By Nancy Thompson
To reconcile is to bring back together two things that have been separated. It’s what happens when a couple that has separated decides to give their relationship another try, Or when you balance the checkbook and bring your numbers in line with the bank’s. Or in the Roman Catholic sacrament, when you confess your sins and do your penance, taking away the stain that has kept you separate from God and the church.
In Buddhism, we experience this type of reconciliation when we see the truth of interdependence and the false nature of our separate constructed selves. We experience reconciliation when we let go of thoughts that carry us to the past or future, ruminating or projecting, and come back to the present moment with kind awareness, when we awaken to our true nature — which is not separate from others’ true nature. All beings have buddhanature, the inherent dignity and joy that is our unfabricated state. We build identities on that, constructing shells that we collect and defend from questions or contradictions. When we see that those identities are illusory and impermanent — not the solid, weight, unchanging things we imagine them to be — we can relax into a state of non-self or non-duality.
“What is meant by nonduality? It means that light and shade, long and short, black and white, can only be experienced in relation to each other; light is not independent of shade, nor black of white. There are no opposites, only relationships. In the same way, nirvana and the ordinary world of suffering are not two things but related to each other. There is no nirvana except where the world of suffering is; there is no world of suffering apart from nirvana. For existence is not mutually exclusive.” (Lankavatara Sutra) Thich Nhat Hahn calls this “inter-being.”
But even as we inter-are, we are. Even if we all have joyful, wise buddhanature — if the process of Buddhist practice is simply to find a way home to that — we have separate bodies, we act in different ways, not all them seemingly the actions of wise, joyful beings. How do we reconcile this?
Merriam Webster’s second definition of reconciliation encapsulates the conundrum of Buddhist study: the process of finding a way to make two different ideas, facts, etc., exist or be true at the same time. Our natural enlightenment, our ultimate identity, is hidden under the muck of constructed identities and beliefs, our relative identity. (The relative level of reality is the one where you deal with your relatives, one teacher says.) The challenge is to act in the relative world with the knowledge of the ultimate, to bring together the beautiful truth of interdependence and our mundane existence.
The first step to that is to see that others, who appear to be separate from us, actually are connected. And just like us, they want to be happy and safe and at peace. Understanding that as the source of their actions, we may be less inclined to be oppositional and more apt to find common ground.