Wisdom Traditions – Beyond Belief Lies Being

On the page on awakening I write:

How to validate your own experience? How to trust someone else to validate it? How to know what awakening is? Whose definition is right? How to “be true to your religion” or “avoid religion completely” while on this search? How to avoid falling into even mildly culty groups? Which of the myriad of sources to believe?

People live embedded in a system of views, beliefs and opinions. These things they will label “true”. A Christian believes that there was someone called Jesus who was the son (and theologians debate over what that means) of a being (if that’s the right word) they call God. Not only do they believe it but they assert that “it’s True” and, if we are good, after death we will go to heaven. A scientific/philosophical materialist believes the universe is made of atoms and the like and we are just a temporary pattern in matter and so when we die we won’t exist – and this isn’t a view – its “The Truth”. A Buddhist might believe that after death they will be reborn and this is “The Truth”. So many Truths! Or maybe better to call them paradigms, dogmas, fixed positions.

These are the big narratives – the metanarratives as the seminal postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard called them – those with institutional staying power and authority figures to hold them in place. But this “processing reality through a narrative” holds all the way from the biggest of metanarratives right down to individual momentary perceptions. A strident feminist will see injustice against women everywhere. A democrat will read a newspaper differently from a republican. A lover and an ex-spouse will see the same person in very different ways – and not just see but viscerally relate to. We process reality through filters, through beliefs, through positions, through premises taken as truth. Not only that but embark upon traditional psychotherapy or the self-help/self-development angles and you will find that a lot of these filters are pretty stubborn to shift.

If you are “in” a metanarrative you are not seeing the world as it is – you are processing it through a great filter – its a production, an illusion if you like. In such an asleep state you can’t even conceive that there is a chance that your narrative is wrong. If you are a sceptic, or perhaps a well-travelled person, you may have a scepticism towards metanarratives but of course that is itself a metanarrative – “nothing is true” can’t be true!

What to believe? Can we believe nothing? What is genuine? Who to trust?

The Buddha was asked this very question some millennia ago (just shows that wisdom is wisdom in any age). The question and his response are recorded in the Kalamas Sutta goes:

“There are some monks and Brahmans, venerable sir, who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces. Some other monks and Brahmans too, venerable sir, come to Kesaputta. They also expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces. Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and Brahmans spoke the truth and which falsehood?”

“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

You have to know for yourself – directly. Of course the problem here is how to do that – we spend our lives fooling ourselves in lesser and greater ways. And therein lies the rub – we need teachers to teach us techniques and share their understandings in order to “climb the ladder” … but how do we know whether they put the ladder in the right place?

Of course only a small number of people consider this question and its a tricky one but help is at hand from two key insights which especially apply to the issue of awakening/apotheosis which is the Jewel in the Crown of all wisdom traditions.

The first key insight/knowledge is that wisdom increases as one progresses. Indeed if it is not (and equally importantly if an open-hearted kindness is not increasing either) then you are not progressing. There is a faculty of “knowing” that is – to use a modern phrase of Ken Wilber (although the ancients in many lands knew of the concept) “trans-rational”. This type of “knowing” is qualitatively different from the self-delusion. Why is it not much around at present? Well, if a culture focuses on the froth and trivia on the surface of the sea, and has forgotten techniques for diving deep, then naturally it is a long way from the depths of the sea and what lies there.

The second is an interesting angle which I haven’t seen much mentioned so explicitly. I quoted the Buddha above and it’s very much his approach although his teachings became somewhat encrusted in the social activities and dogmas known as Buddhism (of which there are a vast range – rather like a fresh spring eventually becoming a vast slow moving estuary).

The first part of this second angle of how to get “beyond belief” is to realise that we can never fully “understand” the world or existence. That everything anyone says for example about what happens after the death of the body is “just a story” – maybe it’s right, maybe it’s not. As my favourite Buddhist monk – Luang Por Sumedho – an American who signed up over 40years ago said when asked about what happens after death “I don’t know, I haven’t died yet”. This is the honest answer isn’t it! To have repeated the set “Buddhist religious” answer would be just to give the tribal answer. Ditto there are plenty of modern spiritual teachers who will tell you they are right – maybe they are, maybe they are not – life’s too short to find out.

The second part of this second angle is that whilst we can never “understand”, we can see what the process of existence is. Lets start with some easy examples – we know that we are born and will die. We know that every morning we wake up and – if we were in deep sleep, in essence we “reboot” ourselves and “come back online”. And we can clearly see that our experience of life is a flux, a flow of images, sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings. This is an example of direct knowing that I talk about. You know that you are reading right?

Maybe this sounds like nothing – but the fissure in the huge edifice of ego is precisely a recognition that we are not (to use Kant’s terminology) the phenomena we are the noumena. Put another way we are not the flickering lights on a TV screen we are the TV.

As a piece of information this is just words … so what? Like any set of words is can be used, misused, argued for argued against. Discussing and arguing over words never ends.

