Why Believe?

‘There is hope for whoever does not know what to believe. Human belief is a combination of superstition, gullibility and mental laziness. We need not believe anything; we need to find, to see, to know.’ Those words come from the American spiritual teacher Vernon Howard whose writings and talks have helped me greatly over the years.

I have often said that one of the great things about being a practising naturalistic Buddhist---with the emphasis (at least for present purposes) on the word 'practising'---is that there is no need to believe anything … and absoluetly nothing to believe ... to be a Buddhist but there is much to be practised, known and understood. It's all very experiential---as is life itself. Teachings are one thing but beliefs ... Oy Vey!

Now, even within Christianity there have been some enlightened souls who have written of the dangers of belief. Take, for example, that great Modernist of last century, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who famously wrote, ‘Better believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God. Belief in God is one of the most dangerous beliefs a man can cherish.’ Having just re-read Brideshead Revisited---a book which, despite the author’s apparent intentions, fails to convince me of the reasonableness of Catholic Christianity over non-belief---I say, good stuff, Dr Fosdick, but why believe at all? Belief is not a criterion of truth. What is true does not become any more true because we believe that it is true. That reminds me of studying philosophy as an undergraduate. The lecturer would say, ‘The sky is blue. The sky does not become any bluer because you believe it to be blue. Further, the proposition---the sky is blue---does not become any truer because you believe it to be true.’ If something is true, what difference does it make in believing it to be true? And if it's not true, why would you want to believe it?

For me, the Biblical prayer, 'Lord, I believe; help my unbelief' (see Mk 9:24), would be better expressed as, 'Lord, I believe; help me instead to know and understand.' Yes, follow the advice of the psalmist: 'Be still, and know that I am God' (Ps 46:10). People ordinarily believe when they don't know or understand something. There is no need to believe anything ... and nothing to believe. Strange as it may seem, there is also no need to disbelieve anything ... and nothing to disbelieve. As I've mentioned, whether or not something is the case does not depend upon belief or disbelief.

Choose a religion or, if you don’t like religion, a philosophy or a ‘way of life’ that doesn’t require you to believe or disbelieve anything. Life is Truth, and life is forever open-ended. We, as part of life's self-expression, are always in direct 'contact' with, and can always be choicelessly aware of, Truth. No doctrine or dogma, and no priest, guru or saviour, is needed for you to know and experience Truth. Beliefs actually get in the way of things. They are a barrier to Truth. In the words of the Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti, 'Truth is a pathless land.' He also said, 'To find truth, or God, there must be neither belief nor disbelief. ... To seek God without understanding oneself has very little meaning.'

The current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Peter Morales, the Association’s first Latino president, has stated: ‘Religion is not about what you or I or Baptists or Catholics or Jews or Muslims or Hindus believe. I would even go a giant step further: Belief is the enemy of religion. Let me repeat that: Belief is the enemy of religion.’

Morales goes on to say that any religion that is focused on belief is ‘a dangerous corruption of true religion.’ True religion, according to Morales, is ‘about what we love, not about what we think.’ It’s ‘about what you and I hold sacred.’ The Unitarian Universalist movement, says Morales, offers religion beyond belief, ‘religion that transcends culture, race and class ... religion where we can grow spiritually, a religion where we can forge deep and lasting relationships, a religion where we can join hands to help heal a broken world.’ That is the kind of religion---or metareligion---that I embrace.

But what exactly is the problem with 'beliefs,' you may ask? Well, Shakyamuni Buddha referred to beliefs as being in the nature of thought coverings or veils (avarnas). These thought coverings or veils do not reveal reality, indeed they distort reality. How? Well, they prevent us from knowing and experiencing things as they really are in all their directness and immediacy. Belief is conditioning. Knowledge is experiential. Also, everything gets filtered through the distorting lens of our beliefs. Over time, beliefs harden into belief-systems, with the latter becoming as hard, solid and impenetrable as the toughest concrete. Beliefs hold us back as we fall back on the safety and security of our beliefs rather than think and live freshly and spontaneously. Worse still, beliefs prevent us from seeing things as they really are, because they distort our perception, and thus our understanding, of reality.

I will go further. Beliefs and dogmas are a menace to society---and they are a total, impenetrable barrier to true knowledge and wisdom. For starters, beliefs and dogmas are always someone else's 'version' of reality---the result of someone else's conditioned mind, mental habits and fragmentary thinking, that is, the past. There is nothing of any value to believe, and there is nothing to be gained by believing anything or anyone. Just observe. Then you will know---and understand.

I have always found helpful these words attributed to the Buddha: 'Do not believe, for if you believe, you will never know. If you really want to know, don't believe.' There is also this sound advice from the Pali texts: ‘In what is seen, there should be only the seen; / in what is heard, only the heard; / in what is sensed, only the sensed; / in what is thought, only the thought.’

Yes, we need to safely 'navigate' our way through life, but beliefs actually stand in the way and hold us back. What we really need is ... knowledge ... and understanding. It was that great meditation master Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw, the founding father of the Sunlun way of Buddhist vipassana meditation, who taught that there is so much that we can know. We can know that we are alive … in the sense of being part of the flow or procession of life. We can know that we are persons among persons. We can know that sensations arise in us, and as respects each such sensation we can know the fact of its existence … as well as the fact of its strength or weakness. More importantly, we can know each sensation - as a bare fact - as and when it arises … and as it truly is … in all its directness and immediacy.

Yes, there is so much we can know that, well, there is simply no need to believe anything at all. In any event, the very act of formulating a 'belief' causes an otherwise present reality to die away, because (as Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw would constantly point out) the very nature of a belief is a mental construct based on an already past reality. That is, by the time a particular belief has been formulated, the reality upon which that belief is purportedly based is no longer a present reality. It is now the past.

Here’s a Zen story entitled ‘A Cup of Tea.’ It’s a real gem. (By the way, Zen is not so much a religion or a philosophy but a means of---waking up!) Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’ exclaimed the professor. ‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Now, if Zen means anything, it is this---true wisdom comes from an intuitive grasp of the reality of things. However, in order to see things as they really are we must observe all things with choiceless awareness, that is, an observation of what is that is silent, extensive, and non-judgmental. However, in order to observe with choiceless awareness, we must let go of our conditioning, that is, our many beliefs, dogmas, opinions, speculations, prejudices and predilections. As Krishnamurti would often point out, conditioning is the past, and it locks us into the past. When we are trapped in the past, we are no longer present to life as it unfolds from one moment to the next. That’s not the end of it. Conditioning represents other persons’ understanding of reality or truth, it is not truth itself. Where there is conditioning, there is no understanding.

In Christian theology there is the concept of kenosis (from a Greek word for emptiness), which refers to the 'self-emptying' of oneself in order to be filled with the divine. In the New Testament we read that Jesus ‘made himself nothing’ (Phil 2:7), that is, emptied himself. Unless we empty ourselves of self-concern and all that holds us back we will never come to know truth. But how does one let go of conditioning, you may ask? Never ask how, because you are then asking for a method, a technique, and all such methods and techniques are nothing but conditioning. However, it’s even worse than that, as Krishnamurti has pointed out:

‘I think it is very important to understand that any effort made to free oneself from one's conditioning is another form of conditioning. If I try to free myself from Hinduism, or any other ism, I am making that effort in order to achieve what I consider to be a more desirable state; therefore, the motive to change conditions the change. So I must realize my own conditioning and do absolutely nothing. This is very difficult. But I must know for myself that my mind is small, petty, confused, conditioned, and see that any effort to change it is still within the field of that confusion; therefore, any such effort only breeds further confusion.’

It’s the old, old story, namely, no effort of the self can remove the self. Don’t try to remove the self. It can’t be done. Indeed, don’t try at all, but rather look, observe … and let. Once you see the folly and illusion of all self-effort, and the futile attempt by one self to remove another self from one’s life (which is the basis of so-called willpower), you will come to know the truth as one. It’s as simple as that. Simple, but not easy. The good news is that the mind can free itself. Here’s Krishnamurti again:

‘You see, when the mind is totally aware of its conditioning, there is only the mind; there is no 'you' separate from the mind. But, when the mind is only partially aware of its conditioning, it divides itself, it dislikes its conditioning or says it is a good thing; and, as long as there is condemnation, judgment, or comparison, there is incomplete understanding of conditioning, and therefore, the perpetuation of that conditioning. Whereas, if the mind is aware of its conditioning without condemning or judging, but merely watching it, then there is a total perception, and you will find, if you so perceive it, that the mind frees itself from that conditioning.’

‘The mind frees itself from [the] conditioning.’ But for that to occur there needs to be a choiceless awareness of the presence of conditioning---that is, no condemnation, no judgment, no analysis, no interpretation, no evaluation, just a ‘total perception’ of life as it unfolds from one moment to the next. That’s where mindfulness comes in, for that is what mindfulness is. It’s all about developing and using what I've referred to elsewhere as a mindful mind of no-mind---that is, an empty mind, a mind that is always open to truth as it unfolds unceasingly, a mind characterised by openness and passive alertness. Truth is never static. It is dynamic. Conditioning, including all belief-systems, is otherwise. A conditioned mind is a closed, conflicted, and divided mind.

I once heard an Anglican bishop say that if we would travel far, we must travel light. He was right. But in order to travel light we must allow our mind to free itself from all conditioning, which is the past. What we call the ‘self’---the self that likes or dislikes this or that, the self that believes or disbelieves one thing or another---is nothing but the cup of conditioning and a divided mind. How can you know Zen---that is, truth, reality, life---unless you first empty your cup? There's a saying in Buddhism that I like, 'Go with empty hands,' that is, proceed through life without beliefs, fixed ideas, and the like. Empty-handedness is, of course, a metaphor. It refers to a certain state of mind or mind-set---one that is free, unencumbered, unfettered, undivided, and unconditioned.

When it comes to things theological---indeed, all things---I neither believe nor disbelieve. The belief-disbelief spectrum is one continuous spectrum with belief at one end and disbelief at the other. For example, both belief and disbelief in God are in fact the exercise of the one and the same function, that is, mental faculty or mindset. Belief is an exercise of the function in a 'positive' manner while disbelief is an exercise of the very same function in a 'negative' manner. (Note. My use of the words 'positive' and 'negative' is not meant to be perjorative.)

Me? I neither believe nor disbelieve in God. I am 'off the spectrum,' so to speak. (I'm sure that many who know me would say, 'Boy, is he off the spectrum!' LOL.) No, I am not an agnostic, which, as I see it, is simply a 'weak' atheist. Both the agnostic and the atheist lack theistic belief, except that the atheist's lack (and not necessarily denial) of belief is stronger, but both are still very much positioned, and I would say 'stuck,' at various points along the belief-disbelief continuum. In my case, I reject all three positions (namely, theism, agnosticism, and atheism) as category mistakes. ‘The atheist makes the mistake of denying that of which nothing may be said ... and the theist makes the mistake of affirming it,’ wrote Anthony de Mello SJ. In short, belief and disbelief in God are not polar opposites. In fact, the two things are much closer to each other that their respective adherents think. As I say, it is the self-same function.

Avoid, like the plague, those who say things like, ‘Super-person X is the only way to God,’ or ‘You must believe this [or "Super-person X"] in order to be saved.’ As I have said many times, if people are rewarded for believing such things, then I wouldn't want to believe [sic] in or worship such a god.

And what of faith? As I se it, faith is all about living life with courage and confidence but also with realism. The great Alan Watts wrote this in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951):

‘We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” [note: the old Saxon lyfan, be-lyfan, is the English to ‘live’, to ‘belive’] or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.’

Beliefs take the form of things such as assumptions, presumptions, views, opinions, preconceptions, preferences, prejudices, predilections, and biases---in other words, concretised truth, if it be truth at all which it can't be because truth which is life is dynamic whereas beliefs are static. Beliefs are indeed the result, and the defining characteristic, of a closed mind. A very closed mind. What is needed, as Watts has stated, is an 'unreserved opening of the mind to truth, whatever it may turn out to be.' That requires choiceless awareness of whatever is---from one moment to the next.

Now, we in the West live in an age of crass materialism. Is it because most Westerners have given up on so-called 'orthodox' Christianity? The mainstream Christian churches would have you believe [sic] that is the cause of Western materialism---that, along with human greed. No, I tend to agree with the late Bishop Lawrence W Burt who, after accusing the Christian Church of having 'lost the chart of man's spiritual origin and destiny,' went on to say:

'Western materialism is the product of certain orthodox Church doctrines which have been the substance of Christian thought for centuries. If modern civilisation is to be saved from the suicidal doom to which it is drifting, materialistic doctrines, even though invested with a halo of sanctity, must be expunged from Christian teaching.

'Orthodox Christianity has lost its appeal to thoughtful people because its primitive doctrines are divorced from reason, from logic and commonsense.'

Those words were spoken in Sydney, Australia, over 70 years ago. Ever since then, Australians and most other Westerners---who, like me, are not prepared to believe that which offends against one's sensibilities or which is otherwise contrary to reason--have been leaving the churches in droves. For the most part, I don't blame them.

The bottom line? Beliefs lock us into the past. Beliefs imprison. They do not liberate. They are chains that bind us. Go beyond belief. Neither believe nor disbelieve. Instead, work to know and understand. As the Buddha said, ‘Do not believe, for if you believe, you will never know. If you really want to know, don’t believe.’ Yes, forget about belief-systems. Beliefs are for ‘spiritual cripples’---namely, those who can’t, or won’t, think for themselves. So, dear friends, whatever you do---don't 'believe'. Make the quantum leap in your mind---now!

Note. This article contains and reworks material that previously appeared in various posts on the author’s own blog.