The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature. — Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
In my romantic college days, I liked to think of myself as Larry Darrell, the main character of Somerset Maugham’s novel, who leaves everything behind in America, goes to India and after trekking into the Himalayas, finally has to burn his books to keep warm and realizes he is free. When he returns to modern life, he seeks out his old friends who have suffered tragedies, and helps rehabilitate them. How great a story is that, I thought.
As I wrote in Buddhism 2.0, I believed like Larry Darrell, that if I gave up the creature comforts of modern life, traveled great distances, lived the life of an ascetic and fought against desire, I could somehow achieve enlightenment. What I discovered after many years of thinking this way, was that such an awakening was to be found in the here and now, beyond the dualism of philosophical and religious inquiry.
There is a great example of this in the story of the Zen master who ask three monks, “is the glass half-empty or half-full?” The first answers “half-empty” and immediately receives a sharp whack from the master’s bamboo staff. The question falls to the second monk who fearing the same punishment, answers “half-full” and he immediately is stung by the same bamboo staff. The third monk, realizing that any answer which recognizes this choice is irrelevant, instead drinks the water, to the smiling approval of the master.
Duality is at the heart of nearly all human problems, because we maintain the illusion of a separate self. We believe we operate as individuals, apart from others and the universe. We go to great lengths to defend the idea that “I matter”. Attachment to the idea of “I” and to egoism is a major obstacle to spiritual progress because we can never be free as long as we set our selves apart from the field in which we operate.
Our world looks structured and orderly only because we have imposed our rules upon it. This is our way of suppressing the anxiety of freedom that comes with living in a chaotic universe. Our confining routines are the ways we create meaning, but alienate us from our true free selves. We live inauthentic lives, and act as we ought to rather than as we are, in order to reconcile our identities with the dualistic systems we’ve created.
At the heart of these systems are the ideas of me and you, heaven and hell, yin and yang, good karma and bad karma. Each represents a choice that takes parts of a whole and puts them in opposition, where there exists only singularity. We are not separate from each other, we are all derived from the same common form of life, which is derived from the same singular creative power of the universe. There is no in here and out there, there is only existence. The experience and the experiencer are the same. When we try to observe it and describe it, we change it.
I am learning to walk the razor’s edge by recognizing the natural state of things, freeing myself from the entanglements of categorical thinking and rejecting the illusion of dualism. Wisdom isn’t attained through accumulation of knowledge or experience, but from the continuous shedding of illusory beliefs, which for me is a daily practice. Freedom isn’t to be found in the building up of “me”, it’s in the breaking down; until I lose myself, and am able to love and enjoy everything just as it is.
The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
the wise say the path to Salvation is hard. — Upanishads