Saturday, May 21, 2022

Truth Is a Pathless Land, and That's OK

Those who read this blog are aware of my religious and spiritual ruminations over the years. My spiritual journey began as one of questioning what I was told when I was young, and that questioning nature within me has never quite been satisfied with the answers I've found along the way. 

Christianity -- specifically, Catholicism -- was my home base, the place where I was planted. And though I came back to it later in life after a long journey through the wilderness, in my heart of hearts I could never take the teachings literally, as was expected of me. Symbolically, I could grasp them. Mystically, they made intuitive sense. But taken literally, it all breaks down for me into a hopeless thicket of contradictions and logical impossibilities. 

In this painful world, we understandably crave the comfort of certainty. When life makes no sense and it feels hard to press on for another day, it's reassuring to think you have every answer to life's problems at your fingertips, chapter and verse, all conveniently contained within a single book. That book might also give you hope that there's a light at the end of the tunnel -- that if we just have faith and submit to the will of a higher authority, there will be someone there to reward us for a life well lived, to take us by the hand, and lead us home.

It has to be nice to be able to fall back on that kind of belief system.

I can't do it. And I've tried. Believe me, when you've suffered bodily for years and your undiagnosed physical malfunctions take more out of you with each passing year -- indeed, when every day feels like a near-death experience -- you long for some kind of peace, some reassurance, some word from somebody, somewhere, that everything is going to be OK. 

But wanting it doesn't make it so.

And yet even I can't chalk up my suffering to pure randomness. I do believe, based on my own life experiences, that something exists beyond this material realm -- that the material and spiritual are the yin and yang of our being. And suffering, for better or worse, plays a role in that state of being.

Catholics like to say that suffering builds character, but I've got to say that if that's the case, then I've had quite enough character-building for one lifetime, thank you.  

But what if we're suffering as a result of our past misdeeds? That's where karma and reincarnation come into play. 

I've joked before that I must have been a horrible person in a past life, but sometimes I wonder if it's more than just a joke. The Problem of Evil remains, well, a problem when you take for granted the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing deity. But the problem largely solves itself if you accept that our karmic debts carry on from one lifetime to the next, and that we have to keep coming back, lifetime after lifetime, until we settle our debts and set things right. 

The idea is not new to me. Jon Anderson, the lead singer of Yes, led me to the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda many years ago. Alan Watts helped me build on those Eastern concepts. And everyone from George Harrison to the driving philosophy behind John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra only reinforced what I'd already learned. 

In the West, we of course call this overarching Eastern philosophy Hinduism. But that word has always set uneasily with me, inasmuch as it smacks of a colonialist ignorance that imposed from the outside a name on something not fully understood -- much as Islam was once referred to by non-Muslims as Mohammadenism. To someone from India, the term Sanatana Dharma would be an accurate expression of a way of life that embraces the various strands of India's native religious traditions.

I find Indian religion fascinating in many ways, but it's such an inextricable part of Indian culture that it feels inauthentic for someone outside of India to adopt it. And indeed, there are Indians who agree with this view, that you can't be fully "Hindu" without being Indian. I felt the same when I was exploring Buddhism in some of its Japanese expressions -- Nichiren, Pure Land, Shingon. Stripped-down Western Buddhism to me felt cold, self-absorbed, and thus rather missing the point, but "ethnic" expressions of Buddhism felt like something that was off limits to me -- though that admittedly had more to do with my own hang-ups than with the way anyone at any of the Japanese temples ever treated me. 

My wife and I have been reading the Bhagavad Gita, and I have the Upanishads on my to-read list. I'm reading them not so much with an eye toward converting to Indian religion as to gain a better understanding of what makes "Hinduism" tick. And the more I learn about it, the more I'm coming to understand that "conversion" would result in little more than trading one group of superstitions (i.e., literalist Christianity) for another, as it does appear that most expressions of "Hinduism" within India are indeed weighted down with superstitions, most notably as they apply to a literal belief in a pantheon of deities, and the subsequent rituals, prayers, and offerings that go along with that literal belief.

Alan Watts and others who helped bring Indian religion to the West have focused more on something called Advaita Vedanta. Without getting too far into the weeds, Advaita Vedanta shares the core philosophy underpinning Indian religion while cutting through some of the Indian cultural trappings. One can still honor the gods and goddesses if one wishes, while thinking of them more as aspects or symbols of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, rather than as entities in and of themselves. The deities aren't objects of worship, per se, but symbols to help us visualize the Divine.

Vedanta also posits that atman, the soul or self, is not separate from Brahman but actually a part of it, and that our goal is to cut through the illusion of the world we think we live in to discover our true divine nature and thus facilitate a reunion of atman with Brahman. Ultimately, then, there is nothing but Brahman, and Brahman, while itself without attribute, is inseparable from sat-chit-ananda, or the state of existence-consciousness-bliss. 

