Email: Shi Ming Zhen
(10 September 2007)
ATHEISTS AND BELIEVERS
by Ming Zhen Shakya
- Blaise Pascal commenting on David Hume's skepticism
The Prophet Mohammed said it best: "A philosopher who has not realized his metaphysics is an ass bearing a load of books." The words are original, but the thought is an ancient one. A thousand years before Mohammed, the Buddha, one of those who had realized their metaphysics, put it another way. He noted that people who spoke about religion without having experienced spiritual states, "are shepherds who count other men's sheep."
The recent resurgence of interest in atheism does not and cannot bring anything new to the debate about the existence of God. Before any meaningful information can be exchanged there must be a meeting of the minds - terms agreed upon, definitions clear. No such meeting has ever occurred. The topic invariably is limited to belief and thus excludes itself from rational appraisal. Always, the Pros show up in one arena; the Cons in another. Proponents, assuming authority that surely rises from their having obtained God's personal power of attorney, never debate anything. They pronounce divine judgment: and no matter how cordially they phrase their rhetoric, the subtext indicates that the rack and well-kindled stake await all atheists - it is only a question of time. Opponents, men and women with CVs that require a wheelbarrow to transport, stand firm in serious opposition to the notion that God is a big bearded guy who prowls the cosmos, wearing galaxies for earrings and burping nebulae - all while keeping his twelve billion eyes on some six billion earth inhabitants, excluding, of course, atheists with PhDs.
So we have salvos - point and counterpoint - that never reach their target. It's all bluster - just another instance of what Horace described: "The mountain is in labor. Behold! a mouse is born."
If the topic were extended to knowledge instead of limiting itself to mere belief we would have nothing to debate. There is no other way to know God than by an interior personal experience. There are no exterior proofs. The earth, solar system, galaxy, and the entire cosmos have nothing to do with a person's entrance into that interior kingdom. Creation, and all the arguments of "First Cause" and "Divine Design" have nothing to do with knowledge of God. Scripture has nothing to do with it, either. Saul saw a blinding light on the road to Damascus. Many unheralded human beings have also seen that light; and it is as much for them an encapsulated revolution as it was for post-light Paul.
In normal times, the ego and its sense of self-sufficiency prevent a person from acquiring the humility necessary for Refuge entry; but in extremity, when enough time is spent in the Swamp - that Slough of Despond in which we sink under the burdens of our own foolish judgments and self-indulgences, or when we suddenly find ourselves in a particularly precarious situation - those sudden and awful foxholes of helplessness - that we humble ourselves sufficiently to beg for mercy and turn our fate over to the Buddha Amitabha, Christ, Guan Yin, God, Shiva or divinity by any name. There are many languages in the world, providing many names for that One divine power that's being saluted. The answer to our prayer brings a blessed release from torment; a joy of salvation; an opportunity to redeem ourselves with radically altered values. A gentleness suffuses our thoughts, and we regard all with the same tender mercy that has been shown us. In spiritual language, we are born again with a keen sense of what is valuable in life and what is worthless.
Our perspective is astonishing. We see the world as we have never seen it before, and we are filled with awe. It is this - the humility and wonderment - that distinguishes one who knows from those who merely believe by faith or disbelieve by science. One who knows can exclaim, as the Psalmist does, (8::3,4) "[Lord,] When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" Only a fool would invoke astrophysics to counter such an exclamation.
Perhaps no illustration of the true spiritual dynamic is more notable than that of Ashoka, King of Bharata (old India). The kingdom over which Ashoka ruled had been founded by his grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, who knew Alexander the Great. It was a time of tumult among India's many small political entities. In addition to foreign intrusions - the satraps created by Alexander, the traditional leadership of the highest caste Bhramins was being challenged by the caste immediately beneath them, the Kshatriya warriors. Maurya began his relentless conquest of these discrete principalities and theocracies by a succession of battlefield victories. Seeing a political advantage, he aligned himself with Jainism against the Brahmin overlords.
Under Ashoka's father, the kingdom grew and prospered. As the old king lay dying, it was assumed that his oldest son would ascend the throne, an assumption that did not accord with Ashoka's plans. Ashoka murdered his older brother and anyone else who objected to the coup. Then, as king, he sought to extend his domain into Kalinga, in southeast India. The campaign resulted in an estimated hundred thousand Kalinga deaths, uncountable injuries, and a hundred fifty thousand prisoners. The misery and devastation were staggering; and Ashoka, far from relishing his victory, was appalled by it. In grief and guilt, he withdrew into himself, and it was then that he experienced that salvific grace and was born anew, a convert to Buddhism, as one who had awakened.
