Man's Search for Truth

By John P. Van Mater

Every person in this world, no matter what his role in life, is a searcher for truth. Scholars delving into the past; scientists seeking to explain the universe, the atom, the butterfly; neighbors conversing over the back fence: each of us in every daily situation endeavors to see things as they truly are. This phrase, things as they are, is a potent one. We might tentatively adopt it as a definition of truth: things-as-they-are as distinct from what they appear to be to our senses and limited minds.
Why this insistent urge for the true? It seems to be an integral part of us, a nostalgia in the soul, a longing for a more real comprehension, a hunger that nothing less than what is true will satisfy. What does this imply? That we seek to know the state of affairs in our neighborhood, our nation, the world. We are also concerned with what is happening in ourselves -- mentally, emotionally, physically. Why does one fall ill? What are the causes of disease? What are germs, bacteria, viruses? Is the world similarly affected? Do we human viruses have the power to poison our globe? This is a worry to many people. Can the Earth get sick? If so, it must be more than the lump of matter we have been led to believe it is.
All these questions illustrate our abiding concern with truth; and our search for truth goes hand in hand with our ability to comprehend it. Opening our natures to be more, to understand more profoundly and compassionately, is part of the process. Those who are larger of heart and mind can see further beneath appearances; they are not bound by our narrow horizons.
What prevents us from seeing things as they truly are? There is of course the illusion of appearances, called maya in the Orient. Innumerable examples confirm that appearances are deceiving; also our preconceived ideas stand in our way. We see only what we are prepared to see. We approach reality with glasses already tinted. Each era and each culture tints its glasses differently. We demand that reality show itself to us as we think it should be, instead of the way it is. Our human natures are not open and flexible enough; our minds are not free of preconceptions, nor our intuitions sufficiently alive to penetrate to the heart of things. As yet we are only partly evolved or awakened.
Still, I am a part of this world, and you are a part of this world, and every atom is a part of this same world. So it must be that the urge to know springs from the essential oneness of all things; from the fact that all beings and things contribute to all other beings and things. This is a thought full of wonder and meaning for those whose daily round seems so circumscribed. It implies that all parts of this world, no matter how minute, are essential to the whole. That what we do within ourselves affects all else, not only in the human sphere, but throughout nature. The way we conduct ourselves inwardly and outwardly either assists the cosmic process or hinders it.
Everyone has a kind of longing to know how things really are. How are you? we ask a friend. We wish to know. We have ties with this person. His welfare and ours are connected. If he is not fit, we will feel ourselves somehow diminished. What is the truth of him? He visits a doctor, let us say, and is scanned and tested in a multitude of ways and pronounced in good health. What do all these facts tell us about him? Practically nothing. This is because the most important aspects of a human being are invisible. It is impossible to discover the actual person from appearances only, for he is a great deal more. Should we not apply the same reasoning to other areas? To birds and flowers, to the wind and the rain, to comets and suns? Do not these things have an inward reality behind the outward seeming? The poets feel this keenly. That is what poetry is all about.
What I am trying to say is that we should leave ourselves as open, as susceptible to the inside truth as we are alert to observe and classify visible phenomena. To get the feel of things is often more important than to analyze them, to measure and to weigh them. The quest for truth is not an intellectual game. It is a looking within and a looking without. Nothing we see outside would mean anything unless it sparked something in us. How may we know beauty, grandeur, courage, unless these qualities are within us to respond? In this sense, truth lives in us as a divine potential or, as Browning phrased it: "There is an inmost centre in us all,/Where truth abides in fullness." From this quiet center come gleams and insights. The mystic or sage, artist or poet, expresses these glimpses, and these have the power to awaken us.
We can only conclude that truth resides in the heart of the heart of all beings, great and small. Some have unfolded more understanding of this truth. We are at the human stage of comprehension and self-expression. Birds are birds by reason of the same process. Gods are gods because they have unfolded the godlike. Hence truth-seeking has throughout the ages been linked with the idea of the path, the path of unfolding latent capacities. We are on this path leading to our flowering as human beings, whether or not we realize it. And when we extend our view to encompass many lives or reincarnations we realize we have the time scale needed for everyone to develop his higher potential. Those who have successfully accomplished this are the great teachers and philosophers: Christ, Buddha, Zoroaster, and a host of others, among them Plato and Pythagoras.
