"No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent." (—Bertrand Russell)
Over the course of many years, starting when I was a kid practically, I have accumulated a non-definitive list of spiritual dilemmas that just about anyone seeking to live a religious or spiritual life must face. I've intended to write them down systematically for years, and I'm just now getting around to it. The list is indicative of the fact that the inhabitants of this world live in a system that is biased in favor of our staying unenlightened, despite the ultimate fact that the Spirit of Enlightenment is the underlying essence of the whole system. That in itself is more of a paradox than a dilemma. Anyway, without further ado, I'll begin the list (which is still necessarily incomplete after all these years), beginning with some of the more elementary ones that I became aware of when I still had long brown hair (it's grey stubble now) and wore tight blue jeans.
~Following our own idea vs. Following someone else's idea. From a samsaric point of view, from the perspective of "the system," we are unenlightened. If this were not the case, we wouldn't feel the urge to seek out a more spiritual way of being, or a happier one. So right off the bat we are faced with an inevitable dilemma: Do we follow our own idea in our attempts to become enlightened, or do we follow a teacher and/or an established spiritual system?
On the one hand, we probably know ourselves better than anyone else, in most respects, and have a pretty good feeling for what inspires us and what doesn't. On the other hand, we are unenlightened and not fully conscious, and thus, in a sense, insane. We are trying to use an insane mind to cure itself of its own insanity. It's like a badly programmed computer being used to reprogram itself—using its own bad programming in its attempts to create a perfect program. So the attempts would seem, in all probability, to be futile.
Getting back to one hand again, a spiritual teacher would presumably have more developed wisdom than us, and an established religious system presumably has already helped many others before us to cultivate advanced wisdom. On the other hand, some teachers are charlatans, including some very famous and highly respected ones; and religion in general seems designed more to perpetuate itself than to guide people out of the system. So in choosing a teacher or a spiritual system we must use discretion if we are to avoid spending our lives following a bogus system, or following a bogus guru.
And this is where the two horns of the dilemma balance: We must use the very same unenlightened mind, with its unenlightened choices, either way! Even if we choose to follow a teacher, this very same unenlightened, foolish mind is choosing the teacher. And apparently most people who choose a teacher do not choose the best one. Either way, we are gambling with our lives. And if we let someone else, like our family, choose for us, we are choosing to do that too. If we are fortunate enough, i.e. if our karma is good enough, we will be guided towards, or blunder onto, a really enlightening path.
~Easy, worldly religions that almost anyone can follow vs. Difficult, unworldly religions that almost nobody can follow. As mentioned above, many religious systems are not all that profoundly wise—even though almost all religious systems endorse goodness, generosity, and so on. Any spiritual system that becomes a popular religion must appeal more to the worldly masses than to the relatively few who are more developed and ripe for enlightenment. Furthermore, as already mentioned, the people who choose a path to follow (not to mention those simply born into a system) may lack the wisdom to tell the difference between an enlightening path and one that is simply superstition laden with arbitrary rituals. And of course, just about everyone considers their own religion to be the True One.
Considering the appeal-to-the-worldly-masses factor that all established spiritual systems are subjected to, there is also the additional sub-dilemma that wise systems tend to degenerate into the easier and less wise type. So it seems to be a law of this world that any religion that is successful is very probably much more foolish than wise. But if we use this as an excuse to work out our own liberation independently, we fall back onto the first dilemma mentioned above.
So in this case, assuming that we are looking for outside guidance on our spiritual path, we can trust our intuition in finding an inspired teacher, or else we can rely on the fact that most established religions have a more or less esoteric wisdom tradition, since there are wise people (albeit a minority of them) all over the world, and they prevent their system from degenerating completely into sheer dogma, superstition, and nonsense. So perhaps the safest route to take in this case is to seek out the wisdom traditions within one's chosen religion that few people practice, and perhaps, as in Roman Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, that few people even know about. But even those esoteric wisdom traditions are bound to have their fair share of superstition and arbitrary ritual. So it goes.
