Whatever may be the myriad apparent differences among the five billion or so of us inhabiting this planet, we have this one characteristic in common at least, that we are alive. And that characteristic includes, very nearly universally it seems, the desire sooner or later expressed, to know why — why we are alive. That is what this book is about, deciphering the why of life. Inescapably, this is a question that reaches to the very base of things thought, and that is fraught with cultural baggage and theoretical taboos of the most sacrosanct order. It is a question that cannot be adequately addressed, much less answered, without taking what will appear to many of us as indefensible liberties with the traditional ways of thinking and of worshipping practiced by those who preceded us and whom we have long considered our authorities. In a word, this is not an undertaking for the philosophically or theologically squeamish.
Likewise, this mental territory, or at least this particular expedition across it, is not for those whose interest is strictly or even principally academic, those who insist on defining every term, footnoting every idea, and exhausting every objection. Not that this question does not have scholarly implications deserving of that kind of study; rather, it is simply that this book is not that kind of study. At the risk of overworking a metaphor, this book takes place not in the library but in the field, and is for those who fancy themselves ground breakers and pathfinders, willing, even anxious, to hack a way through conceptual forests without pausing to examine and identify each species of branch and brush as it falls to the ground. Our goal in this outing is simply to reach the clearing beyond, if there is one. To get out of the dark and into the light. Later, for those so inclined, there will be time enough to retrace our steps, and tidy up the mess we left behind.
Now, some will undoubtedly argue that before setting out we ought to frame our question more thoroughly, more thoughtfully; that it is not enough simply to clasp hands, cry out in unison “Why are we here?” and then plunge headlong into the unknown ahead. At the very least, they will demand, how will we recognize the answer we seek if we have not fully agreed upon what we are asking. Wise and sound as that counsel may be, we will ignore it. Firstly, because we could easily spend the rest of our lives doing nothing else than posing this most basic of all questions, until, up to our ears in split hairs, we succumb to exhaustion and die, grateful that that exercise is, for us at least, finally over. Secondly, and this may be saying the same thing in another way, we do not know enough to phrase the question any better. Certainly, we could develop a lengthy and heavy package of words containing something from every interested discipline, but what would it mean?
Let’s face it, we are very much like a chicken still in the egg asking itself why it is there. In the first instance, it does not really know where “there” is, any more than we really know where “here” is. In addition, while you and I might point out to the chicken that the answer it seeks has something to do with a hen, a rooster, Farmer Brown, and the price of eggs, and that unless it frames its question in those terms it will never find an answer that answers, the chicken still inside the shell would not understand what any of those entities or concepts are, not to mention where they are. All the chick knows is what it experiences within its oval confines, and therefore it can construct its question only in those terms, even though you and I know that any question, however impressively worded, that is formulated within those limitations is going to be hopelessly inadequate, because the answer is not in there.
In any case, however the chicken finally does decide to frame its question will predetermine the answer it will find, for it will be looking only for an answer that matches the parameters of the question as posed. That is, if its question is shaped, let’s say, like any empty square box, the chicken will look only for answers that fit into that shape; any spheres, pyramids, cylinders, or prisms it may come across, however potentially enlightening, will be ignored in favor of cubes, and beyond that, cubes of only a particular dimension.
But if, as we said, only any question the chicken poses must be hopelessly inadequate, ultimately any process which satisfies it cannot be any different. Unless in the process of asking and seeking, the chicken breaks out of its confining shell into the world beyond where, as you and I just observed, reside Farmer Brown and the other elements of the answer it wants!
For all practical purposes, you and I are right now in a space very similar to that chicken’s. We perceive ourselves to be separate, isolate, and vulnerable, and we perceive the rest of the universe accordingly. And we feel threatened, frightened, or confused by virtually everything we know or are taught about ourselves, our nature, and our origins. Clearly, the true answer to our question, whatever it may be, is not going to be found in that space. So, like the chicken, we do well to lose no time on semantics, and instead to get on with the important business at hand, which is pecking with vigor at the walls which enclose us.
Having said all of the foregoing, I should also note what may already be evident, which is that our direction or, if you prefer, our bias, in this undertaking will be decidedly spiritual or religious. By that observation I most certainly do not mean to suggest that this is a matter of religion rather than of science. On the contrary, as far as I am concerned the often argued differences between those two disciplines are illusory, self-imposed, and always have been, the construction of small minds whose focus is neither religion nor science. One has only to compare the experimental work of those on the farthest fringes of quantum physics with the revelations of those who scale the highest transcendental peaks to realize that they are exploring, and finding themselves unable to articulate, the very same “thing” . And they know it.
Conversely, compare the rantings of a blind preacher with the conceits of a supercilious scientist, and you will again reach the same conclusion: the two are one. Indeed, all of the heat mankind has expended over the religion-versus-science issue has been wasted energy, generated by asking all the wrong questions or, as likely, adopting the answers before framing the questions.
With a spiritual bias, we will be using as a guidebook for this inquiry a spiritual or religious text, specifically the Judeao-Christian-Islamic Bible. But, once again, be forewarned that even in that regard we will be employing methods rarely if ever taught in any Saturday or Sunday school. And we will do so without apology; the copy of the Bible I own is mine, fully paid for, and I feel perfectly free to use it in any way that seems appropriate to me, even if that use seems to others to be abuse. In this context, I see the Bible as being very much like Galileo’s telescope, a device to bring to light what is in the darkness. Indeed, I fully expect that, once illumined, many of our current views of ourselves and of the universe will show themselves to be no longer valid (which is not to say that they were never valid; after all, for some twenty-one days, the now useless shell served the chicken very well). And we will discard them.
Thus, those who are not quite yet ready to experience, or suffer, that exposure ought, like the church in Galileo’s time, to decline to look through the device in our way, at least for now. Like the tours at Disneyworld, expeditions of this kind leave from here every few minutes, and there will be one getting underway whenever you are ready. In this regard, we do well to remind ourselves that the chick in its shell cannot peck its way out until the so-called “egg beak” or “egg tooth” develops, a protuberance on the bird’s beak specifically and only intended to serve that shell-smashing function. And conversely, that the egg beak does not develop until the chick is ready to use it! Perhaps the most extraordinary, and happiest, characteristic of the Truth is that it and its instruments, like Galileo’s telescope and our Bible (and everyone else’s bible, however named or labeled) are all able simultaneously to meet and serve the needs of every user, always perfectly and appropriately, however different and irreconcilable their purposes, approaches, and tendencies may seem to be to an observer. In a word, wherever we are, it serves us there, as we are.
Finally, I should say, particularly for those who expect to leave this exercise with something new and tangible clenched in their fist, that it is my view generally that in adventures of this kind, it is the process which is the thing achieved. The New Testament teaching, “Seek and you shall find,” for example, is not, as I see it, a command to undertake an Easter egg hunt, as if the Kingdom of Heaven were a spiritual treasure buried beneath a particular bush or rock, there to be found for all the rest by the first of us lucky enough to stumble across it. It is the very seeking itself which is the finding, the acknowledgment that there may be more to us than now we recognize, and that whatever that more may be, it is us, which is ultimately life itself, and most decidedly not a thing.
Thus, as regards our question, Why?, it would not be enough for someone simply to appear before us and recite the answer. Having heard, we would go home none the wiser. This question does not lend itself to that kind of treatment for what is wanted is not a transfer of data but a change in condition. We must change in the asking if we hope to recognize and understand the answer. Otherwise, we may hear it, but we will not “get” it.
All of this is why the spiritual growth process is so often described as a path. It is not that we actually go anywhere, for there is nowhere to go but here. We are already at the only place there is! But the change accomplished far more resembles going somewhere than anything else, certainly than accumulating data. However, once again, what is changed is not our location but our condition, or, more accurately, our perception of our condition.
So, in asking the question, Why?, what we are doing, in effect, is acknowledging a willingness to discard the old answers, and to consider new possibilities. And that, if genuinely undertaken, constitutes a significant change in ourselves: from one who pretends to know, to one who admits to ignorance; from one who would rather not talk about it, to one who is eager to listen. We have boldly reached for Galileo’s telescope, fully aware that it may change everything we know about everything, which may, which must, change us.
In a word, then, none of us who starts out on this trek will reach the clearing beyond, precisely because when we get there, so altered will our condition be by the process of having set out that we will not be the same people we were at the outset. Thus, neither you nor I as we are right now will be there. “When will I know Buddha nature?” an impatient disciple asks his Teacher. “Never” is the unwelcome reply. Because the I that is impatient for tangible, demonstrable results, is itself the perspective that cannot know Buddha nature; the one precludes the other.
Thus, so long as we are moved to ask that question, the answer will be the same, “Never” . In the Hindu tradition, there is the story of a salt doll that set out down the sandy beach into the water to measure the depth of the ocean. It was never seen or heard from again, because of course it dissolved on immersion. Or, in the words of the New Testament Teacher, Jesus, “Where I am, you cannot come” . Our own question, Why?, is very much like that Buddhist devotee’s. It is mostly noise made by one who will never know. But for now, we have no other choice than to be that one and to ask, acknowledging that by doing so we set into motion an irreversible process of change and growth, culminating in a sense in our own extinction — the extinction of who or what we think we are (and identify with) now. It is the inescapable caterpillar-butterfly dilemma: the one must die if the other is to live.
In the beginning, that is what the life process is all about: change and growth. We keep the process alive precisely by asking these kinds of questions, questions that ultimately have no answer. Indeed, some teachers insist the only way to extricate ourselves from this endlessly circular process is to cease all the self-generated activities associated with asking questions and seeking answers. All of that, they say, just keeps what we think of as our self, the one that cannot know, alive and in the way of our truly seeing. It is the adoption of silence which most threatens that condition and which therefore ultimately best serves us, for therein lies the surrender which is essential to victory.
But few of us are likely to give up struggling until we have assayed every technique, explored every possibility, wrestled with every question, finally to succumb as initially advised, but by then more likely less from good sense or conviction than sheer exhaustion! Perhaps we can find some consolation in the knowledge that our brothers and sisters have been doing likewise since the beginning — virtually all with the same advice at the outset, virtually all ignoring it, and virtually all finally recognizing its wisdom and trying in vain to pass it on to the rest of us. So, like them we join the continuing parade of life, confident that by our own efforts we shall find what we seek, while somewhere within just as certain that we will not, at least not until we stop looking.
Author’s Note: In The Beginning neither is nor is it intended to be an academic consideration of the Bible. I am not a theologian, a biblical scholar, or a historian. In the context of this book, my interest in the passages of the Bible considered here is solely as a spiritual seeker, one who has undertaken a personal, inner journey for the Truth of who and what I am. I know that many of my statements, and perhaps even all of my conclusions, will not reflect, and perhaps may even contradict, current orthodoxy, theology, and history. I mean no disrespect by that, but it does not concern me, for again I am not an academic, and this is not an academic undertaking. For me, the Bible, like other scriptures, is a guide and a tool and a vehicle which can facilitate and accelerate my passage along the spiritual path only if I understand its message to me. Therefore, I take it to be my duty to discover and understand its meaning to me personally, to decipher what the Universal Teacher intends for me to see in it and to do by it. All of that is what I hope to share with you, and I ask that you read it in that spirit.
This is my simple religion.
There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy.
Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.
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