Everything is relative

8 mins read.

This pandemic has been driving people crazy, and not least because we’re not able to move about much and let go of grasping at the place we’re in, so it feels real or absolute.

Continuing from this article, Perspective is everything. 

Back up that mountain …

It can be helpful to get in a car if you have access to one, drive to a trailhead, walk up a mountain, and look back at your now-tiny city. However, to change our perspective it is not necessary to physically GO up a hill; which is just as well if you’re still in lockdown or live in Florida. Nothing is really out there — everything is a dream-like projection of our mind. There is no real coming and going and we can travel up a mountain in our mind if we want to. 

No coming and going

Clouds (and rainbows) only appear in the sky due to a bunch of atmospheric causes and conditions coming together – clouds are not these causes and conditions, but take any one of them away and the clouds cannot form. Clouds therefore have no power to exist on their own, in and of themselves, self-contained, from their own side. They exist only in relation to other things, indeed AS relation to other things. Talking about the emptiness of the so-called “eight extremes”, which includes coming and going, Geshe Kelsang says:

The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds, and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend on factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent or independent existence and are mere imputations of the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism

Geshe Kelsang has said that things “barely exist”. Although they appear and function, they are no more substantial than objects that appear and function in a dream. That includes mountains! And Denver! And my body! And me! 

So instead of having to go to places and return from places, we can realize that everything is simply popping up in our mind due to multiple causes and conditions – not the least of which is our karma or previous mental intentions.

Whenever we go anywhere we develop the thought, “I am going,” and grasp at an inherently existent act of going. In a similar way, when someone comes to visit us we think, “they are coming,” and we grasp at an inherently existent act of coming…. However, the coming and going of people is like the appearance and disappearance of a rainbow in the sky. When the causes and conditions for a rainbow to appear are assembled, a rainbow appears; and when the causes and conditions for the continued appearance of the rainbow disperse, the rainbow disappears; but the rainbow does not come anywhere, nor does it go anywhere.

We seem to be moving around all the time — walking our legs, waving our arms — everything is constantly coming and going. Or is it?! When we drive along in a car, are we really moving? Or are the rapidly changing scenes and other sensory experiences simply unfurling moment by moment as mere appearances of mind in dependence upon causes and conditions, including ripening karmic seeds?! Space and time are relative, as Albert Einstein would say. 

Why does this matter, you may be wondering? Because if things are relative or dependent-related, we can disappear them by changing our viewpoint or mental angle. If the observer moves, the rainbow moves or disappears. For example, if we view someone who is unkind to us as a kind teacher of something we need to learn, (s)he is no longer an enemy but a friend.

If things are absolute, that is, not dependent on other things, then they are fixed and therefore there is nothing we can do to change them. Also, there is a real or absolute me over here and a real or absolute world over there and never the twain shall meet. With self-grasping ignorance there is necessarily a gap between me and everything else, which turns out to be quite exhausting because we tend to relate to that world with delusions, such as the pull of attachment or the push of aversion. As Gen-la Dekyong said the other day:

Stop tinkering with this impure world. We don’t have time! There is nothing we can do externally to change it.

Where is the center of everything?

Related to this, another thing I find helpful to contemplate from a mountain rock is how each of the millions of people moving about in the city below feels themselves to be the center of it. Wherever they are, wherever they go, everything seems to be revolving around that fixed or moving point. And when I am in the city, it’s the same for me – everything is revolving around me. If I am driving down Sixth Avenue, for example, Denver seems to exist in a centrifugal ring around me; and that illusion persists even if I turn down another street.

Even if we are motivated to help others, while we remain with self-grasping ignorance we naturally have the sense that the world revolves around us. That is how it appears and we assent to that appearance. However, how can a real world be revolving around me and around you and around everyone else at the same time?!

Each one of us Denverites is only one of, say, two million, if we count only the humans. (Though right now there’s a strong argument for also counting the six kittens who are running around my feet like crazy people). From a distance, it’s particularly absurd to say that any one of those two million+ living beings is central, that the city revolves around any one of them, including me. And when I am back in the city, I can remember that – I am just one of millions, no more central than anyone else. We are all equal. We all equally exist only in dependence upon each other, like cells in the body of life. We are indisputably nothing without others.

This was almost literally a “this mountain that mountain” enactment – I drove down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other. Looking back at my previous self and everything to do with that self, I got it into perspective. 

There is only one way to free ourselves and that is to get over ourselves. In truth there is no real or most important me to cherish because that self we normally see doesn’t exist. The more often we dissolve it away by looking for and not finding it, the better. This is emptiness or selflessness. As someone said on Facebook today:  

No self, nothing to cherish. This is so obvious so why doesn’t it permeate my entire being, providing constant peace? More time on the cushion for me till a stable realisation is attained.

Taking this perspective back down the mountain

We need a sense of proportion because it makes it a lot easier to help without becoming overwhelmed and burning out. Because of course there is horrible suffering in Denver – people are freezing sometimes even to death on the streets, a pandemic is raging, businesses are shuttered, and pretty much every single person you talk to has problems of one sort or another. Including me. But with a large viewpoint we don’t get so overpowered. Seeing the big picture, we can develop the big minds – universal love and the compassion that wants everyone to be free not just from today’s problems but from all their problems forever.

Sooner or later we have to get back down off that mountain! (Unless you are on retreat in a snowy cave. Tempting.) With those big minds, we can return to the middle of the city and help in practical ways. The bigger our mind, the smaller our problems, and the more capacity we have to serve others.

If we find we’re getting overwhelmed, it’s worth pointing out that our mind doesn’t have to get off the mountain. We don’t even have to physically go up a mountain in the first place! That’s what meditation is for, gaining perspective, seeing the relativity of all things. And everyone can learn to do this – regardless of where we happen to be living at the moment, or whether or not we have a car. There is truthfully far more space inside all of us than outside. We can close our eyes, do a bit of breathing meditation to get into our heart, contemplate the space in and around everything, and then get back to work. 

Whether or not we understand selflessness and dependent relationship perfectly yet, one immediate thing we can do is appreciate the people around us for giving us the opportunity to practice improving ourselves and helping others, in both obvious and less obvious ways. Given that nothing (including all living beings) exists in any absolute fixed way but is entirely relative and the nature of our mind, we can set ourselves up in relationship with others however we decide; and perhaps the best way to relate to them is in the aspect of kindness. From seeming almost inanimate at times, everyone springs to life when we think about their kindness to us; and Buddhism gives us so many different practical ways to do that. 

A mountain in the city

Last but not least, our Buddhist meditation centers in Denver and elsewhere will hopefully be opening up again before too long to provide a physical get-away for this kind of teaching and reflection. For example, a friend who now lives in Colorado was talking about KMC London in Kensington the other day: “That place itself is an oasis and, if we did something similar here, people would get the top of the mountain feel in the city.”

Thank you for reading! Would love to see your feedback and comments below.

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