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The Great Unknown

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By Ron Martin

Buddhist scriptures record that one day the Buddha was walking through the Sisu Grove at Kosambi with a band of followers when he stopped to pick up a handful of leaves and said, “What think ye, brethren? Which are more, these leaves that I hold in my hand, or those that are in the Sisu Grove above?” His followers replied that few in number were in the hand of the Exalted One; far more in number were those in the Sisu Grove above. “Just so, brethren,” said the Buddha, “those things that I know but have not revealed are greater by far in number than those things I have revealed. And why have I not revealed them?” “Because they do not conduce to profit, are not concerned with the holy life, to cessation, to tranquillity, to the perfect wisdom, to Nirvana. That is why I have not revealed them”.

Psychology has given us an indication of what this hidden part must contain, but it is extremely limited and much of it is open to dispute. When we consider the vast amount of knowledge we consciously attain over a lifetime and how little this is compared with what must still remain unknown, the implications are truly astounding. The purpose of religion, and of Buddhism in particular, is to penetrate into this Great Unknown, so as to make sense of what and who we are. Some have called it “transcendence”; others have called it “God”, whereas those, like Professor Richard Dawkins, claim that it can be penetrated by scientific means (he has said that science will eventually explain everything). Paul Tillich referred to it as the “depth of our being”, and this was taken up by Bishop John Robinson in his book Honest to God. In Zen it is the Essence of Mind.

The main implication must surely be how humble we should feel about the extent of our own knowledge; we should realize that we have such a limited knowledge of the Absolute and our position in the scheme of things that we must avoid dogmatism and any attempt to impose our views on others. The history of religion is bedevilled by the attempts to impose religious dogmas on others, even to the extent of using the most horrific means to this end - and it is still going on today.

We can only speculate how Enlightenment, in its Buddhist context, reveals all that can be known about the “depth of our being”, but we can get a good idea as to how it functions by observing what happens in everyday life. Take, for example, a pianist playing a piano concerto; the speed at which his fingers go over the keyboard could not possibly be controlled by the conscious mind, even though the conscious mind plays a part in the interpretation of the music. This ability must come from somewhere and it is not too far-fetched to attribute it to that part of our being that is the unconscious mind in its broadest sense (the Zen word hsin). Keeping to this musical theme, how can we explain the fact that Mozart was able to compose music and play, with accomplishment, a musical instrument at the age of five? Surely he did not learn all this as a baby - it must have been inborn and is one small indication of rebirth and the effect of Karma. However, this must not be taken to mean that it is the same as reincarnation, which implies the reintroduction of a personal, or individual, being into the world, albeit in a new body. As Christmas Humphreys pointed out, it is a “bundle of characteristics” that are carried over into a new life, not an individual soul, or ego. Put in scientific terms, it is the genetic structure that determines how we, and indeed all living things, begin life. How we develop after this rests upon individual efforts and beliefs, as well as on the evolutionary process as outlined by Darwin. However, the gap between Darwinism and Buddhism is enormous, because Darwin explained only how species developed, he could not explain how life began on earth and this, surely, is by far the more important.

If the history of Zen Buddhism is traced back to its origins it most likely began in the Sisu Grove at Kosambi. Here the Buddha stated, without equivocation, that the quest for more knowledge and the pursuit of wealth does not lead to Nirvana, yet Nirvana is accessible to us all in the Here and Now.

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