Most traditional "Hindus" take a dualistic approach to religion, seeing atman and Brahman as related but separate. So the monism of Vedanta is a minority view in India, but it would seem to be a flavor of Indian religion that translates well to other cultures. Westerners tried to do something similar when they imported Buddhism and removed anything that felt "foreign" or "superstitious," but my 15 years of exploring Buddhism left me feeling that the attempt was not so successful, as Western Buddhism feels like little more than a self-help program with some meditation thrown in for an "exotic" feel. 

But even in its Eastern setting, it feels to me as if Buddhism tried to get too cute when it took the idea of atman and rejected it with the concept of anatman, or no-self. In an attempt to stake out a viewpoint contrary to the "Hindu" belief he would have been raised with, the Buddha created a seeming contradiction, wherein he denied the self but simultaneously claimed that something about ourselves survives death and is reborn. Vedanta, like Buddhism, encourages us to cease our clinging to an illusionary world, but unlike Buddhism, it doesn't try to deny that there's something eternal about us that survives bodily death. 

In any event, I'm not here to proselytize for Vedanta. Even if I wanted to adopt it for myself, there's no Vedanta community within hundreds of miles of where I live. The only remotely "Hindu" things near me are a cultural center about an hour and a half away and an ashram about a two-hour drive from me. So I'd be undertaking the practice by myself. 

All I'm saying is that after all these years, I've ended up pretty much in agreement with Vedanta, without actively trying to -- which I find really interesting. Reading about Jung's collective unconscious and Bernardo Kastrup's theories on consciousness from a scientific point of view kind of closed the loop for me. Science can't explain consciousness, how a slab of meat in our skulls can account for the subjective inner experiences of living that we all possess, and so Kastrup (and others) posit that consciousness, possessing no other obvious origin, might be a fundamental building block of the universe, like gravity. If so, that points us back to the Vedantic idea that the universe is consciousness itself. Another way of looking at it is that the universe is a gigantic organism, and we are its mind -- the vessels through which the universe experiences itself. 

The only question, then, becomes whether what we experience through our temporary vessels is real or an illusion. Vedanta, of course, would argue for the latter -- that we are, as Alan Watts put it, merely pieces of God playing hide-and-seek with himself, and that eventually the game ends and we all go home. I don't have an answer for whether we experience reality or illusion in this life, and ultimately I don't think it really matters. My opinion would only be just that, an opinion, with no bearing on what actually is

So as much as I'd love to check my brain at the door and sign up for a religion that gives me all the answers I'll ever need, I don't think that's in the cards for me in this lifetime. I'd love to have the escape hatch that that certainty would offer, especially when the insanity of the outer world and the pain of my inner world overwhelm me, as they do most days. I want a shelter from it all. Work, music, books, and family are the only safe havens I have, and they'll have to be enough.  

It feels like a resignation, a defeat, to say these things, after all these years of desperately combing through the world of belief in hopes that something might stick. I know now that I have to settle for resonating with bits and pieces of Taoism, Zen, esoteric Buddhism, Shinto, Druidry, European paganism, mystical Christianity, and, yes, Vedanta, with an overarching emphasis on the Sacred Feminine. Actually following those paths, with the fervor of a devotee, is for others, not for me. But I can at least take from them what works for me, in whatever way I have to mix and match them. I can go to a high Latin Mass, listen to the lovely Gregorian chant, and contemplate Brahman if I want to. It's about the best I'm going to be able to do. 

I went into 2022 with a mind toward cobbling together my own religion. I still think it would be fun to share my views with others in a ministerial role, and I believe there's a unmet need for people who are rethinking religion and spirituality in new ways. But I also wonder if my logical brain would nag at me and say that even my grab-bag approach to religion is not much more than a security blanket.

In the end, I've come around to seeing the beauty of Jiddu Krishnamurti's insights. K., as he was often called, was plucked out of obscurity as a child and groomed to become the next World Teacher, the incarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha to come. But he publicly rejected this role for himself and spent the rest of his life speaking to crowds around the world as a sort of anti-guru, dispensing practical wisdom while remaining adamant that he didn't want any followers. His unwavering belief was that once you begin to seek truth through a guru, a church, or anything external to oneself, then you've abandoned your own search for truth in favor of taking on someone else's idea of truth. He insisted that "truth is a pathless land." You have to climb the mountain on your own. No one can do it for you. That can be tough medicine to swallow for those who want easy and satisfying answers, but I don't think he was wrong. 

Ironically, that makes K. perhaps the wisest guru of them all. It could be that rejecting the role of Maitreya was necessary for him to become exactly Maitreya, or for all practical purposes the same thing. In that sense, I think he also represents what Vedanta leads people toward: an abandonment of blind belief in pursuit of what's true, rather than what we want to be true. After all, if authentic (i.e., non-superstitious) Indian religion does anything well, it's in encouraging people to seek, to question, to explore, to find their true selves, rather than simply giving them a hidebound list of rules to follow in exchange for a supernatural reward. 

Moreover, if atman is Brahman and Brahman is atman -- if you are that, as the saying goes -- then that changes everything. And it transcends us far beyond anything that the scriptures, or K., or any human religious system could ever hope to impart to us. 

That beats wishful thinking any day of the week... and twice on Sunday.

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