Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

May 15, 2010

May 15, 2010
Bettina and I have expanded on Tolle’s idea that it is not the What you do in life (housepainter, actor, salesperson) that matters, it is the How. We talk of “working for the universe,” that one doesn’t work for the company, or a supervisor, or even the children one may be teaching, that one’s true employer needs always to be seen in larger terms.

I’ve been reading Martin Buber, who was well-versed in Buddhism. I find his descriptions of I-Thou and I-It relationships moving, because it is so difficult to find a language for experience that is so vital and yet truly beyond language. I admire his courage in engaging the task. The pages that follow examine the ways his contributions help to illuminate Buddhist practice.

A few excerpts:

When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

The basic word I-Thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being. The world as experience belongs to the basic word I-It. The basic word I-Thou establishes the world of relation.

Even as a melody is not composed of tones, nor a verse of words, nor a statue of lines—one must pull and tear to turn a unity into a multiplicity—so it is with the human being to whom I say Thou. I can abstract from him the color of his hair or the color of his speech or the color of his graciousness; I have to do this again and again; but immediately he is no longer Thou.

Buber’s words feel important to me because of my work in the hospital which is so difficult to describe to others. Now I have a language for the difficulty. I see now that my strong resistance when someone suggests that I write about my “experiences” in the hospital is this: I am resisting the conversion of an I-Thou relationship into an I-It. When I describe these encounters to Bettina over dinner, I’ve been aware of the discomfort of that transition without having words for it. It is Bettina’s deep personal knowledge of I-Thou that makes it possible for her to convert my tales of the hospital back to I-Thou. By knowing how to translate what could be heard as an I-It into an I-Thou she gives me the great gift of being able to revisit the relational world of the hospital without betraying its essential nature.

All of us, I believe, have had experience of I-Thou—perhaps with a pet or with a lover or a child or in nature. (Buber famously makes it clear that an I-Thou relationship with a tree is perfectly possible.) Perhaps in listening to music or painting or reading or writing. So often we box the experience and label it (I’m happiest when I’m hiking, my closest relationship is with my cat, I couldn’t live without music). We go on to live most of the rest of our lives in I-It, which of course society urges us to do.

Moving between I-It—the realm of using, analyzing, comparing, explaining—and I-Thou, the realm of interbeing, is the same as moving between conventional reality and ultimate reality. As Buber confirms, in order to survive we must go back and forth between them. It feels helpful to have this language as one way of recognizing when we are partaking of ultimate reality, whether in a grocery store or a forest. It feels important to me to develop an ever more subtle awareness of our movement between worlds.

The world of It is the world in which one has to live and also can live comfortably, and that even offers us all manner of incitements and excitements, activity and knowledge. In this chronicle of solid benefits the moments of the Thou appear as strange lyric and dramatic episodes.

It comforts me to be confirmed in my sense that those of us who want to live as much of life as possible in an I-Thou relation to people and things must appear as queerly privileging “strange lyric and dramatic episodes” over the excitements and activities and knowledge of the “real” world. And to once again be comfortable with my queerness.

* * *

Experiencing non-self is really experiencing I-Thou towards one’s own being. Just as with others, instead of experiencing myself as an It, I can perceive myself as a Thou—or as Krishnamurti says, as a human being, not an individual, wearing my “stories” and distinctive qualities very lightly, and only for the purposes of negotiating our existence in an I-It world.

Empathy derives from I-It, compassion from I-Thou. (See January 31, 2005) Empathy takes what I know as an individual about pain or difficulty and projects it onto your (or a dog’s or a bird’s) individual situation. It shrinks us both. Compassion comes from an I-Thou space, remains open to the suffering that is in all of life, including yours (the dog’s, the bird’s) without projecting its own particular experiences of suffering. In its spaciousness, it also remains open to your Thou spirit, the flickering flame that resides, free of suffering, in you and myself and all of life.

Buber’s language clarifies the split I work with daily in the hospital (May 3, 2010) between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is I-Thou. Religion can too often set up an I-It relationship to “God,” personifying, turning Spirit into an individual to be used, manipulated, frightened of, placated, entreated, obeyed, revered.

Whoever knows the world as something to be utilized knows God the same way. His prayers are a way of unburdening himself—and fall into the ears of the void. He—and not the “atheist” who from the night and longing of his garret window addresses the nameless—is godless.