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I doubt that I can offer a very good answer to the question that I posed in my last post.  Instead I will try to make the question as compelling as I can.  Last time I asked why experiencing awe would generate feelings of moral compulsion.  I want to expand this question a bit by adding the observation that religious belief seems to presuppose that an experience of ultimate reality will be profoundly joyful and will change one’s life for the better.  Why should this be?  Knowledge of ultimate reality, whether conceived as a personal God, impersonal Brahman, Buddha-nature, indifferent matter, etc., etc.,  is, at first blush, simply that: knowledge.   Knowledge is not always pleasant.  Why should knowledge of whatever kind bring with it, of necessity, any change in the understanding of one’s duty, values, or emotions?  Why shouldn’t one’s reaction to a genuine experience of the divine be indifference, ambivalence, or even revulsion leading to outright opposition?

For example: The Buddhist path to liberation  insists that an accurate perception and understanding of ultimate reality leads not only to an end to dukkha (suffering) but to compassion for all sentient beings.  The question is why would my comprehending ultimate truths yield a concern for others?

Why should a fundamental and deep understanding of impermanence or sunyata (emptiness) automatically result in the cessation of grasping?  Why shouldn’t the reaction to impermanence be one of noble, if sisyphean, opposition based on a fundamental aversion to the reality that nothing is permanent.  In other words, why shouldn’t the arhat, upon realizing the truth of impermanence say, “Yes, nothing lasts, everything is impermanent, and that sucks!”  If one is truly attached to the idea of a permanent self, wouldn’t the realization that there is no such thing bring utter despair; a realization not of the beauty and goodness of ultimate reality but that reality is ultimately inimical to human nature (or at least my nature).

To put the question in a monotheistic context: Why shouldn’t Moses, upon learning of the jealous and wrathful nature of God, break the Tablets not in anger at his fellow countrymen but in passionate fury at God?

The notion of righteous rage at the ultimate power receives its best articulation in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.  Oceanus’ counsel may be wise but hardly consistent with personal integrity: “we are ruled by one whose harsh and sole dominion none may call to account.  Acknowledge this, and cease to kick against the goad.”  For Prometheus, that ultimate truth is not to be embraced; and he endured brutal torture rather than acknowledge Zeus’ authority.

The great religions of the world insist that Prometheus’ reaction is inconceivable; When one comes face to face with the Ultimate, say these faiths, one cannot help but  recognize a fundamental harmony between one’s innermost self and that Ultimate Reality and consequently experience bliss, ultimate satisfaction, and a deep love and respect for all.  But why should this be?  Every spiritual path entails sacrifice, perhaps most crucially one must abandon one’s own self interests in the pursuit of  (allegedly) higher goals.  But why think that the values that are revealed during a genuine experience of the divine will be consistent with my own.  Again, supposing that the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self) is true, why should it be that a full realization of this truth puts an end to self-centered desire and leads to peace and ultimate bliss?  Why shouldn’t one rail against the absurdity that that which we most desire, i.e. immortality (the indefinite persistence of oneself), is fundamentally impossible?

Jason Thibodeau

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