~A rational, philosophical approach vs. An irrational, religious one. Western people especially prefer to follow a system that makes sense, and that follows more or less rational principles. Consequently they tend to prefer reason to faith, a philosophical approach to a traditionally religious one. This makes perfect sense, naturally. The trouble is, though, that reason without faith leads to lukewarm rationalism or lukewarm skepticism—in either case lukewarm, too lukewarm in fact to inspire determined, sustained spiritual practice. The kind of spiritual practice most likely to produce significant results is more religious and more saintly, and thus more faith-oriented and even more irrational. The greatest saints and spiritual leaders tend to have at least a tinge of wild-eyed fanaticism about them, at least while they were still seeking. After they find what they are seeking they may become much more "laid back" and even rational; but this relaxed attitude did not get them where they are.
So we are left with what to many would seem an unpalatable choice: A system that is reasonable, or an unreasonable one, one perhaps laden with superstition and mythology, which nevertheless can actually get us to Wake Up. Logic and enlightenment seem not to get along well together. If we want to wake up we may have to become more irrational, maybe even a little wild-eyed and fanatical. Many philosophical Westerners may prefer to make sense, even if they sacrifice Liberation for the sake of it. Worshipping Hanuman the monkey king or wearing a brown toga and bowing a lot may seem too far out to be worth it.
~Objective dogma vs. Subjective inspiration. This is a dilemma which came to a head relatively early in the history of Buddhism: The second great council, which (setting aside the less successful schism of Devadatta) led to the first great schism, was largely based upon it. The Thera side of the controversy endorsed strict adherence to an established system of doctrine, or "Right View," while the Mahasangha side of the rift emphasized individual intuition and inspiration in the interpretation of Dharma. As Paul of Tarsus said with regard to the inspiration side of a rather different system, "The letter killeth; the spirt maketh alive."
However, history has shown that while, on the one hand, dogmatism can indeed result in dead, dry words and rituals revered as somehow sacred in and of themselves, following one's inspiration can result in the riotous growth of a bewildering jungle of strange ideas and practices, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, with the ridiculous claiming most of the territory. Returning to the example of Buddhism, Theravada became rather dry and dogmatic very early in its history, yet remained relatively close to ancient Indian tradition (at least scripturally, on paper); while Mahayana took the inspiration ball and ran with it, coming up with systems that in all likelihood bear little resemblance to what the historical Buddha originally taught, ranging from Tantric sexual techniques (including imagining copulating Buddhas) to reciting "Homage to the Lotus Sutra" over and over again for the sake of being reborn in a Pure Land in the West somewhere. So we seem to have a choice between rigid, medieval-style dogmatism or such a full spectrum of beliefs and practices that finding true Dharma in it may be comparable to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. But then again, some may find the needle of Dharma more easily in the jeweled haystack of Mahayana than in the gold-encrusted skeleton of Theravada.
A sub-dilemma under this heading would be the no-win choice of dogmas in Western Buddhism: A Dharma adjusted (and thereby practically disemboweled) to fit the Western religion of Scientism (with plenty of Consumerism mixed in besides), or a more ancient, more traditional, and more far-fetched Dharma based upon the way ancient Asians interpreted the world. Modern Western materialistic "Dharma" is certainly more easily accepted by modern Westerners, and is more supported, yet it cannot accept some of the most fundamental and important tenets of Dharma; and the more idealist, magical, traditional approach is seen by Westerners as "woo woo" or as laden with pathetic superstition. Yet the modern Western approach is just as dogmatic in its own way, and thus just as superstitious, and, spiritually, perhaps much more limited. But I have discussed this sub-dilemma elsewhere—in fact it's one of the central themes of this blog—so I'll leave it here for now.
Another way of considering this overall dilemma of religion is the rigidity of being locked into a system vs. the amorphous chaos of "no rules." I suspect different temperaments would do well under different horns of this dilemma.
