The Essence of Oneness

My favorite question is, quite simply, “why”. There is an elegant simplicity to this single word. It has driven the gears of human thought for uncountable generations. And though an equally unquantifiable number of words have been written on this one word, the fascination, the wonder of it, has yet to subside. It is universally asked and universally unanswered.

It may be that I am simply disillusioned with my culture, focusing on the shortcomings while neglecting the strengths. Still, I cannot help but feel that there is some element lacking in the sum of Western thought, some key Truth that has been missed in the plethora of writings from Socrates to Descartes, from Kant to Moore. Perhaps it is not too surprising, then, that I tend to read a lot of Eastern philosophy. More specifically, ancient Eastern Philosophy.

Like Alan Watts.

If you have never heard his lectures or read his books, I certainly recommend them to everyone. “Talking Zen” is one of my favorites. What I find so remarkable about Watts is his ability to expound upon Eastern ideas while appealing to the Western mind. So many of the translated work from India, China and Japan seem, at least to me, so seeded in Eastern culture as to be alien. Frankly, a lot of it is just too hard to read. (That doesn’t stop me from trying, mind you. I just don’t get as much out of it as I would like.)

By now you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the title – “The Essence of Oneness”. Please bare with me for a bit longer and hopefully what I say here will, at least to some degree, answer that question. For now, let’s just assume the answer is, “everything”.

Western culture has a bad habit of classifying every little thing, placing this and that into one idealogical bucket or another. To us, and by “us” I am assuming that my audience is primarily Western, this plurality of existence is Truth. Could it be any other way? Surely I am separate from you, from that cat, from that tree, from that boulder. Our first classification, albeit a rough guideline, is precisely “me” or “not me”. Everything else is secondary.

Of course, we weren’t satisfied by this separation. We had to take it to the next level. So then we say things are “animate” or “inanimate”, “animal” or “plant”, “large” or “small”, and so forth. Its a very useful mechanism we have created. Imagine the plight of our ancestors if they could only say, “Look out! ‘It’ is coming this way!”. I’d be more alarmed if ‘it’ was a bear than a drop of rain. Nor could I just ask, “could you please pass ‘it’” at the dinner table. But somewhere along the way, we became obsessed with this tool. Somehow we began to believe that this arbitrary nomenclature was in fact a law of nature, rather than a mechanism of our own creation.

Undoubtedly you’ve heard a mildly humorous story, at one point in your life, about a student who asks his wise teacher if such-and-such has the Buddha nature. But I case you haven’t, it goes something like this:

One day Sum Yung Gai asked of Master Wong, “Master, does a hairless yak have the Buddha nature?” Without hesitation Master Wong replied, “Ah-hah! My laundry is finished.” And then Yung Gai was enlightened.

A bit of an exaggeration on my part, but the idea is there. When asked such a question by the student, the wise old master’s reply is invariably absurd. It seems to us that the completely non sequitur answers are useless. Still we read about all these students magically becoming enlightened while we sit at home and scratch our heads. What does laundry have to do with a hairless yak?

The Western mind, deeply rooted in the separateness of all things, very quickly rejects the idea that the question and answer are in any way related. We cannot get beyond the “fact” that a hairless yak and a pile of dirty clothes belong to different buckets of classification and therefore cannot adequately describe the Buddha nature. We aren’t hearing what we expect, that is, a set of classificatory buckets into which we might be able to place those things which possess and those which do not possess the Buddha nature. We want a set of rules which, when applied, give us the ability to separate these things. The only problem, at least for us, is that such a set of rules does not exist. Here’s where I think those crazy old Chinese geezers got it right by proclaiming the done-ness of their clothes. Their message is, in less jocular terms, “Its all the same.”

Yes, from hairless beasts of burden to laundry to trees to boulders to stars to air to fire, everything is ultimately the same. I could go on and on about this topic, and certainly for those who have had the immense pleasure, or excruciating displeasure if it be so, of knowing me will have heard me go on at length about such things. But to say that all things are ultimately one is to miss the mark by several millions of light years. There is actually a little bit more to it than that…… but not much.

Separation is a fact of life. I can touch a pencil and I know that this pencil is not a part of me as is the hand which touches. Obviously, if I cut the pencil in half with a knife, I feel nothing, save perhaps a bit of anxiety over destroying a very nice writing implement. Oh the other hand, and please pardon the pun, if I was to lop off my arm with that knife, I be felling quite a bit of pain because of it. If everything was exactly one thing, then I’d feel a great deal of pain from that pencil. That isn’t to say I think there is no connection. Instead, I think the Essence of Oneness, as it were, is a bit of East and West all rolled up into one.

There’s that “O” word again. “One”. Yes, in reality East and West are the same. And the efforts of either side of the philosophical battle to claim victory are ultimately doomed to fail. Now then, if we want to truly get close to the mark of reality, we simply add differentiation into the oneness of things. That is, being different is obviously no different than being the same. It is true that I am not a hairless yak. It is also true that the now infamous yak and I are at the core, one. We intimately share a quality, that yak and I, of existence. We are built of the same one-stuff, the same energy. We only have to look as far as modern physics to show us that everything is energy. But energy doesn’t just stand still and become matter. It moves. It flows. It changes.

It is that flowing of energy through the universe which ties us together. We are all of the same flow. What is me now, this computer now, and you now, will be completely replaced as the energy flows through us. Regardless of static form, the energy moves. In time, I will be composed of your energy, of the computer’s energy, of the energy from my yak.

Before I close, I’d like to address my opening statement briefly. The question was “why”. The answer, quite simply, is “one”.

March 25, 2002 • Posted in: Philosophy

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