I would like to distinguish between two types of journeys that humans make in the course of their lives.
The first I call Outward Seeking. In Asia, this would be seen as the realm of Confucius. The core question is, “How do I become the most productive member of society?” This is a challenge for scientists, lawyers, ditch diggers, husbands, wives. Confucius, and those who followed his path, provided a guide for all of the variations of human engagement in society.
The second, which I will call Inward Seeking, has an entirely different focus. The core questions are, “How do I get in touch with and celebrate the unique being that I am? What does it mean to be alive as a human being?” In Asia, this is seen as falling into the realm of the Buddha.
There is considerable wisdom in dividing the two challenges and providing guidance along each journey. Our ability to pass on hard learned lessons to future generations is one of the things that distinguishes us as a species. Centuries ago sages realized that a set of maps for one journey just are not useful for the other.
Western thought has only more recently come to focus on these diverse needs. The Reformation and the Renaissance, the rise of the scientific method and the intense love affair with rationality created the idea that it was possible to develop one set of maps that would be useful in both journeys. (To be fair, Western thinking mostly ignored Inward Seeking for centuries – relegating such issues that arise to the purview of religion.) The result was the emergence of two presumptions. The first was that rationality was the key to understanding both journeys. The second was that thought proceeded from the general to the specific. Philosophies were written and religions emerged to explain not only how human life should be conducted but why it turned out this way or that way.
The middle of the 20th century brought an increased interest on the part of Westerners in Asian thinkers. Both Confucius and the Buddha attracted growing interest. Buddhism particularly took root, first in the United States and later across Western Europe. I believe that one of the reasons this took place was an increasing unease with the proposition that rationality could address all challenges within the human experience.
Outward seeking is a journey amongst life’s ornaments. By ornaments I mean those virtual representations which we create in order to populate or explain the world as we experience it. The list of ornaments as long. It includes things like philosophies, education, automobiles, language – in short, everything that we define as out there. Now, to be clear I am not denigrating ornaments at all. They are essential to our ability to live with in the world as we find it. But they are creations of our minds.
Inward seeking moves towards the foundation of being-time. It addresses much older questions – ones that have perplexed humans since they first emerged on the planet. “Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life?” Where Outward Seeking leads to an unendingly expanding series of questions, Inward Seeking has, as its principal objective, a journey to the center of being-time. At that center, all questions dissolve.
So, what am I trying to get a? The point is that every human must make both journeys. To do so, two sets of maps are required. The best guides that I know for Inward Seeking are the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold path. Buddhism is unique amongst the worldviews. It is neither proscriptive nor a theology. It is neither rational nor irrational. At its core, Buddhism is a way of thinking about the human experience and a set of quiet suggestions as to how that experience might be improved.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD