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.
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.
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!’
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”?
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.