Believing in Each Other: A Heresy


     He's so high you can't get over him!

     He's so low you can't get under him!

     He's so wide you can't get around him!

     If you make your bed in heaven he's there, if you make your bed in hell he's there, he's everywhere!

     Whoo-oop!!! Help me somebody!  (—a preacher man)

     It seems that speaking of the "ultimate state" is more difficult if one uses the terminology of Theravada Buddhism than if one uses the language of almost any other "advanced" spiritual system, unless maybe one is speaking dry Buddhist philosophy with dry Buddhist philosophers. A large share of the trouble lies in the fact that any unconditioned Absolute is bound to be utterly formless and infinite; and whatever is utterly formless and infinite transcends the psychologically-generated duality of "is" and "isn't." So to say that Nirvana (or Brahman, or the Dharmakaya, or the One Mind, or the Spirit of God, or the Tao, or the Quantum Field) exists is inadequate, and biases us in favor of "eternalist view"; while to say that It doesn't exist is also inadequate, and biases us in favor of "annihilationist view." (Both and neither are also inadequate, for reasons we needn't wallow in here.) Language cannot touch It, or even directly point to It. Yet sometimes it seems appropriate to say something about It—in which case we have to choose between the equal mistakes of "is" and "isn't." Most spiritual systems, either because of a human craving to symbolize even Ultimate Reality or just because of expediency, choose the mistake of "is." Theravada leans more than most systems toward the mistake of "isn't" although, probably wisely, the traditional position on the subject is rather ambivalent. There is enough "isn't," however, that some, especially Western intellectuals, choose to interpret Nirvana simply as "extinction," as mere non-existence, and orthodox Buddhists as nihilists. It is likely that this relative lack of positive assertions concerning the metaphysical existence of an unconditioned Absolute State has helped Theravada to be as popular as it is in the relatively atheistic and materialistic West. But one great disadvantage of the "isn't" orientation is that it may lead people into assuming that there simply is no Ultimate, so that we should all keep our minds directed toward what is thoroughly mundane.

     Trying to talk sensibly about Nirvana (or God, etc.) is, beyond a very elementary point, sheer futility; not just language, but the thinking, feeling mind itself cannot comprehend It at all. Yet there are certain subjects that are easier to explain if one adopts the "is" orientation, and in what follows I intend to explain one of them in such a way. My explanation will not be orthodox Theravada, or anything close to it. I'm a heretic when it seems worthwhile to be one. Then again, I don't insist that anything I say is true; and as I've already mentioned, I don't think one can say much of anything true about an unconditioned, formless Absolute anyway. I'm just trying to offer a hypothesis that someone can relate to, or at least understand, and which could be helpful. All I ask is a little open-minded suspension of disbelief, because, believe it or not, this may be important. Feel free to translate it into the terminology of any religion or philosophy that you prefer. 

     Nirvana, assuming that It "exists," is more than just an ethical attainment, more than just "the cessation of suffering" or "the cessation of greed, hate, and delusion." Nirvana is, simply stated, Reality. And because it is Reality, everything that we merely think is real arises from it, being filtered through the limitations of our ignorance and habitual karmic momentum. One poetic way in which the Hindus explain it is by personifying formless Ultimate Reality as the god Brahma, and giving him for a wife or consort the goddess Maya—"Illusion." The Neoplatonists of the late Roman Empire explained the formless infinity from which all things arise as "The Good," and postulated a kind of demiurge, nous, "mind," between the highest Reality and us, being somehow the mother or matrix through which we and everything else emanate from the formless ultimate essence. The Tao Te Ching puts it this way: 

     Tao gave birth to one.

     One gave birth to two.

     Two gave birth to three.

     And three gave birth to the ten thousand things.

     However mystic philosophers and poets choose to explain It, absolute infinity underlies and pervades everything in this universe. It is more real than we are, "we" being an extremely limited view of It seen through an ultimately imaginary filter. There are a few suttas in the Pali Canon which suggest that It is infinite consciousness. At least one Upanishad I can think of defines Brahman, the Vedantist Absolute, in the same way.

     Because it is formless and underlies and pervades everything in the entire universe, if It is anywhere at all, It is everywhere, including inside of us. It's not just staring us in the face, although It's doing that too; It's looking out through our eyes; It's shining through us in all directions, always. We have constant access to It, but mostly we fail to realize this because It can't really be symbolized, and we are stuck in a "reality" composed of perceptions, which are mental symbols. (Feelings and emotions are perceptual mental symbols too, just symbols in a different language, so they don't comprehend it either.) In another way we are like fish that don't realize that they are wet—in a world where everything is wet, "wetness" has no meaning. So, we and the fish don't "get it." 

