David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
Let me say right-off-the-bat I do not wish to offend anyone with a strong spiritual practice based on the belief in a superior being. I respect a pluralistic worldview and one’s own freedom to find what makes us human as we all walk the path “up the mountain” together. In fact, taking an agnostic worldview is more difficult to explain in our Western culture. Even for some Buddhist that have taken the scriptures/suttas as referring to the Buddha as a divine-like figure may also be challenged by a discourse on the topic of God (or the little god’s) when considering the topic of Creation. As a former Christian monk, I too come to this subject with a great deal of “soul” searching, contemplation, and philosophical study. But I am glad I did because my eyes have been opened to the wonder of this Universe and my expression in it; one no longer inhibited by limitations imposed by accepting the notion of a god, and all that that encompasses. I prefer to consider “creation” as a verb not a noun. And that verb is unknowable, as Siddhartha said many times.
The word “God” has a powerful effect because as soon as we hear the word meaning comes into our minds. How we consider the word depends on our conditioning that we have experienced through a lifetime of association with the culture we live in and religious affiliation of our “tribe”. It is a word that begs not to be questioned. When we hear the word “God”, if we are honest with ourselves, we sense an immediate emotional effect, and we display the personal preferences we have come to accept as representing what we believe. I think very few individuals really question the authenticity of a Creator. It is something that just isn’t questioned. The typical response when ask if we believe in God is, “Of course I believe in God, are you crazy?” That is the first problem with the word, because our minds are already closed. Our culture, our families, our communities, our social justice system is based on a superior being setting guidelines of what is moral and ethical. Without that we would experience chaos.
As a Western Buddhists, I think it is important to take an interest in this notion of God because we are living amongst a predominantly theistic culture, many being Christian, and as a Buddhists teacher I am ask this question often. It is something I have had to work out because of my interest in inter-spiritual community dialogue. Even those new to Buddhism almost always ask the question early on in their studies. As our studies become more complex and advanced this idea of universal-creation often is perplexing and unresolved as to where Creator/God fits into the picture. As Westerners this is a normal reaction, not because we want God to somehow fit in, but it is due to our past conditioning, and the power of the word that needs resolution. Interesting enough, my own teacher seemed to be very reluctant to bring the subject up.
What do we mean by the word God? What do we really believe God is? Like any subject it is important to first know what it is all about. When ask if we believe in God, we might just be wise to ask back, “What do you mean by God?” This generally stops the conversation cold for a few seconds, then we might just hear an untold number of answers. You see, we are first asking the questioner what they mean, and that gives us a chance to say if we agree or not. I never answer the question with a simple “yes or no”. Interesting enough, this question may not really be about “just God” at all, but the questioner might be assuming a much more complicated meaning. This is where the conversation becomes really interesting and meaningful if we have the time for a serious and open dialogue. I think if we took the time to inquire from others their honest belief, we would discover that their notion of God is created by them and describes what they want God to be, and not one based on theological constructs. In other words, man creates God.
It is interesting to remember that in the Book of Genesis we are told that “God created man in his own image”. It is a way people think about God. Even the theology of today is based on God being in a “person” form, male form of course. It is much more difficult for the ancients to see God as female, although “God the Mother” could be a modern day terminology for some. What all this means, is that humans conceive God in their minds as thoughts and images. When we do this, we can recognize every description of God that we encounter. This is the way human communication works. If we can recognize something, we can believe it is real, even though we have never actually encountered it.
Consider for a moment how primitive man must have considered the sky from the edge of his cave, or when he encountered fire. What sort of gods created such power and magic. We know from our study of ancient literature that the gods were considered in terms of war, power, or nature. The more fierce, powerful, and mysterious a god was considered, the more accepting man made them in cultural authenticity. In other words, they became real. As society became more refined, man placed other more refined cultural attributes to define God. Attributes like kindness, love and compassionate. How we imagined the gods to be also became more civilized and human like. Consequently the form and nature of the gods changed, as did how they were worshiped. Even the Bible reflects an evolutionary aspect to God’s character. In the Old Testament God was fierce and warlike. In the New Testament God is depicted as compassionate and kind as a father would be to their sons and daughters. This reflects that as man began to change what they valued, those values were also attributed to God. Over time the notion of God became more personal, a God that one could have a personal relationship with, and a God that could offer rewards as well as punishments.
Our Buddhist history also grew out of a culture that believed in gods and the creation of various levels of human worth: the Brahman belief system. The Buddha made it very clear that he rejected as primitive the notion of a god as creator. Buddhism does not accept any belief in a god that is all powerful and beyond the laws of causality. But how should we consider walking this Buddhist path obviously seeking something spiritual, but that does not consider a creator god? The Buddha did speak about gods in terms of how we view the causal Universe. In various suttas he would talk about gods, heavens, heels and beings in various realms, but with a very important distinction. All these gods and realms are mortal, which means that they are subject to the laws of causality as is every other expression in the Universe. These references were made as metaphors. Every thing, no matter the form, is subject to the process of birth and death. Birth and death here means arising and passing away. This does not fit the description of what we mean when we use the word ‘God’. God is permanent and unchanging. As Buddhists we come to understand how all phenomena is impermanent including self and other. This other would also include gods. At least any god that man can conceive. Creation is beyond human understanding. The Buddha called it unknowable. So, as Buddhist we do not use the word ‘God’ because as soon as we say the word people start getting ideas in their heads about something unconditioned, and that is not how the Universe is.
As our practice matures, when we are ask to describe the term “god” nothing comes to mind, at least quickly. We experience a feeling of great doubt. This is very good, because you are getting closer to an answer. You should consider wisely, reflect on it and use your ability to contemplate and reason clearly. Question your own thoughts and assumptions. Do not become trapped by cultural expectations. Being a Buddhist requires asking the really hard questions. Dare to question, be open, be willing to listen and consider. The Buddhist path leads to awakening to what is real beyond what man sets as limitations and expectations. Respect others religious views, but also respect your own, and let ‘no’ be a positive not a negative.