Do you know the date of your birth? How do you know this?
Recently I listened to the Dalai Lama teach on three ways that we come to know things. The first is perceptual knowledge that comes to us through our senses. The second is experiential knowledge. Even though we may be able to convey the knowledge we gained, the experience of obtaining it may remain mostly ineffable.
The third way of knowing is information we accept on faith as completely true. The analogy the Dalai Lama used to demonstrate this point is how you know your birthday. You were told. You have no perceptive, and likely, no intuitive way to conjure the date on your own with absolute accuracy. However, you may have a way of discerning how you feel about what you were told.
The further point He made about this third way of knowing was that until you reach the stage of enlightenment yourself, you will need to accept on faith what other enlightened humans tell you about it and how to attain it. Now, He didn’t say that faith needed to be blind. In fact, He encouraged using discernment to consider the teacher’s character and to see if they had any reason to lie to you.
It has never occurred to me to question my mother, or any member of my family, about the date of my birth. And, the whole analogy He used may seem trivial and useful only because it’s common to all. But, I found it quite profound.
Think about it. Your date of birth is one of the most important identification markers in your life. If you believe in astrology charts, your birthday has everything to do with how you relate to your world for the entire time you are here. Recall how many legal documents you’ve filled out that required both your name and your birthday. In fact, your birthday is a more stable I.D. than your name, which could be legally changed. Or, you could prefer to be addressed by a nickname or alias.
Considering that the date of our birth is so intimate and so important to our identity, it’s amazing that we accept this information about ourselves on pure faith and have no way to independently verify it within ourselves as absolutely true. Every fact we encounter about it depends entirely on someone telling someone.
The key to Buddhism is that the Buddha was a human being who attained enlightenment. We have no way to independently verify this statement. If those who are inclined to this teaching cannot accept it on faith, then they cannot practice Buddhism. Otherwise, it would be striving for a fairy tale.
Until I attain enlightenment, the best I can do is place myself among teachers that I believe to be telling me the truth in so far as they can speak the ineffable, and in so far as they know the truth of ultimate reality. It is up to me to discern what I can about what I am told and about what I experience. The rest I take on faith until I have a way to know directly.