Before We Begin
Before We Begin
The word 'truth' is the most dangerous word in the English language, according to Zen Theosophy. Hence, ZT views all its doctrines as provisional in the sense of temporary – always subject to improvement.
All statements about spiritual or metaphysical topics are by necessity imperfect speculations. As some theologians say: The imperfect (that's us) cannot comprehend the perfect. The Taoist Lao Tse phrased it more dramatically, "The tao that can be put in words is not the ever-abiding Tao."
Describing What We Cannot See
From ancient times, great thinkers have puzzled over this problem of describing what we cannot see and cannot detect with our most sophisticated instruments. There is a story in the Rig Veda (1500 – 1200 B.C.E.) that describes this metaphor well: a number of blind men are gathered around an elephant, touching it and describing what they sense. One touches the leg and describes it as a towering pillar. Another touches the tail and claims to be holding a rope. But, because they cannot see the full form of the elephant, they then begin to argue among themselves, each claiming, with rigid certainty, that they alone are right.
The poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887) described this scene in his poem ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’, capturing the essence of the conundrum of how we can be right and wrong at the same time:
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!
This is why the belief that we know The Truth is so dangerous. From this firm conclusion, people convince themselves that they have an obligation to force this truth on others by whatever violent means appeals to their culture: burning at the stake or beheading are dramatic examples. And history provides us with examples of both religious and nonreligious idealogues who convinced themselves that they knew the truth.
It’s like trying to describe the colour green to a blind man Words are two-dimensional constructs that can never fully capture a multi-sided subject. A more mathematical thinker has diagramed our plight this way:
Because revered theories, once held as unassailable, have been proven wrong so often over the course of history, scientists have grown cautious and no longer speak confidently of scientific ' facts'. Rather they speak of 'current scientific models'.
The physicist, Werner Heisenberg, developed his famous Principle of Uncertainty from this very conundrum. He noted a second level of distortion arising from the scientific procedure that we use when we are trying to observe what we cannot see.
To take an example from a thought experiment: in order for us to see, a ray of light has to bounce off an object back to our eye. But when subatomic particles are so small that they have less mass than a photon of light, the photon acts like a billiard ball easily passing through a group of ping-pong balls. The lighter balls are knocked out of the way so there is no bounce back to our eyes. Even though the subatomic particles have some physical existence, and therefore are 1000 times more concrete than pure metaphysical speculation, still, even there, we cannot know with absolute certainty.
Scientists call things that we cannot see directly hypothetical-constructs. Intelligence is one such construct. So are Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Scientists cannot detect them with the most sensitive of instruments, but deduce that they must be there because of the effects on what they can see.
Scientists tell us their best estimate of the age of our universe since the Big Bang is 13.799±0.021 billion (109) years. Whatever that means, it's a really, really long time ago. According to the theory of gravity, the expansion of the universe should be slowing down by now. Yet, astronomical observations tell us it is still expanding and increasingly so. That expansion takes a huge amount of energy, but scientists cannot detect even a couple of kilowatts. Where is it? Everywhere. What is it? – it has been named Dark Energy.
With their deduction that most of our universe consists of dark energy and dark matter, scientists tell us that we can detect only 5% of the universe with our senses – even extended by the most sophisticated instruments.
Scientists face this limitation of uncertainty in their efforts to understand both the really big, as they penetrate deeper into the recesses of the cosmos, and of the really small, as they penetrate through to the smallest particles of matter. So, when it comes to the Really Big Questions in metaphysics or theology, if we can only understand what we can detect, and what we can detect of the known universe is only 5% of its whole, how can we claim to know The Truth about anything?
All this talk about uncertainty is not to make us uncertain ditherers. We have to draw conclusions and form opinions to have direction in life. The appreciation of uncertainty will prevent us from holding rigidly to an idea when we encounter some experience that proves it wrong. Much wisdom in life is gained by trial and error and by having the flexibility to know when strongly held beliefs are wrong.
We may hold onto many ideas from our culture, religion and society with the firmness of a sinking swimmer gripping onto a life raft. However, we may be clinging to the outer appearance of how an idea was expressed and not what the underlying idea is.
