In a recent column Paul Krugman spoke of “fantasy posing as hardheaded realism.”* As might be expected, Krugman’s subject was economic, his theme political. But his well-wrought phrase has resonance beyond the spheres of politics and economics.
To begin with, it evokes the stereotype of the hardheaded realist—the seasoned, no-nonsense person who lives in the real world. At the same time, it suggests that realism may be little more than a pose. If, as Krugman implies, realism can be false, the opposite must also be the case. What is true realism, we might inquire, and what are its salient traits? Is it by nature hardheaded—and hardhearted as well?
According to Zen teachings, true realism begins with the recognition that suffering is universal. Known in Buddhism as the First Noble Truth, this is not, as sometimes thought, an assertion that life is a vale of tears. Rather, it is a simple acknowledgement that suffering exists, both in the external world and in our bodies and minds, and that we would do well to acknowledge as much. Escaping into entertainment or otherwise denying suffering will do nothing to alleviate it and will probably make it worse.
To understand the realism of Zen, however, it is important to distinguish between two kinds of suffering. The first is the suffering wrought by sickness, poverty, aging, natural disasters, oppressive political regimes, and other forces largely beyond our control. We do not create such suffering, either by our thoughts or by our actions. When it comes into our lives, often the best we can do is bear with it and offer what help we can.
But there is another kind of suffering, known in Zen as conditioned suffering. And for this there may well be relief, because the suffering is often self-inflicted. With each of us the immediate causes of conditioned suffering will differ, but according to Zen teachings, the root cause lies in a fundamental ignorance of reality. Shaped by our conditioning, we tend to view ourselves as independent entities, separate from both our physical environment and our fellow human beings. Whether we portray ourselves as heroes, victims, or merely average citizens, we place ourselves at the center of our stories. And despite abundant evidence to the contrary, we persist in seeing our present jobs, homes, possessions, and relationships as lasting conditions. The words always and forever roll easily off our tongues.
Reality is otherwise. Death is certain, Zen teachings remind us, and the time of death uncertain. And far from being separate entities, we are parts of the dynamic web of life, where everything depends upon everything else. So long as we remain in our dream of separateness, we are likely to inflict suffering upon ourselves and others. But through the practice of “stopping and looking”—the practice of Zen meditation—we may come to realize that we are interdependent and continuous, both with the earth, air, fire, and water of the natural world and with the rest of humanity. And though we might view ourselves as “practicing meditation,” in actuality the vast cosmos is practicing through us. Like it or not, we are one with all that is.
If we can truly awaken to these realities, and if we can sustain that awakened state, we may also find compassionate wisdom arising, not as an assumed attitude or an urge to do good but as a natural consequence of realization. In the words of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, we may come to see with the eyes of compassion. Our egocentric outlook, which views others as resources in the service of our agendas, may give way to a selfless awareness, in which we will no longer regard other people as objects of our aversions and desires but as men, women, and children in their own right. We may come, in short, to see them as they really are, and we will know what, if anything, we can do to alleviate their suffering.
Such a view is sometimes called enlightenment, but it might also be called true realism. And toward that end, the difficult, age-old practice of Zen aspires.
* Paul Krugman, “The Chutzpah Caucus” New York Times, May 5, 2013.
Photo by Sarah C-M