Can A Buddhist Ask “Does God Exist?”

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

For some time now I have wanted to talk about the subject of whether or not God exist.  You can imagine that as a Buddhist teacher I get asked if I believe in a God frequently by those unfamiliar with Buddhist thought.  You see, our culture is confused about what Buddhists believe, and the role Siddhartha, the Buddha, expresses in the Buddhist faith.  The word “faith” goes along with the word “God” when the question is ask most of the time, that is why I am using it here. Considering this question, Buddhism generally takes a more pragmatic and agnostic approach, rather then get involved in theological dogma, preferring neither to say yes or no, and thus taking the Middle Way.  The Buddha himself did not deny or confirm the existence of a Creator God, but taught that there is no need to have an answer to this question because it did not achieve awareness of how we are that can lead to an enlightened state of body-mind.  Theism is not a central component of Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment, and the notion of a God was one of those questions he refused to speculate about because he was more intent on individuals seeking a way from their unsatisfactoriness through their own experiences, and thus to human flourishing.

But many of our Buddhist legacy teachers did speak about this question in either direct or indirect ways.  I will stick my neck out here and say that many of our enlightened Buddhist masters may have spoken about the “Does God Exist” question because they considered the answer to be in the question.  For myself, I believe the question is more complex than a simple yes or no answer, or even taking an agnostic worldview.  That is why I refer to myself as a reluctant agnostic.  I think the answer to this hard question requires a more nuanced consideration, as my spiritual practice works to seek an answer that expresses something more then a simple dismissal of what reality may be.  Much of my adult life has been seeking the quest for an answer to this question, and unsatisfactory answers was the major reason I left my Christian monastic practice.  Now that I am walking the Buddhist path, the quest is still a driving force in my recognition of how I am.  But my view of how the word “God” has transformed into a wider concept then just creation being a noun has dramatically changed how I approach the subject now, taking into consideration my understanding of the principles of mutual-causality, impermanence and the reality of a non-dual state of being.  When I am ask the question now, I generally ask, “What do you mean by God?”  This delays the obvious perhaps, but it gets the questioner a chance to think about their own way of expressing a question that has no absolute response.  I think an answer is incomprehensible if it is a good one anyway.

When I contemplate what God might be like, I no longer express it like a child would, a very elderly old man with a white beard, long flowing robes, sitting on a thrown all knowing ready to make judgments that involve the human race.  This image is always about something beyond the realistic into a place full of fantasy and mystery.  It is the iconic image of medieval art and speculation.   The challenge for us is that we need to go deeper, much deeper in our thought process, and sit in silence for a silent moment when the Universe touches our inner space where there are no words to express the experience.  Each of these experiences gives us a chance to glimpse creation as a verb.  St. Thomas Aquinas the great Christian theologian said, “God surpasses all things…  The one thing about God which remains completely unknown in this life is what God is.”   It is interesting to me as a Zen Buddhist to consider one of the Saint’s last mystical experiences before he died, he said, “It is all like straw.”  That sounds to me like a Buddhist master speaking.  Almost like a koan.   “It is all like straw” is a good way to say “emptiness.”

Over the years I have had a few experiences of a spiritual nature that have given me much to contemplate and reflect on relative to this subject of creation and God.   What is most interesting is that although some where during my Christian practice, and now my Buddhist one, they were very much about the same thing; the experience of connection and oneness, about the overwhelming beauty inherent in this world of ours, and a deep sense of belonging, but it was all here in those moments, not about something in a placed called heaven, or nirvana as though that was a place.  I was not disconnected from anything.  The lesson is that spirituality is as our spirit does.  When we are ready, we may be open to these awakened moments, but unfortunately most of us are somewhere else.  We nurture our meditation practice in order to be ready for this silent dialogue that we can intuitively understand as the Universe silently speaks to us like it was the God of our expectations.

D.T. Suzuki in his PhD thesis on Meister Eckhart, states that the mystical understanding of God is as a pure Being itself rather than as a discreet being or thing, which caused Lama Suryadas to exclaim, “God as nothingness?  Not supreme being, not creator, not eternal Big Kahuna, not all-knowing divine intelligence, omnipotent master of the universe but God as similar if not identical to Mahayana Buddhism’s concept of sunyata: voidness, emptiness, the absolute ground of being (as opposed to the relative nature of things)?”  This is a mighty challenge between head and heart.  This is reflecting the word “God” as a placeholder to symbolize something of high value, an ultimate, creation as transcendent, and any other words that suggest an idealized reality.  But idealized it still remains.  How we wish to conceive of a God is derived from our religious and cultural expectations.  And we are all influenced by those forces whether we want to recognize it or not.  The vary language we use to either confirm or deny the existence of a God is based on how these forces have influenced our spiritual development.  It is through these filters that we develop ideas of the world around us and how we come to conceive the creation process.  From a Buddhist point of view, we speak about the Universe as causal.  The causal-chain began at the moment of something we refer to as Dependent Origination. Beyond that there is no knowing.  So while we may speculate as to whether Dependent Origination is the “first cause” or not, is not what is important in our practice toward refining human flourishing.  From a theological perspective God is the first-cause.  Verb, noun, or something else is only important if your worldview is based on surrendering your thinking process to faith alone.  There is no need to think about a God if we do not ask the question.  In asking the question we create the meaning of a Creator.  If there is a Creator, it is Universe itself, and not a being.  We simply have to rely on other ways of addressing the question than through logic or linear thinking.  The Buddha pointed the way as he just did not take up the question.  His silence WAS the answer, and WAS the Universe expressing itself as the bedrock of reality.    If you do not understand that, I can not explain it to you.

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