Notebook 3: Religion as Mystery, & the Limitations of Knowledge

Notebook 3: Religion as Mystery, & the Limitations of Knowledge

(As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.)

Near the end of his life, the Japanese Buddhist Kiyozawa Manshi wrote about his immersion in scholarship and religious texts, followed by his realization of their limitations, and finally his coming to Buddhism. His words may well serve as a summary of the journey which led to this book, and speaks particularly to the following notes:

[My] study finally led me to the conclusion that human life is incomprehensible. It was this that gave rise to my belief in Tathāgata (Buddha). Not that one must necessarily undertake this kind of study in order to acquire faith. One might ask if it wasn’t just an accident that I came to faith after engagement in strenuous study, but I would say it was not an accident. It was essential that I should do it this way….. Before I reached the end of it there were quite a few times when I thought I had acquired a religious faith. Yet, time and again my conclusions were shattered. As long as one tries to build up a religion on the basis of logic and intellectual study, one cannot escape this difficulty.[1]

Similarly, there is this story from the American Civil War: on St. Patrick’s day, 1863, a group of soldiers from the Union Irish Brigade held a magnificent series of contests, one of which involved soldiers running after a greased pig. The one who was able to hold onto the pig took it as his prize.[2] Religiously speaking, however, no one has ever caught the pig; it is always slipping away from the hands of reason and logic.

So that the mystery of religion is worth emphasizing over and over again. For while certain Christian theologians and mystics could speak of God as “truly unsayable,” they nevertheless went on talking about him in “a flood of prayer to encourage the meditative reader in a loving pursuit of Christ.”[3] This is the predicament we are in: intuitively knowing God, admitting that human language and understanding are limited, but nevertheless finding it necessary to do the best we can. Below are my favorite quotations (with my comments in italics) on just this point. The sources for each statement are found in the footnote, not with the words themselves, if only to illustrate how we might agree with another tradition, or disagree with our own, despite ourselves.


Fight to escape your own cleverness.[4]

Folly consists in trying to draw conclusions.[5]

The master of All is above all attributes and figures.[6]

This idea is often the beginning of religious speculation, when it should be the end. Similarly, near the end of his life and after some sort of transformative experience, Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me”[7]—and it has always struck me as strange that no one took him at his word.

Just refrain from wanting or seeking spiritual experiences.[8]

God is greater than religion… Faith is greater than dogma. [9]

The cause of causes has neither beginning nor place nor limit.[10]

Only great thoughts are capable of such contradictory fruitfulness.[11]

It is not that knowledge is deep—things are deeper than knowledge.[12]

If you want your mind to be clear, it is important to put opinions to rest.[13]

Wisdom, therefore, is most effective when it is used to clarify its own limits.[14]

Language gives us a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague.[15]

As soon as you try to chase and grab Zen, you’ve already stumbled past it.[16]

If you have the idea of superiority and are proud of your ability, this is a disaster.[17]

You have let go of the commands of God, and are holding on to human traditions.[18]

Which is not to say, “Get rid of human traditions,” or, as the speaker seems to suggest, to condemn human traditions based on one’s own personal experience or understanding of the commands of God. Only, realize the limitations of all human traditions.

If you understand by thinking and know by pondering, you’re a thousand miles away.[19]

To understand ancient Egypt, we must give up the idea of encountering our own culture and attitudes in it.[20]

… for we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.[21]

What lack of reverence, to believe and not to believe! Both are based on an impertinent trust in the human capacity for understanding.[22]

My teaching of the good law is to be likened unto a raft. The buddha-teaching must be relinquished; how much more the mis-teaching![23]

If you make up intellectual understanding of this matter based on words, or try to figure out conceptually, you are as far from it as the sky is from earth.[24]

Esoteric words neither make us holy nor righteous; only a virtuous life makes us beloved of God. I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.[25]

How the Bible can be morally and ethically true when it is not historically true in all details is a non-question once we understand the nature of religious (dare I say spiritual?) truth.[26]

And feel free to replace “Bible” with every other scripture you can think of. A non-question indeed!

