For thousands of years—yearning for personal immortality—men have sought a meaning to life, but might it be that there is no meaning other than that which we ourselves give it? What is the meaning that you try to give life by your living? We must, I feel, constantly review our living, keeping in mind our aims and values. We worry about the meaning of life only when we are not sure what to do with our lives, when we are not actively participating in life as component parts. It is like when someone has been out of work for a long time, though he might have diligently sought for work: having been unable to find anything, he might eventually conclude that he is not employable, and lose his vital sense of self-worth.
He came to see me one afternoon, this tall Australian, and said his name was Tom, and that he felt confused and adrift since he lost his Catholic faith eight years before, and had found no replacement for it. He complained that, though he was quite successful in business, he had so far found no meaning in life, and had become aware of the existence of evil in the world which he felt should not be there.
Awakening from illusion can be, and often is, somewhat of a shock, and some people wish they had remained asleep, for illusion is warm and comforting, like the mother’s womb, and frees us from a great deal of responsibility, which we have to face, along with the harsh facts of life, if we wake up. Is it that some of us wake up too soon—in the middle of a pleasant dream, as it were—and resent it? It would seem so.
Does your religion ‘deliver the goods’? In order to answer that question, you must first understand your religion and know what it claims, promises and holds out as an inducement, otherwise you will never be sure if you are living in a castle-in-the-clouds—a mental construction—or not.
If we begin to question what we’ve been taught for centuries, and lift a corner of the tapestry that has been draped before us, to peep behind, we might find that it conceals something quite different. Are you ready to look? Dare you? Be warned first, lest you see that which, in your complacency, you do not wish to see!
The ‘truths’ that religions put forward should not be viewed as things irrefutably demonstrated and established for all time, not to be questioned, but as things to be discovered and realized by the individual. To adopt and conform to a system or set of theories in its entirety, and regard it as true, is a mistake, for it is not, and cannot be true for us unless and until we have verified it for ourselves by our own experience, and for this there can be no substitute. Just as no-one can eat for us and satisfy our hunger thereby, so no-one can vicariously discover truth for us; that is something that each person must do for himself. For example, how do we know that sugar is sweet if not by our own experience? It is not enough to be told so, to be assured that it is, or to believe it.
The following four paragraphs are extracted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s highly readable rendering of the story of the Buddha in his book, OLD PATH, WHITE CLOUDS:
"The Buddha once said that if a person is caught by belief in a doctrine, he loses all his freedom. If he becomes dogmatic, he believes his doctrine is the only truth and that all other doctrines are heresy. Disputes and conflicts all arise from narrow views. They can go on forever, wasting precious time and sometimes even leading to war. Attachment to beliefs and opinions is the greatest impediment to the spiritual path. Bound to narrow views, one becomes so entangled that it is no longer possible to let the door of truth open.
"To illustrate this, the Buddha told a story about a young widower who lived with his five-year-old son. He loved his son more than his own life. One day, he left his son at home while he went to work, but while he was away, a band of brigands robbed and burned the whole village and kidnapped his son. When the man came home from work, he found the charred corpse of a young child lying outside his burnt house; he took it to be the body of his son. Overcome by grief, he cremated what was left of the corpse. Because he loved his son so much, he put the ashes in a bag which he carried with him wherever he went.
"Several months later, his son managed to escape from the brigands and make his way home. He arrived in the middle of the night and knocked at the door. At that moment, the father was hugging the bag of ashes and weeping. He refused to open the door even when the child called out that he was the man’s son. He believed that his son was dead and that the child knocking at the door was some neighborhood child mocking his grief. Finally, his son had no choice but to wander off on his own. Thus, father and son lost each other forever.
"The Buddha concluded: If we are attached to some belief and hold it to be the absolute truth, we may one day find ourselves in a similar situation as the young widower. Thinking that we already possess the truth, we will be unable to open our minds to receive the truth, even if truth comes knocking at our door".
When people adopt and embrace a system in totality, there is often a tendency to try to make everything conform thereto, and if something does not, then it, rather than the system, might be regarded as being at fault. This is notoriously so with new converts or those ‘born again’; it is common for them to come with a zeal that is usually lacking in those who have been born into and raised according to a particular religion, and who have therefore, for the most part, accepted it without question. Such zealots might object that our knowledge of life is insufficient to measure, judge, confirm or disprove ‘revealed religion’ by (and by ‘revealed religion’ is meant religion that is based upon so-called ‘divine-revelation’ or the ‘Word of God’). But is it, really? Have not many of the claims of ‘revealed religion’ been debunked by discoveries and proofs to the contrary? Just one outstanding example of this: the Christian Church had for centuries taught that our planet was the center of the Universe, around which everything else turned, and when the Italian scientist, Galileo, stated that this was not so, he was persecuted by the Church authorities, made to recant his ‘heresy’, and put under house-arrest until he died. It is only within the last few years, under Pope John-Paul II, that the Church has acknowledged its error and ‘very kindly’ exonerated Galileo, 350 years later! It is the Church that needs Galileo’s pardon, not the other way around!
There are numerous other extravagant and preposterous claims made by religion, but which are considered fundamental and indispensable, like virgin births, resurrection from the dead, infallibility of the Pope, etc., which cause religion to be held in contempt by many people, and its adherents regarded as simpletons. The lives of countless people are built on such fallacies.
