Against The Stream ~ BELIEVING IS
BELIEF IS CENTRAL
AND ESSENTIAL to Theistic or God-based religions;
without Belief they would not exist. This is one of
the main points in which Buddhism (as well as Confucianism
and the Tao of Lao Tsu) differs from other religions:
being non-theistic, it doesn’t require belief!
And why? Because we can see, for ourselves—
if we wish— what it teaches. When we merely
believe something our minds are already made up about
it. How to discover what is true if our minds are
already made up? We must be open-minded and eager
to learn, not closed-minded and dogmatic.
Believe it or not, Belief is an obstacle
to finding out what is true. We believe when we do
not know; when we know, we do not believe! Seeing
is knowing; believing is not-knowing. Belief changes;
Knowledge does not. We know, for example, that fire
is hot and water is wet; this is so now, it was so
before, and it will always be so; it’s not a
matter of belief.
Belief and Disbelief are the opposite sides
of the same coin; they go together, inseparably, like
black and white, day and night; one implies the other.
Only if we can put aside both belief and disbelief,
will we be able to see, and not before.
Belief binds our minds more firmly than
chains may bind our bodies. Most of us are prisoners
of belief, in one form or another, and even disbelievers
are prisoners of it— the very fact that they
proclaim their disbelief so loudly proves this, for
Disbelief is just the reverse side of Belief. We cannot
disbelieve unless we first believe.
Hundreds of years ago, Europeans believed
the Earth to be the center of the Universe, with the
Sun and all the other stars and planets turning about
it, as that is what the Church taught, and woe betide
anyone who thought otherwise. But, after observing
the skies through the newly-invented telescope, an
Italian scientist named GALILEO (1564-1642), discovered
that this was not so, and that our planet revolves
around the Sun. When he made known his findings, however,
there was an uproar, and the authorities — the
Church of Rome, that is, which had tremendous power
in all areas of life at that time— not ready
to accept facts, persecuted him. Under threat of being
burnt at the stake, Galileo was made to sign a confession
stating that he was misguided and wrong; not content
with this, the Church sentenced him to house-arrest
for the remainder of his life. Perhaps he should have
expected this and been more discreet (as should Salmon
Rushdie in recent times). But then, the truth might
have had to wait a little longer before finding its
way to the surface.
In 1980— 1980, not 1580!— a
special Church commission met in Rome to reconsider
the question of the Earth’s position in the
Solar System, and after discussing the issue at great
length, agreed that Science had conclusively proved
that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that therefore
Galileo had been right. Then, in May 1983, Pope John-Paul
II presided over a meeting of a large gathering of
Church dignitaries, historians and scientists, to
openly admit the Church’s mistake and absolve
Galileo. What a loss of face for the Church that has
so long regarded itself as infallible to admit this!
At last, poor Galileo was vindicated — 350 years
after his death!— and the guilty conscience
of the Church somewhat assuaged. So, Truth does eventually
triumph— sometimes, at least— but too
late to do Galileo any good.
We adapt amazingly quickly to technological
change and take it in our stride; we are sophisticated
and competent that way. Spiritually, however, most
of us are rather backward, and thus there is a great
imbalance in our lives. The happiness we desire so
much eludes us; we do not understand that it is a
spiritual quality instead of something material.
There is an urgent need to balance the inner
and the outer life; many of our problems exist because
we have failed to achieve a balance. Externally—
technologically and materially— we have made
tremendous progress in the past few centuries, and
especially towards the end of the twentieth century.
But mentally, we’ve not kept up; indeed, many
of us live in mental caves, even while our bodies
repose in fine houses. This causes trouble, of course.
Unless we are to be hopelessly impractical
and discard the comforts and luxuries of modern life,
we must update our minds, through understanding—
and through living according to such understanding—
how we inter-exist and depend upon others. If we cannot—
or will not— do this, we shall always be torn
between two worlds: the old and the new, the primitive
and the modern.
Some people, trying to live by old standards
that seem to them to have worked in the past, reject
modernity and its products, but what we need is a
way— a practical way— that will allow
us to live by time-tested codes and standards in the
present, without feeling dislocated. Is there such
a Way? In order to find out, we must examine the history
and structure of religions and philosophies, not merely
believe; if we do so, perhaps we will find that some
of them are just facades, like film-sets, or fit only
for books on mythology and fairy-tales. You can give
a dog fleshless bones, and for a time it will be happy
with them, but not forever!
Religions, over the ages, have offered palliatives
for people’s sorrows and hope concerning life-after-death.
