For many years, even before writing, You Don’t Have To Sit on the Floor, I have been feeling that Western Buddhists need to clarify their relationship with God (whether they are believers or not). Having been a Buddhist for some 40 years, and having come to Buddhism after rejecting Christianity, I eventually returned to Christianity (without leaving Buddhism) having found Sangha within a group that is essentially Christian, but which is open enough to accept a person like myself. This is the Religious Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers. In worshipping with Friends, I find that the Dharma is far wider and deeper than Buddhism, and teaches us things about the nature of God that orthodox Christianity ignores.
It is usually taught that Buddhism is a religion that has no place for God; that the Buddha, if he did not actually reject the existence of God, discouraged theological speculation to such an extent that it amounted to virtually the same thing. Most Buddhist teachers preach this, and some take it even further, specifically denying the existence of God and rejecting any mention of Him, Her or It. *
There are many ways in which God is found within Buddhism. In looking at them, let us start with an interesting sidelight that may be one of the great cosmic jokes of all time. In his fascinating work The Beginnings of Buddhism, Professor Richard Gombrich points out that the Buddha would not have begun to teach were it not for the intercession of Brahma, who is the personal form of the infinite Brahman. This means that we can say, if we want to be provocative, that Buddhism was actually founded by God.
One of the unique teachings of the Quakers is that all beings have ‘That of God’ within them. This is best expressed through what they call the “Inward Light” in the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism. The Buddha tells us the story of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, while the Christian Epistle of John states that, “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all”. The obvious philosophical (theological? buddhalogical?) question that arises is; “Can there be two Infinite Lights?” As the answer is obviously “No”, then it becomes clear that the Apostle John and the writers of the Pure Land scriptures are talking about the same thing, though using slightly different language. The Christian scriptures also state that “God is Love”, and I have yet to meet a Buddhist who does not believe in Love.
There is a story of a French Catholic priest, whose duties included ministering to the dying. He was most miserable regarding those who died outside the Roman Church, as he had been taught, and believed, that they would go to hell. One day he had a mystical revelation of God as Love, which completely changed his life, and from then on he ministered joyfully to all who were dying regardless of their lifestyles. Once he knew that God is Love, he knew that Love rejected no one. In a similar way – though not so dramatic – when I came to Pure Land Buddhism and discovered Shinran’s saying in the Tannisho that “… if a good person goes to the Pure Land, how much more an evil person”, I then realised the meaning of Jesus’ saying that he had come to save sinners and not the righteous.
Finding a place for God does not necessarily mean rejecting any part of the Buddha’s teaching. In fact, it may lead to a clearer understanding of some aspects of the Dharma. Utterly rejecting any other religion – even Christianity – is not necessary for a Buddhist. In fact, Buddhism has a history – which began with the Buddha himself – of embracing existing religions and cultures. The former personal gods become sages or protectors of the Dharma. The insights of the world’s mystics embrace infinite possibilities. Acquired knowledge of theology (or buddhology) does not mean that we are any further forward on the road to Nirvana – or the Kingdom of Heaven.
For many of us European-born Buddhists, with a basic Christian background – even if our upbringing was in an atheist or agnostic household – God will not go away. For example, He may suddenly come out when we swear, exclaiming “Oh God!” when something shocks or frightens us. I have not come across any Western Buddhists who have replaced the phrase “Oh God!” with “Oh Buddha!” or anything similar. Then there are many of us who will, for lack of our friendly neighbourhood Buddhist temple, happily use a suitable church in which to meditate. One Japanese Zen teacher who I knew well used to encourage us to do this, and even gave us the mantra, Namu Jesu Kristu to use while we were doing so. And there are many other aspects of our lives as European men and women where God is – at the very least – in the background.
Before we look into this any further, we have to be clear what we mean by God. When Buddhists reject God, they are usually talking about the personal God, the old man in the clouds, the creator, the judge, the loving Father that Jesus spoke about who has – let’s face it – become something of a despot. However, there is also the impersonal God that fills the whole universe and is also beyond it, which is omnipresent, and thus found within all creation, though not as a separate unchanging self. I accept that the former has little or no place within Buddhism, though, as we shall see, personal gods of various forms have had roles within Buddhism from the very beginning of the Buddha’s ministry. The latter, however, is found in Buddhism under various names.
The personal God is also the creator, a concept most Buddhists reject. This idea is taken from the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, but few Christians – except fundamentalists – accept this version of creation without reservation. Most agree that it is a myth, and, as with all myth, speaks only to those who are in tune with it. Suffice to say that they are not historical documents describing a once and for all time happening (any more than are the stories of the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana scriptures). They are, according to Qabalistic teaching, a mystical pathway to the understanding of creation as a continuous process which is still happening. This is the Buddha’s teaching of anicca. Impermanence also implies continuous creation.
As to the judge, who will send us to heaven or hell for all eternity; this concept grew out of the political aspirations of the growing Christian church. The threat of eternal hell is the means by which it sought to gain and retain its hold over the faithful. Buddhism also has its hells, and while they are not eternal, they too are frightening enough to have been used to keep the faithful in line. These are not part of the original teachings of Gautama or Jesus. If we read the Gospels carefully, we find the well-known parables such as The Good Shepherd and The Prodigal Son confirm this. They also have their parallels in Buddhism, and similar stories have been told about Buddha. It is impossible that anyone could ever be damned by such a God or Pure Unconditional Love, such as Jesus reveals, let alone for eternity. If there is any hell, we bring it upon ourselves.
A side issue – but one which is important – is the parallel divergence from the original teachings of Jesus when the teaching of rebirth was condemned as heresy. Rebirth was widely accepted by Christians up to the 4th Century. Indeed, Jesus himself referred to it when speaking about John the Baptist, when he stated that “John is the destined Elijah, if you will but accept it”. Other interpretations have been put on this by orthodox commentators, but there would have been no need for a council of senior bishops to condemn the teaching as heresy if it had not been widely accepted. If the teaching of eternal damnation of the soul was to have the effect of increasing the church’s political and religious power over the people, then re-birth had to go.
Finally, let us look at the aspects of God that are found within Buddhism, even if they are not given the same name. Firstly, there is the “The Unborn, Unmade, Unmanifest and Unbecome”. What a wonderful description of Divinity. Then there is God revealed as Love, Compassion, Light, Life, Law, Oneness and the Void. God is also found in the Here and Now, within both Buddhist mindfulness and in the Practice of the Presence of God as found in Brother Lawrence’s classic. There is also the idea of the Tao, which had a profound influence on Japanese and Chinese traditions of Buddhism. Many far eastern masters use the term when talking about the Infinite, and contemporary Christian writers such as Thomas Merton and Henry Thomas Hamblin readily acknowledge the influence of the Tao Teh Ching on their thought.
One reason why the Buddha appears to be opposed to any idea of God is that he does not accept sloppy thinking. He is probably the prime example of perfect clarity of thought in a religious teacher. When the Buddha discovers that the questioner’s thought is not clear, or that the questioner has not realised what he is expressing, but is only putting forward the thoughts of others, the Buddha is ruthless in the way that He helps the questioner to see this for himself. But the Buddha is also compassionate in the way of avoiding further confusion, and in pointing the way for the questioner to realise the Truth for themselves.
Most Buddhists agree that the Buddha was not a god, though worshippers in Buddhist temples around the world behave as if he were. However, it is equally true that, particularly in the Mahayana scriptures, he exhibits many godlike characteristics. Such miraculous phenomena as instant transportation, creation of Buddha-fields, bilocation, transfiguration and the manifestation of spiritual worlds are the stuff of gods, but the Buddha shows us that they are also the stuff of enlightened beings. And we have to remember that in the great stream of spirituality from which the Buddha came, namely Hinduism, enlightened beings ARE God (or aspects of God).
In his inspiring book In days of Great Peace, Mouni Sadhu quotes the sage Ramana Maharshi, who speaks in terms that I am sure the Buddha would recognise:
All religious and philosophical systems can lead us only to a certain point – always the same – to the emotional-mental conception of God. And what is most important, meriting the name of True Achievement, lies beyond it, in Realisation.
Let us not then think about God as a being dwelling somewhere in heaven, or as the primary cause of all things, or any other clear, comforting mental conception, for none of these speculations bring us nearer to reality. In the Kalama Sutra the Buddha enjoins us to accept what is helpful, and to this end, he gave us many “skilful means”. If the term “God” is one such, useful shorthand for the Ultimate Unspeakable Mystery, then let us accept it, and use it.
When all is said and done, the Buddha may not have talked much about God, but he knew, and so discouraged speculation. Jesus taught in parables, and kept silent in the face of Pilate’s question, “What is Truth”; and Lao Tzu has the last word; “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know”.
* Though the male pronoun is usually used in connection with God, the God that is truly infinite must have infinite aspects, though no words can adequately reflect such a God.