Knowing and Believing



People sometimes ask, “As a Buddhist, what do you believe?”  I usually respond, “as little as possible.”  As a Buddhist practitioner, there are some few things I genuinely know, but many things–large and small–about which I only hold, however tenuously, an opinion.  My opinions on these things aren’t worth very much.  They’re really not much better—at best—than yours.

Among the things I don’t know: What happens after death?  Is perfect enlightenment possible?  Do all things possess Buddha Nature?  Does life have meaning?  Is there a God?  How does consciousness relate to matter?  I can tell you what the various Buddhist traditions say about each of these questions, but I can’t attest that what the traditions say is true.

But there are some things I do know.

I know it’s good to be as kind to others as we can—to care for their wellbeing, wish them the best, and help them whenever possible.  I know it’s good to pay attention to, care about, and maintain and improve (if possible) everything that falls within our small purview, including animals, plants, the natural environment, and objects intended for our comfort, convenience, or aesthetic appreciation.  I know it’s good to be in touch with the fullness of life—to be deeply present and attentive to its immediacy, intricacy and complexity.  I know that while we ought not to live for pleasure or expect pleasure to last, that accepting some modicum of pleasure into our lives is an essential part of wellbeing.  I know it’s good to listen carefully to others, hear what they’re actually saying, and try our best to see things—if only provisionally—from their point of view.  I know its a good thing not to think too much of oneself: to be aware not only of one’s strengths and virtues, but also one’s weaknesses and frailties, as well as one’s contingency and ultimate lack of control over fate.  I know it’s a good thing to acknowledge change and impermanence—that all “things” are really slow-moving processes subject to continual transformation.  I know that all things exist by virtue of their interconnectedness with everything else and that we are all integral parts of a larger whole that we only dimly understand.  I know that when we examine living systems we find complexity, intricacy, transformation, and something that looks suspiciously like intention, all the way down.  I know that life is too rich and complex to be fully encompassed by any single religion or philosophy.

I also know more specific things—the taste of chocolate; the scent of the ocean; the beauty of a sunset; that on this planet, when things are dropped they fall downwards.

And then there are things I “believe” based on my trust in the sources of the information: that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second; that matter is composed of sub-atomic particles; that humans evolved through natural selection; that the climate is warming due to greenhouse gases.  I really don’t know any of these things in a first-hand kind of way, but I’d be willing to bet good money on them.

Of course, when I say “I believe matter is made of sub-atomic particles,” what am I really attesting to?  My understanding of sub-atomic particles is very sketchy.  I could say, “They’re very small pieces of matter—something like particles.” But saying “they’re something like particles” is really an analogy.  In some ways they’re not like particles at all; they also have wave-like properties. Some people think they’re more “like” vibrating strings.  When I think of particles in my everyday life–motes of dust, breadcrumbs, grains of sand–they all have a specific shape, color, and texture.  What is the shape, color, or texture of a subatomic particle? These attributes simply don’t apply to the subatomic world. There is an important sense in which, although I am very familiar with the concept of sub-atomic particles, I really don’t know them at all.  Much of what we believe has a similar character.

There are those who would lay down litmus tests to determine who’s really a Buddhist and who isn’t. They say that if you don’t believe in reincarnation or in complete and perfect enlightenment, then you don’t really belong in the Buddhist club. But I’ve never been a Buddhist in order to belong to a club. Not that I have anything against clubs. I happen to enjoy good company as much as the next person.

My response to these kind of litmus tests is that–for me–“being a Buddhist” means 1) paying deep moment-to-moment attention to life, 2) taking responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions, 3) committing to a life of compassionate activity for the benefit of all beings, and 4) understanding impermanence, interconnection, non-duality, and emptiness.

It’s a Buddhism  based on what I really know.

Everything else is interesting conjecture.  All of it may be true, or none of it. Maybe one day I’ll know for certain.  But I wouldn’t bet money on it.  Nor do I consider knowing the rest of it to be of primary importance.  Only moment-by moment careful attention, caring, and understanding our deep interconnection with each other and with the Earth is of primary importance.

You may consider me a follower of Master Gudo:

The Emperor asked Master Gudo, “What happens to a man of enlightenment after death?”
“How should I know?” replied Gudo.
“Because you are a master,” answered the Emperor.
“Yes sir,” said Gudo, “but not a dead one.”