We experience the absolute when we are consciously in the present moment. We experience the relative when we are unconsciously living in the past or the future. To be present is to experience the perfection of the life we have been given. All of Creation is perfect and being part of that Creation, we are also perfect. There is no need to improve upon Creation only to learn to live in the present moment so that we can experience that perfection. Our natural state is conscious awareness of the absolute. Nothing has to be done, acquired or learned to attain this awareness.
Ken Wilber responded to the paradoxical notion that there is a need for process and no need for process in attaining the absolute. “This radical realization, existing in the timeless and ever present moment, can occur at virtually any stage of development and is not the result of any cause, because it is itself timeless and ever present, uncaused and unborn. Nonetheless, there is abundant cross-cultural evidence that the higher one’s degree of consciousness development, the more likely this realization can occur. Enlightenment is not the highest stage of temporal development, but a stepping off of the cycle of temporal development altogether.”
The Now is always present and has no cause yet Wilber says that consciousness development can make it more likely that it will be realized. In the same letter to the editor Wilber quotes the Zen master Ma Tsu: “If there is any development in the Tao, the completion of that development is really the ruin and destruction of the Tao. But if there is no development at all, one remains completely unenlightened.” Being able to embrace paradox after paradox without conflict is a critical ability if we are to attain present moment awareness.
Wilber in the same letter continues: “So psychological as well as spiritual (or meditative) development is helpful in unfolding one’s own deeper potentials—you can develop virtually everything from moral response to meditative absorption. But all of those are of the relative, manifest realm—the realm of samsara [suffering]—and the whole point of enlightenment is to step off that cycle altogether. This is why Vedanta and dzogchen also maintain that, in the last analysis, meditation will not itself bring final spiritual awareness (because such awareness, being ever present, has no beginning in time and thus cannot be entered: you cannot enter that which you have never left).” As I said in the introductory paragraph, as we enter into the realm of the Now, we leave conventional logic behind and transcend to a more profound mode of knowing.
You arrive at the place you never left and see [experience] it for the first time. T.S. Eliot
The thinking mind is unable to experience absolute truth. It can be described as “emptiness” because, to the mind which deals with concepts, it has no form. When there is no sense of “self,” the mind can rest in peace and quiet. Self-realization is non-verbal, non-conceptual so the mind cannot grasp it. The Buddha taught in terms of the relationship between the relative and the absolute, conventional truth and ultimate truth. Hinduism and Buddhism deal with this relationship, little understood in the West. Fritjof Capra wrote that “The Upanishads, for example speak about a higher and lower knowledge and associate the lower knowledge with various sciences, the higher with religious awareness. Buddhists talk about ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ knowledge, or about ‘conditional truth’ and ‘transcendental truth.’”
Many people have spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation. These practices are rarely successful in leading to the shift from P-B to P-A. That’s because few practitioners realize that the purpose of any profoundly conceived religious or spiritual practice is to become present, to see reality as it really is. Buddhist teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche puts it this way: “We are saying that perfectly endowed, complete enlightenment begins with our motivation to regard everything we experience right now—and the whole world—as perfect and pristine. We call this the motivation of great purity and great equality. As Vajrayana practitioners, we are asked to develop the motivation to wake up and see ourselves and the world as we truly are.”
The meaning of the term “enlightenment” has proved confusing and illusive for many people but we use it simply to mean being in the Now. “‘From the perspective of the absolute nature,’ says Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, ‘we say that things are empty and do not have true existence. However, from the perspective of relative reality, from the conventional point of view, things do exist in the nature of interdependence. With the wisdom of knowing who we truly are, absolute and relative will manifest naturally toward all sentient beings and benefit them extensively. That is what we call achieving complete enlightenment.’”
The absolute can only be “felt” not detected by the five senses. It has no form and a term like “heart-felt” is the closest we come to that which is beyond words. And yet the “feeling” associated with the present moment is the most vivid experience we can have as human beings. The experience of the Now is in fact the only thing that has ultimate reality. In his book, What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula says: “According to Buddhism, the Absolute Truth is that there is nothing absolute in the world, that everything is relative, conditioned and impermanent, and that there is no unchanging, everlasting, absolute substance like Self, Soul, [etc.].”
The heart knows that which reason knows not of. Blaise Pascal
We face another paradox trying to talk about that which cannot be talked about and so we can only choose words that point to the Now or help deliver us into the heart-felt experience of P-A. As Clive Johnson points out: “This absorption leads to Samadhi, [the Now] an experience which cannot be described. It is beyond is and is not. There, there is neither happiness nor misery, neither light nor darkness. All is infinite Being—inexpressible.”
The following table can be useful in verbally distinguishing the absolute from the relative.
(freedom, joy, peace, happiness)
Following my bliss
(always afflictive, i.e. jealousy)
Having, knowing and doing
Collective unconscious / Shadow
Models, trainings, classes and seminars
Our conditioning related to the false self survival strategy can hypnotize us into thinking that our identity is related to seeking security, sensation and power. In fact we are powerless in that “seeking” state and are engaged in the endeavors of having, knowing and doing; so much effort and suffering to no avail. We might just as well relax and enjoy what amounts to a very short life on this planet. Again, Clive Johnson: “Everything is ours already—infinite purity, freedom, love and power. You know in your inmost heart that many of your limited ideas—this humbling of yourself, and praying and weeping to imaginary beings—are superstitions.”