We must not be too sweeping, however, and deny that there is beauty in religious forms and ceremonies—something impressive in the pageantry and solemnity, the melodious and inspiring hymns, the sonorous chants, the gorgeous priestly vestments and trappings, and the profuse symbolism. In every way, in every country and time, man has lavished his best on expressing his religious feelings, and the resultant art, architecture and music are truly magnificent testimonies of man’s devotion to his beliefs. But, while marvelous edifices were built, and priests maintained in luxury, the masses starved in the shadows of the churches. The marvelous buildings remain, while both the priests who lived in luxury and those who starved in their shadows have long ago gone back to the elements, but what does it all mean? Is there substance behind all the symbolism? Is it anything more than expression of ignorance or fear of what we do not understand, of attempts to propitiate, cajole or bribe the imagined gods, spirits, or personified forces of nature? If man had not feared such things, his creative energy would no doubt have been expressed in other forms, for we can see that religious structures are not the only beautiful structures in the world. Therefore, people who are not the least religious in the formal sense can enjoy and appreciate the art and beauty of churches, temples and mosques without subscribing to the beliefs that inspired them. A thing of beauty can be enjoyed by all, regardless of religious or political affiliations, or lack of such.
If, when the Industrial Revolution had begun in Europe, the West had had a religious philosophy to suit the times, instead of a set of supernatural concepts that science was in the process of tearing to shreds, things would probably have gone in quite a different direction. As it was, however, there was a reaction against religion in the West that continues until now (it is known as Materialism), and Karl Marx’s famous dictum: "Religion is the opium of the masses", was eagerly embraced by many people and applied indiscriminately to religion as a whole, rather than to that aspect of it which laid stress on the ‘afterlife’ as a palliative for the ills and misfortunes of this life and was used by the rulers and priests to keep people ‘in their places’. We can understand why Marx denounced the corruption, venality and amassing of wealth that went on under the cloak of religion, but was he against those aspects that stressed practical morality, charity, social involvement and justice? Or had these been relegated to the attic by people in power, in favor of supernatural and unverifiable things, and no longer formed a prominent part of religion? Thus, when religion was shunted aside and rejected in totality as anachronistic, ‘the baby was thrown out with the bath-water’, and the succeeding system became more monstrous and oppressive than that it replaced. And now that Communism has suddenly collapsed, great numbers of people, taken by surprise, and not knowing how to use their new-found freedom, turn back to their old superstitions and are spiritually little better-off than before the time of Communism. The ‘morality’ of the Communist system was imposed on people by the State, instead of something they chose through understanding. And the morality that people embrace when they turn back to religion is also an external morality, undertaken through fear of God, desire for Heaven, and so on. But how long will they obey an external authority without wanting to rebel?
Buddhism, too, is priest-ridden and afflicted with superstition. Using our imagination a little, it is not hard to understand how the Buddha’s final exhortation to "Work out your own salvation with diligence", and not to look for a refuge outside of oneself, was not very appealing to the masses of the people—most of whom were illiterate and uneducated at that time—because the masses in any age tend to look outside of themselves for help and salvation. It was not long, therefore, when the Buddha was no longer around to discourage this inevitable tendency, before He came to be thought of as super-human or divine, rather than as someone who had developed His human potential and had shown others the way to do this, too. It then became more important—and easier, of course—to worship Him as a savior rather than to practice what He had taught. Today, many Buddhists are under the erroneous belief (but it is nothing new, having gone on for a long time), that explaining the Dharma is the prerogative of monks, and that only monks, in fact, are able to fully understand Dharma, while ‘ordinary householders’ are not. Now, that is something that the Buddha never taught; He never made understanding of Dharma conditional on wearing a yellow robe and having a shaved head. While He did design the way of life of the monks to make it easier for them to follow the Way (free from the emotional entanglements of family life, the necessity of earning a living, and so on), He never said that anyone who is not a monk or nun could not understand the Dharma or become enlightened. Dharma is not narrow and restrictive like that, but is open to anyone with a heart and mind who will make an effort.
Imagine how this world would now be if Christians had tried to apply what Jesus was talking about and Buddhists had tried to experience what the Buddha tried to indicate, instead of merely believing. We can be sure that it would be quite different than it is now.
Once in a while it is good—and necessary—to step back a bit and detach ourselves from our search—to unyoke the oxen from the plough, as it were, and let them graze a little—for by so doing, our vision might be refreshed and renewed, and things seen in clearer perspective. It should not be considered a waste of time to do this but rather an investment, because if we stand long with our noses against a picture that covers an entire wall, we may forget the complete picture and see only the few details and colors before our eyes.
So, Tom, take a look around you, and you might realize that you are not the only one with troubles in the world, you might realize that this is the common condition and has always been like this. The reason you didn’t see it before is not because it wasn’t there, but because you were living under illusion, convinced that ‘God’ was in control of everything, and that therefore everything should be alright. And now that you have discovered that everything is not alright, what can you do about it? Nothing? No, there is something that you, and we, and everyone can do, if we realize that most of the suffering and all of the evil comes from people like us and that therefore it is unnecessary and can be avoided. And if we consider that religion is something that inspires us and helps us to become active participants in the world, and put something back into it, instead of as a means of getting more out of life than we have already got, it will take on quite a different meaning, and we will probably find things coming to us as a matter of course, without looking for them. If, however, we focus on ourselves in isolation—as many of us do—we will indeed feel despondent and lost, for the fact is we belong, like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle that have their places in the overall picture, and can only be understood in context—can only understand ourselves in context—not as separate, isolated units.
It is therefore, in the midst of the ecological mess that we have inherited and added to, that many of us are awakening to the fact that we are connected to and dependent upon other things—indeed, everything—and are not, as we hitherto thought in our ignorance and arrogance, independent and in control.
There is no need for belief in all this—people have been shackled and blinded by belief for aeons, and where has it got us?—but of seeing clearly how things are.