Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Nirvana Fallacy

Imagine my delight when I ran across the nirvana fallacy on Wikipedia!  (There, that's my one exclamation mark for this post.)  I am not making this up - here it is, not as a Buddhist idea, but one on the list of accepted fallacies.  It is the error of  -
comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. . . . [in working any problem] the choice is not between real world solutions and utopia; it is a choice between one realistic possibility and another which is merely better.
Now, turn from Western philosophy to the Tibetan teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, which I did yesterday on my iPad, for a while back I bought vol. 2 of his collected writings, a big book, a great bargain. I love reading it on this thing, being able to leave notes and highlights and not bother Tom if I'm reading in bed (it is backlit). And I really enjoy his unique, colloquial voice, which has been preserved in these carefully edited talks.  I happened to have left off last time reading about work.
Strangely enough the transcendental thing, the profound thing, exists in the kitchen sink, in the factory. It may not be particularly blissful to look at; it may not sound as good as the spiritual experiences that we read about, but somehow the actual reality exists there, in the simplicity of people and working with people and dealing with every problem that we are given. . . . The people who wrote the Vedas and the Dhammapada and all the scriptures were not intellectual, high-strung people.
Just the other day I found myself in an interesting conversation about this at brunch.  My friend, who teaches yoga, brought up the subject of nirvana, and stages of levels of bliss, or perhaps higher consciousness, that they work to attain in her discipline.  So I tried to explain how Zen teachers work to get us grounded in this. I quoted the line from Hakuin's Song of Zazen:

         This very place is the lotus land!

All this seemed to be news to the man sitting beside us, who had been talking about how bad a particular bar is to do karaoke in, and who asked a lot of questions that encouraged us, not to spar, but to explain our particular spiritual paths.

Most certainly I do not reject bliss when it comes my way, don't get me wrong. But you need to be careful with it. A well-rounded spiritual experience can leave you with your feet barely touching the ground and a disinclination to take the trash to the curb. But life is about carrying out the trash.  In fact, we are made of what was once dirt and (as the Zen Masters like to say) shit.  Trash, and these bodies will become trash again, to enter the great cycle of fertilizing life.

About Stanley in the cartoon above - what is his true self at the end of all his effort?  The guy with a briefcase and umbrella and morning news, in a suit, on his way to work.  Getting to know and be that guy through and through, or that crazy poet or politico or accountant or dog breeder that you are, that's the work.


  1. Exactly so. Your excerpts reminded me of the recognition in -- I think it was Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying -- where the teacher and student are lying quietly at dusk out on a mountain ledge, and in the distance a village dog is barking. The teacher says "just this." And that was it, just enough to make the point.

    Also love your Chogyam quote about much of the tradition being practiced, codified and transmitted not by rarefied intellectuals, but by regular folk!