Understanding the distinction between the absolute and the relative in the context of everyday life is necessary. For example, how do we explain why a perfect being in a perfect narrative becomes ill? Jan Chozen Bays answers this critically important question, “From a relative point of view we can’t really avoid illness. It happens. On an absolute level, however, there is a fundamental state of mind that is open and natural and healthy. It is possible even in the midst of intense illness and the dying process to contact this fundamentally pure and wholesome state of mind. However, many people confuse contacting that fundamental healthy state of mind with using it to avoid disease, as opposed to letting it allow you to feel better about the illness that inevitably happens.”
It is a mind-boggling challenge for most of us to shift from trying to succeed in the world through intellectual understanding to “feeling” the perfection of a world wherein we are already a smashing success no matter what is happening. “‘Now, what is called the Self Absolute or the un-manifest ground of being is that deepest part of human consciousness that, because it abides beyond time and space,’ says Andrew Cohen, ‘beyond creation itself, does not care at all about what’s happening here in the realm of manifestation. It’s always free from anything that’s ever happened here and always is at rest. Infinite peace is its nature. So whatever does happen in our world, in the manifest realm, has no effect on that deepest part of our self. Birth or death, Big Bang or no Big Bang.’”
Our true power is much different than the illusion of power we experience as we strive to satisfy the needs of the false self. It is, however, a critical part of P-A that we must learn to accept. “Because your will is free you can accept what has already happened at any time you choose, and only then will you realize that it was always there.” As the Course in Miracles emphasizes, you are not free to choose the curriculum, or even the form in which you will learn it. You are free, however, to decide when you want to learn it. And as you accept it, it is already learned.
Shifting from P-B to the present moment (P-A) is a life-long process because we live side-by-side with our false self which will not magically vanish. The inertia of the false-self conditioning is too strong to simply disappear. However, this is not a problem, only an opportunity that we are perfectly capable of taking advantage of. I remember when the Dalai Lama gave a brief Q & A session at a weekend seminar that I was attending at Naropa University in Boulder. He was asked if he ever got angry. He answered, “Yes, but it is not a problem.” I think he meant that he did not “react” but let the emotion pass and returned to the present moment.
Even Jesus lost his temper and experienced the reaction of afflictive emotions on a number of occasions. He was angry when he drove the money changers from the temple, he was rude to his mother at Cana, annoyed with his apostles many times, and he cursed and killed the fig tree. So we shouldn’t feel too disappointed when we forget to breathe and count to ten and react instead of responding in the Now. It is human and natural to move back and forth between the relative and the absolute. But it is “divine” to be aware that we are doing it.
Can you imagine the wonderful power and freedom we would experience if we could but accept the essence of the message being conveyed in this article. Notice the following variety of sources that support our basic thesis that all of creation is perfect, here and now, just as it is and that we know it at the level of our heart-felt inner wisdom.
First, Thom Hartmann in his book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, concludes, “There is nothing we need to get that is not already right here, right now, in this very body and mind as it is. To seek for something other than ‘just this’ implies that something is missing, that we are not complete somehow.”
Next, Jaimal Yogis reminds us that concepts around the notion of “good and bad” cannot be found in P-A. “One of the highest insights in the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions is to realize that samsara is, in fact, nirvana: that there is no need to escape because everything is originally pure and perfect.”
If knowledge of the distinction between the absolute and the relative is inherent in each human being we should not be surprised to find it mentioned in the oldest of the major religions, Hinduism. This description is found in the book The Mystic Heart by Wayne Teasdale. “The Hindu tradition’s mysticism issues from its sustained contemplation of the absolute, which Hindus name Brahman. Through higher states of meditation, mystic seers contact Brahman, which then opens the way to inner awareness of the self, or Atman, the immanent presence of the Brahman within all beings and every particle of reality. Atman is Brahman, and Brahman is Atman. They aren’t concepts but pure mystical realization.”
A student of Hindu cosmology, the insightful American philosopher Emerson, understood the problem in being mesmerized by the false-self survival strategy. “According to Emerson, man is ‘by his nature as unconditioned, as pure, as perfect and alone as the infinite. But he doesn’t know it and the smoke screen of his own conditioning forever fogs him.’”
Now that we understand the difference between the absolute and the relative we have laid the foundation upon which we proceed toward that all-important insight that will awaken our deepest connection with the good, the true and the beautiful, that quickening of the heart that will deliver us to the kingdom where joy, happiness and compassion reign.
- For others topics directly related to the Absolute and Relative in this blog, see Field and Form and Present Moment.
- See also the articles in this blog on these related pairs: Feeling and Emotion; Intuition and Intellect; and Response and Reaction.
References and notes are available for this article.
Also find a much more in-depth discussion of Simple Reality on this blog and in published books by Roy Charles Henry.