However as a key to awakening it is the essence to “transcending the ego” which is awakening as perceived in all traditions ancient and modern. The ego is more like a program running on a computer … it’s not the computer. It’s a survival mechanism designed by evolution its not the real essence of beingness in the first place nor is it a peaceful abide. Father Keating an American who has been a Trappist monk for over seventy years calls it the “false self”. “Living life”, in the default state, from “inside the ego”, is a stressful experience – the world never goes the way we want all the time.

But if we “get out” of the ego then it seems less of an issue that things don’t go “our” way. Hey that’s life buddy! No-one gave us a guarantee at birth that it would all go our way – in fact if we could have asked, we would have been told that it’s bound not to. So why stress about it? Or rather why stress about the natural responses of the body and mind to adverse circumstances? Getting soaking wet in a rainstorm and catching the flu isn’t a pleasant experience for anyone – the Buddha or Jesus or you or I. But you can’t sign up for the human package and cherry pick only the good bits. We all know that as that’s what we have tried to do and still try to do. It doesn’t work, things are bound to go wrong … even for the “most Holy” – the Buddha’s cousin tried to kill him, Jesus was crucified, Mohammed had lots of strife, and current spiritual teachers carry on dealing with the same old rubbish as the rest of us. As one modern Advaita Vedanta teacher put it “liberation is not salvation” … we can be liberated from the imprisoning ego but that doesn’t mean we are saved … we can still be laid off tomorrow, get sick, get wet.

I can write more but there are plenty of words here already. As final observation on the “top of the shop” to be gained from studying and applying wisdom traditions, I would point to the concept of the void. In the west the void is seen as empty and dark. In other cultures the void, the unmanifest is the source of the manifest. Nothing is (as the Big Bang story says) the source of everything. Experientially/existentially every sound comes from silence and returns to it, every thought comes from nothing and returns to it, every feeling comes from nothing and returns to it.

Written down these are all concepts – but concepts which are aimed at pole-vaulting you past concept. Actually it’s really simple if you forget the head trip stuff. Just think of the last time you were chilling out, not doing anything, being no-one, going nowhere – just simply being. That is (in Jesus words) “the peace that passeth all understanding”, (in the Buddha’s words) “the end of suffering”, (in Tibetan) “Natural Great Peace”. You can all do it.

And if you are still sceptical – as you ought to be – then we can consider the alternative. That “that” type of peace is not the same as what some or all of the great teachers were talking about, that Mike is wrong, that you didn’t get the peace Mike is talking about. But this is the point – you need to investigate for yourself.

I can tell you however that once you have locked-in to this “spacious peace”, then you will see scepticism or doubt as just another arising and ceasing phenomena, something that comes from nowhere, hangs around a bit and goes – like anything else. I say you lock-in to it but it’s perhaps more like it locks into you hence these Western models of the Grace of God – forget the metaphysical position here – the description is of it happening “to” you not because of you. The Buddha made the same point … you can’t cause “it (notwithstanding which people keep meditating to get “it”)

Equally there is no “fixed position”, no “goal”, no “end-point” that you can have arrived at – so you can’t worry you “got” the wrong thing! Consciousness is always changing and who knows how you might meta-experience it tomorrow, next year? If you look at any of the many websites with video interviews of self-declared awakened persons (I especially like conscious.tv due to its very prosaic British focus) you will see that (a) awakening is common but (b) they dont all seem to be at the same place – again it’s not a place. As a wildly inaccurate mataphor its the same film being projected on the screen but somehow its in colour not in black and white, or it looks like 3D not 2D – point being exactly the same story carries on but as a qualitatively different experience that no one has ever pinned down in words.

A study of the comparative awakenings of people is a fascinating area for study – awakening is definitely being reported more and more. Like all human endeavours – even the 4 minute mile – the more people that have done it the easier it appears to get. However – and this is again key – once you start writing your PhD analysis on all these folks, you are, most likely, back running the ego program and away from resting in beingness – you are back to the doingness polarity. Nothing wrong with doing of course, but, if you havent yet discovered “just being” (and importantly how rich, pregnant with meaning and mysterious that is), then sticking in doingness is the best way to avoid the beingness polarity. The faster you “run after stillness” the further you get away from it. Once you have grokked the being polarity (you can do it already – it’s just not mentioned in our culture as being important (quite the opposite)) life is free to flow between being a “human being” and a “human doing”.

As per my first major point you will never “know” whether you or I have “understood” this correctly or linked up correctly to tradition or reached the ultimate in terms of relaxing into this soft feather bed of “beingness” – how deeply can one sink into it, how much does it perfume the rest of your busier existence when the mind is focused on other matters etc etc? However you will directly know what it’s like to live life from the perspective of natural, spacious peacefulness as an experience and I guarantee that that is worth having. It doesn’t stop you considering anything, being sceptical, trying a new teacher, trying to find a “better peace” (?!). It’s about being brighter and more alive, more able to check anything out – not less. It’s the opposite of being narcotised and buying into a dream … it’s more like buying out of all dreams, buying out of what anyone else or yourself believes – getting beyond belief into the natural simplicity of being.

As you practice more this “spaciousness” is brought into more and more situations … even noisy stressful ones until there is a pervasive calm about even running for the bus. Stillness and motion coincide – noumena and phenomena dance together.

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