A Buddhist God: A Few Very, very Preliminary Thoughts

I’ve been thinking a little about those wondrous moments when great religions encounter each other. For instance when Indian Buddhism first encountered China. In particular I’m aware of the power of adaptation, and how when Buddhists decided to use Tao to stand for Buddhadharma, that subtle and powerful currents shifted and new perceptions emerged…

Now that Buddhism is taking root among Western cultures the first great dialog has turned out to be with Western psychology.

But there has been a lower grade conversation, encounter, clash with Western religions, lesser so for Islam, more so with Judaism, and most of all with Christianity. (Western neo-pagan and earth centered traditions and Humanism cannot be ignored, either…)

And with most of these encounters that word God keeps popping up.

I have a small collection of Buddhist polemics denouncing the Western ideas of God – for various reasons. Probably the biggest is how outsiders really see the projection of human ego on the sky in the most popular portrayals of deity.

But, also, increasingly, Buddhists find themselves using the word God as a stand in for sunyata, the great empty, the boundless.

Certainly there’s precedent within Western religious thinking, the apophatic mystics for one. And also, in the Christian scriptures that mysterious term kenosis…

There are all sorts of troubling and exciting twists and turns in using a word like God, freighted as it is with three or four thousand years of layering. How the dualism inherent in almost all understandings works with the ultimate nondualism of Buddhism is going to be rich, no doubt.

But, for me, it adds in some fascinating directions in describing our encounter with the two truths, the empty and our ordinary historical lives, as ultimately one thing, or not even one…

Where all this might go, and how important that going might be is very much an open question.

But, it certainly is worth noticing…

  • guy newland

    Hi James, thanks for this. You can lead the next UU retreat where the question will be: Who are you serving?

    • jamesiford

      Actually, Guy, I have a strong antipathy to that particular workshop. Having had to endure it twice, I found it intellectually dishonest, claiming to be open to every perspective, but in fact relentlessly modeling people toward the most superficial versions of theism, and then at the end setting up a situation where people are expected to pray to a deity that I certainly don’t think exists. Yes, I was allowed to simply express good wishes, but I felt and I think I was meant to feel outside the group. There has to be a better way, one more respectful of the genuine variety of faith stances among the Unitarian Universalist community.

      • jamesiford
        • guy newland

          I remembered that . . . Are you evolving on the skilfulness of the G-word? Who are the Buddhists who use God in a Buddhist sense?

          • jamesiford

            Me, I’m uneven in my applications, Guy. I get annoyed at the idea of a deity active in the universe, noticing if there were such a thing, by any human standard it wouldn’t be very nice. I’ve heard God used in casual use in a number of Zen contexts. Beyond Zen, I think Thich Nhat Hanh is the most prominent Buddhist to use the term frequently. http://www.soundstrue.com/podcast/transcripts/thich-nhat-hanh.php?camefromhome=camefromhome

          • jamesiford

            Also, Guy, while I couldn’t find an example in a quick google search, I have it in my head the Dalai Lama has on occasion referenced God in a similar way. You’re the expert here, is this just a figment of my imagination?

          • guy newland

            James, thanks for citing that podcast, very helpful in illustrating your point. I do notice that he was explaining how he had spoken “when visiting America” and that he added “in Buddhism we would say Nirvana”. So, as TNT has it, in Buddhism God is called Nirvana, but God is beyond religion and is called different things in different religions. Like everywhere people have Xerox machines, but mine is a Sanyo. Or in some parts of south, all soda pop is called “Coke”.

          • guy newland

            re: HHDL, he has repeated several times and takes as important to Buddhism the idea that there can be no uncreated Creator. He has explained how karma (on the one hand) and a Primoridal Buddha/mind of clear light/Dharmadhatu (on the other) can be seen as like a creator, but then he goes on to carefully differentiate: these are never a single, unique, self-instituting entity. In other contexts, he speaks with real understanding about how feeling one’s self to be loved by a personal God, who is the source of your being, is a profound kind of spirituality that has brought great help to many. He even brags a bit about having taught Bible lessons to Christians who asked. But then he makes it clear that he, as a Buddhist, does not believe in a divine personal Creator.

          • jamesiford

            And, Guy, I think if God becomes any sort of commonplace among Buddhists in the West it will involve an explicit rejection of the creator/intervener part of divinity. My own sporadic use is pretty clearly, most of the time about this, although there were the people in the Arizona congregation who went to the board after being there two years to say they thought I was an atheist. The board people, bless ‘em, did say, you just noticed?

          • Vishvapani Blomfield

            Yes, but why bother speaking of God?

  • Vishvapani Blomfield

    James, you seem to be posing the question: why not use the term ‘God?’ But you don’t address the question ‘Why?’ I would have thought that it would firstly require you to reinterpret the Christian concept of God in Buddhist, or quasi-Buddhist terms i.e. the real meaning of God is sunyata, therefore you can render sunyata as God. Perhaps western people simply need to learn the term sunyata if they are not to avoid mistaking it for something quite different: the orthodox Christian concept of God.

    • guy newland

      Or something like that, yeah. Otherwise, when we say “God” (by which we mean the inexpressible sense in which the two truths are one/not even one) they will be thinking we are talking the Father Almighty who created the world and issued commandments and then sent his son to redeem us when we could not follow them.

  • jamesiford

    Dear Vishvapani, two things. First, I don’t think the question is can or should, but rather what to make of the fact that it is happening. I’ve seen fairly conservative as well as liberal Buddhists use God in what in general seems to be standing as sunyata. So, for me, the question is, is this anomalous or are we witnessing something potentially as momentous as when Buddhists embraced the word Tao? Second, the multiplicity of meanings for God in Western religion cannot be reduced to that used by one, even if the largest, schools of Western theistic use. For instance the God used by Spinoza, John of the Cross, or, for that matter, by contemporary panentheists…

  • Thomas Armstrong

    I would hope that we don’t create a Buddhist God because THAT would certainly be an immodest projection up into the clouds. But I could entertain Meister Eckhart’s radical pantheism hooking up with us (the Buddhists) nicely such that emptiness and fullness are seen as the same boundlessness.

  • urownexperience

    Whether or not there is a god is irrelevant regarding your angst. Look into your own mind. Wake up!

  • Agni Ashwin

    Buddhadasa used “God” as synonymous with “Dhamma” or “Truth”.

    Etymologically, “God” might be related to the Sanskrit “Hu” (both stemming from a Proto-Indo-European word for “to invoke, to call upon”. Perhaps Buddhists can rescue the word “God” from its theistic captivity and return it to its foundational meaning.

  • Duck_of_Death

    I hesitated in saying anything, but. It just seems so unproductive to speak of “God” in Buddhism. Nirvana, sunyata, emptiness, God – these are just concepts that the mind plays with. Direct experience and daily practice is what matters. I have always liked to think of Buddhists as being atheists (maybe that’s just a little conceit of mine)? But “God” really isn’t useful for those who are seriously practicing it seems to me. For those who need a God as a personal savior or an agent to bargain with in times of crisis or when approaching death; Buddhism is not for them. There’s no God, no Buddha, no Bodhisattva, only the karmic consequences of our actions. My 2-cents.