UNIVERSAL DHARMA

This Too, Will Pass ~ WHAT IS THE QUESTION?

IF WE ARE GIVEN AN ANSWER TO A PROBLEM—let us say, for example, 7,253—without first knowing the question, would there be any way of discovering, with certainty, the question which led to that answer? Was it the square-root of another figure? Or the sum of two or more figures added together, the result of a multiplication, subtraction, division? With just the answer to go by, it would be impossible to work back to the question, would it not?

But this is largely how many of us live our lives: by answers supplied to us by others, while the questions remain hidden or obscure. Surely, something is wrong in this and needs some investigation. And today, we are fortunate, because we have the time and freedom to carry out such an investigation; should we not make use of it?

Life is often puzzling and there are many things we do not understand. Moreover, we have made life excessively complicated by our ideas and beliefs, which make it harder to understand, as we filter and measure our experiences by our concepts, instead of the other way around. Often, we begin with a concept about something and twist and distort facts in an attempt to make them correspond with the concept, instead of making the concept fit the facts. Many of us are persuaded, by Belief, that we know all there is to know about Truth, God, Life, etc., and the process of discovery is severely hampered, if not altogether smothered thereby.

Before we can understand, we must know that we don't know, and must be honest about it, and not pretend we know, for that way, we come to a full-stop. Why be ashamed to admit that we don't know something? No-one knows everything. And, if seen for what it is, Ignorance also has a part to play: we move from Ignorance to Knowledge. Recognition of Ignorance as Ignorance is already Knowledge, while perceiving Ignorance as Knowledge is Ignorance indeed!

Religion is also a thing that most people inherit from others, and few make more than a cursory examination of it. This is a pity, because religion, if improperly understood, becomes a means of bondage and impedes spiritual growth, instead of fulfilling its real purpose, which is to provide a way of facing life bravely, helping us become mature and psychologically-free, so that we can live with a sense of balance. But many of us seem unwilling to take the time and trouble to understand the purpose of religion, and find it easier to simply believe and follow just what others tell us. Consequently, organized religion becomes silly, scorned and jeered at by rational and scientific-minded people—and not without reason, either. On one hand, we are able to perform such wonderful feats as putting men on the moon or sending them to the bottom of the sea, but on the other hand, we are still living in mental caves with our religious dogmas. Surely, if we are to live in a sane and balanced way, we must either reject, outright, our advanced technology and return to medieval-style living, or review our inner-life, our convictions and beliefs, and bring them up-to-date; we cannot continue living in such a schizophrenic way as we are doing.

Religions, basically, are hypotheses—that is, frameworks or guidelines to enable us to cope with life in this bewildering world of change, and rise above it. We must realize that life has become increasingly complex since the major religions began thousands of years ago, until now, we find ourselves almost governed by machines, the implications of which are frightening. Can we reconcile the teachings of the old books with our times? Can the two go together? Surely, we must think about this intelligently, those of us to whom religion still retains any meaning. Can religion be reconciled with science and technology or must we live divided lives, torn between the ancient and the modern, the inner and the outer, the scientific and the religious, the intellect and the emotions? Or can we make of religion a science, as science has become a religion to many? Must we always depend upon others for our convictions? Why must we believe anything at all? Wishing to discover something not yet known, a scientist investigates things with an open mind; probably he has some idea—a hypothesis —of what he is looking for, but he is always willing to change his ideas as his knowledge expands and proves his ideas inadequate and no longer supported by facts.

It is vital to know the question, for without it, the answer can never be found. And the question must be your own question, from your heart, your center, not that of anyone else. You must know what you want from life, and also what you want to give to life, and not be content merely to follow others. Religion must help us lead meaningful lives of growth, learning and discovery; if it does not, but merely provides us with ready-made answers, which it expects us to swallow unthinkingly and without question, it is a failure, and should be consigned to the garbage-truck as quickly as possible.

Those who accept and follow religion blindly without understanding its purpose, are not assets to the religion at all, as some people think in their mad haste to gain converts to their own particular and narrow ways of looking at life. Thoughtless and unquestioning people are so much 'dead wood', and only weigh down the boat of religion, until, by sheer weight of numbers, it sinks. Religion should inspire us to think, to learn, to face life intelligently and fearlessly, so that we may discover the solutions to our social and personal problems. As it is, when the leaders of religion propose and cling to untenable standpoints, what can be expected of the followers?

We cannot live our lives by books. When we go shopping, we do not stop and think: "Now, what does the Bible say about this product?" "Does the Dhammapada endorse this?" We have to use our own knowledge to choose, limited though that knowledge might be. If we choose a product of inferior quality, perhaps next time we will make a better choice, having learned something from the experience. We cannot expect to learn without sometimes making mistakes; there's a price for everything, and if we learn something from our mistakes, they will not have been in vain. Life is a series of experiences, and there is always room to learn.

Most religions encourage belief and discourage doubt, as doubt is an enemy of authority. But doubt is actually better than belief, for it keeps us alert, moving and learning. He whose mind is full of belief, on the other hand, has already 'arrived,' he thinks he knows—just as Europeans of the Middle Ages believed the Earth was flat (as the Church taught), until Magellan began to doubt this and proved otherwise—and so does not bother to go any further, even when mountains of facts contrary to his beliefs stare him in the face.

If religion is founded upon facts, upon truth, we need not fear adapting to changing times. But if religion cannot stand up to changing times, to questions people are likely to ask and require reasonable answers to—answers supported by evidence and not just by ancient stories—then perhaps it is time to question one's beliefs.

