The Three Views of Existence (Part 2)

Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars that you see. You are still one with everything. That is more true than I can say, and more true that you can hear.

Shunryu Suzuki

Of the three fundamental views of existence that I laid out in part 1—creator god, scientific/materialist, and pantheist—I subscribe to the third. (I should add that “pantheism” is short hand for me. It’s a Western term, that is, from the world of Western philosophical speculation, and it undoubtedly has a lot of baggage attached to it that is not real.) I don’t see myself as having sought out this view. At one point in my life I was reading a lot of Taoism and Buddhism to try and stay afloat. I was doing a lot meditation, too, but, again, just to survive. In the midst of this I kept coming across the idea that everything is god, or mind. For a long time I assumed that this was merely a metaphor. Eventually I saw that the people advocating this idea really meant it. The difficult aspect is seeing the material plane as “merely” mind. If you cut me, I will bleed. If I kick a boulder with all my might, it will hurt like hell. The turning point for me came when someone I was reading, someone whose opinion I trusted and valued, stated that the material plane is an illusion, albeit a very thick one. That one statement tied a bunch of others together. The material plane has its own laws, but those laws are one with the spiritual background from which the material plane arises.

I don’t read a lot of science. I try, but I can’t hack the attitude that a lot of scientists adopt. They want to be the go-to guys, the great explainers. But science can never explain existence. It can only probe one layer of it—the material plane. I’ve read enough science to know that as scientists delve deeper into matter, they find that essentially it disappears. It’s a big mystery! But scientists insist that there is a rational order to reality, that through experimentation and research we can eventually understand everything—soberly. But that’s not what the sages say, and I take their word—the word of the real ones—over that of the scientists. The sages say that when you take the journey that leads to an understanding of what existence really is, it astonishes you. It blows your mind. If what you saw didn’t blow your mind, then you didn’t see fundamental reality. And fundamental reality is ineffable, that is, it cannot be put into words. You have to see it for yourself.

I’m not asserting here that I’ve had this vision. I haven’t. Just bits and pieces. So, in a sense, this is a statement of faith. But my journey isn’t over. I think I’m going to continue writing on this subject for some time. There will be a lot more parts. Right now I’m just trying to open up the subject. (There is more on this in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, in the chapter called “Consciousness Explained”.)

In part 3, I’ll write about the differences between the pantheistic and creator god schools of thought, and how scientific materialism, especially Western science is, in a sense, the outcome of those differences.

By the way, I welcome any comments on this particular subject. Even contentious ones.

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8 Responses to “The Three Views of Existence (Part 2)”

  1. Sylvia Cooley Says:

    A worthwhile discussion. Having not read a lot on this subject, I just know that growing up going to “Sunday School” and church there are parts of Christianity that wove themselves into me just a little bit as a child…the way you believe in Santa if you are a child and your parents tell you it is true. I liked the “do unto others” part and the caring parts of that religion. And when I was 12 and needed propping up after my Dad died, my childhood belief in heaven helped me to think he was in a nice place (green pastures, etc.) and I would get to see him again some day. It was a comforting thing during a time that would have been unbearable otherwise. But I wouldn’t categorize my family as very religious and I am thankful for that. Any sort of overzealous fundamentalism turns me off entirely.
    As I have aged I have found much more to believe in via nature and what it provides. The “great outdoors” is my church now. Ironically I teach science in high school. I have also worked with scientific research at UMass for many years. I love the curiosity that science fosters. I love designing research that can help you to find some answers to things you wonder about with wildlife for example. But I would never believe that to be the “end all and be all” of how things work. I find that science and conventional Christianity are both very shallow when it comes to spirituality. Spiritually is ongoing, always changing, and unique to each individual. Thanks for engaging in this discussion!

  2. Thoma Lile Says:

    I’m not as much of a science scholar as I would like to be. My life experiences haven’t yet allowed me to truly study as much as I’d like to. I lean more to science, which I think of as the rational and explainable, than I do to the spiritual, which I really think is a human construct to describe human emotions intermingled with human experiences that we cannot or don’t wish to explain yet. Having said that, I think that nature may be vast and intricate enough that we won’t be able to explain it all, certainly not in my lifetime. Science doesn’t “explain it all.” Science continues to pursue explanations and refinements of previous explanations. I think scientific inquiry will never end, because it’s like the idea of a limit in mathematics, that we can move closer and closer to a place yet an infinity of points remain between us and that place we are approaching.

    But when you suggest that we might explain it all “soberly,” I think you may be falling into the “it’s either-or” way of thinking about science and spirituality. I seek rational explanations, yes, But I have never lost my awe and love for this world I share.

    The closest I come to a spiritual connectedness is when wild animals, usually birds, communicate with me. I feel privileged and uplifted when a family of crows recognizes me as safe and their sentry doesn’t caw a warning when I walk through their foraging, yet the sentry calls the family into the trees when the person several yards behind me walks down the same path. The crows know I’m safe from previous encounters with me. It’s not me, but our shared experience that creates this interaction. There is a rational explanation, yet the experience “joys” me.

