Monday, November 28, 2011

BETTER TO NOT BELIEVE AT ALL


‘There is hope for whoever does not know what to believe.
Human belief is a combination of superstition, gullibility and mental laziness.
We need not believe anything; we need to find, to see, to know.’


Forgive me if I return to a familiar theme. I have often said that one of the great things about being a practising Buddhist – with the emphasis on the word practising – is that there is no need to believe anything … and nothing to believe.

Now, even within Christianity there have been some enlightened souls who have written of the dangers of belief. Take, for example, that great Modernist of last century, Harry Emerson Fosdick (pictured left), who famously wrote, ‘Better believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God. Belief in God is one of the most dangerous beliefs a man can cherish.’

Having just re-read Brideshead Revisited – a book which, despite the author’s apparent intentions, fails to convince me of the reasonableness of Catholic Christianity over non-belief – I say, good stuff, Dr Fosdick, but why believe at all? Belief is not a criterion of truth. What is real does not become any more real because we believe that it is real, nor does the proposition ‘X is true [or real]’ become any truer because we believe that it is true.

For me, the Biblical prayer, 'Lord, I believe; help my unbelief' (see Mk 9:24), would be better expressed as, 'Lord, I believe; help me instead to know and understand.' Yes, follow the advice of the psalmist: 'Be still, and know that I am God' (Ps 46:10).

The current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Peter Morales (pictured right), the Association’s first Latino president, has stated:

‘Religion is not about what you or I or Baptists or Catholics or Jews or Muslims or Hindus believe. I would even go a giant step further: Belief is the enemy of religion. Let me repeat that: Belief is the enemy of religion.’ [Emphasis in the original]

Morales goes on to say that any religion that is focused on belief is ‘a dangerous corruption of true religion.’ True religion, according to Morales, is ‘about what we love, not about what we think.’ It’s ‘about what you and I hold sacred.’ The Unitarian Universalist movement, says Morales, offers religion beyond belief, ‘religion that transcends culture, race and class ... religion where we can grow spiritually, a religion where we can forge deep and lasting relationships, a religion where we can join hands to help heal a broken world.’ That is the kind of religion – or metareligion – that I embrace.

But what exactly is the problem with 'beliefs,' you may ask? Well, Shakyamuni Buddha referred to beliefs as being in the nature of thought coverings or veils (āvarnas). These thought coverings or veils do not reveal reality, indeed they distort reality. How? Well, they prevent us from knowing and experiencing things as they really are in all their directness and immediacy. Belief is conditioning. Knowledge is experiential.


I have always found helpful these words attributed to the Buddha: 'Do not believe, for if you believe, you will never know. If you really want to know, don't believe.' There is also this sound advice from the Pāli texts:

In what is seen, there should be only the seen;
in what is heard, only the heard;
in what is sensed, only the sensed;
in what is thought, only the thought.

Yes, we need to safely 'navigate' our way through life, but beliefs actually stand in the way and hold us back. What we really need is ... knowledge ... and understanding.

It was that great meditation master Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw (pictured left), the founding father of the Sunlun way of Buddhist vipassanā meditation, who taught that there is so much that we can know. We can know that we are alive … in the sense of being part of the flow or procession of life. We can know that we are persons among persons. We can know that sensations arise in us, and as respects each such sensation we can know the fact of its existence … as well as the fact of its strength or weakness. More importantly, we can know each sensation - as a bare fact - as and when it arises … and as it truly is … in all its directness and immediacy.

Yes, there is so much we can know that, well, there is simply no need to believe anything at all. In any event, the very act of formulating a 'belief' causes an otherwise present reality to die away, because (as Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw would constantly point out) the very nature of a belief is a mental construct based on an already past reality. That is, by the time a particular belief has been formulated, the reality upon which that belief is purportedly based is no longer a present reality. It is now the past. Beliefs lock us into the past. Beliefs imprison. They do not liberate. They are chains that bind us.

You may ask, ‘Is that all there is to life? Is there no more than that? Just life as it arises? As we see and experience it?’ Well, I suspect that we cannot truly know more nor less than that, but either way it is enough for me. Direct and immediate contact with reality – of that we can be truly mindful. And for that we should be truly thankful.



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