by Tom Neilson
It doesn’t interest me if there is one god or many gods
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned
Religion and Belief
Most religion is about belief in things that we don’t have much evidence for, like God, life after death, and miracles. While some consider religious belief to be mere superstition and a sign of emotional and intellectual immaturity, belief is important to the majority of people. Polls show that over 90% of people believe in God, for example. Belief helps people deal with the uncertainties and difficulties of life and gives a sense of comfort and security. It helps people translate a groundless, unpredictable, and often frightening world into terms that they can deal with. Religious belief, however, may not be solely about seeking comfort and security. At its best, religious belief may follow from an intuition that there is more to this universe than meets the eye. If we are to have an open mind, we must acknowledge that the believers could be right.
Atheists bring a healthy skepticism to the subject of religion. They doubt religious doctrine and point out that it is not grounded in a reality that we can observe and test, and that it is therefore not rational. They also remind us that, at its worst, religious belief has led to resistance to scientific knowledge (e.g. the theory of evolution), the persecution of scientists (e.g. Galileo), and even to “holy” wars (e.g. the Crusades). Atheists make the valid point that religious belief can be problematic. But atheists have beliefs too—specifically, they believe that there is no God and there is no such thing as spirit. Their religion is a religion of no-God. To the atheist, the universe is made up only of gross physical matter, which through a series of accidents has evolved to produce life and the human race. In other words, they believe that we live in a dead universe in which life and consciousness are fortuitous accidents. While their perspective might seem more scientific, I don’t think that it is. They are expressing a philosophy called “materialistic reductionism”, which claims that everything, including consciousness, can be understood solely in terms of the physical world. From this perspective, it is the physical world that is important and consciousness is secondary, a mere byproduct of the material world. Materialistic reductionism is often taken to be scientific truth, but in reality it is merely a philosophical assumption of some (but by no means all) philosophers and scientists. In giving greater weight to the physical world, materialists don’t consider that fact that it is consciousness that makes this choice. This point muddies the water and raises serious questions about their philosophy.
Another problem with materialistic reductionism is that it does not explain the fact that the universe has evolved, despite the workings of the law of entropy. The law of entropy is one of the fundamental laws of physics; it tells us that all closed systems tend toward disorder. In other words, all systems break down and get less and less organized as time passes. Yet, since the big bang, the universe has evolved into states of successively greater organization and complexity, seemingly in contradiction to the law of entropy. The universe has gone from a fairly uniform spread of hydrogen gas, which is the simplest element in the periodic table, to stars and planets made up of more complex elements and compounds that are organized into planetary systems and larger galaxies. At least in one place in the universe, earth, life has mysteriously appeared, and evolved from simple one celled life, to plant and animal life, to mammals, and to the human race. As philosopher Ken Wilber has asked, “Why did dirt get up and start writing poetry?” In a dead universe how would human life, with our capacity to create art and make meaning, arise? Perhaps there is more to this universe than the atheists understand.
Both traditional theistic religion and atheism deserve respect, but each is based on a set of unproven (and probably un-provable) beliefs. I would like to suggest a different foundation for religion and spirituality. Instead of beliefs, we might look at what we can know and what we can’t know, and at the interplay between these two. On the “don’t know” side, there seems to be much that we cannot know. Can we really know that there is a God or that consciousness survives death? If we don’t know from our own experience, then we can only “know” by believing what some outside authority, like our church or temple, tells us, and I find this a dubious way to “know” anything.
While we humans have a real desire to understand and know, “not knowing” might not be a bad thing. I would like to suggest that we live in a mysterious universe that the rational mind cannot fully penetrate, a universe of vast, unfathomable, and unimaginably beautiful depth. Mysticism—the appreciation of mystery—brings this vast and astonishing depth into our lives. Buddhism offers an appreciation for mystery, and this has had an important impact on my life.
