Ponderings of a wanderer

journey adj

All my life, I’ve been a spiritual wanderer.  I’ve examined a number of religious belief systems and dipped my toes into several, and I’m still every bit as much an explorer now as I ever was.  It’s been a path of intermittent hitches and times of smooth passage, with occasional disappointment and tears, as well as unexpected flashes of the sublime (which in their own way are unsettling as well).  It’s a path, however, that is as seductive as it is relentless.

Finding a place to hang my own spiritual hat has been high on my personal agenda all my life.

Enso and SunMy latest–and most personally congenial–experience has taken place on the Buddhist path.  Even under the umbrella of Buddhism, there have been individual styles to explore.

I recently came to ground in the territory of Shin (Pureland) Buddhism, as part of a small, warm and inviting sangha where I am surrounded by the caring and goodwill of my dharma family under the leadership of a generous and intelligent teacher.

It is also a Buddhist path that has the unusual–and valuable–characteristic of being open to other religions, allowing its members to comfortably practice other forms of spirituality while they also follow this particular path.

In my modest experience, this is something of a rarity. In fact, that openness is one of the main reasons I’ve taken a seat here for what might even, eventually, become permanent residence.  It’s a good place to be.

I recently came across a quote from American trial lawyer Gerry Spence.  The quote in question is this:

I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief.

I, too, prefer wonder to belief.  All I have to do is watch the evening news to see the effects of strong–and differing–beliefs taken to extremes of hatred and warfare.

I also have several friends, fine people all,  whose minds are shuttered by religious fundamentalism.  I often wonder to myself how it is that anyone who believes in a loving God can actually believe that such a universal consciousness could actually choose to extend love and compassion to some beings and not to others.

Not too long ago, I  heard one of my fundamentalist friends preface a statement with, “Well, I’m saved, so I don’t have to worry, but….”  Apparently the rest of us poor wretches are just S.O.L.

Peace and Symbols

I am reminded of a little story that I read long ago, which has stayed in my mind because it reflects a tongue-in-cheek jibe at what I see as the ill-conceived nature of unquestioned belief in religious fundamentalism.

It strikes me as the perfect image of what happens to us when we see the spirituality we embrace as the only truth and forget that there are many paths toward the Light.

An old man died at the end of a long, rich life in which he had worked hard, helped others whenever he could, and loved as well as he was able.  He arrived at the Pearly Gates, where he was met by St. Peter himself and welcomed to his new home.  Peter took his arm and said, “Come, let me show you around.”

He walked the old man around, pointing out the delights of this incredibly beautiful world.  At each turn, a new wonder presented itself, so amazingly lovely that all the old man could do was gasp in awe.

As they came to the top of a hill, the old man was surprised see a high brick wall in the distance, enclosing part of the landscape. It was the only enclosure the old man had seen, and he wondered what it could be.  Finally, he could no longer contain his curiosity, and he asked St. Peter what it was for.

Peter glanced over at it and replied, ‘Oh that.  That’s where we keep the fundamentalists.  They think they’re the only ones up here!’

Gastown brick wall

It strikes me that there must be a good many enclosures in this imagined hereafter!

Mr. Spence goes on to say:

The most formidable chains are forged from beliefs. Ah, beliefs! Beliefs tear out the eyes and leave us blind and groping in the dark.

If I believe in one proposition, I have become locked behind the door of that belief, and all other doors to learning and freedom, although standing open and waiting for me to enter, are now closed to me.

If I believe in one God, one religion, yes, if I believe in God at all, if I have closed my mind to magic, to spirit, to salvation, to the unknown dimensions that exist in the firmament, I have plunged my mind into slavery.

Test all beliefs.  Distrust all beliefs.

This is a pretty dramatic set of statements.

I agree that beliefs should be tested.  However, I take exception to the assumption that believing in God automatically plunges our minds into slavery or closes our minds to spirit or “the unknown dimensions that exist in the firmament.”  Nonsense!  Why does the one have to preclude the other?

After all, it’s entirely possible to believe that the sun is somewhere in the sky, even if sometimes it can’t be seen for the clouds; or to believe that there is likely some tiny core of light in even the darkest of souls, in spite of the fact that all visible signs may point to the opposite; or even to believe that there is a reason that we’re born to life here on this planet, in spite of the fact that there is much in our world that seems wrong or pointless and we appear, as a species, to have lost our way.

I don’t know, of course, but I strongly suspect that the ground of being, or infinite consciousness, or any of the names we use to designate the ineffable, encompasses infinitely more than our small human minds can possibly conceive.  It’s logical to assume that there’s plenty of room inside that wholeness for changes in what we presently believe, if we are willing to continue learning.

True to my conciliatory nature, I want to negotiate a middle way here, between closed-minded belief on the one hand, and the strict and absolute condemnation of belief on the other.  Keeping in mind G.K. Chesterton’s pragmatic quote, “Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out,” I wonder if we couldn’t develop something like … oh, I don’t know, say, “Belief, with Reservations,” or better yet, “Belief, With Allowances for New Information”?

coexist 1

At the end of the day, it seems to me that one important idea remains: if indeed there is an infinite, loving consciousness at the ground of it all, that consciousness is very likely evolved enough to be far beyond loving some to the exclusion of others.

