In ordinary circumstances, seeking out reliable sources makes sense. No one calls a doctor when the car refuses to start any more than anyone contacts a car mechanic when aches and pains come calling. Finding a credible source makes sense to historians and academics alike. And the ordinary way is to rely on reliable sources ... and failing that, to find the biggest body of agreement about a given topic: If "everyone says so," then perhaps I can and should say so too.
But I think spiritual endeavor is different.
This morning, for example, I was trying to remember the source of the Zen Buddhist encouragement,
Having some attainment is the jackals yelp. Having no attainment is the lion's roar.And the source turned out to be one of my favorite Zen guys, Ta Hui (1089-1163), who, according to a book about him, was said to have said:
The ancient worthy says, "Having some attainment is the jackal's yelp; having no attainment is the lion's roar."By ordinary reckoning, here is a reliable source ... a book about a Zen teacher who is therein quoted as saying something. In one sense, I can feel a sense of relief: 1. Ta Hui, to the extent that books depicted him, always struck me as a straight shooter, a person whose counsel I might take; 2. If it's in a published book and I hold that published book in my hands, then lots of people must agree ... publishers do not seek out works that won't excite agreement (even in the form of disagreement) and hence truth. In the ordinary, reliable-source sense, I can rest easy ... a snappy line positing a snappy position.
The only problem with this sense of relief and easy agreement or star-struck awe is that the encouragement is allowed to die a smarmy and mediocre death: A hug-festival of belief or hope is hardly the same thing as knowing what is true. It may be nice to find a credible source, but is credulousness any way to pursue a serious spiritual endeavor? Wouldn't this be a realm of jackals that could do no better than to feast on the prey of others? Jackals are capable of killing and eating small animals of their own, but frequently are sustained by the efforts of more capable hunters.
Well, probably I am wrong to single out spiritual endeavor when questioning "reliable sources." This is not the only endeavor that requires more than a relief-prone laziness. As the American humorist Will Rogers observed,
There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.The put-up-or-shut-up's of life are hardly limited to spiritual attachment. But perhaps because I am interested in spiritual life or perhaps because of the apparently-benevolent resting places that spiritual 'sourcing' can construct, I do think that too often the lions of spiritual life go begging while beggars dine on the scraps provided by "reliable sources."
Jackals are lean and sinewy and swift, much like the expositors of one spiritual persuasion or another... the jackals of this mind. They growl and quote and suck marrow from fallen bones.
Are they reliable sources?
There is no way of knowing.
But just because someone else is a fool is no reason to follow his reliably-sourced footsteps.
Roar a little.