Today I share something that gives me strength and solace and keeps me going even though I believe we are facing the breakdown of earth’s natural life support systems. It’s a teaching about reality I learned through my practice of Zen Buddhism, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate or apply it. The essence of the teaching is this: Reality has two dimensions. Along one dimension, our world is unequivocally full of greed, hate, delusion, and suffering, and any moral person should feel compelled to do something to make things better. Along the other dimension, things are just as they are, and when we don’t impose our expectations and preconceived notions on the world, it’s a miracle anything exists at all. In other words, everything is okay at the exact same time everything is definitely not okay. The two dimensions of reality do not conflict with one another but are simultaneously true. The challenge is to be awake to, and live in harmony with, both dimensions, without clinging to either one.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Two Dimensions of Reality: The Dependent Dimension
The Two Dimensions of Reality: The Independent Dimension, or Everything is Okay
The Solace of the Independent Dimension of Reality
The Tricky Thing Knowing Everything is Okay
Harmonizing Difference and Sameness: Two Dimensions but Only One Reality



Before I begin, though, I want to acknowledge that on Friday, April 22nd, Earth Day, a 50-year-old climate activist and Buddhist named Wynn Bruce self-immolated in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington DC.[i] He set himself on fire and later died from his injuries. Bruce’s action is profoundly troubling and was meant to be. It has caused a great deal of controversy in climate action and in Buddhist circles. The Buddhist community with which Bruce was regularly involved released a statement saying they did not know about or encourage Bruce’s self-immolation and do not condone such actions, but that, “given the dire state of the planet and worsening climate crisis, we understand why someone might do that.” Next week I will talk about Bruce’s action and what it means to us. This week, however, I had promised an episode about Staying Strong, so in the meantime I will simply Bear Witness to the loss of Mr. Bruce from our world, and to the immense pain and concern that would lead someone to self-immolate.


Seeking solace is good. It gives us the strength to live. Many religious traditions provide solace by promising you an afterlife that blissful, peaceful, and permanent. Zen is different. We say that all the solace you need is available right here, right now. If you are caught in distress and unable to feel ease, joy, and gratitude, it’s because you have a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of reality. Awakening to the nature of reality gives you ease, joy, and gratitude that are unconditional – that is, you can access them regardless of your circumstances.

The Two Dimensions of Reality: The Dependent Dimension

What is this fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of reality which can prevent us from accessing ease, joy, and gratitude at any time? Before getting into our misunderstanding, let me start with the nature of reality. Note: This is a Zen teaching, but it has nothing to do with Zen. Many other religions, philosophers, poets, artists, and ordinary people have awakened to the nature of reality over time. There are many ways to describe it, but I think Zen’s description is the most straightforward, so I’ll share it with you.

Reality has two dimensions. One dimension is what I call the “dependent” dimension – the dimension of space, time, and causality. This is the obvious dimension of life, along which we make an effort, as individuals, to look after ourselves, achieve some measure of happiness, relate to others, and try to behave according to our values. Along this dimension every last being and thing is fundamentally dependent on every other being and thing, which is why, in Buddhism, this is often called the “relative” aspect of reality. Not only do I manifest as an individual because of an infinite number of causes and conditions beyond myself (the Big Bang, evolution, genetics, culture, gravity, air, culture, etc.), every possible way you could define me is in relationship to other things. If I am short, it’s only relative to taller people. If this is a beautiful day, it’s only relative to other days. If I am an individual, it’s only because I am separate from other beings.

Along the dependent dimension there can be immense suffering. As we all know, the world is full of tragedy and injustice: War, racism, sexism, persecution, greed, corruption, injustice, mindless destruction, interpersonal violence, loneliness, mental illness, homelessness… the list goes on and on. Even when you aren’t experiencing suffering, life is inherently stressful because everything changes. No matter how fortunate we are, no matter how good and successful we are, eventually we will all face illness, old age, disease, death, loss, and experiences which cause us pain. It’s no wonder human beings are in need of solace.

Of course, life is also wonderful. Along with the difficult things, we experience wonder, love, gratitude, joy, happiness, pleasure, humor, beauty, and compassion. This is, ironically, part of what makes life painful – facing the loss of what we love, or witnessing injustice, violence, and destruction when we know the peace and beauty that is possible.

