Ed Halliwell is a Shambhala Buddhist with an insightful blog going at the UK Guardian. Today he answers, What is agnosticism?
“I’m frequently staggered by how much I don’t know. Awesome moments of ignorance-insight strike (often, curiously, in the bath) like mini-flashes of lightning, catapulting me out of a habitual mode of mind that fixates on the tiny speck of planet where, for a few brief years, I seem to have been planted. Why is there something rather than nothing? I don’t know. How does consciousness manifest in a material body? I don’t know. Are there limits to the universe(s) and if so, what is beyond them? I don’t know. Are we merely characters in a computer simulation created by brighter minds? I don’t know. As the 13th century zen master Dogen succinctly and pointedly asked: “What is it that thus comes?” I don’t know.
Yet these flashes come not in the form of questions and answers, or any other form of reasoning or language. They just come, unbidden, wordlessly and shockingly, usually lasting just a second or two, sometimes prompting a reflexive laugh or startled exhalation of breath, my mind suddenly empty of culturally-ingrained concepts that for most of the time keep it tightly constricted. For an instant, the fact that I am here but don’t know how or why seems at the same time hilarious, achingly sad, and utterly wonderful. My heart feels warm, light, connected.
I … don’t … know … (aaahhh!)
Then conceptual mind whirrs into gear again, and I start busily thinking about breakfast, work, love, or why there is something rather than nothing, only using language and logic this time – a wholly different and unsatisfying experience – less mystical, more mystifying.
Buddhism (and especially zen) can seem like a form of agnosticism. But there is a subtle and important distinction between agnosticism as it is usually meant (“appropriate intellectual reserve in the face of the big questions” says Nick Spencer) and the “don’t know” mind of zen. Cultivating the state of not-knowing through practices such as zazen (sitting meditation) is a radical, experiential approach that undercuts the rational brain, so prone to tie itself up in concepts that lead to intellectual dead-ends. Linguistic attempts to get at the ultimate truth are sometimes described as fingers pointing at the moon – useful, but not to be mistaken for the moon itself, whose magical beauty can only ever be apprehended directly.
Agnostic (and indeed atheists) examine the evidence in front of them, and conclude that there is no material evidence for the non-material (strange, that!). The non-theistic meditator turns his or her focus on the perceiver as well as the perceived, and tends to discover, over time, that the mind which views the evidence is not quite so solid as once thought. As neuroscientist and zen practitioner James Austin describes in his new book Selfless Insight, meditation demonstrably changes brain functioning so that the world is literally perceived more openly, and from a less ego-fixated viewpoint. When the mind that sees “the evidence” is shown not to be reliable, “the evidence” itself comes to seem less of a gold-standard for determining what is, and what isn’t, real. In their determination to rely on what’s in front of their eyes, many rationalists seem not to contemplate the biases of mind that might be influencing their (and all our) perceptions.
Read the rest at the Guardian here.