…do not let go of your perplexity, for that is where the intellect cannot operate and thought cannot reach; it is the road through which discrimination is cut and theorizing ended.[27]

We put words between ourselves and things. Even God has become another conceptual unreality in a no-man’s land of language that no longer serves as a means of communion with reality.[28]

Every definition of God leads to heresy; definition is spiritual idolatry. Even attributing mind and will to God, even attributing divinity itself, and the name “God”—these, too, are definitions.[29]

I give you a new commandment: love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you. It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognize you as my disciples.[30]

Love, not knowledge; love, not proof; love, not doctrine. Indeed, how many religious groups are known and recognized not for their love, but by their obsession with knowledge, proof, doctrine, condemnation?

What will a man gain by merely reasoning about the words of the scriptures? Ah, the fools! They reason themselves to death over information about the path. They never take the plunge. What a pity![31]

What, then, after this “plunge” where even scripture is an obstruction?
You have had enough of lectures, arguments, quarrels, discussions, and dissensions. Can such things interest you any more? Now gather your whole mind and direct it to God. Plunge deep into God.[32]

Certainly, when Judgment Day comes we shall not be asked what books we have read, but what deeds we have done; we shall not be asked how well we have debated, but how devoutly we have lived.[33]

To study Zen conceptually is like drilling in ice for fire, like digging a hole to look for the sky. It just increases mental fatigue. To study Zen by training is adding mud to dirt, scattering sand in the eyes, impeding you more and more.[34]

Evagrius said that there was a brother who had no possessions except a Gospel book and he sold it in order to feed the poor. He said something worth remembering: “I have sold even the word that commands me to sell all and give to the poor.”[35]

Many people think they cannot have knowledge or understanding of God without reading books. But hearing is better than reading, and seeing is better than hearing. Hearing about Benares is different from reading about it; but seeing Benares is different from either hearing or reading.[36]

If a thorn gets into your foot, a second thorn is needed to take it out. When it is out both thorns are thrown away. You have to procure the thorn of knowledge to remove the thorn of ignorance; then you must set aside both knowledge and ignorance. God is beyond both knowledge and ignorance.[37]

Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison.[38]

As soon as you rationalize, it is hard to understand Zen. You will have to stop rationalizing before you will get it.
Some people hear this kind of talk and say there is nothing to say and no reason—they do not realize they are already rationalizing when they do this.[39]

What is the good of calculating how many trees there are in the orchard, how many thousands of branches, and how many millions of leaves? One cannot realize Truth by futile arguments and reasoning.[40] …You have come to the orchard to eat mangoes. Do that and be happy. The aim of human birth is to love God. Realize that love and be at peace.[41]

By refusing to modify its component elements in order to force them into a synthesis, Indian mythology celebrates the idea that the universe is boundlessly various, that everything occurs simultaneously, that all possibilities may exist without excluding each other … [that] untrammeled variety and contradiction are ethically and metaphysically necessary.[42]

The scroll of the Torah is written without vowels, so you can read it variously. Without vowels, the consonants bear many meanings and splinter into sparks. That is why the Torah scroll must not be vowelized, for the meaning of each word accords with its vowels. Once vowelized, a word means just one thing. Without vowels, you can understand it in countless, wondrous ways.[43]

No vision can grasp Him.
But His grasp is over
All vision: He is
Above all comprehension,
Yet is acquainted with all things.[44]

To know by thinking is secondary; to know without thinking is tertiary. It is essential for the individual to directly bear responsibility and put down the two extremes of clarity and unclarity from your learning hitherto; when you reach the state of cleanness and nakedness, then you must go on over to the Beyond, where you kill Buddhas when you see Buddhas, kill Zen masters when you see Zen masters.[45]

Why should we formulate any system of law when our goal can be reached no matter whether we turn to the right or to the left? Since it is with our own efforts that we realize the essence of mind, and since the realization and the practice of the law are both done instantaneously and not gradually or stage by stage, the formulation of any system of law is unnecessary. As all dharmas are intrinsically nirvanic, how can there be gradation in them?[46]

[We] must retrieve for the Church the deep-seated human intuition that mystery is at the core of existence, that truth is elusive, that God is greater than religion. “The heart of the matter is mystery in any religion,” David Tracy said. “The Law is there for the Jew to intensify that sense of mystery, not to replace it. The Church is there for the Catholic to do the same.” If mystery is at the core of religion, then ambiguity, paradox, and even doubt are not enemies of faith, but aspects of it.[47]

