UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Because I Care ~ WHO KNOWS?

No-one knows everything.
No-one knows nothing.
Everyone knows something.


BROUGHT UP AS A CHRISTIAN, I later rejected Christianity, with its fanciful myths, but I did not, and will not, accept Buddhist myths as a substitute.

In the 1850’s, Charles Darwin caused a furor in the West by his book, "On The Origin of Species," which contradicted the teachings of Christianity about Mankind’s origins, and traced it back to apes instead. Predictably, the Christian Church vehemently denounced his theories, but his book initiated a widespread search for the life-form that would prove humans are descended from apes. Fired with the idea of finding the ‘Missing Link,’ hopeful explorers set off into the jungles of Africa and Asia, and though they didn’t find what they sought, their search inspired the story of Tarzan, the Ape-man, which has thrilled generations of children and which continues to enthrall us in the movies.

We must recall that 150 years ago, the Western sciences of anthropology, biology, archaeology and geology were still in their infancy; most Westerners still believed the biblical doctrine of Creation. Darwin challenged this, and it is hardly surprising he was maligned; but he was soon vindicated and his courage and sincerity in exposing myths that had held sway over people’s lives for almost 2,000 years acknowledged. His theory, however— though it gave rise to numerous lines of research and investigation that have yielded tremendous results since— remains a hypo-thesis; it has not been conclusively proved that humans are descended from apes.

After his bombshell-disclosures, fossils and skeletal-remains began to turn up in great numbers. Though not new and unknown, no-one had realized just how old these bones were (in line with ancient belief in dragons, the Chinese called them ‘dragon-bones’). After Darwin, not only were they correctly identified, but human-bones of various types— Neanderthal, Peking, Java, Cro-Magnon, and so on — indicated a process of evolution covering millions of years, proving that early humans were quite different from the humans of today. We are still unsure about the origins of the human race, but are convinced it goes back at least 5 million years— somewhat at variance with the few thousand years claimed by the Jewish-Christian Bible.

Buddhism, like all religions, has its myths about the origins of life on Earth, but Buddhists are enjoined to investigate things for themselves rather than simply believe; if we find that things do not agree with reason or experience, we are not obliged to accept them.

The Buddhist scriptures say that there were many Buddhas before the historical Gotama Buddha, but we can neither prove nor disprove this. As far as we know, however, Gotama Buddha never claimed to be unique, and showed the way to attain Buddhahood to those who would make the needed effort. It is also said that attainment of Buddhahood is very difficult, and consequently very rare, and that, moreover, no-one can reach that stage while the teachings of the previous Buddha are still known, though why this should be, I do not know. Oh, the Buddhist scriptures have an explanation for it, but that doesn’t make it true; there has been plenty of time and opportunity, over the 2500 years and more since Gotama Buddha passed away, to tamper with the scriptures, and we would be quite naive as to suppose that what we find in the books today is exactly what the Buddha said! Dare we suppose that the Buddhist scriptures are error-free when it is said now, by some scholars of the Christian Bible, that there are over 170,000 errors in that book?!

If it is true that a person cannot attain Buddhahood until the teachings of the previous Buddha have disappeared and been succeeded by a immense period of darkness, during which nothing is known about Dharma, and if there have been as many Buddhas before Gotama as the scriptures claim— 28 in one series, innumerable according to other accounts— this would take us back not just millions of years, but billions, when life on Earth was just a matter of slime! How are we to understand the claims of the scriptures regarding previous Buddhas? Even if we consider the evidence of science regarding early humans, that takes us back only 5 or 6 million years, and what could a Buddha have done with the people of those times? Gotama Buddha Himself had doubts about going out to teach, thinking that people, stuck in the mud of ignorance, would be unable to understand. And if people of India at that time would have found it difficult to understand, how much moreso would primitive humans, lacking language and the skills of communication, have been able to? Were there Buddhas, living and teaching among our early ancestors— ’cave-Buddhas’ among cave-men? Maybe, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it, just as I’m not about to accept everything that is written in the scriptures.

There are two parts to Buddhism: the part of the Past, and the part of the Eternal Present. The part of the Past includes the life-story of the Buddha and all the myths that have grown up around it; we cannot verify this part, or if we can, in some way, it will only be personal verification, and would not permit us to reveal it to others so that they would know, too. But the part of the Eternal Present is something we can all verify and experience for ourselves: the heart of the Buddha’s Teachings— that is, what He discovered under the Bodhi-tree and thereafter tried to share with others. This part is not a matter of belief or opinion, as is the part of the Past, but of direct experience by the individual, and of much greater importance.

Who, today, takes literally the Jataka Tales (stories of the previous lives of the Bodhisattva who eventually became Gotama Buddha), tales that depict him as a deer, elephant, monkey, rabbit, and so on? These are teaching-stories or parables, like those of Aesop. The lessons they embody are good and easily understood by anyone, no matter what their level of education, but they should not be taken literally. Animals can speak human languages only in the cartoons, like Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck!

Many Buddhists believe the Buddha knew everything, but this was not so. He knew the important things about life, the things that do not change, the eternal verities. If He came today, there are many things that we would be able to teach Him: how to use the telephone, how to operate a computer, how to drive a car, etc.; He would not automatically know these things, though He could probably soon learn. We know lots of things that He didn’t know, and He knew lots of things that we don’t know and are in need of learning, which is why He is still our Teacher.

Averse to, or unwilling to accept criticism when their faults or errors are pointed out, some people retort: "Huh, I can’t do anything right!" but this is just as incorrect as the egoistic feeling that one can’t do anything wrong; in fact, it amounts to the same thing, for what people mean when they say, "I can’t do anything right," is they can’t do anything wrong— so they think— and are above criticism. How dare you criticize me?!

We commonly hear people say of others: "They don’t know anything!" In the ebullience of youth, out of ignorance and frustration, kids say this about their parents. Newly aware of and excited by the ocean of information available, youngsters often think they know everything. Well, surely, there are many things today that young people know and older people don’t and probably never will know; this is always so and as it should be, and means that we are growing and learning, and not stagnating; moreover, it is a tribute to older people, as their generation provided the basis for the arising of new knowledge and information, just as people who lived before them made things available to them that they themselves didn’t have or know. We should all recognize and acknowledge this; we have inherited most of what we have from others before us; we didn’t invent or make it ourselves.

It is perhaps necessary and understandable for young people to feel that they know much more than they do, for without this feeling, it would be very difficult for them to go forwards confidently (there is something useful about ignorance after all; if I’d known what was ahead of me before I set out on my travels, I doubt if I’d have gone; I would have been too scared!), and hopefully reach a point where they realize they don’t know much at all, and can learn to say, without shame or fear: "I don’t know." This is not the same as the mindless "I dunno!" response of many young people today, if asked about anything that requires a little use of their gray matter. Of course, the ability to recognize one’s ignorance doesn’t always come as we grow older— in fact, it never comes to some of us— sometimes it comes when we are young, and oh, how wonderful for this realization to be combined with the vigor and energy of youth!— just as wonderful, in fact, as it is sad to see young people without vision, purpose, understanding and tolerance.

I am not overjoyed about the prospect of growing old, though I know it will happen if I do not die earlier; old age is attended by many troubles and disabilities. But I would not like to be young again, just as I was then. If only youth, with its beauty and vigor, came at the end of our lives instead of the beginning! Youth is often wasted on the young!

No-one is ever completely honest or open with another; there are always things withheld, secrets concealed. It is a mistake, therefore, to think that one knows another person well— especially when one does not even know oneself. To learn requires humility.

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