Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Knowing Higher Truth

The point of spiritual teachings generally is enable the student to access higher truths and to realise their true nature. The idea of ‘higher truths’ is not recognised in modern analytical philosophy or science but is well understood in some forms of traditional philosophy and in Eastern practice-based religions.

Liberation or moksha is grounded in realising your ‘true identity’, real nature or Buddha-nature.   This is not something fixed or permanent in an external sense, in that it is never an object of cognition, as it is not something that one is ever apart from but is ‘that which knows’. But it is also not simply non-existent - those who think it is non-existent fall into the trap of nihilism. It is also not really your personality, although it will manifest in each individual in a unique way. But it is definitely beyond ego in the sense of beyond your day to day sense of who you are. 

(There are many rancorous disputes about this idea on Dharma forums. Many people insist that Buddhism teaches ‘there is no true self or higher self’. It is true that Buddhism generally doesn’t utilise such language. But the real meaning of ‘no-self’, anatta, is not ‘there is no self’ but that nothing has any self, ‘self’ being defined as ‘something that exists in its own right’ (‘svabhava’, self-originated or self-originating.) That applies to atoms as much as persons.)

But the idea of higher truths is also not much understood in Augustinian Christianity. In that tradition, all ideas of higher truths must conform to the dogmatic formulae within which salvation is dependent on ‘right belief’ (ortho-doxa) in Jesus.  However there are some Christian schools and teachings which recognise the concept of higher truths (see for instance Richard Rohr’s excellent Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.)  But the Augustinian doctrine of ‘total depravity’ is, I think, dangerous and vitiating. The ‘grace’ that ‘saves’ is not the exclusive property of Christianity; it can’t be confined by doctrinal boundaries or sectarian creeds. In other words, it is not only available via religious channels, although to seriously engage with it requires a religious type of intent. 

You may begin to experience that grace whenever you start to meditate. It might not be described in such terms, because words like ‘grace’ - unfortunately! - now carry cultural baggage. But my early experiences with meditation were that just that - from sitting for 20 minutes, powerful experiences of bliss came along. Sometimes they were vivid, sometimes very quiet, but really there was a sense of an energy source or a source of light or joy within my own being.

And sometimes not! That is the meaning of ‘the wind blows were it lists’.  You can’t get attached to such experiences,  because they do come and go, and you have no ability to control them. They’re not ‘yours’, even if they are intimately connected to your very being.  But they are definitely real, not just whims and fancies. 

So we have to focus on realizing that higher truth here and now, even though we might have many hindrances and obstacles and habit-patterns that get in the way. That is what spiritual teaching is about, there is no other purpose to it.

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