I've never understood why some people are so down on thinking as an avenue to spiritual growth -- using "spiritual" in a non-supernatural sense, basically an exploration of what it means to be a caring, compassionate person who is grounded in reality.
Naturally those thinking skeptics express their view in, no big surprise, thoughts. So they cast doubt on the value of thought while thinking thoughts.
One reason I enjoy reading Buddhist books (non-religious variety) is that Buddhism is fine with thinking. Also, with not thinking. That's an example of the middle way favored by Buddhists.
Thinking and not thinking both have their place. Which we do depends on the situation, on what makes sense at the time.
A favorite Buddhist book of mine is Guy Newland's "Introduction to Emptiness: Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path." I've read it several times. The highlighted passages in different colors produced at different times in my life remind me of the book's core idea.
Nothing is permanent. Everything changes. Nothing has inherent existence, being able to exist purely as itself. Everything is dependent on causes and conditions in never-ending processes of this giving way to that.
That's what emptiness is all about. The emptiness of inherent existence. Which includes emptiness itself.
All Madhyamaka philosophers agree that there is nothing that can withstand ultimate analysis. By this they mean that there is nothing anywhere that ultimately exists -- including, of course, the Buddha and the teachings of Buddhism.
Even emptiness is itself empty; that is, when one searches for the ultimate essence of emptiness, it too is unfindable. One finds only the emptiness of emptiness.
This distinguishes Buddhism from Indian philosophy (along with the philosophy of other religions, including Christianity), which rest on a belief that there is something unchangeable and eternal -- such as the soul/atman and God/Brahman.
Buddhists don't believe in either, the soul or God. As to realizing your true self, Buddhism replies, "Give up that notion. You neither have nor are an enduring self."
In his book Newland describes why clear thinking is so important to Buddhist practice of the Tibetan variety espoused by Tsong-kha-pa.
You can't sit down and thoughtlessly meditate your way into an understanding of emptiness. That will leave you in the same state of delusion you were in before.
Sure, meditation feels good. It's relaxing. It calms the mind. It fosters concentration. That's why I've meditated every day for fifty years.
But by itself meditation doesn't lead to a firm grasp of the most important characteristic of the cosmos: that the cosmos has no enduring characteristic. And since humans are a part of the cosmos, neither do we.
As the suffering world has no independent, objective reality but is only an empty convention, we might suppose that stopping conventional thought in a meditative state would be the most liberating move.
The Chinese Buddhist master Ha-shang Mahayana, Tsong-kha-pa reports, regarded any sort of conceptualization whatsoever to be a distorting reification. Throughout the Great Treatise, Ha-shang functions as a stock character representing the perspective that we should dispense with all thought and meditate on reality by not bringing anything to mind.
Tsong-kha-pa argues repeatedly and passionately that meditative thoughtlessness is never going to get us any closer to freedom. Understanding born of careful analysis is at the very heart of what is distinctive about the Buddhist path. This is the third training, the training in wisdom.
Other religions share with Buddhism profound ethics as well as techniques for accessing amazing non-conceptual states. But Buddhism claims as its distinction a penetrating, thoughtful analysis of exactly how the world exists.
Only by engaging in this analysis, thinking it through and taking it to heart, do we begin to create the basis for real liberation from unnecessary misery.
Here's a rough analogy to what Newland just said. Imagine that you are thoughtlessly watching the sun set, your entire attention being focused on the beauty of the colors in the sky as the sun disappears below the horizon.
That could be a wonderful experience. But it doesn't bring you closer to understanding that actually the sun is standing still, while the Earth rotates on its axis, creating an appearance that the sun is what is moving.
Or, imagine that you are meditating thoughtlessly with eyes closed, your entire attention being focused on a single internal subject of awareness. You could have a feeling of pure consciousness, that the real you is beyond time and space, an eternal I-ness.
But that experience doesn't bring you closer to understanding that actually there is nothing permanent or independent about you. Your meditative concentration may be pleasant, yet fails to reveal your genuine nature -- emptiness.
"Dependent arising" is how Buddhism treads the middle way between nihilism and eternalism. Things actually exist, but they don't exist as themselves only. They have no inherent existence, but only come into being as a result of causes and conditions, a never-ending complex chain of causes and effects.
This present moment, whatever it might be like for you or me, has been produced by past causes and conditions extending back to the big bang (and perhaps beyond, if big bangs happen over and over). So the ephemeral instant of now is a snapshot of what actually is a very long-running movie of cosmic proportions.
In the next instant, things have changed both within and without us. This may not be obvious, but it is undeniably true.
So wisdom, or spiritual growth, doesn't reside in finding something unchangeable in us or the world, but in grasping that everything, us naturally included, is interconnected with everything else in a seamless web of ever-changing causes and conditions without end.