Truth needs no outside force, for it persuades by its innate veracity. What kind of truth are we looking for? Religious, philosophic, or scientific? It is sometimes believed that these three are incompatible. This is not the case, however, for they are facets of the one truth -- in man, in nature, in the cosmos. One may approach reality from the spiritual point of view, another from the intellectual, a third from observing the physical world with all its marvels and beauty. They could no more contradict one another than the fact that I am a soul contradicts that I also have a body. Properly understood, the wisdom of each branch of learning can only augment and extend the others, for each approaches the same reality from a different angle.
The great universe surrounds us on every side. It is our parent; we were born of and from it. All that we are in the small, it must be on an immensely grander scale. We have only to step outside some night when the wise old stars are shining. Looking up into the immeasurable heavens something stirs within us, a feeling beyond the reaches of the finite mind. The soul yearns for an immensity it cannot grasp: deep calling to deep.
According to the old traditions, our universal parent has a certain structure and operates in certain ways. It was born as we were born, lives its life and, like us, will one day die, rest. And sometime in the far, far future it will be reborn. Religion, science, and philosophy seek to explain it and our relation to it. They search for the truth of it, approaching the problem from their respective points of view, using their own terms. There can be no final statement of truth. To the degree that an individual penetrates the mystery and reports his findings honestly, to that degree will his conclusions coincide with the equally honest findings of others, whether these be metaphysical or physical. But when the spirit of free inquiry has fled an organization designed to house it, what is left are the empty ceremonial, the sterile, cerebral platitudes. Persecution usually stands in the wings.
We are all learners sharing with one another, and we would learn very little if we consulted only those who hold our point of view. Often more is to be gleaned from those whose thoughts seem to differ from ours. But sometimes the barrier of semantics separates those whose beliefs, actually, may be very close. If one were to search for similarities rather than differences, he would find agreement in the broad area of general principles. What is the difference between the karma of the East and the sowing and reaping of the New Testament? There is no reason we must have unanimity of opinion. Truth is one, it cannot be otherwise, but the paths to it are as numerous as are the searchers.
What this means is that all efforts through the ages to explain the cosmos are based, indeed must be based, on certain principles and experiences common to all, including the mystical and the poetical.
The way to keep truth alive and growing in our hearts is to reexpress it constantly. Otherwise we shall become worshipers of commas and semicolons, and truth will lie buried in unthinking mantras endlessly repeated. In the long reach of the moving centuries the living spirit of truth becomes entombed in its very institutions. Dogmas grow in the minds of men. Once symbols of the living message, they sooner or later become like shells found on some lonely beach, often beautiful, but a structure from which the life and meaning have fled. The answer to our search does not lie in institutions, it lies in ourselves.
The spirit of the most high is in all things. In the wind moving against our faces, in the sparrow and the daisy and the pebble, in those who suffer and those who are glad, in the beautiful and in the ugly, and in the ugly made beautiful by the spirit within. The wisest of mankind have pictured man as a child of the cosmos. They saw the worlds that bestrew the fields of space as animated by cosmic divinities in whom we live and move and have our being; that the life that animates universes breathes in us also, and that we too are the beneficiaries of its serene laws.
Truth is out there and in here. It is the way things are in us and in our world. We are urged to search for it by forces within ourselves, soul qualities. How much will come to us through suffering? How much through joyful realization? How much in the day-to-day giving of our best to the calls of duty? How much through our love for companions, known and unknown, who travel the road of life with us?

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1986. Copyright © 1986 by Theosophical University Press)

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