    I once camped in Mexico among dozens, if not hundreds, of brilliant green lizards. I observed their “push-ups” when they greeted each other. It may have been a mating ritual–I never followed up in the literature–but I enjoyed performing “push-ups” to greet them and smiled at them as they happily returned the greeting just inches from my face. Once they realized that I would greet them with push-ups, the lizards would approach me and initiate the greeting. Perhaps they were lonely suitors willing to court even me!

    I know the meteor is space gravel burning in the atmosphere, but my hear still leaps when I see a falling star. I know that the pine trees in Arkansas where I grew up are a common enough tree, but I feel a strong sense of love and appreciation for them also because of their unique characterisitics that I studied in college.

    I am also wary and recognize that “nature” does not equate to “safe.” One of my favorite snakes is the copperhead. When I was maybe ten years old, I was walking in the woods and came upon a clearing of lush green grass. The sun’s light was shining brightly into the clearing where a large, probably eight feet long or more, copperhead snake raised his large head and body up above the grass. That snake shone like gold in the sun. It was truly the most beautiful snake I have ever seen. But I knew that he raised up to try to locate what he was hearing and sensing–that being me–and could very likely bite me. There was nothing magical about the encounter except the beauty of it. Later when I learned that Hindu mythology has Siva sometimes appearing as a snake, I could understand why a god would choose that form. It is majestic and beautiful.

    But I don’t think snakes are gods, nor are we. This human existence, mine anyway, has been wondrous and fulfilling without any religious or spiritual aspects applied to it. (Most people would say that my life has been a bad one, especially my childhood, so I hope readers don’t assume that I lived a painless, privileged life. I have maintained the sense of joy despite some horrific life experiences.)

    I don’t know if what I have written here makes much sense, Mark, but I wanted to add my comment to your post. Thanks for a thought-provoking one, as usual!

  3. JB Says:

    Hi Mark,

    I am enjoying your posts on this topic and look forward to the next.

    I have recently been exploring the theories of the physicist David Bohm (d. 1992) who challenged the fragmented view of widely accepted theories about the material world. His work, as well as the work continued by his colleagues, proposes an undivided view of reality – dubbed holism – which I think fits well with the pantheism you have written about.

    If you examine the “See Also” section of the Wikipedia page that attempts to explain some of Bohm’s ideas (citation 1 below), you will find the terms “Brahman”, “Taoism”, and “Transcendental Idealism”. Isn’t it interesting to see such links embedded in a page dedicated to a physicist’s thinking?

    There is also a film of an panel discussion with Bohm and the Dalai Lama (citation 2 below) that I think is worth watching. This segment is a good way to hear Bohm’s ideas spoken directly by him in the context of an integrated dialog regarding the ideas of art, science and spirituality.

    I have come to consider Bohm a great storyteller in my life – he seems to be one of the few scientists who take the risk of breaking out of the rigid, dichotomous dogma of Science. I think he would appreciate your statement about the ineffability of fundamental reality. There can be many pointers to it, but ultimately it is tacit.




  4. Anthony Paul Says:

    I don’t see what there is to contend about. I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “in a sense” this is a statement of faith, as for anyone who doesn’t claim to have had the experience, it can only be taken on faith. Unless I misunderstand what you’ve said, this is a matter of faith in the “sages” and faith in the truth/validity/accuracy/meaning of an experience that cannot be described but must be experienced. With that starting point, either you’re beyond useful discussion or I’m misunderstanding something.

    • markbittner Says:

      “Contend” because the scientific/materialists and the creator god folks are in a war for supremacy. Both sides are working on destroying any other point of view. If you stick your head up someone eventually fires at you. “In a sense a statement of faith” because you can have enough experience and enough knowledge to understand quite clearly where the truth is. When most people hear the word “faith” it registers as “guess.” I’m not guessing. Your last sentence doesn’t make any sense to me.

  5. Anthony Paul Says:

    We may not be using the word “faith” in the same way. To me, faith (as typically used in discussing theism of some kind) is belief in something for which you can provide no evidence or proof. If the belief you’re describing is a matter only of personal experience or knowledge gained solely through personal experience – then I don’t see where the discussion leads. If I haven’t had an experience like yours and you can’t (as I understand you) give me evidence or proof other than to say you have this knowledge through your personal experience, I either believe you or I don’t, but what is there to discuss? Did that help clarify? We may be talking past each other.

    • markbittner Says:

      We are not using “faith” in the same way. Can I assume that you subscribe to what I’m calling the materialist/scientific view? You want logic, evidence, proof. But I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything here. You can’t lay out these kinds of ideas in a blog. They are too complex. What I am trying to do is set up a picture of what I see happening in the world today so that further down the line I can talk about events and issues that are poorly discussed.

  6. Lynn B. Says:

    Thank you, Mark, for posting your writings. I can hear (metaphorically) the wheels of my brain turning as I read what you’ve written. Doesn’t matter much whether I agree with you or not. Your points are well made. Very enjoyable!

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