But Ashoka did not passively embrace the spiritual life. As H. G. Wells lists his accomplishments, he, "organized a great digging of wells in India, and the planting of trees for shade. He appointed officers for the supervision of charitable works. He founded hospitals and public gardens. He made gardens for the growing of medicinal herbs. Had he an Aristotle to inspire him, he would no doubt have endowed scientific research upon a great scale. He created a ministry for the care of the aborigines and subject races. He made provision for the education of women...." As to his devotion to Buddhism, Ashoka, becoming a monk, himself, banned animal sacrifices and the killing of animals for sport, and created what was probably the world's first animal hospital. He sent missionaries into distant lands - as far away as Syria and Egypt. His edicts, carved into permanence, still remain. He ordained respect for all religions and their clergy, generosity towards all, humane treatment of servants and the poor, and the settling of disputes by peaceful means. For twenty-eight years, until his death in 227 BC, he reigned in complete benevolence. After his death, the dynasty crumbled. Goodness cannot be legislated or inherited.
It is, of course, unfortunate that many people who mistakenly believe that they've been "born again" or "saved" may have only compounded their previous distress. As an example of an ersatz redemption we can consider the hypothetical case of a man who is divorced from his wife and separated by inconvenient distance from his children. He sits alone in his small apartment, often too financially strapped to engage in those pursuits of pleasure and adventure he once favored. As his isolation swells to alienation, his sense of being quarantined from the rest of a happy healthy world grows. Whether or not he yields to the allurements of numbing anodynes, he is ripe for being plucked by organized religion. Pressured by acquaintances, he attends a Revival meeting, and his senses are immediately energized. He is at once stimulated by percussive waves of sound coming from an organ or band of musicians - drum, trumpet, piano. People he has never seen before engage him with familial appellations - he is "Brother" as others are "Mother" "Dad" and "Sister." His shoulder is patted. His hand is shaken. The evocations of childhood innocence and the certitude of belonging are congealed by old hymns, long forgotten, which he now joyfully sings while clapping his hands and stamping his foot.
And when a man in a white suit stands spotlighted at the podium and begins to utter great truths in an hypnotic cadence, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that he is the alpha male, the lead-stallion of this reconstituted herd. As this heroic figure pleads for affirmations of salvation, our once-lonely man steps forward, never realizing that in doing so he has moved away from the direction he should have gone. He needed to find the Friend and the Hero within himself. Instead, his euphoria tricks him into believing that he is privileged to serve, to subordinate his needs to those of the leader and the group. Psychologically, he "snaps." He's not just a believer, he's a devotee. He credits his personal messiah with superlatives of every kind. To quote Wells, "There seems to be no limit to the lies that honest but stupid disciples will tell for the glory of their master and for what they regard as the success of their propaganda." Wells notes that even in the case of the Buddha, "... common men must have their cheap marvels and wonders. It is nothing to them that this little planet should at last produce upon its surface a man thinking of the past and the future and the essential nature of existence. And so we must have this sort of thing by some worthy Pali scribe: 'When the conflict began between the Saviour of the World and the Prince of Evil a thousand appalling meteors fell... Rivers flowed back towards their sources; peaks and lofty mountains, where countless trees have grown for ages, rolled crumbling to the earth... the sun enveloped itself in awful darkness and a host of headless spirits filled the air.'"
And as we have all sadly learned, the Buddha could not be conceived as other mortals are: his mother dreamed of a sacred white elephant who, respecting her chastity, impregnated her through her side. And when he was born, he immediately walked and wherever he stepped, flowers sprang up. The miraculous occurrences multiply; and when a believer cites them as factual, non-believers will actually engage him in argument. "It is not possible for an elephant's sperm to fertilize a human's ovum." In fact, the two who argue are two sides of the same wooden nickel. They are arguing about everything except the spiritual life - a life which neither has experienced.
When God is understood to be an interior power, there is no mystery about his omniscience. Of course he knows what we do and even more importantly, what we think. Buddhism, as we have elsewhere commented, is, of all the world's great religions, the one that most requires taking responsibility for thoughts. Desire, an obvious instance of thought, is singled out in The Four Noble Truths as the principal cause of life's bitterness and pain. We do not have to act upon desires, it is sufficient to fall victim to having them. Frivolous desires are not particularly harmful, but desires to do harm are destined for the most draconian redress:
In his indispensable Man Against Himself, psychiatrist Karl Menninger states:
"There are certain laws governing the activity of the conscience with which we have come to be familiar from clinical experience. One of them is that the ego must suffer in direct proportion to its externally directed destructiveness. It is as if that part of the destructive instinct retained within the ego had to carry on within the microcosmos of the personality an activity precisely comparable to that which the ego is directing toward the macrocosmos outside. If the individual directs an attack of a certain nature upon some person in the environment, the conscience, or super-ego, directs an attack of the same nature upon the ego. This formula is well known to us in social organization in the form of the lex talionis, the intuitive basis of all penal systems." He later adds, "One more fact or 'law' about the conscience: a sense of guilt may arise from other than actual aggression; in the unconscious a wish to destroy is quite equivalent to the actual destruction with regard to exposing the ego to punishment."
What to Menninger is a "super ego" or "conscience" is, essentially, to us a Buddha Self, or omniscient God. It is not, however, Siddhartha Gautama. The Buddha also had a Buddha Self; and in our tradition this Buddha is called either Amitabha (infinite light) or Amitayus (infinite time).
The First and Second Noble Truths insist that whether we fulfill our harmful desires or not, such desires come with nasty consequences. To a Zen Buddhist, Judgment Day is everyday. Now we suffer and now we are redeemed. For us there is no post-mortem punishment or reward - the moment is always now. It is now, in this lifetime, that we are obliged to work diligently for our salvation, our entry into the Refuge, Nirvana, our direct experience of God.
In what way do we receive rewards and punishments in this world? It is not, as many like to think, in the experience of others. We are not rewarded by the misfortunes of those we consider our enemies. We are not punished by the misfortunes of those we love. Although the death of a child may very well be the result of a parent's sins, it is never the punishment for a parent's sins. And to a Zen Buddhist at least, misfortunes experienced in this lifetime are the results of causes and effects experienced in this lifetime. They are not carry-over punishments inflicted for actions in a previous life. Finally, as we all know, natural calamities, however devastating, are Mother Nature's handiwork, not God's.
When consigned to a punishing hell, we have an impressive array of misfortunes to which we can subject ourselves. Menninger's text lists and illustrates the various forms of Self-inflicted suffering with which we are mostly familiar. Obviously, most illnesses and injuries that people suffer are not attributable to the lex talionis' requirement that hateful thoughts be requited. But there are categories that have little else to which we can attribute them - physical displays of self-imposed pain such as the mortifications of asceticism; the accident-prone personality; and self-mutilations by one's own hand or by surgical accommodation. We may experience anxiety, depression, suicidal impulses, impotence, frigidity, and a host of neurotic symptoms. We may turn to alcohol or drugs or initiate other anti-social behaviors. We may convince ourselves that we are so loyal to our creed that we can sacrifice our life and our assets to it.
The need for punishment can be obviated if we act quickly to mitigate damages. Whenever someone does something that discomfits us and we silently growl a curse upon him, we are obliged to recall our own similar offenses which, in fact, are likely to have been much worse - and, finding this built-in excuse for the other fellow's offense, give him back his humanity.
The childish assertions of believers and the patronizing refutations of atheists range from pathetic to hilarious. Time would be better spent in attending to the steps of the Eightfold Path. Yet, on the subject of belief versus non-belief, we do have a good Zen story that covers the subject far better than those inane disputes:
There once was a king who fancied himself a philosopher; and believing himself qualified to render opinions on metaphysical subjects, declared that there was no such thing as heaven or hell. Firm in his opinion, he declared that under penalty of death no one could speak of heaven or hell again.
Many months passed without any forbidden reference to an afterlife - until a holy man ventured into the kingdom and began to discourse on the subject of heaven and hell. People begged him to restrain himself, but he would not listen. Eventually, his sermons reached the king who, outraged, ordered his soldiers to arrest the holy man and bring him to court.
The monarch, less than tolerant and more than annoyed, avoided the empirical "we." He snarled at his captive, "How do you dare come into my kingdom and talk about heaven and hell - religious beliefs that contradict my views?" The holy man did not respond.
The king's anger grew. He shouted, "I asked you how you dared to come into my kingdom and preach an alien doctrine!"
The holy man laughed apologetically. "Do you seriously expect me to discuss philosophy with a buffoon like you?" he asked.
Instantly the king was on his feet. Clenching his fists he screamed at his guards, "Seize him! Seize him and kill him!"
The holy man quickly raised his hand and waved it. "Sire! Sire! Listen to me! There is a hell and right now you are in it!"
The king, his breath heaving, his blood racing, his mind enflamed in rage, stood motionless for a moment and took the measure of his own state. And he suddenly realized that hell was not a place where the body burned but where the mind burned. And he was standing there, embodying that very conflagration.
Slowly the king sat down upon his throne; and, released from the burdens of his error, put his face in his hands and gained his composure. Then he looked up at the holy man; and in awe and wonderment he said softly, "To think that you risked your life just to teach me this great truth.. Oh Master, can you ever forgive me?"
And the holy man said, "And you see, Sire, there is a heaven, and right now you are in it."