~Extraversion, service, and "heart" vs. Introversion, seclusion, and "head." I consider this one to be a dilemma only in appearance, since Liberation can be found on either path; ultimately both paths lead to the same unimaginable state. However, some people see the choice between heart and head to be one with only one best path to take. Some say that with the world as messed up as it is, Karma Yoga of some sort, i.e. spiritual practice based upon compassionate service to others, is practically mandatory.
On the other hand, I think Saint John of the Cross may have been right when he said that even if one dedicated one's whole life to feeding the hungry, tending the sick, and alleviating the hardships of the poor, with a smile and a kind word for everyone no less, this person still wouldn't be helping the world nearly as much as a person sitting alone in a cell practicing high contemplation (which, in Buddhist jargon, would probably be called "at least 2nd jhāna"). What the world needs even more than heartfelt philanthropy is a high level of consciousness; and if one can contribute higher consciousness to the cumulative field by sitting alone in a cell or cave, then one can help the world more that way. But if one can cultivate a high level of consciousness and serve one's fellow beings, then of course so much the better.
Incidentally, one person was telling me recently that with the world as messed up as it is the wisest and best spiritual path would be one of self-purification and the perfection of goodness, since the world needs as much goodness as it can get. But, on the other hand, it may be that we just don't have time for the old-fashioned way of gradual self-perfection and saintliness. It may be that for some at least, the wisest path would involve a more "tantric" detachment and disidentification from the "self," regardless of how pure or impure that self seems to be. Perfection doesn't exist on the samsaric level anyway, so if we can wake up without being "pure," then why not? But with our higher consciousness we're inevitably going to be gentler and more compassionate, so still there would be an advantage for everyone, not just for the tantric yogi. Plus of course, there's the higher cumulative consciousness issue already alluded to.
~"Everything is already perfect" vs. "We must strive to become perfect." The preceding discussion leads to the dilemma, or paradox, that from the Ultimate perspective everything is already perfection, or God, or the Dharmakāya, or whatever you prefer to call Ultimate Reality, yet from the unenlightened perspective, perfection simply doesn't exist. If Reality is perfect, then it can't be improved; and if we are somehow already perfect and enlightened, then there's nothing for us to do. But, strangely, it seems like we have to do a lot of hard work to realize this extraordinarily simple fact. The idea that everything is already a manifestation of Perfection would seem to render unnecessary any kind of spiritual practice; yet if everything is not already perfect, then trying to attain the unattainable may also seem futile. The samsaric "I" can never go beyond the imperfections of Samsara. The dilemma appears to be that either way, Reality perfect or imperfect, spiritual practice seems useless—at least for the sake of becoming perfectly Enlightened. As William Blake's devil once said, "He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star." Maybe this is why so many Buddhist philosophers have interpreted Nirvana as simple non-existence: In an imperfect world, only absolute zero is perfect. But Nirvana really doesn't mean zero.
So in a way spiritual practice itself is a dilemma. Another way of looking at it is that effort will not liberate us, since effort is doing, and doing is karma, and karma is what keeps us tangled up in Samsara anyway. So enlightenment must be effortless. But still, we may have to work like hell finally to realize this. So, ironically, spiritual practice may require not only an unenlightened point of view but some sloppy, irrational thinking besides. We can't wake up by trying, but still we must try.
It would be nice if, in conclusion, I were to resolve all these dilemmas, to explain the way through the labyrinth of logical complications and contradictions. But if there were such a resolution, then they wouldn't really be dilemmas, would they. The best advice I can give is Be Careful, and never be too sure you've found the truth, or the way. Have a clear mind, and the place on the path where you are will be clear, even if the path directly in front of you is not, and even if you can't explain the situation in words. Be Here Now. Do good, keep a clear head, and good luck to you. But "you" will never become enlightened, because "you" and "I" are the essence of unenlightenment.