“My point is, an enlightened person will overcome suffering because suffering is just a state of mind”, Henry told me.
“How do you know that?”, I asked.
Henry and I go back awhile. He was one of the first people I met when I came to Colorado some years ago. And his real name is so distinctive that I am calling him “Henry” here to preserve his privacy.
Although raised a Christian, Henry is today religiously eclectic. He borrows things from several religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Yesterday, I managed to mildly irritate him during a phone conversation by asking him how he knew somethings to be true.
“The Buddha himself said suffering is just a state of mind, and he said that an enlightened person will overcome it”, Henry said. “And don’t ask me how the Buddha knew — he certainly knew more than you do.”
“The Buddha also said you should look for yourself”, I reminded Henry, “and to not rely upon his or anyone else’s words for the truth.”
Rightly or wrongly, I suspected Henry was missing the point. And I further suspected that he might be missing the point because he was stuck in taking the Buddhist scriptures he was reading on faith.
◄East and West►
It seems to me there is a sense in which the West and the Middle East expect you to take important religious truths on faith, while the East expects you to test such things for yourself.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that in practice. There are different attitudes towards teachers, for instance. Westerners often challenge their teachers to defend their views. Easterners tend to take it for granted their teachers are right. But even with those qualifications and others, the West seems more prone to taking religious truths on faith than the East.
Why is that?
It seems the most important religious truths of the West are truths that you have no choice but to accept on faith — if you are going to accept them at all. For instance: There is no conclusive evidence for the notion that Jesus was Christ, nor any conclusive evidence for the notion that Mohammed was the last of the prophets. These are not truths that can be established by observation.
In contrast, it seems the most important Eastern truths can be established by experimentation and observation. Henry’s notion that an enlightened person will overcome suffering can be tested. That is, in theory at least, Henry could become enlightened, then observe whether or not he suffers.
◄Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha►
Many Westerners seem to bring to Eastern scriptures the faith they were taught to have in Western scriptures. Perhaps they never heard the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”
So far as I can guess, there might be at least three reasons why the East often insists on killing the Buddha — that is, on not blindly following anyone, even the Buddha.
First, what works for the Buddha might not work for you. Humans are a diverse species. While humans do have a lot in common, there are enough differences between individuals that it’s pretty safe to say what works for some of us might not work for all of us. You see that principle in such mundane things as the various shapes of the human nose. There are no two humans, other than identical twins, with exactly the same shape of nose. Yet, almost all human noses are recognizably human. The psychology upon which our spirituality is based is probably just as diverse as our noses. Why else are there no “Sixteen Sure Steps to Enlightenment” that can be successfully repeated by everyone who is interested?
Second, you are not really looking unless you are looking for yourself. At the very best, scriptures and the sayings of your teachers are guides or maps. Even when they are accurate, if you look no further than the scriptures and sayings, you are not really looking. You have not really looked at Paris if all you have looked at are maps of Paris. You are not really looking at, say, suffering if you do not look beyond what is said about suffering.
Third, scriptures and teachings can remove the urgency to change. Basically, scriptures and teachings label things. And what we label loses some of its vitality. Often enough, once you have labeled a headache a “headache”, you no longer feel quite the same urgency to deal with it as before.
Fourth, we become attached to scriptures and teachings. It is quite easy to become attached to scriptures and teachings. But all attachments — very much including our attachments to ideas — seem to be impediments to realization. If that’s the case, then attachments to scriptures and teachings are no less impediments to realization than are attachments to cars or houses.
◄A Good Habit►
I’m no expert on East and West, so it’s just my impression that the East is more likely than the West to encourage you to test for yourself the truth or falsity of any scripture or teaching. But whether or not the East insists on testing them for yourself, it strikes me as a good habit to be in. “Killing the Buddha” is not just good advice. It is probably necessary if you are really going to get anywhere in these matters.