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I had an wonderful
talk with a friend who was for some time a Buddhist abbot before he decided
Buddhism was not his final path, and began exploring other spiritual traditions
and practices. Whenever our conversations shifts to these kinds of topics, one
of their most enjoyable aspects is his speaking mostly fondly of the different
traditions he has explored. And as
a impressively learned man, he has explored a number of them deeply.
ultimate departure from Buddhism had much to do with its view of the
relationship between beauty and suffering. In Buddhism, he told me, beauty ultimately has to be
understood as a deceptive cover for suffering (dukkha). It is
ultimately illusory. A beautiful
landscape is such only because of countless and ongoing deaths and other
suffering that maintains it.
Insects eating insects, birds eating insects, small animals being eaten
by larger ones, parasites eating everyone, and so on.
For example, we
have discovered that Yellowstone’s ecological abundance can only be maintained
by the presence of wolves. In
their absence, elk destroy streamside vegetation and over graze their
range. Forest fires are also a
necessary part of forest rejuvenation in Yellowstone, but when they occur such
fires cause enormous death and suffering.
Natural beauty, much of it anyway, depends on the presence of violent
death, and such death involves sufferin.
But is this
Buddhist argument entirely satisfying? Is beauty a deceptive covering for the
suffering that accompanies it? Of course we can probably all remember times
when beauty’s charms ensnared us in relationships that led more to suffering
than happiness or to committing foolish acts that hurt others. But true as such events are for most of
us, are they simply easy-to-grasp examples of something manifesting in infinite
subtleties? Is beauty simply a snare or a lure or is it something else
my friend another option, which he ultimately found more satisfactory. It is one I will scarcely explore here
because I have a third interpretation in mind. Plato argued that Earthly beauty is the lure that ultimately
takes us to the ultimate beauty of the One. Far from being a deceptive illusion trapping us in a grimmer
reality, it is the path out of that reality. I admit to a greater fondness for this Platonic perspective
than the Buddhist one. But I think
there is a third perspective of equal merit.
including death, is the unavoidable price paid for duality, and duality
provides two goods that NonDuality does not, even though within the NonDual
experience there is no lack. This
claim sounds paradoxical, but I think the paradox is more a feature of human
awareness rather than ultimate reality.
Further, I think understanding this insight enables us ultimately to
validate the embodied reality we Pagans love, along with Plato’s monist One, and the NonDual, but not in any
hierarchical sense of one being more “spiritually advanced” or superior to the
others. The fullest expression of
each might imply the existence of the others.
I want to start
with a personal experience, although hardly one unique to me: climbing a
mountain. Years ago I climbed a mountain in Colorado that took me to the limits
of my endurance. On that
particular trip I had not yet become acclimated to the elevation change from
Kansas, where I lived, to its base, at about 8,500 feet. My climb took me
thousands of feet higher. As I
climbed it became increasingly difficult for me to move because I was so
completely out of breath. My
initial ascent was very steep, but as I neared the top the slope became more
gentle, so that I could have walked rather than climbed. But I did not walk all the way; many
times I crawled.
I was certainly
suffering, and at times I experienced nothing but suffering, as I made my way
the last 100 feet or so to the summit.
But when I reached the top, and could see the Continental Divide to the
east, Grand Lake to the West, and miles of wilderness spread out beneath me, it
was worth it, even as I was too tired to really enjoy the view.
My suffering was
the price I paid, willingly paid, for an experience I otherwise would not have
had. The beauty was indeed a lure,
but it was not an illusory lure. Nor
did it necessarily point beyond itself.
The beauty of that place at that time was sufficient unto itself.
If I had been in
better shape or more acclimated my climb would have been just as beautiful. I
would not have suffered sio much and would probably have enjoyed the summit and
its views much more. So I am not
praising suffering as a good in itself.