The Clothes that Truth Wears
By necessity every teaching needs to be put in a way that appeals to the people of the culture and age. When Gandhi was a lawyer in South Africa, he dressed very nattily in a three-piece suit. On the way to become the leader of the Indian independence movement, he changed into a dhoti. When we look at any teaching, we have to be aware of what is the underlying principle and what is the mere dressing to make it appealing and understandable for the people of the time.
As an example of the different clothes on at teaching, let’s look at Egyptian and Buddhist ideas of the critical role of compassion. Every Buddhist will recognize that compassion for all beings––metta bhavana––is the essential principle taught by the Buddha. This emphasis of compassion is also echoed in Egyptian mythology, but in different clothes.
This painting shows Anubis weighing the heart of the recently dead. He weighs the heart against a feather, known as Ma’at. Note that he's not weighing the person's brain, or giving them a pop quiz on the fundamentals of Egyptian religion. No, intelligence and beliefs are irrelevant. Compassion, not creed, is what is truly important. The picture shows a universal principle — it is the heart that counts.
Another example of different expressions of the same concept that can be seen in different cultures and ages is the idea that what we see all around us is illusory. Early Vedantin inquiries generated the belief that our senses fool us. What we see is an illusion that they call 'Maya'. All that we perceive outside our head is created by a similar process to the one inside our head that creates dreams. For the sake of a good image, they say we live in a waking dream (within the dream of Vishnu).
Plato also wrestled with the problem of whether we could trust our senses. He came to a conclusion similar to that of the Vedantins, which he demonstrated in his famous Allegory of the Cave: what we see is not reality, but illusions of reality, like people creating shadows on a cave wall.
Immanuel Kant put it in intellectual jargon that the peculiar makeup of our sensory system and brain architecture distorts all incoming data. We cannot really see even the simplest object "as it is". For example, what if our eyes had the shape of a fisheye camera lens? Then everything we would see would be wide and distorted, like a funhouse mirror, but not necessarily reflective of reality.
Even the lens of our eye is subject to this distortion, as many physiologists have discovered. Everything we see comes from light has hitting an object and then that light bouncing back to our eyes. When light waves hit an object, some of those light waves become absorbed, and the rest bounce back into our eyes. The light waves that bounce back stimulate the back of our eyeball––called the retina––and stimulate the receptor cells there––called cones. When these waves stimulate these cones, that data is coded into electrical impulses and transferred to our brain. This code tells our brain that the apple we are looking at is red.
But, the perception of ‘red’ is only based on the way that we humans are wired––and even then, not all of us. People with deuteranopia––commonly known as red-green colour blindness––will not see ‘red’ the way that most others do. Similarly with animals and insects, the way they see colours may be different from humans. As physiologists like to say, roses may not be red to the bumblebee.
For the purpose of our point, the colour red is not part of the apple, it is in a image in our brain that has been projected outward onto the apple. If the data from our senses, the most basic and simple information we get from the outside world is not an accurate reflection of the true nature of what we are seeing, or sensing, then how much more room for error possible with the more abstract ideas that are based on our senses.
Psychologists have developed a theory of psychological projection. In a famous study on unconscious racial prejudices, a group of people, both black and white, were presented with, first a picture of two white men fighting. One had a knife. In the second picture, it was a black man fighting with a white man. The white man had a knife.
Afterwards, the group correctly identified which man held a knife in the first picture, but most wrongly said the black man held the knife in the second picture.
Insightful thinkers have given similar messages throughout history, but expressed it in very different ways. The Vedantans and Plato spoke of images––a dream and shadows on a wall. Kant gave us an intellectual description, physiologists tied it to mechanisms in our body and psychologists to the workings of our mind. But, ultimately, the message is the same: we cannot see the world for how it truly is.
The Truth has many different expressions––a whole wardrobe of cultures to pull from. We’ve seen this time and again when we argue about who holds ‘The Right Answer’ based on superficial factors, not the underlying message. The problem comes when we don’t see the the message for the trappings it wears.
The Finger is Not the Moon
Buddhists make the relationship between concepts and their underlying reality a central focus of study. Preconceptions are the 'baddest' of the big bad barriers to spiritual progress and wisdom.
Preconceptions are ideas that we have been taught as part of our religious, scientific and cultural heritage. We are often completely unaware of how these ideas automatically shape our opinions. There is a danger that people can mistake their ideas, for the thing itself — resulting in layer upon layer of firmly held false beliefs.