     But regardless of that, every single one of us is pervaded by formless infinity. We have constant access to infinite power, infinite wisdom, infinite perfection, even though we may get only the faintest glimmer of it every now and then, like maybe when we are jolted out of our normal way of experiencing life. This constant access to infinity is what the Hindus call the Atman, the true self—"Thou art That." Also, it is what the Mahayana Buddhists call the Buddha-nature. Sometimes it is crudely identified as "the immortal soul." But if that's what it is, we all share the same soul, because it's all the same Reality, the same infinity and perfection, without any distinction or separation. Distinction and separation are part of the illusion, conditioned by ignorance. 

     So, every one of us already has Nirvana and "God" within our being; at a level more exalted and more real than the mundane, we are all a divine miracle, a manifestation of divinity, infinity, and perfection. The essence is perfect even if the form is not. Yet even if the form is not, still within us is the potential, at least, of infinite other forms. We have "God" inside us, we have literally infinite potential, and we can unleash miracles if only we can somehow wake up enough to realize that fact. 

     (If all this metaphysical mysticism is too rich for your blood, then how about considering that each of us has infinite potential anyway, regardless of any underlying unconditioned Infinity. Each of us has practically infinite potential to become better than we are, and to accomplish all sorts of things, even though we may not be able to predict exactly how. Just that much of a concession may be enough to keep the hypothetical ball rolling here.)

     At a level of wisdom higher than most, or maybe any, mainstream cultures ever reach, we could see ourselves, deep down, as manifestations of divinity and perfection, with literally infinite potential, and also see each other as manifestations of divinity and perfection, with literally infinite potential. Even at our worst we have that potential (sometimes especially at our worst, since "man's extremity is God's opportunity"), and even the most obnoxious troublemaker or criminal has it. And a troublemaker, even if he remains obnoxious for the rest of his life, is nevertheless a manifestation of divinity and perfection, whom we can forgive with our own inherent divinity, and who can teach us valuable lessons, to help us become even wiser than we presently believe we are. And if who we think we are lacks the wisdom to see all this clearly, then we can still consider it, remind ourselves of the possibility of it, and believe in ourselves, and in each other. Believing in each other in such a way, seeing, or being willing to see, the inherent infinity in each other, seeing "God" in each other, would go a long way toward creating Heaven on earth. 

     But of course, modern western and westernized cultures provide a major obstacle to this kind of Heaven on earth, and also an aggravation which reinforces the obstacle. The obstacle is materialism—that is, the reification of our perceptions to the extent that we assert as an obvious fact that these perceptions are caused by intrinsically real physical objects that are separate from each other, and from us, in intrinsically real time and space. This obstacle to infinity and divinity has been systematized into the new world religion of Scientism, which most members of western cultures have such unquestioning faith in that they cannot bring themselves to believe that they or anyone else contain or manifest the slightest iota of divinity. We are all just meat robots, supposedly, totally enslaved by scientific laws and our own DNA and past experiences. Everyone and everything is enslaved to these mundane laws, and thus nobody and nothing is divine or sacred, or worthy of deep reverence. 

     The aggravation of modern culture is egalitarianism, the belief that everyone is, or at least ought to be, equal. This is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself; but combined with spiritually destitute materialism it tends to generate an attitude of, "I'm just as mediocre as any other meat robot." 

     What our culture does, is it lays upon us unnecessary negative limitations—"You can't do this, you can't do that, you can't cure cancer with faith or a touch of the hand, you can't walk on water, and you can't rise above the quirks of your own brain chemistry"—and then, with a vehement desire to be as good (or mediocre) as anyone else, we lay these same unnecessary negative limitations upon everyone around us, whether or not they lay them upon themselves. A person may be very reluctant to see herself as an aspect of divinity, and insist upon seeing herself, euphemistically, as "a work in progress," intensively processing (and at the same time dwelling upon and reinforcing) past traumas, struggling through a multitude of emotionally complicated "issues"; and with a vehement insistence upon "equality" she may impose the same kinds of dysfunctional confusions onto everyone around her. She's an expert at seeing (and dwelling upon) such complications too, so she has no difficulty in finding them. For a simpler example, an egalitarian liar tends to consider everyone to be dishonest. So we do not see "God" in each other. We don't have a whole lot of respect for each other. We don't "believe in" each other, at least not in a very spiritual way. We wind up all equally messed up.

