I got into a spirited discussion recently about the whole notion of a cosmic “purpose” or “plan” behind what happens, or as I put it, behind “history.” Of course I was adamantly against this notion, and although the talk was friendly, I came away with a familiar feeling, a sort of guilty conscience for challenging beliefs that seem to provide meaning and comfort to those holding them.
Part of the problem in such discussions is that the boundaries between the principled and the personal are inevitably blurred. When I drew inferences from the notion of purpose that resulted in justifying the unjustifiable, I was assured that the other had no such intent.
But you see, someone’s intent is not the issue at all. Ideas need to be evaluated on their own merits without regard to the character of the person advancing them. This is a point that is very difficult for many people to grasp in the middle of conversation, because we are involved personally in the interaction. We are afraid not to hurt someone’s feelings, or offend their cherished convictions, or somehow damage our friendship by engaging in contention. In fact, all this is beside the point.
One argument that I did not make, but which is actually foremost in my estimation, is that self-importance lends a sense of significance to human activity that we then project onto the cosmos. To seriously believe that the Divine (however you may conceive of it) would need to bother about a purpose or a plan behind the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia, is to betray a very pedestrian idea of divinity. Uncountable life forms are born and pass away in the space of a moment, and the number of galaxies exceeds the mind’s ability to calculate—surely there’s no need for a creator or cosmic demiurge to arrange the pathetic drama of human history like a puppet show.
Furthermore, if there is a plan, it’s a damn lousy one for sure. No plan that requires the cruelty, barbarism and savagery that we have witnessed, even only in the last hundred years, is worth my reverence or consideration. Earthquakes, disease, and other pains that are part and parcel of conditioned existence I accept as the natural order. Torturing people, throwing them in gas chambers, wiping them out en masse with bombs, etc., I don’t see as part of a plan, nor would any supposed higher purpose make them worthwhile.
I think that reality is too great to have a meaning. But this truth has a disturbing effect on many of us. Human beings require meaning, and I think this need is based on an intuition of absolute truth. However, we don’t see that spirit (the divine metaphor) is identical with subjectivity. Instead we are hypnotized by the so-called outside world, not realizing that this is an abstraction. Not an illusion, as the traditions of the East seem to say, but a conception of reality. This conception serves us, but our bondage begins when we serve it. That’s when we become objects in the game of an historical spirit. That’s when we start frantically looking for meaning behind things instead of in ourselves.
Regular readers may know that I posit a link between this abandonment of spirit to an objective concept of reality and the fear of death. I’m not sure that this can be demonstrated logically, however. I only sense that the intuition of spirit as identical with the unconditioned (reality itself) clashes with our conscious identification with this soul (the ancient metaphor), this particular mind-body complex that I call myself and associate with traits of personality. This identification is, in my view, what the Buddhists mean by “clinging” or “attachment.” It is not a mere mental operation or belief, but a kind of primordial act, based on the simple need for survival.
The secret of the sages and mystics, then—an open secret, really—is that the intuition of spirit as identical with the unconditioned (reality itself) needs to become conscious, and simultaneously the conscious identification with the individual self needs to be seen through. What is seen through doesn’t vanish. It’s just that its transparent (conditioned) nature is perceived. We survive, but without enslavement to the fear of death.