The Devil and a couple of his chief demons were walking on a rural road, and spied a holy man from a local village walking towards them. They made themselves invisible in order to spy on him. The holy man appeared to be in deep contemplation as he made his way along the dusty road. Suddenly a smile broke out on his face. He raised his head and laughed aloud, then continued on his way, his step light, his expression beatific.
“What was that all about?” one of the demons asked.
“He has seen a piece of the Truth,” the Devil replied.
“Oh, this is not good!” the other demon said.
The Devil shrugged. “It is of little consequence.”
“Aren’t you worried he will tell others?”
“I’m sure he will. He has many students.”
“And this doesn’t concern you?” the demons cried.
“Not at all,” the Devil said. “They will probably just turn it into a religion.”
This brief parable is a retelling of one from the Great Courses lecture I’m listening to at the moment, one given by an excellent teacher named Mark Muesse entitled “Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad.” He talks about each of these great sages, as he calls them, giving the historical context in which they lived, what they taught, and how it affected the world. I find it absolutely fascinating.
And why would an atheist be so fascinated by a talk on religion? Because it isn’t about religion. It’s about wisdom. It’s about the holy men who see pieces of the Truth on the road, before others have taken that Truth and turned it into a religion.
When a human being has a great insight, the impulse is to share it, to communicate it to others, that they may benefit from it. But invariably it seems that Truth is lost in translation. In every case, within a few years of his passing, the sage’s followers try to codify the teachings and begin to disagree, splintering off into separate schools. There are power struggles, and attempts to “purify” the cannon. Authorities seize control of the discussion and mark some opinions as heresy and approve others as correct. And what becomes of the Truth?
One of the core disagreements between East and West when it comes to spirituality is how one comes to know the Truth. For most theists, the Truth has been revealed by God, and one must have faith, often ignoring personal experience or reflection. Faith trumps logic. The Buddha taught just the opposite: don’t take it on authority, don’t accept on faith. Experience it for yourself. That is the only way to truly understand.
One thing they did seem to agree on was that Ultimately Reality cannot be communicated in mere language. Call it God or call it Nirvana, it is too mysterious for ordinary comprehension.
My only interest in religion is how it shows how humans think and act. The story of the evolution of every religious institution is a lesson in politics, history, and power. If a person explains to me what he or she believes, it tells me a great deal about them. It tells me nothing about the Truth they are trying to describe. No human artifact, no book, no authority, can be free from the prejudices and agendas that surrounded its creation. That is why there are so many sects, so many denominations, so much disagreement, contradiction and debate.
So, how to decide what to believe? What constitutes a good life and moral behavior? What is the nature of ultimate reality, the purpose of life, the meaning of our suffering and struggle? Well, you can just party hearty, grab for the gusto, and not bother with deep questions (although that in itself is an answer of sorts). But if you apply yourself to answering these philosophical issues, if wisdom really matters to you, there’s a problem. Who do you trust? Of all these myriad truths, where lies the Truth?
That’s where I think the Buddha had it right. You’ve got to DIY. Study, ask questions, listen and learn, then sit yourself down and pray or meditate, or fast and go out on a vision quest, climb a mountain, meet the Devil in the desert. And what is revealed to you after sincere effort is the closest you’re going to come to the Truth.
With luck, you’ll find others who have come to similar conclusions, whatever they are. If asked, you can share your insights with others who are seeking. In time, if we are sincere, diligent and work in earnest, we might all start stumbling in the same direction as we grope our way towards the indescribable and incomprehensible Truth.
But don’t try to codify it, regulate it, ritualize it or impose it on others. If you do, it just becomes another religion.