It would not have been necessary or desirable to provide a logical plan of the supernatural world, plotting out the various realms with dogmatic insistence and agreement…. it is hopeless to expect this to fit into a precise and orderly plan, as the Swedish Rydberg hoped to prove in the last century. If in our strong desire for the rational we try to create a logical scheme out of such scattered ideas and images, we are doing violence to the traditions of poets and seers who left us clues as to the nature of the Other World.[48]

And now a lawyer stood up and, to test him, asked, “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?”
He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “You have answered right, do this and life is yours.”[49]

The question then becomes—what constitutes loving God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind? Can there really be only one answer to this question, one way? And the other question becomes—who aren’t our neighbors?
And what do the trappings usually given to religion, all the things we dress them up in to create a veil of certainty or completeness—what do these really have to do with the actual act of loving God, of loving our neighbors?
What are words and talk to something so disturbingly simple?

When the Great Way disappears
we meet kindness and justice
when reason appears
we meet great deceit
when the six relations fail
we meet obedience and love
when the country is in chaos
we met upright officials [50]

So much of religion, then, is only a stand-in, a tap on the back, a finger pointing to what we should always be observing, always be doing—a reminder of what  we naturally observe, and naturally do.

It should be the great pride and strength of every Catholic that we have no ready, ten-minute, brisk, chatty answer to the question of what we believe, except in the words of the Apostle’s Creed which are not really comprehensible to scientists anyway. It should be our greatest strength that we don’t have, on the end of our tongues, a brief and pithy rationalization for the structure and purpose of the whole universe, only a statement that, to a scientist, is a scandal: an article of faith. God created the world and everything in it for Himself, and the heavens proclaim His glory. It should be our greatest strength that we don’t have any rationalization to explain the war “scientifically” and have no “scientific” solution to all our economic problems.[51]

As believers and lovers we may be lost in the absolute nature of the moment, but when we observe history we know that nothing existent is definitive. Inexorably history destroys all “eternal” and “absolute” values and demonstrates the relativity of every absolute point of reference which we seek to establish. Hence the fanatical opposition to anything historical—or scorn for it which takes the form of unscrupulous distortion—on the part of those who wish to establish definitive, binding norms….
All the evidence suggests that human society of the near future will be pluralistic and undogmatic—or it will not exist at all. In all spheres of life it will have to allow for the multiplicity of possibilities, without excluding the one as an extreme case. After the shock therapy of this century I believe that society will be thoroughly sick of dogmatic ideologies and “absolute values.” It is unlikely that human religious belief will be unaffected by the newly transformed mode of consciousness. Deep faith, in particular, must accept that God has never spoken his last word, even in the revelation of the sole God. A new stage of consciousness is open to a new revelation, the nature of which cannot be predicted at all, except that it will be different.[52]

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?
There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that One arose through the power of heat.
Desire came upon that One in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence.
Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen—perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows—or perhaps he does not know. [53]

The language in which we speak of the world will never be contained entirely in mathematical formulas, nor will it be contained entirely in words. So long as there is content that cannot be expressed in a univalent form, at every stage of consciousness language will turn to images as an adequate descriptive medium.
The nature and appearance of Egyptian gods are inimical to any closed, final, or univalent definition. We see them develop in history, and we see them leading a constantly changing life of their own. What a god is cannot be defined. Whatever statements we make about him, it does not exclude a mass of other statements. Seen in another way, every god contains within himself all the information about a particular content, which took form in him and entered human consciousness in that form. For the Egyptians the gods are powers that explain the world but do not themselves need any elucidation because they convey information in a language which can be understood directly—that of myth. Every myth exhibits and interprets no more than a part of reality, but the totality of the gods and their relationships with one another exhibits and interprets the entire reality of the world.
Whatever the nature of the gods may or may not be, in whatever system of concepts or network of associations we may place them, all attempts to “explain” them have been attempts to express the information they convey in a different, less ambiguous language. We sense that they say something valid about the world and about mankind. But no language has been found whose expressive richness can compare with that of the gods themselves. Again and again they refer us back to themselves, revealing to us the limitations of our conceptual universe. If we are to comprehend the world we still need the gods.[54]

