It seems to me that in the Western Enlightenment we gained a method for finding what is objectively true and we lost an overarching myth that bound society together. Much has been said about secularisation and science and here I’d like to add my twopence worth and summarise where I’m at with it. In short, Buddhism!
There is an ongoing struggle for supremacy between religion and science. It has been going on for some time! It’s like a seesaw going up and down or a pendulum swinging back and forth. At the one end is the tendency to see things in terms of good vs bad. A moral, ethical, psychological intuition about the meaning of things is held as the most important thing. I’ll call this the good/bad dimension.
At the other end of the seesaw is the true/false dimension of scientific, rational thought. The removal of subjectivity in search of objective truth.
Each side emphasises its own good points and denigrates the opposition’s dark side. The good/bad dimension maintains that love is superior to logic - think of typical plot lines in the original Star Trek TV show. The true/false dimension maintains that reality is superior to delusion - think of Galileo versus the Church.
It’s an intransigent problem. Oftentimes I see scientists who don’t seem to understand that ‘facts’ exist in a secondary world of concepts, symbols and definitions and are not reality itself. If objective truth is stripped of the context that to be a human being is a primarily psychological experience then it can become very nihilist indeed. Because of this, many people react against science as a utilitarian domination of nature. This is to lump technology in with empirical science but still, they have a point. Capitalism, colonialism and imperialism have misused science and brought us to the brink of destruction. It’s heartbreakingly sad and infuriating.
On the other hand, I see many religious people who don’t seem to understand that underlying the flowery rhetoric and emotional uplift of their holy practices there is an aggressive will to control, to drive out ‘evil’ as projected onto others. Ancient injustices piled up one on top of another and so the Western Enlightenment came as an urgently needed corrective against delusion, dogmatism and the often weird contortions that religious orthodoxies get themselves into.
There is a third position. The Buddha taught about only two things, suffering and the ending of suffering. This is another dimension! I’m going to lump the traditional causes of suffering - greed, hatred and delusion - into one as ‘fear’. Seeing how this is can lead to a great burst of compassion and love since we all must experience aging, loss, illness, death and so on. I’ll call it the dimension of love/fear. The goal is to get to the cessation of anguish, stress, sorrow, grief, depression, rage and so on. As such it could potentially be a guiding principle to the true/false dimension. He emphasised that fully comprehending reality, particularly the truth of how suffering arises, is to awaken from delusion, to see things as they are. It’s what he called the Dharma. Things seen properly are really processes all connected together in a great chain of causes and effects. This approach looks like a scientific view to me! Mystical views and blind faith are not requirements!
The objective understanding of truth cannot be done without, but it must not simply transplant religion. Science is a great servant but a terrible master. It might be thought of as ‘true but not good’.
The subjective understanding of the good cannot be done without, but it must not simply ignore reality. Religion can be a wonderful support for people, but it so often becomes an authoritarian structure. It might be thought of as ‘good but not true’.
This is where the Dharma comes in as a third position. The Buddha spoke of ‘sunyata’ sometimes translated as ‘emptiness’ in that things are not really ‘things’ but processes that do not have an eternal essence. He explained with an analogy - if you take apart all the components of a wagon you’ll see wheels, axels, boards and nails and so forth but you will not find any essence of the thing. The good/bad dimension tends to think of things, especially people, as having an essence. Some essential kernel of ‘soul’. If you look into your own ‘components’ of what you are experiencing right now - sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought, body and so forth - such a kernel is not found. Each element can be viewed as ‘not self’. Such a view on its own can lead to a nihilist position in that it would be possible to conclude that ‘there is no self’ and so nothing has any meaning. Professor Brian Cox has said, in so many words, that all there is is just so many fundamental particles and so many fundamental forces, and that’s all. It may be true, but is it good as a world view? Where does that leave us for a guiding principle? Nowhere! It leaves out the human experience, consciousness and the enormity of suffering. Following the emptiness logic further though, you could see that since everything is in one big flux, all processes are interlinked and so the suffering that you feel is linked to the suffering of all. It’s all one big suffering! This alone can be very relieving and leads to the arising of a great compassion.
The union of the ‘wisdom that perceives emptiness’ and this great compassion is embodied in the archetype of the Bodhisattva called ‘The One Who Hears The Cries Of The World’, or Avalokitesvara. Just as he is about to get enlightened and has one foot stepped over into nirvana, he hears the anguished cries of all the beings in all the realms behind him and he cannot lift his other foot. He turns around and is so moved by their sufferings that he vows that he will never leave them and so he steps back here into samsara. He vows that he will not be the first to enlightenment but instead will be the last, that he will help beings endlessly until they are rescued, down to the last blade of grass!
For me this is a revelatory myth that dissolves the tensions between the good/bad and the true/false because his wisdom is in seeing the truth of emptiness and his compassion springs forth from that. I think of the Nisagardatta quote:
“When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love.”
This singularity of wisdom-compassion is both good and true and expressed in a simple story. The Tibetan’s name for this Bodhisattva is ‘Chenrezig’ and his mantra is ‘om mani padme hum’. Six syllables that contain the entire Dharma. Six syllables that point towards a healing central myth that embraces the best of the scientific approach and also the heartfelt devotion that so many are in need of.