It is striking how we humans relentlessly search for truth, and when we think we have it, how tenacious we hang on to our version of it. Politics and religion have always been fertile fields for this obsession. Not surprisingly, these two are two sides of one ‘tribal coin’. Indeed, not long ago, they were one and the same; the Emperors, Kings, Pharaohs all held the head role in a culture’s politics cum religion.
Are things so different in this current era of democracy? Scratch the surface and you will see the same tribal instinct driving people, some fervent on the political branch, others fervent on the religious branch—two branches of the same ‘tribal tree’. Politics and religion are both social hot spots when it comes to truth vs. instinct.
By instinct, I mean the emotional ties we have to the story we feel tells us the ‘real truth’. As social animals, we have a tribal fairness instinct that drives us to be on the ‘right side’. This informs our sense of good and evil, morality and justice, and even love and hate. Our own personal needs and fears (desires, worries, insecurities) provide the emotional energy that underpins the story—our version of reality and truth.
By truth, I refer to a balanced impartial quality… Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial, and Buddha’s Right Understanding of what is so, with that ‘what is so‘ always conforming to the changing facts we experience. Obviously, that definition is at odds with the dogma that both political and religious ideologies require. Any ‘truth’ that appeals to the bias of emotion isn’t!
Science and Buddha
Science, a core human cognitive endeavor, comes much closer than anything else does to digging down to reveal the impartial, unvarnished and balanced truth of ‘what is so‘. Buddha’s four truths qualify as science, and in my view, the deepest science. Their elegant simplicity lies in how well they lend themselves to empirical proof revealed through one’s personal experience; no lab equipment or measuring tools required. The proof lies in our life’s pudding, not in a lab’s double blind experiment. The evidence is abundant and clear; all one needs is either the courage to let go and see, or even merely the interest to look. Essential as well is the grist of experience. As chapter 21 hints at, i.e., Its reputation never left because of the experience of the multitude.
So, Why Isn’t Everyone a ‘buddhist’?
I have wondered sometimes why everyone wasn’t a small ‘b’ Buddhist, similar to the idea of a Small ‘t’ Taoist. Naturally, I understand why people would never flock to the Taoist worldview, whether small ‘t’ or large ‘T’ — it just doesn’t resonate with most folks. For starters, the Tao Te Ching is very revolutionary and, of necessity, equally obtuse. On the other hand, Buddha’s core views are as clear as day, and not the least metaphysical or philosophical; although, I suppose they are revolutionary in a way.
In view of this, I have tried over the years to understand why my old friend Andy isn’t able to get on board with Buddha’s truths (see Letters to Andy). I’ve dreamed up various hypotheses, but none ever nailed it. Now I think I know. In discussing life recently, he told me that he never inspects his life the way I apparently do. This struck me as very odd because he is very curious and science minded about life.
I suppose this means Andy is not innately introspective enough to take note of subtle internal changes over time. This may help explain why he just doesn’t seem to ‘get’ Buddha. What is so obviously true in my view, doesn’t ring true for him because he has not gathered a long-term sense of his inner experience of life. This sense is essential for verifying Buddha’s truths—nothing else.
So, what does Andy see instead to make sense of life? External facts and knowledge inform more of his sense of the world, while I rely on my experience mostly and scientific knowledge only secondarily for clues. In a way, he looks to an authority for truth; I look inwardly for truth. I guess I am an ‘anarchist’, but in the most basic sense of the word: “Medieval Latin anarchia, from Greek, from anarchos having no ruler, from an- + archos ruler”. I simply don’t look to any authority or ‘rule-r’ for truth.
Naturally, this is not a matter of choice. People don’t choose to be extrovert or introvert, extrospective or introspective! Neither one is the way, in Truth. Andy is naturally that way, just as I am naturally this way. This exemplifies the complementary aspect of our relationship. Simply put, Front and back follow one another.
Andy uses external authoritative ‘data’ extensively to verify the nature of existence. Perhaps many, or most, people do. We are a social species, which means tribal hierarchical instinct pulls people to ‘follow the masters’ whether or not they actually understand the master’s message. It is more political than spiritual, in the simplest and most natural sense of those words. There are also the outliers; if you’re still reading this, I imagine that most likely makes you one.
Where then does the Taoist point of view lie in all this? Is it political, as some say? Is it religious, philosophical, or perhaps scientific? Certainly, Taoist views can apply to all these fields, depending on the eye of the beholder. However, in the end, the Taoist point of view can’t qualify as religious, political, or scientific—at least lab based science. Its reverence for nothing, emptiness, the unnamed and unspoken, and for a pre-thought and pre-language mystery, sets it outside the box of normal human cognitive perception. This, naturally enough, makes it unpalatable to all but the most solitary, scant, pathetic souls. At least that is what my symptom’s point of view tells me to be most probable.
Essentially, a Taoist worldview seeks out untruth. Truth, as this ‘taoist’ sees it, is ‘not this’ and ‘not that’. It is a way; a way that flows through, behind, above, below, left and right. It encompasses both beauty and ugliness, good and evil. In my view, you can’t put your finger on it, as chapter 1 points out. At best, you can only put your finger on what it isn’t. You can think of this as a devil’s advocacy for what isn’t the truth. What else could such a way be that asks us, “When understanding reaches its full extent, can you know nothing?” (1)
Realizing we can’t know truth is not something you can learn and store away as just another ‘educational fact’ to retrieve when needed. No, this realizing requires constant tending to, like parenting an infant. Turn your back for a moment and realizing will slip out of sight. The only way to keep comprehension alive is to verify it constantly. For me, that means seeking out untruth. This is actually quite easy to do; it boils down to this: If you can put your finger on it, it isn’t the truth. If it stirs up any emotion, it isn’t the truth.
Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Man alone faults this disease; this so as not to be ill.
The sacred person is not ill, taking his disease as illness.
Man alone has this disease; this is because to him there is no illness.
(1) I found life to be a matter of perusing one path after another toward what felt to be a promised land. Each has come to a dead end; each dead end thrusts me deeper into the way that cannot be named. Life has turned out to be a matter of seeking truth only to end up finding untruth, which always returns me to chapter 1’s disclaimer… “The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way“.