For example, as I have come to know mystery more completely, my experience of others has changed. It was once easy for me to pigeonhole people and define them in narrow and limited ways. As an appreciation for mystery has penetrated my life, I have found that when I meet another person I am faced with a vast and mysterious presence that I can never fully know or understand, a presence that is more immense and more beautiful than the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest. As Rilke put it:
a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.
When I am in touch with mystery, my experience of others is richer than I ever would have expected, and being in the company of another is a deeply appreciated privilege.
Mystery has also made me aware of the nearly infinite possibilities that arise in every moment. I once found life pretty predictable—and boring—but this was because I was narrowing my sense of what is possible. I now understand that there are more possibilities in each moment than we can ever know. We limit our lives by not being open to these possibilities, but they are always here and available to us. Robert Bly makes this point playfully:
Think in ways you’ve never thought before
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.
Think that someone might bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged, or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.
Mystery has shown me a world that is more immense, beautiful, and full of possibilities than I had ever imagined, and it has made life richer than I ever dreamed it could be. “Not knowing” has shown me the just how astonishing and full life can be.
Yet there is also much that we can know, and modern science shows us the extent to which knowledge can change the world. Another reason Buddhism appeals to me is that it is not based on beliefs that we are asked to accept on faith. Buddhism offers a series of practices (meditations) that allow us to have a deeper and clearer view of reality. Meditation is, in a sense, a scientific experiment that allows us to empirically discover the workings of the mind and the nature of reality. We are told that if we do certain meditations long enough, we will have the opportunity to directly experience the true nature of our consciousness and of reality. In other words, rather than accept Buddhism on faith, we can do the practices and find out for ourselves. From this perspective, Buddhism turns out to be a 2,500 year old science of mind. In the last decade, a great deal of neuroscience research has been done on meditation, confirming and extending this science of mind.
One of the things that the experiment of meditation reveals, in my experience, is that we are not the solid, immutable, unchanging creatures that we take ourselves to be. We tend to think of ourselves as a relatively constant collection of traits and characteristics—as in, “I am intelligent” or “I am not very smart” or “I am kind and thoughtful” or “I am self-centered and selfish” or “I am an introvert” or “I am an extravert”. Looking at myself, I see someone who acts intelligently much of the time and somewhat stupidly at other times, and someone who acts kindly and thoughtfully at times and unfortunately unkindly at other times. Most of the time I feel like an introvert, but there are times when I feel and act in a very extraverted fashion. While there are patterns of behavior that lend some sense of consistency to our selves, we are really an ever-changing flow that is different from one moment to the next. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus correctly noted that “You could not step twice into the same river”. It is also true that the same person could not step twice into the river—or into the room.
The Buddha called this anatta, the doctrine of no-self. However, anatta does not claim that there is truly no self. That would be ridiculous; after all, if there is no self, who is writing this essay and who is reading it? The Buddha taught that there is no self as an object. In other words, there is no solid and separate self. We are a flow, which is always changing and always in relationship to the rest of the universe. Truly seeing the impermanence of our selves and everything around us can be a difficult and scary experience. The groundlessness of life, the utter uncertainty of everything, is the root of all our fears. But ultimately, the seeing of anatta tends to be profoundly freeing. It opens us to a flow that does not need to grasp, struggle, or resist life, and when we stop grasping and resisting, we stop suffering. For me, living in this flow without resisting and grasping has led to an ease of being and a joy in living. As a Zen Koan tells us, The great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. When I don’t “pick and choose”, when I don’t resist life or grasp after the transient things that I mistakenly think will make me happy, life is suffused with an ease and simplicity and joy. When I do resist—and I still resist fairly frequently—a discordant note arises in my experience. This discordant note could be called “suffering”, but when recognized it becomes another opportunity to surrender, let go of resistance, and return to the sweetness of being.
So the experiment of meditation can take us beyond suffering. The main focus of Buddhism is on this fundamental existential problem of being human: the universal suffering that all beings experience. Rather than teach a set of beliefs to be accepted on faith, the Buddha taught an experiential path through suffering and beyond it. This path, which addresses our suffering in the moment, seems more relevant to me than all the beliefs of conventional religion.