Suffering is a price, but one that can be worth it if we choose wisely. Even with a lack of wisdom it can be
worth paying, and teach us greater wisdom along the way.
beauty possible. Beauty depends on
someone experiencing something, whereas in NonDuality there is only
experience. In The Inhumanist
Robinson Jeffers wrote,
Of beauty is our metaphor of
their excellence, their divine
nature: – like dust in a
The wild wind visible.
Absence a being
that experiences there is the wonder of NonDual Experience. I have had such an experience, and
while there is truly nothing better when within it, beauty (and love) do not
matter when one’s self (and all other selves) disappear, and there is only
wonderful experience. It is
complete, but as soon as self-awareness begins to return, beauty and love begin
to manifest. They are
fundamental to Duality. They are contained
in NonDuality but they do not manifest there.
Beauty (and love
as well, but this post is focusing on beauty) treasure and celebrate diversity.
There are many forms of beauty, and the existence of some does not detract from
the existence of others. The
beauty of a coral reef does not detract from the beauty of a mountain
lake. And the beauty of the whole
increases through having both.
becomes perfect when experienced as sacred and is a lure to the sacred when
experienced from a mundane perspective.
And this brings us to Plato’s insight.
There is the
beauty of the One from which everything comes. As I understand him, this is the absolute beauty that Plato
described as at the end of our philosophical journey. As with the NonDual, when enraptured by an experience of the
One as the source of everything,
we do not experience any sense of lack, no need for connection. We are enraptured by perfect love and
beauty beyond words to describe or limits to notice. So does this not simply affirm Plato’s argument?
Yes it does, but
not as the final necessary goal of the soul, as he would have it.
What the One
emanates is not simply paler reflections
of itself, though there is a sense in which that is true. The world is an expression of the
One. It is its palette upon which
it creates works of beauty that cannot be experienced when enraptured by the
One. Perhaps the One itself is
enraptured by its creations, which is why it is experienced as love. Indeed, I am not sure the word
“creations” does the issue justice.
The Platonic One enriches itself, becoming more than itself, by
manifesting all possible ways to express beauty, and its love for it.
And in my
experience this is validated by my strongest encounters with deities. The Goddess is not the One. She has gender, and other individuated
qualities. But my experience of
Her was also one of encountering perfect love and perfect beauty. Beauty can be the lure to take us to
this fuller and more complete realization of the nature of Duality as
manifesting in diversity. And when
in such a relationship with Duality as Abundance, it is as fulfilling, as
perfect in itself, as is contemplation of the One or experience as NonDual.
Every time we
manifest beauty or love in our actions – and few of us do this most of the time
– we bring that daily world into greater harmony with its deeper reality. Because that reality is always there,
it is we who bit by bit change ourselves, and are changed by our spiritual
This, I believe,
is the contribution many Pagans and practitioners of the Nature Religions can
provide to both Buddhists and Platonists.
The contribution is that they are right in their insights as far as they take them, but they can be
taken farther. The Sacred does not
culminate in NonDuality or the Monism of the One,, it is a constant reality of
all three dimensions, dimensions that cannot be reduced to any one.
Back to Suffering
complex as a mind able to experience beauty as we do is the result of a long
evolutionary process. Perhaps
bacteria experience beauty, I cannot know. I hope so. But
if they do, the beauty they experience is not the same as the beauty we
experience. For a maximum of what
we call beauty to exist in the world, there must be an enormous number of minds
able to experience it in many different ways. And for those minds to exist, a long process of evolution
must have taken place. Suffering
necessarily accompanies that development and sustains it.
necessitates existence as parts, and existence as parts necessitates existence
with incomplete knowledge. Incomplete
knowledge guarantees that mistakes will be made, and mistakes guarantee
suffering. But incomplete knowledge also creates
opportunities for creativity, for the unexpected and new to emerge. And when seen and experienced as
Sacred, the new and creative enable new opportunities for beauty and love to
Suffering is not
so much a reality we paper over with beauty as the price we pay for it. Beauty
is one of the qualities that redeems suffering, (love is the other). Many of us
willingly pay that price.