Basically, I don’t have to describe the dependent dimension of reality to you at great length, because you are already more than familiar with it. You’ve been aware of it your whole life. The problem is, most of the time it’s the only dimension of reality of you’re aware of.

The Two Dimensions of Reality: The Independent Dimension, or Everything is Okay

What about the independent dimension of reality? You’ve also perceived this dimension, or at least intuited it. But it tends to be subtler than the dependent dimension even though it’s every bit as much part of our experience.

The independent dimension of reality isn’t technically a dimension at all because it is only right here, right now. The moment we conceive of it, we’re simply constructing a concept along the dependent dimension of space and time. “This moment” is the only moment that’s actually real, but it has no duration. It’s always just this, just this. One second in the past is only a concept, one second in the future is only a concept. This may sound annoyingly metaphysical or philosophical, but this moment is nothing other than our direct experience. Although it can’t be grasped or defined, it is as accessible and real as the nose on your face.

Along the independent dimension of just-this-moment, the entire universe is one, seamless reality. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called it “things-as-it-is,” beautifully capturing the fact that at any moment the universe is composed of an infinite number of moving parts, but it is nonetheless one reality. Nothing can be excluded, and everything has a place. Although metaphors are inherently flawed when it comes to describing the independent dimension, it’s a little like you were able to take a snapshot of a dance with many, many dancers. Although each dancer would occupy their own space and the snapshot would capture them in the middle of their own unique movements, it’s all one dance.

Just here, just now, there are no comparisons. To judge something tall or short, beautiful or ugly, just or unjust, pleasurable or painful, requires comparison. All judgments are concepts, abstractions from the reality of things-as-it-is. The immediacy of this breath, this sensation, this moment is incredibly freeing. Even if, along the dependent dimension, we are in painful circumstances, there is great solace to be found in simply being with things-as-it-is.

Amazingly, as I’ve discussed before, the independent dimension isn’t just a negative freedom from the stressful complexities of dependent dimension. Allowing the independent dimension of our lives to become more salient in our experience also allows us to perceive the miracle of existence. Setting aside all comparison and expectation, you perceive reality as luminous, and as an infinitely precious gift you did nothing whatsoever to deserve. From clouds of star dust light years tall to the farmer who grew the food you eat to the cells in your kidneys cleaning impurities from your blood, life is absolutely incredible. In this context, our conclusions about the inadequacies of the world are unbelievably small-minded, self-centered, ungracious, and arrogant. We understand this when we are able to take a breath and rest in this moment, letting go of our worries, and find joy in simply being alive.

The independent dimension of reality is every bit as real and true as the dependent dimension, but it only provides us solace when we’re able to let go of past and future, to let go of all of our concepts about reality, and just be, here and now, part of the explicably amazing things-as-it-is. Ease arises because we recognize we are not holding the world together with our minds, but instead are simply part of a much larger dance. Joy and gratitude arise because of the miracle of life itself.

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to decrease our attachment to the dependent dimension of reality, and to grow our familiarity with the independent dimension. All of us intuit or catch a glimpse of the independent dimension from time to time, but through our choices we can cultivate an ability to find strength and solace in things-as-it-is at any moment, no matter what’s going on.

The Solace of the Independent Dimension of Reality

Even the worst atrocities and tragedies of humankind are contained in the independent dimension. Nothing is excluded from reality. It may sound crazy, but the unconditional ease, joy, and gratitude we can access by cultivating awareness of the independent dimension can arise even in the face of the unimaginable suffering. We can find solace even as we face the likelihood that our governments are going to utterly fail to take radical action in the next few years to prevent catastrophic global heating, climate chaos, and ecological breakdown.

