“Padmasambhava said: ‘Though the view should be as vast as the sky, keep your conduct as fine as barley flour.’ Don’t confuse one with the other. When training in the view, you can be as unbiased, as impartial, as vast, immense, and unlimited as the sky. Your behaviour, on the other hand, should be as careful as possible in discriminating what is beneficial or harmful, what is good or evil. One can combine the view and conduct, but don’t mix them or lose one in the other. That is very important.
‘View like the sky’ means that nothing is held onto in any way whatsoever. You are not stuck anywhere at all. In other words, there is no discrimination as to what to accept and what to reject; no line is drawn separating one thing from another. ‘Conduct as fine as barley flour’ means that there is good and evil, and one needs to differentiate between the two. Give up negative deeds; practice the Dharma. In your behaviour, in your conduct, it is necessary to accept and reject.”
~Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
Padmasambhava, also known as the Second Buddha, was a sage who travelled from Pakistan to Tibet in the 8th century CE, where he is said to have transmitted Vajrayana Buddhism, a collection of esoteric methods aimed at liberating the aspirant from ignorance and its associated afflictions. What today is commonly considered to be Tibetan Buddhism is, for the most part, Vajrayana Buddhism (although elements of Vajrayana are also practiced in China and Japan under different names). Among many of the legendary accomplishments of Padmasambhava, he is regarded as the author of the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is actually translated as “The Great Book of Natural Liberation through Understanding in the Between”.
In any event, his transmitted teachings were very clear in pointing out the two salient and complementary aspects of spiritual practice that necessarily must go hand in hand if one’s efforts are to bear fruit – right view and right conduct. The successful integration of these two qualities is essential for the realization of a true spiritual maturity in which the aspirant is liberated from the poisons of ignorance, envy, greed, hatred, arrogance, and emotional contraction.
Essentially, right view develops from the direct and stable realization of one’s own true nature (and thus the true nature of all phenomena), whereas right conduct entails the embodiment of such a transformative realization in all of one’s life and relations. Certainly, that sounds forthright enough, but problems arise for practitioners when one is lost in or conflated with the other.
When the view is lost in the conduct, for example, one is prone to go about accepting and rejecting, affirming and denying, grasping and avoiding — always conceptualizing the path in terms of good and evil, virtue and sin, desirable and undesirable, rather than appreciating the fundamental substratum or background of all phenomena – the essential emptiness that transcends all dualistic notions.
The Dzogchen master Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche described the view succinctly when he said:
“Leave alone whatever arise in the mind. Do not seek to change or alter anything. It is all perfect as it stands.”
Rather than resting in the summary recognition that everything is perfect just as it is, losing the view in the conduct renders one perpetually invested in efforts to change and manipulate phenomena and relations in order to attain some idealized condition or result. However, relying on right conduct alone, though admirable from a certain perspective, will never yield true liberation.
If uninformed by right view, we will instead be motivated by a presumed internal division, a conflict at the core of our psyche necessitating a relentless struggle between dark and light elements. As it so happens, neither aspect can be victorious, since they both depend on each other to exist in the first place. With the benefit of right view, however, both positions are seen through and transcended. After all, when we try to find this self that is believed to be in need of improvement and salvation, what we discover instead is merely a bundle of thoughts and memories, sensations and conditioning, all strung together on an imaginary clothesline called “I”.
Nevertheless, losing the conduct in the view is even more troublesome. The problem with that error crops up far too often in spiritual communities these days (and perhaps it always has, it’s just that today news travels faster). The all-too-common scandals involving sexual improprieties, financial shenanigans, and oppressive power trips on the part of teachers, swamis, lamas, roshis, priests, and pastors are prominent though unfortunate examples of losing the conduct in the view. Even though some of these persons in positions of responsibility and authority may have experienced a profound insight regarding the true nature of things, that insight has not yet been integrated to the extent that their character has been freed from the afflictive passions, and so harm can be and often is perpetrated on their disciples, students, and parishioners.
The late Adept Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche clarified the matter when he noted: “Your view can, and should be, as high as possible — there is no danger in this since enlightenment is the total realization of the absolute view. But at the same time your behavior should be as grounded as possible in an awareness of cause and effect. If you lose this basic attitude regarding actions, if you forget all common sense and use the loftiness of the view as an excuse for putting into action whatever comes into your mind, you are engaging in mundane activities contrary to the Dharma, just like ordinary worldly people.”
On a personal level, losing the conduct in the view means that one fails to discriminate in the objective world. Even though it is ultimately empty of any inherent solidity and duration, as long as we are in it, it is real enough, and our behavior matters. Every choice we make has consequences, felt not only in our emotional lives while involved in this current life adventure, but also in all future lives until all possible lessons have been learned and traumas resolved and healed.
By losing the conduct in the view, we might imagine that there is nothing to accept or reject – that whatever we do doesn’t really matter, and that there is no good and evil — it is all illusion, or alternately, it is all a divine manifestation of Source, so why bother addressing conventional issues and trying to do the “right thing”? As it so happens, that attitude is an even greater error in judgment and appreciation, primarily because of its effect on relations. For example, the great Tibetan adept Patrul Rinpoche remarked that, if one claims to have the view but doesn’t show loving kindness in their conduct, they should have their mouths stuffed with the excrement of a hundred villages.
The eminent sage Ramana Maharshi once asked:
“When we awaken from the dream, do we go searching for the characters in that dream, to awaken them?”