If there is Truth, it must be something that doesn't change —like water: it was wet in the past, it is wet now, and it will be wet in the future; it is wet here, there, and everywhere, and there can be no disagreement about this, no matter what one's race, religion, nationality or politics, because wetness is the main characteristic of water. Truth, similarly, must be something that is so in all times and places, and must apply to all people and things, so that it can be seen, demonstrated and accepted by all without disagreement. Different religions have different teachings and beliefs and often, the differences divide people, so that there is disagreement about what they claim to be true. Where there is disagreement, where there is no demonstrable evidence that can be accepted by all, can there be Truth? Truth should be self-evident; it's no use telling people today that they must believe, for people today—quite rightly—want proof in this very important matter. It is better to put forward a little of what is true and which can be verified, than to put forward much of what cannot be experienced.

There are Three Facts of Life which can be seen here and now, which are self-evident, and which, if understood, provide a solid foundation for intelligent religious living. The first is the Fact of Change or Impermanence. We do not have to believe this, for it is going on ceaselessly, within and without us, whether we believe it or not, like it or not, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. It can be demonstrated that everything material is composed of atoms, and that an atom is not a solid substance in itself, but a process, a pattern of energy. Everything changes into something else: the sand on the beach possibly once composed high mountains; the atoms that make up our bodies certainly congregated here from many sources, and will be scattered far and wide when we die and our bodies decompose. The Sun, on which all living things depend, will also sometime either explode or remain as a burnt-out celestial cinder for a while, until it too breaks down and re-forms into other things. Nothing remains the same from one moment to the next, though our limited senses generally do not enable us to see this; nevertheless, the ceaseless process goes on.

The Second Fact, though, is easily seen as it is unpleasant, whereas the Fact of Change is not always so. It is the Fact of Suffering: all living things feel pain and suffer. With a physical body, there will be physical pain; this too, is self-evident. But it is not only the body that suffers; the mind also suffers, through things like grief, worry, fear, anger, jealousy, greed, ambition, hate, stupidity, etc., though these are forms of suffering it is possible to do something about, moreso, in fact, than about the sufferings of the body and its eventually dissolution. It is hard to keep the body healthy if the mind is sick, and even if the mind is not sick, it is impossible to prevent the body from dying. However, by understanding the workings of the mind, and seeing, directly, what is true, it is possible for the mind to rise above suffering. Mental suffering is caused by not understand-ing the real nature of life, of our identity and our relationship to all other forms of life; when we live according to misunderstanding, things go wrong, and the result is pain, what else?

The Third Fact concerns our identity: Nothing exists in and by itself; nothing is independent; everything—including 'you' and 'I'—depends upon many things for its existence, moment-by-moment. There is no separate, immortal, unchanging 'soul' or 'I,' but just a process like a stream or river. Surely, we know the River Nile is not the River Mekong or the Amazon, etc; they are different because of many factors. But, in a more-real sense, there is no River Nile, Mekong, Amazon, etc.; in fact, there is no river at all, for what we call a 'river' is just a movement, a process of change. We might say it is the movement of a body of water, but then we must ask: "What is water?" and might give it its chemical term, H2O, but still we do not have a river, or now, even any water! And we can analyze and reduce ourselves in a similar way, until we find nothing that we can call our own. We exist only in relationship to and dependent upon other processes.

Certainly, physical appearances don't immediately change if we look at things in this way; the water of the river still runs downwards to the sea, left foot follows right foot follows left foot, we continue to eat and speak, and so on. But a change takes place in the mind of one who understands; his attitude towards life-in-general is not what it was before. And this is where his religion begins: he sees himself as a part of life, not apart from it. He knows that he does not live—cannot live—for himself alone, so he tries to live, consciously, for the life-of-which-he-is-a-part. And though he might appear to be only a tiny part, yet he is important and has his place; he is no longer lost and adrift in his mind. He lives responsibly and with love, viewing all other fragments of life as his family, for he is not separated from them, but connected to them in various ways.

In modern terminology this is known as ECOLOGY, which means how living things are seen as connected to other living things like the knots of a fishing-net are connected to each other. The Earth is a vast ECO-SYSTEM, of which we have only just recently become aware, a delicate network of life-forms dependent and interdependent upon one another. This eco-system is now gravely endangered because of the activities of MAN, the one species that has the ability to reason and choose; Man alone, of all the other life-forms with which he shares this Planet, is able to recall the past and look with imagination to the future; he, alone, is capable of understanding the interconnectedness of things; but instead of living in a way that does not seriously affect the balance that had been maintained from time immemorial, his carelessness, greed and stupidity have brought it to the brink of disaster. And, now that we have become aware of the results of our activities it is a race-against-time to take measures to slow down the process of destruction, hopefully, to the point where Nature might recover from the wounds we have inflicted upon her.

The onus is on human-beings to save the Planet; we can no longer shirk our responsibility. But it needs a drastic change of consciousness, not a mere passing concern about what is happening. It means we must see things clearly, according to reality—which is, that the Planet Earth does not belong to us and is not our personal property, to exploit and do with as we like. By virtue of our understanding, we are its custodians, and must strive to preserve it and pass it on to posterity.

Different religions have presumed to tell us the Purpose of Life, but their 'explanations' differ from each other, and sometimes conflict. The purpose of life, surely, is not something that someone can reveal to another, but must be something that each and everyone should discover and determine for himself. For one person, the purpose of life might be to become rich, for another, to become famous, for another, to become learned, etc.; but these are subjective and personal purposes, not the Purpose of Life. Can anyone really tell us what is The Grand Purpose of Life—presuming that there is one? It is useless to say that the Purpose of Life is to find God, or Truth, or go to Heaven when we die, to attain Nirvana, etc., as that is just speculation based upon belief, and there is no proof; also, such explanations only make people dull and lazy, instead of inspiring them to investigate and discover for themselves.

Perhaps—and this is just a thought and not a statement—perhaps the Purpose of Life is simply to Live. But how to live?

THAT IS THE QUESTION!

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