s no subject to do the possessing. As a result, possession, in a world of no-self (anatman), is incoherent. It is a fiction that leads to illusions of control and a desire for permanence in an impermanent world, fictions that lead to suffering.
But yet, Buddha doesn’t advise us to flee from the world. He tells us in poem 8 (“Thousands) that:Better than one hundred years lived Without seeing the arising and passing of things Is one day lived Seeing their arising and passing.
One way to read this is that it is a celebration of one of the three jewels, the life of Buddha, who was once separated from “arising and passing” and then was exposed to it, an exposure that led him to later become Enlightened.
But another way to see this is to suggest that the Arahant is “in the world” — and as a result is exposed, just as everyone else is, to what normally goes on within that world. Just as Abraham forms connections with his son, the Arahant lives in a world of change and impermanence. He/She does not avoid it.
At the same time, in poem 13 (“The World”):Do not follow an inferior way. Don’t live with negligence Do not follow a wrong view; Don’t be engrossed by the world.
Of course, as any reader of the Dhammapada knows, there are endless verses like this one, calling on the person to detach from the world in the sense of not desiring it, or wanting to possess it or control it. Good “connection” with the world is the kind of connection that is “not-connected” in a sense; it is the kind of relationship that is passive and open to impermanence. Engaged but not attached. Passionate but not connected.
Like the Knight of Faith, the Arahant lives “betwixt” two worlds in a flurry of descriptions (like “passionate but not connected”) that seem hard to get one’s head around, if not one’s practices.
This is not an uncommon theme in these kinds of works (works that deal with meaning of life issues). In them, we often get a two world view:
The world of the animal. In this purely “physical” world, we are almost deterministically carried about, living in a blind way motivated by sensory pursuits only. When humans live in this world, we reduce ourselves to the life of the dog, or the slug, being moved only what things external to us in a law-like scientific fashion (in accord with the natural laws of the universe).
The world of the Gods. The Gods, in a sense, are moved only by reason (a Kantian fantasy?), or by some other form of non-sensual motivator. They are freed from the world entirely and the physical (and psychological) laws that govern it.
Humans, on this view, live in the middle. We are not Gods, but we are not animals either. So living as a human being means to live “betwixt” the two, in the tension (as an Existentialist would put it) and in the midst of the contradictions that emerge from living between two polar opposite forms of existing.
I certainly see this in both the Buddhist and the Existentialist, but my wonder about this way of talking goes further: is it really possible to live in this way? Can we be Abrahams? Knights of Faith? Arahants? Is it possible to “be attached without desire” or to “love one’s son but at the same time renounce him”? Or are these ways of talking just useful fictions of sorts?
Moreover: is it really admirable or praiseworthy to try to live in the middle of such worlds?