     It would probably be better to live in a society in which 99.9% of the population worships and grovels before the remaining 0.1%, considering them to be divine. There certainly have been plenty of societies like this, with the 0.1% consisting of god-kings, priests, priestesses, or, in more recent times, demagogues and cult leaders. At least people would believe in somebody, at least somebody receives some relatively unconditional acceptance. Of course, the whole situation is much healthier if the heroes composing the 0.1% are saints or sages, and not Pharaoh, Caesar, Mao, or some pop musician or movie actor. 

     Healthier still would be if the majority believe not only in the culture-hero, but in themselves too, and in each other. One way this has been accomplished in the past is by considering the culture and the social roles within it to be aspects of divinity themselves. "I offer incense at the altar of the God-King, because he is divine. I also am divine. But the God-King was born a God-King, and I was born a street sweeper. So he manifests divinity by being the perfect overlord, and I manifest divinity by being the perfect street sweeper." But this attitude has lately become politically incorrect. Now traditions that have stabilized society for centuries are condemned and abolished by reformers favoring something better than this so-called "divinity." Often the something better is some form of "I'm just as mediocre as any other meat robot." 

     One reason why I mention all this is that, at the time of writing the first version of this little essay, I was soon to return to America for another go at existing there while living some kind of spiritually oriented life. The thing is, though, that I "believe in myself." (This is partly due to the fact that my father "believed in me"; and I believe in him, too, to this day, even though he's been dead for several years.) In Burma I was usually surrounded by hundreds of people who humbly believed in me as one of the 0.1%. So when I go to America and the majority, even the majority of Buddhists, lay the same unnecessary negative limitations on me that they lay upon themselves, some of them with a "street-wise" attitude of "Who is this guy and who does he think he is," it strikes me as slightly toxic. (This is partly because mental states are contagious.) 

     I have no desire to start a personality cult, with me at the center of it, in the West. (I have joked about it though, saying that I can always set myself up in California as a cult leader.) By all means, believe in yourself too, and believe in everybody. What you really are, is God. Thou art That.

     Let's all be equally wonderful, equally miraculous and divine, and not equal in our perceived limitations and dysfunctions. That last kind of equality I don't need. I'd rather be an optimist: Rather than seeing American spirituality as 97% empty, I see it as 3% full! (←an attempt at humor) I remember Paul Lowe saying that when he looks at people he sees them as utterly lovely, profoundly beautiful—but as though they were wearing the most hideous, ridiculous, badly-fitting clothing imaginable. Those clothes are our artificial limitations. 

     Anyway, getting back to the idea of materialism as an unnecessarily limiting metaphysical assumption which transforms us from manifestations of divinity, infinity, and perfection into pathetically unmiraculous meat robots, I would like to offer this suggestion: All that would be required to cure us of this particular limitation, probably, maybe, is enough mental sophistication to be able to tell the difference between actual science and the mass religion of Scientism, and to know that science is not equipped to explain everything, especially what is unconditioned, formless, and infinite. Mere thinking won't do it either. 

All hail the God King


  1. Sadhu (x3). Beautiful text. Yes the West is very messy. In total decline morally, and as a whole, as a civilization. And yet what choice do we have, except optimism. Im from Quebec, Canada, and here people have rejected all religions altogether. Materialism is still strong, but people suffer. And they will eventually look for something else. It is inevitable. Ajahn Chah used to say that Dhamma in the East is like an old tree that produces a lot of not-so-good fruits, and in the West it is like a young tree that produces just a few fruits, but they are very good. The western buddhist monks I met in the West are most of the time very spiritual in their quest, unlike most monks I met in the East.

  2. I would add, this typical north american attitude of seeing everybody as equal spiritually, it might comes partially from protestantism (lay people aspiring to the same spiritual levels as those attained by the clergy) and democracy (Toqueville wrote about the side effects of american democracy on human souls, something like a spiritual "nivellement par le bas", where the lowest common denominator become some kind of desirable absolute). In South East Asia, folks love to see spiritually attained people and show them veneration, but in North America, especially in Quebec province, where catholicism was widely rejected, spiritual authority is still view as highly suspicious, so people dont really want to ackowledge anyone as spiritually superior. Yet, people will blindly believe in psychologists, doctors, and all the "science" establishment, or in sympathetic humorists (Quebec folks love to laugh), TV stars or pop singers. The unsmiling, austere bhikkhu is not yet palatable for Quebec 's culture so Theravada is not popular at all here. Most buddhist centers are tibetan, or New Kadampa, or Zen. There is one Goenka center, but not much more. Difficult for me to imagine a Québécois willing to give free food to a celibate renunciant who lives in the woods, don't smile much and don't speak much. But I am an optimist.


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