11/03/2011 05:29 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

The Nature of Reality and the Long-Distance Relationship

I'm about to get on a plane to see my partner. We are about as far apart as it is possible to be: He lives in London, and I'm in Sydney. We haven't seen each other in four months. Well, OK, we've seen each other virtually every day for four months. On Skype, of course.

A couple of weeks ago, I expressed a mostly sincere regret that I couldn't be there to help him cope with a tsunami of work. He said yes, that would be great (and a few other suggestions), but, he continued, the interesting thing about these separations is that we have to experience our relationship as intrinsic rather than instrumental. This is not love "because." Half the year, this is not love because of sex, entertainment or concrete contributions that ease (or add to) life's daily challenges. We live with wishful thinking, and talk about everything from God to malfunctioning plumbing to neurotic co-workers.

Then he compared the issue of intrinsic versus instrumental relationship to our ongoing discussion about immanence and transcendence, and this insight triggered one of his amazing flights of associative rationality. I tend to just sit back and enjoy the fireworks for a while before jumping right into the middle of them. To summarize a long and heated debate, he sees himself as a "theist" -- a non-atheist -- but this doesn't translate as belief in God in the conventional sense. I see myself as a Buddhist, but this doesn't translate as a belief in no-God. He's seeking to find rational means of reconciling the insights of scientific inquiry with an intuition of what he calls "Intent," which is transcendent origin and the point, in all senses, of return. I'm arguing for the immanence of ultimate reality not separate from the conditional. As the Heart Sūtra says, "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." Or, "the world is no different from nirvāṇa," (T. 1509, 25: 198a6) as discussed in the Dazhi du lun, the Chinese translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra.

He argues ferociously for a lot of things (teleology, pure origins, transcendence) that I've been trained to view as suspiciously as a cat confronted with a carry-case. But there's a whiff of catnip about it, I admit. I argue for a lot of things that he, as a committed rationalist, feels compelled to pounce on and tear to shreds. He argues for synthesis and bridge-building. I point out that all forms of synthesis include an implicit dominant paradigm, and the point of bridges is not to meet in the middle but to end up on one side or the other. He argues that the point is to have a way to go back and forth.

To interact, we rely on the thinnest of bridges: the Internet. To be together, we incur the karma of the carbon footprint, what climate sociologist George Monbiot ("Heat") calls "love miles."

We are separate, but we are also that emergent non-thing, "relationship," that interdependently shapes who we are. Of course, I thrill to hear that our relationship is intrinsically meaningful, distance notwithstanding. Yet hi-tech is intrinsically not hi-touch. We know we're fooling ourselves if we imagine this virtual dance is immune to earth-bound laws of cause and effect. I once heard the Dalai Lama tackle a question about Internet ethics, and he said yes, even if the three poisons (attachment, aversion and ignorance) are virtual, they still have effect.

Our virtual attachments carry momentum as surely as our physical ones, because intention (for Buddhists) is the key threshold of agency that makes something into a karmically charged action. This is not "The Secret," it's right there in the open. Yes, our thoughts and intentions are connected with the forms that emerge. But the important point is not that if you have the right thoughts you get everything you want. The point is that every intention is connected to every other. Rickie Lee Jones sings in "Gravity," "I try to imagine another planet, another sun, where I don't look like me and everything I do matters."

Well, this is that planet. I'm getting on this plane and burning up these love miles. I'd like to say that I'm thinking about all the ways I can offset them. But mostly, I'm thinking ... well, never mind. Next stop, London.