The uses and abuses of metaphysics in the spiritual search

By metaphysics I mean speculation in words about the nature of ultimate reality, and a lot of other related things: the nature of God, time, creation, death, the self, and so on.

The Buddha didn't believe in metaphysics. He felt it was a distraction. When you have an arrow stuck in you, he said, do you ask who shot it and why and where the arrow came from. What you want, he said, is a destruction of your prior metaphysical belief systems, which are all wrong anyhow. The only beliefs that really mattered were ones about suffering and how to end it.

The Hindus did not agree. The great Vedantic teacher Sankara had a lot of metaphysical opinions about the nature of the Self and the world and their relationship.

I believe metaphysics can be useful if used correctly. Why is it useful?

  • It can correct misconceptions that would otherwise close someone off  to the spiritual search. For instance, if someone believes that the universe is made of insentient, dead matter, and that that is all there is -- why would they believe that there might be something more, not limited that way, that might be known?
  • It can give people a big picture of where they're heading in the spiritual search. Knowing the attributes of the Self as pure consciousness, pure being, and pure bliss -- though they are  imprecise --  the seeker can better distinguish between what is closer to the goal and what is farther away.
  • It can help quiet the intellectual mind. Certain temperaments, including mine, cannot engage in the spiritual quest without understanding WHY. We can't take things on much faith. For us, we need rational answers and arguments. Metaphysics can provide them.

But metaphysics can also be abused:

  • One can get absorbed in the intellectual arguments without ever moving beyond them. The arguments do go on endlessly.
  • More importantly, one can mistake the words for the reality. All the mystical traditions teach that the ultimate reality is beyond words. Words are just pointers, just guides, and they should not lead a seeker to focus on them rather than their own experience.

All in all, metaphysics can be an extremely helpful instrument in the spiritual journey provided it is seen for what it is: an instrument that aids in navigation -- a map, not the territory itself.