I was raised Roman Catholic. I was even an altar boy for awhile.
I was Catholic because my mom was Catholic, and her mom was Catholic and so on. Thankfully, my mom was never dogmatic about religion. She didn’t force Catholicism on me because she thought it was the one true path, but because she didn’t know what else to do.
So, when the time came for me to leave the Church and go exploring, she supported my heretical curiosity. I cycled through dozens of religions and philosophies over the years before finally coming to Buddhism in my mid twenties. Five years later, I’m still practicing it—that’s a record for me.
I’ve strayed from it here and there, but always left at least one foot in the door. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that there is a God in Buddhism, it’s just that some call it Mind or Buddha-nature.
It’s the belief in an essence that, “Ties the whole room together,” as Dudeists would say. I’ve had experiences that corroborate this kind of essence, and I feel compelled at times to just swallow the pill and join the flow.
But I resist, tooth and nail. Because one of the base teachings in Buddhism is: no essence. That’s the main thing that distinguished it from Jainism and Brahmanism. Many non-essentialists take the Buddha-Nature Sutras as positive expressions of emptiness, portraying the not-self as the True Self—not as a self-existent awareness like the prose seems to say.
But my experiences do point to just that: a clear, bright awareness. I’d love to just accept it as fact, to take that final leap into that particular flavor of pure “madness” that only religion can offer. Yet the pragmatist in me tells me to dig in my heels, to resist that call to bright oblivion.
Because of attachment. Where there are essences, there’s almost inevitably clinging. That was the whole point of Nagarjuna formulating emptiness, to help Buddhists overcome their attachment to essences.
In this quiet battle between essence and emptiness, I don’t know which side to side with. I don’t know who’s right. I could probably jigger a way to feel that they’re both right, but that seems like a cop-out; an arbitrary closure put in place for the sake of moving on.
As one of my mentors recently said to me: “You seem to doubt everything… at least intellectually.” This is fairly accurate. I’m seldom of One Mind about anything. For every yes I could picture a thousand nos and vice versa. I’m not a fence-sitter, though. Not knowing is an active position, and begin in the middle can be a decision in itself.
I get the sense that not knowing is the answer to this problem. Perhaps every paradigm and insight I’ve had is ultimately bogus, just pointers designed to cultivate a calm, clueless mind.
And yet my mentor has also pointed out a path beyond knowing and unknowing. So, perhaps even dwelling in not knowing is a mistake? Or maybe all Buddhists are just nuts. Much like me.