Friday, September 18, 2009

The Indisputable Truth

Lately I've been chewing on a paradox, wrestling with two seemingly opposing points of view about how one should progress along the spiritual path. On the one hand is the view that through our study and practice we should be developing certainty about the way things really are. Tibetan teachers, especially, emphasize the importance of developing certainty; without certainty, they say, we are bound to continue wandering aimlessly in habitual patterns and confusion. On the other hand is the view, particularly strong in the Zen tradition, that the further we progress along the spiritual path, the more we are obliged to admit to ourselves how little we actually know. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities," wrote Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind Beginner's Mind. "In the expert's, there are few." There is even a name for this view, which is held up as an ideal for the spiritual seeker: Don't-Know Mind.

What I am experiencing these days, by way of the particular practices I am doing, is not the growth of certainty, but its opposite -- the dissolution of old certainties that were based on mistaken assumptions, the crumbling of old, familiar ways of looking at mind and experience and life. I'm left not with the newfound certainty of understanding that I would expect to find when the cobwebs of delusion are being swept away, but with a sense of groundlessness that seems to disallow for any certainty at all -- casting a shadow of doubt upon any edifice of conceptual certainty the ego may try to construct around itself. Although my teachers and mentors tell me that what I should be developing is certainty, what I'm actually experiencing at the moment is the growth of Don't-Know Mind.

The possibility has not been lost on me that there is a phase one must pass through, before reality can be seen with genuine certainty, when the old mistaken certainties have been taken away but there is not yet anything to replace them, and that this might be the space into which I am beginning -- tentatively, half-heartedly -- to stick one of my feet. But I'm actually wondering if there is not something suspect, to begin with, about our human quest for certainty and our fixation on finding answers.

But maybe that's too abstract. Here's what I know: There's a mind here (whatever that is, and wherever here is) that is experiencing stuff (whatever that is), and when I look at it closely there doesn't seem to be any visible dividing line (that I can find, anyway, with my admittedly feeble powers of discernment) between the mind and the experiencing and the stuff. Beyond that, there isn't much that I feel I can say, at the moment, that couldn't be easily challenged. (And even that much, which seems to be hardly anything, remains open to some disputation in my own mind. The apparent separateness of experienced stuff from the experiencing mind is a deeply entrenched habit of perspective, like a pair of glasses that perhaps distort one's vision rather than clarifying it, but which it is nevertheless uncomfortable to remove because one has grown very used to them. Although direct investigation suggests that this dualistic perspective may in fact be quite mistaken, it nevertheless reasserts itself very quickly and automatically, producing a sense of mental static that interferes with the clear reception of certainty obtained in meditation.)

What I'm beginning to suspect is that, on the spiritual path as a whole, the questions might be more important than the answers. Maybe awakening comes not through piling up more and more knowledge and certainty about things, but through asking more and more profound and juicy questions -- and, when asking them, being more and more willing to step into the ocean of Don't-Know Mind rather than clutching at answers in an attempt to keep the ground under our feet.

And so, in that spirit, I leave you not with a statement but with a question, which I ask you in all seriousness, and I hope you will answer. (You're invited to post your answer here in the comments section.) I offer several ways of phrasing it, but it's really just one question, and the question is this:

What do you know? What, in your own experience, are you certain of? What, in your view, is the indisputable truth, and why?



Stephen said...

Personally, the older I get, the less certain I am of most things. I think that because of this, or in tandem, I am also becoming less judgemental, less stubborn, and more open to honest experience.

This gradual transition has been profoundly liberating for me. As I identify less and less with my ego (or Pain Body, as Eckhart Tolle might say), I don't feel the need to be "right" all the time, which allows me to really listen to other points of view instead of wasting all my energy defending my own. In this way, trending toward uncertainty (and de-identification with ego) seems to me like the desirable path.

Many times, I think different religions, sects, denominations, and even members of the same church get lost in disagreement over which is the right and true finger, when they're really all pointing at the same moon. Is it possible that the "two seemingly opposite points of view" aren't really opposites at all?

Dennis Hunter said...

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was once asked how to identify the signs of successful practice in a student (the conversation was about a specific practice in Tibetan Buddhism, called ngondro, but it applies somewhat universally, I think). He replied that one could judge whether the practice was successful if one was becoming less arrogant and less opinionated. It sounds like your practice is bearing fruit, Stephen.

Dennis Hunter said...

Wait, that sort of sounds like I'm saying you used to be arrogant and opinionated. I didn't mean it that way.

But come to think of it... ;-)


I like your image of "trending toward uncertainty."

And Pema Chodron says that the spiritual path is really all about becoming "Comfortable with Uncertainty" (the title of one of her books).

Unknown said...

I am surprised and delighted when you write about thoughts I am puzzling over. We are doing our Stages of Emptiness on Sundays and every analytical meditation says rest in the certainty. I think I rest in uncertainty because that is the only thing I am certain about. Maybe it is because I know every school will be refuted and all my assumptions about our world are just mental fabrications.
You must be alert and aware when you rest in uncertainty. It is like riding a horse who may chose to throw you at any moment..
Thanks again, Susan

Unknown said...

My experience is there is no monolithic indisputable truth that blankets every thing and every question. There is in each moment an indesputable thruth but that would be an ultimate experiential truth where there is no perceiver or perceptions, just pure appearance.

Pure appearace is like the flickering of a firefly or like a sewing machine needle rapidly stitiching a thread through a piece of cloth.

No effort sustains it because it happens naturally.

In my path the primry indentification has habitually been with the peceiver and the perceptions that appearr simultaneously as the ultimate truth takes place. Pure appearance arises like the heart beat. Try as I might, I cannot hear or tune into it without concerted effort.

There is no such thing as sustained, unceasing, and inifite awareness on the ultimate truth as a human being and it is folly to try. Would be like trying to hear the sound of the heart beating every beat from now until it stops.

For me the path of less folly is developing greater familiarity with where I do place my focus now and exapand that so it does not rest in a narrow spectrum seperated from direct experience.

Dennis Hunter said...

"If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence."

-- George Eliot