Not One, Not Two
Sometimes after years of slumbering in blissful metaphysical oblivion we awaken to discover that our spiritual perspective has shifted. We no longer think of God in terms of king or queen, father or mother, as savior, or as any personified entity; yet we are aware of certain inherent moral imperatives, an easy, natural code of conduct - a surviving residue, perhaps, from those days in which we studied in order to believe.
Instinctively we sense that this is the important part of our religion - the inward turning, the personal ethics, the introspection and self-reliance that deliver us to spiritual heights. More and more, we appreciate the Buddha's reluctance to discuss metaphysics. The subject's profundity cannot be gracefully probed. It sets us to arguing like sophomores or else it puts us to sleep. The indisputable part of our religion is something we have known all along.
And then, on an evening when we're least prepared for it, the metaphysical topic presents itself. Perhaps we're dining with friends and then, over after-dinner coffee, someone casually announces that Buddhism is a godless religion and that proof of this can be found in Shakyamuni's "non-statements" and refusals to discuss matters of divinity. We blink a few times in wonderment. Since when did a refusal to engage in meaningless arguments about a thing become tantamount to saying that the thing does not exist. If, for example, we're in a room filled with blind people and we refuse to discuss the characteristics of the color blue with them, we haven't asserted that the color blue does not exist. Our refusal to discuss metaphysics is more likely due to our awareness that the discussion would be pointless. There are no words that can convey "blue" to those who have had no experience of the spectrum. And so it is with references to God. In fact, until we experience this divinity within ourselves, we are like those blind persons.
No philosophical point is too miniscule to escape notice by those who want to argue about religion. The other day I read a paper that reviewed a difference of opinion between a Kashmir Shaivite and an Advaita proponent of the Vedantist philosophy. At issue was the fate of the soul at the death of the body. The Kashmir Shaivite framed the argument as such: "To the Vedantist the soul returns to the One as a wave returns to the ocean after breaking upon the beach of this mortal existence. After realizing its individuality as a wave, it loses it in its return to the ocean. We on the other hand believe that we, individual cups of salty water, do return to the great ocean of existence but without losing our distinctive saltiness."
If I had joined the argument, I would have suggested that the metaphor is wrong. A more appropriate analogy would be found in quantum physics rather than cups and oceans. At any point in time we can manifest as wave or particle. The classic Zen statement of "Not one, not two" covers this, a statement that in the end proves pointless to discuss except in that grand ambiguity that hints at what is not ambiguous.
We find another related point in today's newspapers - the decline of priestly morality in those religions that time has distanced from their source. Buddhism, judging from the Founder's point of view, can expect succeeding periods of decline; but other religions, especially those with a grand teleological bent, never seem to consider this possibility. A primary cause of decline, whether it is admitted to or not, is the religion's shift from being the religion of the founder to being a religion about the founder. Few would argue that many Christian religions, for example, tend often to be a religion about Jesus rather than the religion of Jesus. Islam and Judaism are further expanded to be about a people founded by the founder. And even Buddhism, particularly in older variants, persists in ignoring the metaphysical proscriptions and in pedestrian terms glibly describes the unknown and unknowable. Many Buddhist tracts are indistinguishable from New Age psychspeak.
Remarkably consistent with this decline of spiritual relevance and rise of metaphysical speculation is the rise and fall of institutional priesthood. As the priesthood rises and becomes an institution, we find a reciprocating decline in the truth the priesthood proffers. This is hardly surprising. All systemic organizations tend to stymie the individuals that compose them, especially in matters of experiential truth and discovery. Priests can be taught the forms of prayer but not the substance of it. Rigorous study of extraneous subjects dominates the seminary curriculum, and the little bit of esoteric understanding that is imparted to priests cannot spiritually support them; and when the years flow by and heavy reality needs bearing, they discover the sad truth that too much faith has been built on some rather flimsy foundations.
Parishioners are no different. It is a brittle day when we suddenly see that our God requirements won't be so easily met as we were led to believe back when a priest sprinkled us with holy water. (Oh, if only it were so, I'd be lying in my hammock eating grapes this evening.)
In organized religion, the cult of personality and its attendant mythology and message gradually declines without the founder's charismatic presence. But spiritual development has a different dynamic. In the psychological model and system devised by Carl Jung we see that individuation is as fine a method of real self-discovery as can be found outside the parameters that are otherwise strictly reserved for religious systems. Jung saw the contemporary decline in the pure Christian European ethos; and he also saw eminent dangers in merely substituting eastern methodologies in their place. He, therefore, developed a system couched in psychological terms whose total intent and purpose was the integration of the individual in a process he termed individuation or in our Zen terms, the discovery of the real Self. The method was defined as the integration of the shadow, the animus/anima, and other instinct/archetypes. He also gave his insights into the psychology of types etc. Key to the efficacy of this whole process was his firm belief that the psyche was a self-regulating system, which equates to the key belief in any efficient religious system that God is within. Being born when he was, and in the climate that he was, it was impossible for him to venture into the realm of the yogi's language (it was in fact a conscious decision of his not to do so). He therefore developed his own terminology, putting new faces in old roles and issuing them new names. But every solution is the same because, in the lexicon of humanity, all problems are merely synonyms.
Although Jung's methods are eminently pragmatic, clarity and easy applicability don't always smash the barriers of culture. A neighbor of mine recently reported an interesting exchange he had with one of his family's psychologists. This neighbor has two teenage boys, as rebellious as their age can be, and a highly neurotic wife. He survives this domestic chaos by cultivating a totally aberrant approach to life - which means that he tends his own garden and doesn't intrude into areas that experience has taught him are outside his limits. He has occasion to visit doctors of the mind, never at his own initiative, but rather at the requests of schoolteachers, doctors, and other minions that populate the battlefields of behavioral warfare in today's society. During an interview with one frustrated psychologist he arrogantly asked the good doctor if he was familiar with Jungian theory and methodology and, if so, if he employed Jungian techniques in his practice. The doctor laughed and said that Jung was only good if you were searching for the meaning of life and that his theories had nothing to do with solving the problems that come up in normal day-to-day situations. My neighbor raised an eyebrow; which elicited the curt explanation that "insurance companies don't recognize or pay for any of those kinds of diagnoses."
I formed a mental picture of my neighbor's psychologist. He began to appear wearing a white turn-around collar, a priest in an established Freudian religion.
And, this, I suppose, is yet another reason why the Buddha declined to discuss metaphysics. There may be profit in controversy, but there is not likely to be salvation in it. Religion isn't supposed to connect us to society. It's supposed to connect us to God. He knows all the forms and He's heard all the arguments. He waits within in the sanctuary, in the Refuge. All that's really required is a decision to turn our attention away from the material world's fascinations and to instead look inward and follow the Path that leads to the sanctuary. The rest we can leave to Heaven.
Last modified: November 22, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts