By Johnathon Pendall
I’m taking a short break from Koan Quest Across the West to help work on the Tattooed Buddha Podcast and write this column.
I was going to write a column about karma and rebirth, but I think I’ll toss that into the laundry bin for now. Today I’d like to talk about life as a skeptic.
At times, I’ve wished upon all of the gods and goddesses throughout human history that I was not such an unrelenting skeptic. I’m using skeptic in the modern usage, not the philosophical usage. I’m also skeptical of skepticism.
Sometimes I feel like I have some kind of birth defect that prevents me from believing in things. I’ve witnessed the power of belief uplift people’s hearts and compel them to do astounding deeds. Of course, belief has also wrought many horrors throughout the years.
Even when I was a youngin’ I questioned everything.
I’m surprised that, “Why?” wasn’t my first word. As well as a skeptic, I’m also rigidly attached to the scientific method. For me to call something factual, I have to be able to test it empirically. I find it hard to even rely on secondhand knowledge—even if it’s given to me by scientists (cough-cough, dark matter? cough-cough)!
That’s one of the reasons I was relieved when I stumbled on Buddhism. I thought to myself, “Here is something that I’m encouraged to test on my own! Something that I don’t have to take on faith!” Every perspective in the Buddhadharma is meant to be observed on the zafu and in day-to-day life.
“Attachment causes suffering.”
“Sit and watch.”
So the Buddhist sits and watches and discovers, “So it is. Why does attachment cause suffering?”
“Sit and watch.”
So we sit and watch and figure it out.
That said, my skeptical attitude is so engraved in my worldview and personality that it could almost be considered a mental illness (I’m being hyperbolic of course. It’s tempting to take me seriously if you don’t know me. I’m anything but serious, unless I’m serious).
This skeptical disposition has prevented me from being happy at times. I went to church with a friend once and was amazed at how happy and rapturous everyone appeared to be. They were sharing a phenomenal feeling of togetherness that I was denied.
I’ve spoken with many people who have never once questioned their beliefs. I’ve cycled through countless religions, philosophies, and political views because a state of dissatisfaction would set in after entertaining one for a few weeks. So, then I’d shrug off my beliefs and move onto something else.
I was uncomfortable with uncertainty.
It feels good to feel certain. Certainty is like the happy ending of a tragic story. Certainty is like a bridge leading across a canyon of fear to the other ledge of peace and equanimity.
Well, whomever I got my bridge from was clearly hungover when they made it. It’s shaky, full of holes and just goes around and around in impossible circles.
I’ve tasted a degree of certainty while practicing Buddhism because there’s no element of belief involved in my practice—just raw and unbiased observation of the nature of reality and the workings of the mind.
I listened to a lecture by Sangharakshita once in which he asked the listener to think about everything they’ve learned secondhand, and everything they’ve been told by someone else. Then he suggested that, for just a few moments, we imagine that all of that is completely wiped from our minds. What’s left after all the secondhand knowledge is gone? Not much really. Without secondhand knowledge, I can’t even say that Canada actually exists because I’ve never been there. Everyone says it’s an actual place, but how can I know that for sure? Even if I acknowledged that Canada conventionally exists, I would just counter that with, “Nations are just imaginary lines. It’s common knowledge that Canada exists, but how can I say Canada has any absolute existence when all I see is land?”
It used to be common knowledge that the sun was a deity who invented chicken pot pies.
All right, I made up that last part. Yet if I was confident enough and forceful enough with my argument, I guarantee someone would believe that people did indeed used to think that the sun baked chicken pot pies.
That’s the danger of belief to me. Some studies have shown (studies which anyone could perform) that it only takes one person to sway the views of an entire group. That person just has to be confident and consistent. It doesn’t always matter if someone is correct. Sometimes what matters is if someone acts like they’re correct.
I appreciate Buddhism because one aspect of the Dharma is that, “No-view is Right View.” Not relying on a view is the Right View to have. To move beyond views altogether, or at least to not be attached to the views that one has.
Of course, I don’t always live up to that expectation. Even as a diehard skeptic, I’m not immune to forming some views. I believe that capital punishment is immoral and unethical. I believe that cruelty in all of its forms is unethical and immoral. I stand unflinchingly behind certain principles like honesty, humor, integrity, insightfulness, autonomy, creativity and kindness.
But overall, the universe is quite a confusing place and seldom do I have even the remotest idea what’s going on. That’s prevented me from being at peace in the past, but maybe that too can be a condition of equanimity?
“The Great Way is not difficult
For those who have no preferences…
If you wish to see the Truth,
Hold no opinion for or against anything…
Do not search for Truth;
Only cease to cherish opinions…”
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Of course that verse is in itself—you got it—an opinion. Also, having no preferences is in itself a preference of sorts. I love how Zen is so logical that it makes logic seem illogical.
It’s difficult to have a lot of preferences when you are perpetually uncertain. Sometimes, if we can’t change who we are, maybe we can use what we have in a beneficial way?
Having views can be rather limiting at times, and views are always good fodder for arguments. Arguments take up a lot of time and energy. Conflict is highly irrational. Spending one’s life trying to be “right” is highly irrational. Maybe people with loads of views aren’t as happy as I always thought?
Having set convictions is popular in America, but we have some of the highest rates of psychopathology in the world.
Russell, a wise friend of mine, said, “Certainty kills insight. Where understanding stands, nothing can be learned.” So perhaps I looked at all these years of skepticism and uncertainty from a skewed perspective? Maybe it’s alright to be uncertain. Maybe it’s actually one of the ways to find a state of equanimity that isn’t fleeting?
Perhaps freedom is not only living with, but also delighting in uncertainty?
“I don’t know,” is a phrase championed by Zen teachers throughout the ages. It could be that cherishing not knowing is one of the keys to a life well lived.
Photo: Media Photobucket
Editor: Dana Gornall[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, his blog "Salty Dharma", and/or his non-Buddhist poetry at "The Writer's Block."
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