But many of them are ‘fleshless bones’—
things impossible to verify, things dependent on mere
belief. Is your religion— the religion you have
inherited from others, the religion you have accepted
without question, or the religion you have, in some
cases, chosen for yourself, for whatever reason—
a collection of fleshless bones, an old skeleton in
the closet, or is it alive and dynamic? Ask yourself
this: honestly and fearlessly: "What does my
religion offer? " Does it offer only worn-out
explanations and unreasonable dogmas? Does it provide
you with a world-view consistent with present and
ever-changing conditions? Does it help you maintain
your sanity in this insane world that is rushing headlong
to destruction? Does it help you see unity in diversity?
Does it help you to feel part of things, even if only
a small part among others? Does it describe your place
among, and relationship to all other things, living
and non-living? Does it inform you of your importance,
or does it grind you down into servility and insignificance?
When all they can throw at us are promises
of salvation and life-in-heaven on the other side
of death if we believe them, and threats of Hell for
disbelieving, but nothing to live on now, it is a
sign that they are spiritually bankrupt. How long
are we going to be tricked by these cheaters posing
The crux of the matter is FEAR; we are afraid
to die, and even afraid to live; we are quite unadventurous
and unwilling to think for ourselves. If we found
meaning in our lives, if our lives were not so shallow
and empty, then fear of living and dying, and of what
happens after death, would diminish. We would need
no motive for living well in the Here-and-Now, but
would do what has to be done without thinking too
much about results.
If we are honest with life, life will be
honest with us; it’s not a game without rules,
and the sooner we learn the rules, the sooner we’ll
be able to play without continually losing.
If we examine our beliefs objectively, we
may see if they are valid or not. It is not enough
to accept the word of others, or believe what’s
written in books; we must strive to know for ourselves.
We live in an enlightened age (‘enlightened’
in some ways, at least, though in other ways it seems
to be ‘ennightened’!) Why be content to
call ourselves ‘Buddhists’, ‘Christians’,
this or that, just because our parents and grandparents
do/did? We have our own lives to live, and should
be able to choose, for ourselves, which way we want
to go. When we go shopping, we choose what we want
to buy from a variety of goods, instead of buying
the first thing we come to. It is possible now for
most of us to study almost anything; there is no secret
knowledge reserved for the elite few any more; the
wonderful ability to read unlocks the door of the
House of Knowledge. Surely, if such things as Happiness
and Truth are important to us, we will search in many
places, and not restrict ourselves to the ideas of
those around us.
Sadly, it is much easier to cheat people
than it is to enlighten them! Only lazy people believe
what others tell them, and are easily deceived by
the many crafty and unscrupulous people in the world,
whether they are door-to-door salesmen, politicians,
missionaries, or just plain liars and thieves!
The beliefs of many religions do not stand
up to close scrutiny and investigation, as they are
not based upon facts. We can, of course— and
do— interpret things to suit ourselves, and
find meaning where there are no meanings; we like
to play hide-and-seek, and we play it so long that
we forget it is a game and take it for real, and so
get lost. Or we go to sleep, and sleep for a long
time, until something— often something painful
and unpleasant— comes along to disturb our dreams,
and sets us on the Way once more.
Seldom do we see with our own eyes and minds,
but usually through those of others: our family, friends,
leaders, writers, public figures— sometimes
even with the eyes of our enemies! We accept the standards
of others, so what they call ‘beautiful’,
‘ugly’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’,
we also do; thus, we are easily manipulated and controlled.
If we used our own eyes and minds, we could learn
to see things much clearer and deeper; we would become
aware of much more wonder and beauty around us, even
in things that are dismissed by others as ‘commonplace’
and ‘ordinary’. Look for yourself, and
I’m not saying here, however, that
we should not try to see things from other people’s
points-of-view, because it is extremely important
to do so, and the more angles we can look at a thing
from, the clearer the picture we shall get of it.
No, what I mean is that we should not allow ourselves
to be unduly influenced by others into accepting their
viewpoints and beliefs without critical examination.
We have the capacity to think, do we not? This is
the major factor that distinguishes us from the lower
animals, which live by instinct and have little choice
over the way they live. We can think, we can choose
and decide, we can change our lives— if we want
Can we live without belief about life-after-death,
heaven, hell, etc.? Can we listen to others—
teachers, preachers, parents, leaders, and so on—
without belief, so that we may discover whether what
they say is true and useful or not? I would say, "Yes,
it is." Do not believe me, either. Try it, for
yourself, and see.
Why be content with old bones?
Demand reality, now!