Such a comment, when taken out of the context of Ramana’s total teaching, could be presumed to indicate that awakening frees one from any further behavioral concerns. However, for those of us with less than complete transcendental knowledge of the way things really are, it’s easy to fall into a logical fallacy called “Category Error”. That is, we conflate the world of the absolute with the world of the relative, and because we fail to properly distinguish between these two, we often end up confusing ourselves and others. This is why the great Buddhist sage Nagarjuna remarked:
“Those who do not understand the division of these two realities (Absolute and Relative) do not understand the profound true reality of the Buddha’s teaching. Without reliance on conventions, the ultimate cannot be taught. Without realization of the ultimate, Nirvana will not be attained.”
Certainly, there is an ultimate truth indicated by the simile “like a dream,” wherein there is nothing whatsoever which is real, or independently existent, and yet we believe that there is something which is real, based on our conditioned and conditional interpretation. Upon awakening, we realize that there was nothing at all, just dependently arising phenomena that temporarily create the appearance of stable objectivity.
It is on account of the power of this sleepy ignorance that, in the midst of all manner of phenomena which do not ultimately exist, we nonetheless perceive them to exist: the so-called “self”, “persons”, “ice cream”, “countries”, and so forth.
Mysteriously, the unchanging Absolute appears to manifest in the midst of the relative, as the quicksilver play of consciousness, as energies and forms and functions to infinity. In the midst of it all, what we can re-cognize is the self-evident fact that we ARE. We don’t really know what we are, but it is undeniable that we are.
This awareness of our beingness is the only thing that doesn’t change, though worlds after worlds arise, thrive, and pass away. Our bodies change, our self-concepts change, our beliefs change, and our relations change, but we do not change, or rather, awareness does not change. That unchanging awareness is just another name for what we fundamentally are, and it as this awareness itself that Source plays in the fields of creation.
The relative is recognized as the relative because it is impermanent. It consists of everything that changes, and that includes everything perceivable or conceivable. Just so, if the absolute did not want to express itself in this dreamy density of transience, then we would not be incarnating as these bodies, in the midst of the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves appearing. Indeed, we are the absolute, expressing itself as the relative. As Shitou Xiqian noted in his famous Chan poem “Sandokai”:
“Each thing has its own intrinsic value and is related to everything else in function and position. Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid. The absolute works together with the relative like two arrows meeting in mid-air.”
By reflecting on our original identity to the point of gnosis, or re-cognition, we can realize that we are indivisible from Source, the Absolute. Moreover, we have never been separated, despite the transient illusionary flow of relative phenomenal existence. However, awakening to the totality of who and what we are does not mean that we somehow disappear. Rather, we discover that we are both ourselves and everything, simultaneously. The relative and absolute intermingle and interpenetrate — you are you and you are not separate from anything.
A critical by-product of such gnosis is the realization that the function of the absolute in manifestation is unconditional loving. Why is there anything, rather than nothing? Love. Since love must love, all beings must be served and even saved, despite the fact that there has never been a single independently existing being in need of saving, including ourselves. This is a great and marvelous mystery, and a humorous one too, though confounding to the discursive mind that would like to have everything filed and figured out.
Buddha’s concept of saving beings was to cause them all to enter into Nirvana. If one was to become a Bodhisattva, dedicated to saving all beings, the aim was just this, to cross all sentient beings over to Nirvana. However, in the Diamond Sutra, Buddha demonstrated his sense of humor by paradoxically noting:
“All types of beings, whether egg-born, womb-born, moisture-born, or transformationally-born, whether possessed of form or formless, whether possessed of thought or free of thought, whether neither possessed of thought nor free of thought — I cause them all to enter the nirvana without residue and thus cross them over to extinction. As I cross over to extinction in this manner an incalculable, innumerable and unbounded number of beings, in truth there are no beings whatsoever who succeed in being crossed over into extinction. Why is this so? Subhuti, If a bodhisattva retains the mark of a self, the mark of a person, the mark of a being or the mark of one with a life span, he is just a non-bodhisattva.”
The point of all this is: when we see someone in need of being served, we must serve them, even though it is a dream, a mirage, a hallucination of the mind. After all, we are love, and love must love. Because Love is all that really matters, our behavior really matters, regardless of any brilliant insight we may have experienced in terms of emptiness and dependent origination. Thus the wise do all sorts of foolish things, like lecturing on nothingness to nobody, teaching emptiness to empty chairs, and performing countless compassionate good deeds, even though there is no such thing as good or bad, absolutely speaking.
There is only Source, without a second, and so who is there to benefit from good deeds? Still, love must love. As long as there is the illusion of separation, the function of love comes into play, even though it may not even look like love to the mind that still clings to the divisive notions of “me and mine”. Nisargadatta Maharaj summed it up perfectly when he said,
“When I see I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I see I am everything, that is love. Between these two my life moves.”
This is no enigma to the Realized, but only to those of us who still see some difference between saved and unsaved, lost and found, plus and minus, sacred and profane. Paradoxically, that’s apparently the way the absolute would have it played, just so that It, Source, can discover Itself over and over again in the relative — in and through these humble and transparent forms of you and me and everyone.
“Without love, and will inspired by love, nothing can be done. Merely talking about Reality without doing anything about it is self-defeating. There must be love in the relation between the person who says “I am” and the observer of that “I am.” As long as the observer, the inner self, the ‘higher’ self, considers himself apart from the observed, the ‘lower’ self, despises it and condemns it, the situation is hopeless. It is only when the observer accepts the person as a projection or manifestation of himself, and, so to say, takes the self into the Self, the duality of ‘I’ and ‘this’ goes and in the identity of the outer and the inner the Supreme Reality manifests itself.
This union of the seer and the seen happens when the seer becomes conscious of himself as the seer; he is not merely interested in the seen, which he is anyhow, but also interested in being interested, giving attention to attention, aware of being aware. Affectionate awareness is the crucial factor that brings Reality into focus.”