Respect for Other Traditions
From the perspective of Buddhism as I understand it, evangelism does not make sense. Because belief is not considered the crux of spirituality, there is no need to convince people to accept a certain set of beliefs. Instead, all people have the opportunity to discover the truth for themselves, and they will do this only when they are ready. This perspective fosters tolerance and respect for other religions. Truth is valued wherever it can be found. Buddhism does not have a monopoly on truth; insights similar to those taught in Buddhism can be found in Hinduism, in mystical Christianity, and in all the world’s religions. “The Perennial Philosophy”—a universal set of truths valued by all the world’s mystical traditions—is recognized and valued in an open minded Buddhism.
Since all religious systems, including Buddhism, are finite, it is likely that other traditions recognize truths that Buddhism does not. An open minded Buddhist will recognize this, and will look for the truth wherever it appears. Interfaith dialogue can be a valuable approach to the growth of all of our spiritual traditions. This attitude is clearly evident in the teaching of the 14th Dalai Lama, who has made dialogue with other spiritual traditions and with scientists a central part of his work.
One of the fruits of a regular meditation practice is an increasingly subtle perception of the world. It is my experience, after over 20 years of practice, that what we see in our typical state of consciousness is just the surface of something greater. Beneath this surface, a background can be perceived that is sweet, warm, vast, luminous, still, and inherently loving. It appears everywhere, as a background of consciousness, suggesting that the entire universe is awake and alive in some way. There is also a knowing, in my experience, that “we are that”, that we are a manifestation of this consciousness. In Buddhism, this universal consciousness is called Buddha Nature, the True Nature of each of us and of everything in existence.
Each religious tradition has its own name for and its own understanding of this True Nature. One could, perhaps, call this awake, conscious universe “God”—and maybe this is what the theistic religions are attempting to point to. In invoking the word “God”, I speak tentatively; ultimately I don’t know what the best description is or if there is a “best” description. I would also like to suggest the possibility that this conscious universe has evolved into greater and greater complexity as a manifestation of its inherent intelligence. Perhaps, as more complex forms of consciousness are emerging, the universe is slowly waking up to itself—and we, with our human intelligence and self-awareness—are on the cutting edge of this awakening. This brings to mind a recent experience, which may be an example of the universe awakening to itself through me:
I was recently at a five day Meditation Teacher training near San Francisco, California. It was an extraordinarily valuable experience of deepening, and of learning to teach a new and innovative approach to direct realization. After the workshop was over, I spent my final night in the Bay area having dinner with a friend who was dealing with intense grief. It was a poignant but also lovely evening. The next morning I had an early flight, and as I was packing to leave I found myself dreading what was awaiting me—a long and tiring trip across the country, the upcoming funeral of a distant relative who had passed away while I was in California, and a lot of work that I had put off preparing my taxes. While loading my luggage into the rental car at 6 am, the Morning Star, looking small and delicate in the clear blue dawn, caught my eye—and everything shifted. The dread was gone; instead there was a sense of sweet peace rooted in openness. The funeral, my grieving friend sleeping upstairs, the taxes, the long trip, my own self, were all held in the sweetness of fundamental consciousness, our True Nature. There was no problem here, and no problem that I could find in the entire world. Instead I felt a sense of freedom, of bonds broken. I felt so light that I nearly floated as I walked to the motel office to check out. Then, with a sense of sweet intimacy, I drove off to the airport for my long trip home.
It wasn’t until days later that I made an obvious connection during a conversation with a friend—the Buddha’s great enlightenment came when he saw the Morning Star after days of intense meditation. My experience was no “great enlightenment”, but it does seem fitting that it happened to a Buddhist, and it has left me with the sense of following in the footsteps of the Buddha and all of the practitioners of the dharma before me.