I believe in human nature. That may seem to imply two things. I believe in nature, and the power of science to help us grapple with its mysteries. Nature is awe-inspiring, all-encompassing and rich, infinitely demanding yet infinitely giving, inexhaustibly moving. But I don’t mean to separate humanity from nature — such dualism seems to be a particularly Western modality.
Where Descartes saw dualities like body and mind, Lao Tzu spoke of an incomprehensibly vast interconnectedness. He calls the true Tao “unspeakable,” and “Empty, yet structured.” So universally all-encompassing that it has no opposite, no handle by which mind can grasp it.
With ever-more ethereal mathematic explanations of physical nature, science probes ever-deeper into a seemingly chaotic, yet inscrutably ordered universe — subject to impersonal forces, such as expounded on by relativity and quantum mechanics. All conspiring to not just produce the genesis of life, but to act as its very womb — eventually producing humanity itself, in all our intellectual and physical awkwardness among the animals. These theories help explain the mechanisms, but not life itself.
They don’t explain the abstruse and elusive phenomenon of consciousness — perhaps the greatest mystery of life, self-identity, metaphysics, and spirituality. What is it, where does it come from, where does it go? Is it unique, finite? Plural, infinite? Good or bad? Loving or selfish? These questions have been tackled by intellectuals and religious seekers throughout history.
Descartes embarked on a quest for unequivocal truth in his essays titled, “The Meditations,” and he chose to begin by intellectually rejecting all truth that was not self-evident. He wondered if the people outside his window were automata, whether his perceived reality was the delusion of a wrathful deity, whether he existed at all. He famously concluded, tautologically, “I think, therefore I am.” A response from the enigmatic Buddha Siddhartha Gautama sounds almost prescient: “My friend, where nothing whatsoever is sensed [or discerned] at all, would there be the thought, ‘I am’?”
Siddhartha Gautama sought an end to suffering, employing the austere and exacting mindfulness practices from which Descartes derived his title. It’s impossible to say how long it took Siddhartha to become fully Awakened, but it was an immensely long time, spent ardently cultivating compassion and mindfulness. Finally, under the Bodhi tree, Siddhartha realized his ultimate Enlightenment.
As ironically as one shakes off the spell of a dream, he realized the unspeakably utter-interconnectedness of reality. The illusory barrier between himself and the universe dropped away, and he found beneath his persona and attachments an infinite, pristine awareness. By methodically quieting every judgement and label his mind attempted to impose on reality, he Awoke to a truth vast and eternal, beyond description.
This deepest nature is enigmatic, infinite all-pervading awareness — empty, yet structured. All-encompassing and subtle, like the impenetrable Tao. Beyond the reach of words is a vast, radiant, timeless love. Our most fundamental identity is this pure, divine Love; our connection with God; our deepest inner human nature. This I believe.
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