When The Ideal Meets The Real: A Pragmatic Perspective

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, OEB 曦 肯


My root teacher, Venerable Dr. Shi Yong Xiang Eubanks Sensei, would always stress that we remember the importance in the lessons to be learned when our ideals meet the world of reality, or “when the ideal meets the real.” This is so important because we may often get lost in an idealistic impression of a dedicated Buddhist practice that is often written about in some of the contemporary texts. (The debate of vegetarianism as a Buddhist practice comes to mind, for example.) It is especially important if we are clerics/teachers with a publicly engaged community practice and ministry. Yet, and this is a big yet, we should always consider that an awakened practice must remain keenly aware of the effort it takes on our part to pursue ideals and to think idealistically, to be idealistic even. In a postmodern society being a “realist” is considered by many as a key component in a civilized culture. Realism is also considered as an important characteristic of being pragmatic. For those that consider themselves realistic individuals 24/7, the basis for their criticism of others that see the world through idealistic lenses, do so by invoking the very ideals that they deny, yet take the position that being idealistic is naive and deluded. Which is an interesting irony. As a Buddhist teacher and Zen cleric with an engaged community practice, I find myself confronted with this lesson on a regular basis, especially in many of the questions I get ask in Sangha sessions. If we can remember when we were growing up as a child this struggle between our ideals and the reality of making them achievable was often dashed against the rock of reality, often that rock was encountered in our very home. Then we grew up and began to learn how to negotiate among the rocks.

If we can expect any degree of success in conquering our life challenges when moving from the realities of the First and Second Noble Truth to the Third one, we must consider a set of ideals that will act as a guide for our practice by engaging them in the real world realities as we implement a practice based on the Forth Truth, among other moral and ethical structures we choose to adopt along our way to move among the rocks we encounter. So ideals is the bridge to get us to the Forth Truth. Let me be clear, realities our not inhibitors when they are considered in an encompassing and corrective way. This is a good thing. The challenge is to learn how to balance our ideals against presented realities that promotes the common good and honors the Three Pure Precepts. This is the corner stone of our Buddhist moral and ethical practice. When ideals have not been cultivated and integrated into our practice, any hope for the future and deliberate action on our part will lack thoughtful intentions and thus effective and wise change is left to chance. A broken arrow can reach its target but the chances are less then reality should expect. At the same time, if we live in a world of ideals alone, we are running the risk of being consistently disappointed. Which brings us back to the Second Truth. So balance is the key, which is pragmatic too. Idealism is pragmatic in that it creates a platform on which we can act in realistic and creative ways. The trick is to not get stuck on just one side of the fence. Finding the balance between the ideal and the real IS the middle way. Our focus determines our reality. Focused almost exclusively on the present, our vision may not be able to see beyond the current situation. This doesn’t mean we should not be aware of each moment. But each moment has a purpose too, and that purpose should be grounded in the ideals of a wise practice that guides our future actions.

No value we may hold comes with a guarantee that it will hold its value unconditionally. This is just the human condition and the reality of a changing world reflecting the principle of the law of mutual-causality. Therefore ideals concern the way the world ought to be, the way it could be, not the way it really is. The reality of our current condition, however, is the bases on how we learn to articulate and judge our ideals, and it is this perspective by which our ideals are used to pass judgement on current reality. When we lack ideals and the mental capacity to be idealistic, we run the risk that we become complacent in the social condition and just accept things as fine just the way they are. And that is the slippery slop that will get us thrown onto the rocks for sure without the ability to get to the other shore.




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One response to “When The Ideal Meets The Real: A Pragmatic Perspective

  1. Wonderful article that has a contemporary relevance for todays modern society given the state of our current national politics as well as our global affairs. The aspect of our natural human proclivities for reaching toward the ideal is very true to our nature and very needed for our survival as a species. One could think of it simply as hope!

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