I believe this is why beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, when asked about the health of our planet in an interview, said, “You have to accept that this civilization can be destroyed. Not by something outside, but by ourselves. In fact, many civilizations have been destroyed in the past.”[ii] At first, Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments sound like the kind of detached nihilism that is common in people’s conversations about situations like our climate and ecological emergency. However, such common pronouncements are statements made along the dependent dimension of reality; they are saying that life is full of misery, and you can save yourself some distress if you just stop trying to prevent that misery and enjoy yourself for as long as you can.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments, as I read them, are not about the dependent dimension of reality. Instead, I think he’s inviting us to take solace in the independent dimension of reality, along which the insanity of humankind is just what it is. Setting aside all expectations and ideas, whoever said humankind would be doing a better job at surviving or creating a beautiful world by now? Along the timescale of evolution, humans have only been walking around on two feet for the blink of an eye. If we were able to take a three-dimensional snapshot of reality at this moment and then explore the universe, what would we find? Beings everywhere, caught up in delusion but doing their best. Dramas of greed, corruption, selfishness, and injustice, but also dramas of indescribably sweet generosity, compassion, determination, and creativity. Just as we watch a play or movie and understand that bad things are going to happen as part of an ultimately redemptive story arc, we can perceive our human situation as an unfolding story in which the protagonists have not yet triumphed over their challenges.

The Tricky Thing About Knowing Everything is Okay

The fundamental misunderstanding about reality that causes human beings so many problems is that we think reality is one dimensional. Our thinking minds are inherently dualistic and resistant to the idea that reality can have a dependent and an independent dimension simultaneously.

Usually, we’re fixated on the dependent dimension and preoccupied with pursuing pleasure, avoiding pain, or fighting for justice. When we only perceive the dependent dimension as real, our ability to access ease, joy, and gratitude are conditional, and in certain circumstances we find ourselves unable to access them much at all. Many people today contemplate the grim future of humanity and are overwhelmed with anxiety or depression. At times, it’s tough to make any dependent-dimension arguments that provide much solace.

Sometimes, though, we’re fixated on the independent dimension instead. Able to retreat into just here, just now, we appreciate the preciousness of things-as-it-is and find joy in simply being alive – but, prioritizing the independent over the dependent, we live in false and selfish fog of equanimity instead of responding to the suffering in the world. We lose touch with reality. We end up setting the truth of the independent dimension against the truth of the dependent dimension, because our puny human brains figure only one thing can be true at a time.

When we’re fixated on the independent dimension, we’re may be inclined to remind suffering people that God works in mysterious ways, and all will be well in the end. We may tell people suffering injustice that if they just took refuge along the independent dimension of reality, they wouldn’t feel so much pain. We can justify our own lack of action to bring about positive change in the world by pointing to the fact that things-as-it-is is already perfect and complete. We can hide out in our spiritual refuge, carefully limiting our perceptions to just this, just here, where there are no problems. I can take a deep breath in my garden, feeling peaceful and blissful in the sunshine, while my neighbor starves to death.

Harmonizing Difference and Sameness: Two Dimensions but Only One Reality

everything is okayWhen we get attached to the independent dimension of reality, we may be able to achieve some peace of mind for ourselves, but we’re falling into delusion in the most harmful of ways. We’re forgetting there’s only one reality with two dimensions. Just as, spatially, you can’t have height or width without some depth (there is no such thing as a two-dimensional object in space), the dependent and independent dimensions of reality are simply two aspects of the same thing. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t inhabit only one dimension. (This is why I use the terms I do instead of the more traditional Zen terms, “relative” and “absolute;” people are inclined to speak about the “absolute” as some kind of separate and superior realm, to which spiritual adepts are able to escape, and where they can operate without being confused and troubled by the relative realm.)

In reality, the truths of the dependent and independent dimensions are simultaneously true and do not in any way obstruct one another. After all, if someone observes that a building is tall, you don’t object, saying, “No it’s not, it’s wide!” Similarly, reality is a seamless whole that is precious and luminous just as it is, and the world is full of suffering to which we must respond if we want to be fully alive.

It’s extremely valuable for us to cultivate our ability to perceive, take refuge in, appreciate the independent dimension of reality. Zen and other traditions offer many ways to do this. But appreciation of the independent dimension alone is not full comprehension of the nature of reality. Full comprehension means learning how the dependent and independent dimensions interpenetrate, how they are both always present, and what it means to live a human life while honoring both. Everything is okay and everything is definitely not okay. If we can hold both of these truths at the same time, we will respond generously and compassionately to the world but also have the strength to sustain our action and the perspective to allow us to appreciate our lives.



[i] Climate Activist’s Self-Immolation Prompts Conversations On Protest And Faith.

[ii] Thich Nhat Hanh and David Suzuki in Conversation About the Health of the Planet, and What Did Thich Nhat Hanh Mean by “Accept That This Civilization Can Be Destroyed?”

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