Perhaps this idea is something we could grow into; and instead of defending the tiny turf of our own tightly-held belief systems, perhaps we will eventually manage to grow into a perception of ourselves as spiritual world citizens.

In the meantime, around and around we go on our  little hamster wheels of life, and where we will wind up, no one knows.  But I do think it’s going to take a fair number of lifetimes before we’re anywhere near reaching those kinds of goals.

So.  Reincarnation?  I’m guessing yes.

Namaste,
Susannah

Celebrate Diversity

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10 Comments

  1. Your post made me think of this: ” If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, — the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion.” Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

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    1. I like that quote, especially the last sentence. It’s too bad that those “communities of opinion” couldn’t have a bit more tolerance for each other, don’t you think? Thanks for the comment.

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      1. I think about that all the time — in fact, it’s the main thing my novels consider, particularly the one I’m working on now. Most cultures seem to have a romantic association with “fighting for the truth” and regard such a fight as heroic. And people seem to be perpetually challenged with the varieties of “truth.” Truth of belief or personal taste can’t be disputed, proven, tested, argued. It is simply there — and when the future of one’s immortal soul is concerned, well, one doesn’t want to be wrong. It makes no sense at all logically. A rational person would say, “I honestly do not know, but I believe…” and an equally rational listener would not attempt to persuade the first speaker but say, “Interesting. I don’t know either, but I believe…” For my part, I don’t think there’s any more personal question than “What church do you go to?” Maybe we’re just animals; still “kill or be killed.”

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      2. I agree completely; each of your two rational individuals is open to the opinions of the other without either one feeling defensive or trying to proselytize. And to take it a step further, there’s room within that exchange for each one of them to ponder the other’s viewpoint and perhaps even shift their own thinking a bit to encompass greater possibilities. I think we have more potential than animals, since we humans are “self-conscious”; but that being said, we’ve probably not advanced all that far beyond the caves, given what I look at on the news channels.

        However, I personally think that there could very well be no right or wrong at all where our immortal souls are concerned. See, I happen to suspect we’re all here for the same reason: to learn. And it’s not too difficult to see that what we might be here to learn is basically how to love and respect–first ourselves, and then the “other,” any other, whoever that other may be (“love,” of course, being something far more difficult and challenging than just our hearts going pitty-pat when we’re around another person).

        Obviously, in this school of life, there are the fast learners like the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh and any one of a huge bunch of evolved individuals we could name. Then there are the larger group of slower learners, where most of us probably sit (well, me at least), who might require a fair-to-large number of lifetimes to “get it” enough that it becomes part of us. And finally, there are the intransigents who have to keep coming back over and over and over again because they just haven’t clued in at all.

        It’s a theory that I play around with in my head every now and again, but I do like the feel of it. It sits comfortably in my consciousness, awaiting the small modifications I make from time to time. 🙂 This is probably why I like the concept of karma, which is basically nothing more than action and the resulting consequences–another version of “what goes around, comes around,” to be very simplistic about it.

        This is an interesting conversation!

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      3. I get it, but the strange thing is it doesn’t matter at all what you think or what I think when a good percentage of the world has believed and does believe in an afterlife in which they are rewarded or punished. All the young and ignorant and unquestioning jihadists going to Heaven filled with virgins, all the young crusaders going to the Holy Land (or Hungary) to save their own souls, all those sinister Spanish padres saving the natives in their own peculiar ways. They — many of them — really thought they were doing the absolutely right thing by killing or converting people. As for me, I don’t know. Life at this moment is all I’m capable of doing anything with and god-willing I’ll do something halfway decent with it. 🙂

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      4. Yeah, all of those people were and are utterly convinced that whatever their truth is, it is the absolute and only truth. That attitude scares the hell out of me, to be honest. But then, I’ve always found it easy to see the grey areas and both sides of an argument (which wreaks havoc on trying to hold up my end of a disagreement, I can tell you! :-)), so black and white have been harder to come by in my religious cosmology.

        Like you, I’m just trying to live my life the best way I can. But hey, what was it that Mother Teresa said? “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Now that’s a goal I can relate to; and although I’m mostly not very successful, I feel good about making the effort. And what the heck, if what the Buddha said is true, I’ll be back for another go-around anyway!

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  2. Many of the great philosophers and theologians have taught that one of the greatest virtues is “wonder”. This, I think ,is in harmony with the reflections of Susannah. It also brings to mind the perception that there are many fingers pointing to the moon and that it is important to distinguish between the finger and the moon. However, we may not be able to know all the fingers but we can attempt to honor at least one of the fingers, knowing full well, that our perception is so limited. However, the “one finger” can be an honest attempt to express that which is ultimately inexpressible. However, that is the foundation of religion, art, and many other expressions of mystery in our lives. James.

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    1. I think the key phrase there is “our perception is so limited.” You’re right, James; honouring a particular religion is a fine way to express the ineffable, and I have absolutely no argument with that. What I find unhelpful is the perception that one particular way is “THE” way, because it appears to close the ears and the heart to the value of other modes of expression; i.e., other religions. It seems to me that it would be more useful if we humans could manage to keep our eyes on the moon and remember that it shines on everyone, not just the “chosen” few. [Easy to say, I suppose, and not so easy to practice (said she, looking in the mirror).]

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

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