By whom impelled, by whom compelled,
does the mind soar forth?
By whom enjoined does the breath,
march on as the first?
By whom is this speech impelled,
with which people speak?
And who is the god that joins
the sight and hearing?
That which is the hearing behind hearing,
the thinking behind thinking,
the speech behind speech,
the sight behind sight—
It is also the breathing behind breathing—
Freed completely from these,
the wise becomes immortal,
when they depart from this world.
Sight does not reach there;
neither does thinking or speech.
We don’t know, we can’t perceive,
how one would point it out.
It is far different from what’s known.
And it is farther than the unknown—
so have we heard from men of old,
who have explained it all to us.
Which one cannot express by speech,
by which speech itself is expressed—
Learn that that alone is brahman,
and not what they here venerate.
Which one cannot grasp with one’s mind,
by which, they say, the mind itself is grasped—
Learn that that alone is brahman,
and not what they here venerate.
Which one cannot see with one’s sight,
by which one sees the sight itself—
Learn that that alone is brahman,
and not what they here venerate.
Which one cannot hear with one’s hearing,
by which hearing itself is heard—
Learn that that alone is brahman,
and not what they were venerate.
Which one cannot breathe through breathing,
by which breathing itself is drawn forth—
Learn that that alone is brahman,
and not what they here venerate. [55]



[1] Kiyozawa Manshi, in his “Waga Shinnen” (“My Faith”), written five days before his death; quoted in Gilbert Johnson and Wakimoto Tsuneya, “Kiyozawa Manshi’s ‘Spiritualism,’” from Takeuchi Yoshino ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 359-60.

[2] An Irishman in the Iron Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of James P. Sullivan, edited by D. P. Conygam, 379.

[3] Quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the Twelfth Century, 131, 257.

[4] John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, tr. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell, 217.

[5] Albert Camus (apparently quoting Flaubert), Notebooks 1942-1951, tr. Justin O’Brien, 14.

[6] Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 358.

[7] Aquinas; Sacred Games : A History of Christian Worship (1997) by Bernhard Lang, p. 323

[8] Han-shan; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 5, tr. Thomas Cleary, 190.

[9] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 577.

[10] Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 360.

[11] Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935-1942, tr. Philip Thody, 153.

[12] Hui-chung; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 148.

[13] Hsueh-yen; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 52.

[14] Peter Machinist, in his introduction to Ecclesiastes, from The Jewish Study Bible, 1604.

[15] George Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 19.

[16] Yuanwu; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 168.

[17] Yuanwu; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 167.

[18] Mark 7:8.

[19] Wu-chien; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 5, tr. Thomas Cleary, 208.

[20] Serge Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt, 2.

[21] George Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 10.

[22] Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, 46.

[23] The Buddha; The Diamond Sutra, tr. A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam, 23 (ch. 6).

[24] Yun-feng; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 34.

[25] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, tr. Joseph N. Tylenda, 3.

[26] William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, 232-3.

[27] Ta-hui; Robert E. Buswell, Jr., “The Koryo Period,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 98.

[28] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 81-82.

[29] The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism, ed. Daniel C. Matt, 32.

[30] John 13:34-35.

[31] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, tr. Swami Nikhilananda, 543.

[32] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, tr. Swami Nikhilananda, 454-5.

[33] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, tr. Joseph N. Tylenda, 7.

[34] Yuanwu; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 167.

[35] The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, tr. Benedicta Ward, 54.

[36] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, tr. Swami Nikhilananda, 863.

[37] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, tr. Swami Nikhilananda, 899

[38] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 80-1.

[39] Foyan; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 171.

[40] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna tr. Swami Nikhilananda, 496.

[41] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, tr. Swami Nikhilananda, 463.

[42] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus, 48.

[43] Baya ben Asher; in The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism, ed. Daniel C. Matt, 146.

[44] Quran 6:103.

[45] Ying-an; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 129.

[46] Hui-neng; The Sutra of Hui-neng, tr. A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam, 132 (ch. 8).

[47] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 593.

[48] H. R. Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions, 172-3.

[49] Luke 10:25-8.

[50] Lao Tzu’s Taoteching, tr. Red Pine, stanza 18.

[51] Thomas Merton, Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation. The Journal of Thomas Merton, Volume 1: 1939-1941, 226-7.

[52] Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, 240.

[53] The Rig Veda, tr. Wendy Doniger, hymn 10.129.

[54] Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, 244.

[55] Kena Upanishad, tr. Patrick Olivelle, verses 1:1-8.