The Surangama Sutra has given us this intriguing analogy:
"A teacher was explaining the moon to his students. He pointed at it. Only a few of the students looked beyond his finger to the moon. Most of the students looked at the finger and for evermore thought the finger was the moon."
The finger, in this analogy, is an idea in our heads about the moon.
A thousand or so years later, the West caught up. Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) gave us his theory of General Semantics with the concept that ‘the map is not the territory’. We can study a hundred maps of New York City, but it's not the same as actually going there. Because the maps are ideas, stored in our brain, they are easily––and unconsciously––changed. We tend to think of even our basic memory as like a photograph, but it may alter without any apparent cause.
Have you ever had this experience?: you’re driving to a friend’s house, which you are absolutely certain is on the left side of the street. But, when you arrive, you see it is on the right side. For a split second it seems as if someone has reached through your skull, into your brain and twisted it 180°. You swear that the house was on the left side but, there it is!, unmistakably the opposite. The idea––the picture in your brain––was not the same as the reality.
This is an example of our simple memory function and how easily it can be changed. So, how much easier can our more abstract ideas be altered?
Once we have a concept in our head, especially religious, scientific or political, we think we have a complete understanding of it. Yet, like a blind man touching part of an elephant, all we have is a partial idea about it — and one that can be then be unconsciously reshaped by many, many outside influences.
The Zen Art of Not Knowing What We Do Not Know
Mark Twain, who can always be counted on to put a profound insight into a witticism, gave us this relevant one:
"It's not what we don't know that's the problem. It's what we do know that ain't so."
There’s an old story of an Athenian who asked the Oracle of Delphi, ‘Who is the wisest man in the world?’. The Oracle answered without hesitation, "Socrates". When Socrates heard the news, he was puzzled. He thought there must be someone wiser than him. So, Socrates set about questioning the greatest thinkers of Athens, but always came up disappointed. The other thinkers claimed wisdom, but were without much understanding. Poets could touch people with flowery words, but did not know their deeper meaning. They were all like craftsmen: they could claim knowledge only in very specific and narrow fields.
At the end of his search, Socrates concluded that because some people believed that they were masters of knowledge in one area, they were masters in all areas. This self-congratulating, self-deceiving syndrome could be called the fallacy of the super competent.
Perhaps the Oracle was correct after all: To this small extent, Socrates decided that he was wiser than the others, because he knew the limits of his own knowledge. He did not think he knew what he did not know.
Yet, the fact that Socrates exposed the limitations of competence has long been forgotten. Today we have the example of brilliant scientists proclaiming with dogmatic certainty that because their IQ is double most of ours, we should accept what they say on theological or spiritual topics. Their underlying message is, "I'm super intelligent and I believe this, therefore if you want to be intelligent, you should too."
As early as 1945, Einstein was critical of his fellow scientists who stepped outside the boundary of their competence to proclaim their theological opinions. Their reasoning, in his view, was motivated by reacting against their own oppressive religious education and not clear thinking. In his words:
"You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being."
If ever you hear someone proclaiming to be the smartest guy in the room, and then proceeding to tell you what to believe outside of their own field of competence, remember Socrates' warning, then Einstein's analysis, and then, take a tip from Anubis––don't merely look at their intellect and high accomplishments, first look deeply into their hearts.
Holding rigidly to the idea that we/our mind can know The Truth is a dangerous one, because the underlying Reality, like everything we experience, is filtered through our own limited ways of experiencing the world. Sometimes, we can only see parts of it, or the lens through which we view it is flawed. This lens may physical, like our own eyes, or it may be something less tangible, like our conceptual lens influenced by social conditioning. Our understanding of The Truth/Reality may be hindered by our placing too much stock in our own intelligence, or our inability to see beyond the particular guise The Truth is in.
The only real truth is that our minds do not not know the ultimate reality. As it’s written in ‘The Voice of the Silence’, “The Mind is the great slayer of The Real,”––our minds, our own preconceptions, are what keep us from understanding the world––The Real––as it truly is. By keeping our mind open, checking our biases, and being aware of the countless underlying influences that shape our understanding, maybe we can begin to see the world a little clearer.
By being cautious of our limitations and caring less about what is moral and instead caring about is compassionate, we can release ourselves of behaviours that cloud our judgement, feed anger, and make us unintentionally hurt those we love. Then, at the end of our lifetime, Anubis may greet us with a smile.