The Heart of Reality

Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama

Are you ready for a mind-bending exercise in perception?

Turn your brain onto high for the next few moments as we explore the nature of reality.

This is why: according to the Dalai Lama, the way we perceive the world has a tremendous impact on our behavior. If we misperceive the nature of reality, we are more prone to act in ways that will harm ourselves and others.

In Part 1 of this series A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony, the Dalai Lama reviewed the man-made challenges we face today and concluded that only a spiritual revolution can fully change the world. We need to take practical action too, but without a spiritual revolution, there is no hope.

In Part 2, the Dalai Lama clarified precisely what he means by a “spiritual revolution” – the rekindling of basic human values like kindness, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness among others. These qualities of the human spirit need not be linked to religion. They can be cultivated by one and all.

In today’s post, we will explore the Dalai Lama’s view of the nature of reality to illustrate how we are all inextricably linked for better or for worse.  Therefore, your interest and my interest are intimately connected.  Understanding this is the secret to finding our own happiness and changing the world for the better.

Why We Misperceive the World

Hang on tight. We are going to dive into the realm of philosophy and and touch on physics to understand why interrelatedness is a natural law of the universe.

The Dalai Lama’s view of reality is based on the idea of dependent origination found in Buddhist philosophy, but also supported, at least to some degree, by quantum and probability theory. In short, the origin of phenomena is dependent on causes and conditions. Nothing exists independently in its own right.

The Dalai Lama says that we misperceive the world because our tendency is to narrow in on specific parts of an event or experience. We then take that narrow view to be all of reality. Reality however is infinitely complex and vast.

The philosophy of dependent origination helps us to understand this complexity. It explains that phenomena – material things as well as the movements of mind – come about in three ways.

1. Due to the principle of cause and effect – phenomena arise due to interrelated causes and conditions. Nothing can come into existence or remain in existence on its own. Its origin is dependent on causes and conditions.

The Dalai Lama uses the example of a pot which comes about due to many factors, including the work of the potter, the clay, the water – among other factors. There are also the molecules, atoms, and other tiny particles that make up the pot. The pot does not magically come into existence independently, on its own.

2. There is a mutual dependence that exists between parts and a whole; parts and wholes cannot exist without each other. Parts are their own whole that consists of parts.

3. All phenomena lack independent identity. There is no single characteristic which can be said to identify the pot or any other thing. The clay alone is not the pot. The water alone is not the pot and so on. When you really look, you will never be able to actually find this thing called “pot.” The word “pot” is simply a verbal designation.

The Dalai Lama applies the same principle to consciousness. You can’t pinpoint consciousness. It is not an independently existing entity. “…consciousness is more like a construct which arises out of a spectrum of complex events.”

Time is another good example of a label that is merely a convention. You can’t pinpoint the present moment. As soon as we speak the word, the present moment is gone.

Changing our Whole Perspective

Understanding this view of reality has the power to change our whole perspective. The Dalai Lama explains,

“…when we come to see that everything we perceive and experience arises as a result of an indefinite series of interrelated causes and conditions, our whole perspective changes. We begin to see that the universe we inhabit can be understood in terms of a living organism where each cell works in balanced cooperation with every other cell to sustain the whole. If then, just one of these cells is harmed, as when disease strikes, that balance is harmed and there is danger to the whole. This in turn, suggests that our individual well-being is intimately connected both with that of all others and with the environment within which we live. It also becomes apparent that our every action, our every deed, word, and thought, no matter how slight or inconsequential it may seem, has an implication not only for ourselves but for others, too.”

In short, if I harm you, it harms me.

Understanding dependent origination helps us to diminish our tendency to see what occurs both around us and in our mind as “solid, independent, discrete entities.” It is this tendency that causes us to exaggerate one or two aspects of an experience, see them as the whole experience, and neglect the full complexities.

For example, if we perceive someone as harming us, we may focus intently on our perception of harm and feel the urge to harm back. But if we understand this view of reality, we understand that harming in return only perpetuates further harm and is not in one’s best interest.  We also understand that the “harm” in question came about due to several different causes and conditions and not one factor or individual alone.

This view of reality challenges us to stop seeing events and experiences as black and white. Instead it shows us how to see them as a “complex interlinking of relationships.”

Extending Our View of Self

InterconnectednessIf phenomena cannot exist independently, even the “self” cannot be said to exist in the way we normally believe it does. If we investigate and try to find the “self” through self-analysis, we will only find there is no “real” self to be found.

The “self” – the one that we cherish and protect so strongly – is simply another construct or label that we apply to a collection of parts. The habitual distinction we make between “self” and “others” is to some extent an exaggeration.

This doesn’t mean we don’t exist. We exist, but not in the way that we think we do – not as an independently existing self. The idea and label of “self” is a handy convention for relating in the world, but it is not an accurate picture of reality.

“When we say that things and events can only be established in terms of their dependently originating nature, that they are without intrinsic reality, existence, or identity, we are not denying the existence of phenomena altogether. The “identylessness” of phenomena points rather to the way in which things exist: not independently but in a sense interdependently.”

The distinction we make between self and others is primarily due to conditioning. We could just as easily extend the concept of our “self” to include others. You are part of me and I am part of you. Just as we extend our identity when we consider we are part of a family or a part of a particular heritage like being American, Canadian, or French.

“If the self had intrinsic identity, it would be possible to speak in terms of self-interest in isolation from that of others’. But this is not so, because self and others can only really be understood in terms of relationship, we see that self-interest and others’ interest are closely interrelated. Indeed, within this picture of dependently originated reality, we see that there is no self-interest completely unrelated to others’ interests. Due to the fundamental interconnectedness which lies at the heart of reality, your interest is also my interest. From this, it becomes clear that “my” interest and “your” interest are intimately connected. In a deep sense, they converge.”

The idea of dependent origination encourages us to take the reality of cause and effect with utmost seriousness. Certain actions lead to suffering while others lead to happiness. It’s in everyone’s interest to do what leads to happiness and avoid that which leads to suffering. In other words, it is plain stupid to harm.  This is the logic, ethics, and spiritual wisdom we need to embrace ourselves and impart to new generations if we wish to see a change in the world.

This operation of this principle can clearly be seen in the Western overindulgence in consumption.  Our narrow focus upon our own perceived “needs” and wish for elusive satisfaction are like a boomerang returning with a plague of chronic illness, cancer, and heart disease and a proliferation of childhood disorders.

Our interests are inextricably linked. Interconnectedness is the heart of reality.  It is a natural law of the universe.  This is the basis for the Dalai Lama’s call for a spiritual revolution and a return to heart-felt ethics in order to make the world a better place.

This series – A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony - is based on Ethics for a New Millennium by the Dalai Lama.

Image of the Dalai Lama from his Facebook Page.

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