There are two ways to describe Truth. We can say what it is, or we can say what it is not. The downside of the first approach is that the Truth may be indescribable, and therefore we may need to use metaphors. The downside of the second approach is that it is elusive, difficult to grasp. Loosely speaking, I think Western religions resonate most closely with the first approach, whereas Eastern religions tend towards the second.
A religion follows the first approach when it tries to impose some order on the world. It is here that we are told of a creator, of a heaven and hell, an immortal soul and a plan for the world. The concepts are such that we can understand – God is given human-like qualities that we can readily understand, heaven and hell are given Earth-like qualities that we can also grasp, each individual body is assigned an immortal soul, and everything is very nice and neat.
The second approach is much harder to grasp. We are not really told anything. The Truth is said to be beyond imagining, and thus the only approach is to realize what it is not. This method is about realizing the impermanence of our bodies, our minds, and the world around us. It is to inquire into the nature of things and to reach that point that is beyond thought, that point where the mind must give up and simply say “don’t know”. Whereas the first approach tries to frame the Truth in terms that the mind can grasp, the second approach says that the Truth cannot be grasped by mind, and that our only hope is to go beyond mind.
Which approach is better? Both have merits. The former provides a mental concept to focus on, a God to worship and believe in. Such an approach can take us a long way, but it is important to be clear about whether your beliefs are literal, or merely a metaphor for something greater. If the Truth is in fact unimaginable, and thus your religion only describes it metaphorically, then there is a danger of over-interpreting it. This approach could lead one to fundamentalism.
For some, the latter approach is more satisfying. There are no leaps of faith, no dogmas or unproven beliefs. We are simply encouraged to inquire and to observe what is.This path is a difficult one. It requires great discipline, great clarity of mind. Once on this path, there is no turning back, and we must follow it faithfully and embrace what comes.