The question of what we do know and what we don't know has been rather active for me lately. As the author of "The Cloud of Unknowing" points out, we are perpetually pressed up against questions that do not seem to have any answers, and so often are not even very well defined.
In contrast to--and perhaps even defiance of--that, we adopt belief systems and cosmologies that purport to explain where we are and what we are up against. I say "purport" because it is very rare for any man to encounter a force in his life which conclusively demonstrates -- to himself, at least, let alone anyone else -- that he actually knows and understands something, rather than just believing it.
In the absence of anything real and verified--from an inner point of view--we can't seem to get along without these structures that explain reality and spirituality, even though we know that all of them are, in one way or another, deficient. That becomes apparent because of their incessant collision with reality, which is hard and unyielding, and almost effortlessly breaks down our assumptions.
Even the ones really smart people make.
Such collisions are, perhaps, inevitable. When we try to use a top-down approach to describe the universe, not being at the top, but somewhere in the middle or even close to the bottom, it's impossible to get the kind of overview that explains anything very accurately. This means that the bottom-up approach is actually a better one for us.
So, if the construction of our elaborate cosmologies appears to be conducted at the risk of self-deception, what is the purpose of all of this description that we engage in?
Should we stop?
Let me give you an analogy that may be helpful.
Imagine there is an invisible temple within us -- outside us -- in fact, this vast invisible temple is everywhere. We can't see it, but within it is contained everything that is sacred.
The only way for us to understand any of the dimensions of this temple is to begin to erect scaffolding around it. The scaffolding gradually begins to outline the general territory the temple occupies. It gives us information about its size, its shape, and so on. It also helps us to know that there really is a temple there.
But the temple itself always remains invisible.
Erecting this scaffolding might be likened to throwing paint on an invisible man. There is a living thing there, a human being that cannot be seen. By throwing the paint on him, we see the outline: we see that the man exists. But all we can ever actually see is the paint. The man himself, who we could not see at all before, and were not even sure existed, now becomes more of a moving, tangible entity, even though the man himself -- his essence-- remains, in a certain sense, forever unknown.
Seen from the Zen point of view, we might say that you can throw paint on the Dharma and hence see its action, but you can never see the Dharma itself.
So we erect a scaffolding of cosmology and belief that surrounds this temple. Every architect is a little different, so from vantage point to vantage point, the scaffolding doesn't look the same. But the scaffolding is always still defining the same invisible temple. And it's only collectively that we can make much progress in this-- generally speaking, the temple is far too big for any one man's scaffolding to tell us much. Every once in a very long while, a man like Gurdjieff comes along and slams up a remarkably huge chunk of scaffolding that leaves the rest of us breathless ...then he, like everyone else, up and dies, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering how he did that.
We can understand this scaffolding analogy from both an inner and an outer point of view. From the outer point of view, the invisible temple consists of what Gurdjieff would call "understanding the laws of world creation and world maintenance." That is to say, the "invisible temple" is a place of knowing the universe and its nature.
From the inner point of view, there is an equally vast and unknown universe that we attempt to know. Over the course of a lifetime, within this invisible temple inside ourselves-- which is, in essence, a vessel that fills with our impressions of life-- we create our own sacred space.
Sacred, that is, if we respect both the enterprise and ourselves. There is all too great a risk that this inner temple can become profane, soiled by an inappropriate contact with ordinary life.
Over time, as we erect this scaffolding that is designed and applied by the conceptual mind, we begin to mistake the scaffolding for the temple itself. Only by constantly reminding ourselves that this scaffolding is a work in progress, and an attempt to define something much more magical, mysterious, and valuable than scaffolding, can we maintain enough objectivity to avoid this error.
In other words, don't get hung up on how beautiful the scaffolding is.
This, inevitably, leaves me with a question. If we erect enough scaffolding, can we ever see enough of the temple to find the door and enter it? Does the temple even have a door?
Or is the entrance, perhaps, located somewhere in its foundations -- lower down than we ever think of looking, with our sights perpetually fixed on some imaginary heaven?
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.