OMNIA EXEVNT IN MYSTERIVM. This was the maxim of the medieval philosophers. All things pass into mystery.
Almost everyone enjoys a good mystery, and there is no greater mystery than that of life. From the beginning of human existence, we have tried to solve the mystery of how the world works and discover the meaning of our lives in it. Science has uncovered astounding clues, and we have learned much, but not everything. Science, though, does not have a lock on probing this mystery. When investigation is conducted outside of the scope of science, it is often called metaphysics.
The word “metaphysics” has connotations that make some people feel uncomfortable. They equate it with the supernatural, superstition, and mysticism. Metaphysics comes from two Greek words, meta (“beyond” or “after”) and physika (“physics”). Evidently, Aristotle was the first to use the term, and it referred to sections in his works that followed (“after”) those sections on physics.
As metaphysics evolved into an area of study, it became simply a non-scientific, philosophical approach to the probing the question “What is the nature of existence/reality?” Metaphysics does not need to involve speculation on supernatural beings or forces, but can concentrate on “existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, and possibility.”* That last word is interesting, because it is so easy for us to close our mind to possibilities.
I tend to feel that we are all metaphysicists. Who doesn’t want to gain some understanding of their life and its relation to the rest of the world? And as we set about this journey of discovery, doubts are good. Closed minds are not.
In Verses on the Heart-Mind, Seng-ts’an advises us,
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.”
Buddhist philosophy is partly an investigation into what lies beyond the perception of our senses. Dharma is metaphysical and yet it is not, in the words of Lama Govinda, “a metaphysical dogma but an impetus towards a new attitude of mind, on account of which the world and the phenomena of our own consciousness were not to be regarded from the standpoint of ‘I’, but from that of ‘not-I.’
We are free to discover dharma for ourselves. The hard part is find the chudo, the middle way, striking a balance between the ‘I’ that exists conventionally and should not be asked to accept things that confound reason, yet has a desire to pick and chose, and the ‘not-I’, which in this context means keeping a mind open to possibilities.
Probably “All things pass into mystery” was a medieval reference to the mysterious nature of God. God or no God, it is true. The nature of life in this world ends and begins in mystery. Aristotle, in Metaphysics, put it differently when he stated that our attempts to understand the world begin in wonder. It is important, I think, to acknowledge the limit of our understanding, to appreciate that reality is largely unknowable and a mystery, and take delight in the wonder of it.
The way that can be a way is not the enduring Way.
The name that can be named is not the enduring name.
The unnamable is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is mother to ten thousand things.
Without desire, one sees the mystery.
With desire, one sees only manifestations.
These two have the same origin but are given different designations.
We call them both mystery.
Mystery within mystery.
The subtle gateway to wonder.
- Tao Te Ching, Chapter One***
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** Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Weiser Books, 1960
*** My translation.