Intellectual honesty in spirituality: Zen and not dead yet

 

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.”

– I heard this story almost 30 years ago but can’t find an original source right now. It seems to be quoted a lot without a source.

This is honesty. There is a huge amount of bs in spirituality, and it consists mostly of people pretending that stories are reality.

Do we know that reincarnation exists? Or the soul? Or any afterlife? Or karma? Isn’t this just what someone else has told us?

Is it something we can check for ourselves? And if not, why repeat it or pretend we know it’s true?

Why not instead be honest? Why not admit we don’t know?

There are other ways to use these concepts and ideas that seem more helpful. For instance, why not explore these concepts and ideas as projections? Why not use them as something we can explore here and now? How can I find where they fit my experience?

For instance, I can find a kind of reincarnation here and now. I notice that each moment is fresh and new and something is kind of recreated. I notice that any ideas I have of a me or I are recreated here and now. In that way, “I” am reborn. (Any ideas of continuity are just that, ideas. I cannot find it outside of my ideas. This means that reborn even in this sense is also based on an idea on not something actual I can put my finger on.)

I can find karma in that something that happens has consequences. Actions has consequences. Through how I think, feel, and act, I create habits and grooves that it’s easier to follow in the future. When I act in the world, the world responds. This is the karma I can find in my own life and check out for myself. Beyond that, I don’t really know. (Even here, I cannot really find karma, cause and effect, and so on outside of my ideas.)

What about the afterlife? I can find it in my ideas, but not outside of my ideas. I can find timelessness here, and that all my experiences happen within and as this timelessness. I notice that this human self – and the idea of time itself – happens within and as that timelessness. But I still don’t know if there is anything after this human self dies.

Of course, I know that not everyone are interested in or inclined to explore in this way. For many, holding onto ideas is comforting and sufficient. It’s that way for me too, sometimes and in some areas of life, and probably in ways I am not even aware of. That’s completely fine. But I prefer to be honest about it, at least as much as I can.

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