The Grey Area

Luc Tuymans

Buddhists like to call the path transcending dualism the Middle Way. I find it easier to navigate everyday life thinking about it as a grey area. I like the old Zen saying, “Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise.” This ambiguity is unappealing to many people, especially Westerners who are conditioned by ambitious or productive consciousness. Sometimes we get caught up in thinking that X is X and Y is Y, when in reality every decision has countless exponential consequences that we have no way of discerning up-front. There’s simply no way to make the ‘right’ decision, since we can only define ‘right’ in theory and do not know what will happen in reality.

This is what Dogen was getting at when he wrote about moving past preferences and discriminations. This is what Huang Po meant when he said that the true dharma exists beyond conceptual thought. Countless thinkers from John Locke to the ancient Brahmans have encouraged us to avoid extremes and uncover this Middle Way. What’s helped me navigate this loaded topic is trying to get to the ideological source of extreme thinking and dualism.

The conflict between perception and reality is the conflict between ideas and truth. Truth is the purity of direct experience, which exists only in the present moment. As soon as it is memorized or anticipated, it becomes a conceptualization. Perception is how we interpret this experienced truth, but it is, by its very nature, not the truth itself. This fundamental polarity between THOUGHT and EXPERIENCE is what defines many of the other simple polarities we invent in our heads: good and evil, love and hate, right and wrong, happy and sad, etc. As we navigate lived experience these simple categories are atomized into thousands of tiny little interlocking subcategories of designation.

Even within practice itself it’s easy to become attached to the dichotomies of enlightenment vs. delusion, attachment vs. detachment, truth vs. fiction. This happens even to great writers and teachers who talk the talk (writing and speaking) without walking the walk (meditating and experiencing). All of this is to say that we are deeply bogged down by our conceptualizations of the world. Some of the more lovey-dovey followers of mine on Twitter recently got upset with me for saying that labeling oneself makes one, effectively, an idiot. Most people could benefit from not being so soft on themselves about this. Lying to others just to be nice is no way to go about living, let alone lying to yourself! As Sawaki Roshi said, we often behave like idiots, and there is no way to transcend this other than being honest about how we attach ourselves to false ideas of reality.

If one meditates every day, eventually the fundamental rift between thought and experience emerges. This is the rift that represents all the other rifts, the dichotomy to end all dichotomies. We start to realize that yes, we have acted like idiots in the past due to our ideas. Maybe we still are idiots! But how liberating it is to truly recognize this dualism so we can transcend it altogether. This is the essence of Zen, at least in my experience so far. It took more meditation than reading to figure it out.

This doesn’t mean finding a synthesis between X and Y, since that forfeits the strengths of the two extremes for some sort of compromise; it requires us to still believe X and Y are distinctly in opposition. It means overcoming these polarities altogether through discovering the source of experience. Huang Po called it the “source-substance”. This happens in its most pure form during meditation, but it also occurs in little moments throughout the day. Sometimes it emerges during intense suffering or ecstasy. It’s a sort-of Dionysian release from idealism when we become fully immersed in the purity of the moment. This is its own sort of intoxication, especially in a world in which one cannot function without clinging to ideas a bit. But when we find controlled ways to access this deep inner-truth, we build the strength needed to navigate the inevitable everyday dualistic conflicts with wisdom. We understand that decisions are rarely life or death, that things tend to gravitate back towards the center once we let go of our ideas about them. Reality exists in the balance, ideas at the fringes. Our expectations can never match lived experience. We’re forever swimming through the murky water of the grey area; it doesn’t matter whether or not we have goggles on. The only way forward is to make peace with it.