On the Nothingness of God: A Zen Meditation

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Back in 2008 I read a review of the book Merton & Buddhism: Wisdom, Emptiness & Everyday Mind edited by Bonnie Bowman Thurston. The reviewer cited a particular line that I’ve not been able to shake. “(W)hen the Dalai Lama was asked if he believed in God, he replied ‘It depends on what you mean by ‘God’: if you mean by ‘God’ What Thomas Merton means, then yes, I do.’”

This very much caught my imagination. And, I wrote on the subject, on the yes, and the implied no, and within that the power of nothingness. I find myself think of this again. And, thought I’d take another run at that mystery.

Me, I do not believe in the God described in the mainstream of Western religion. I feel I’m not tumbling into the sin of certainty when I assert, pretty much categorically, there is no deity that is similar in any way to a human being with a mind like ours that created and sustains and to whom we can appeal in our need with some thought that he or she or it will intervene in the flow of events. I see no evidence of this. I believe the most reasonable stance is to assume, baring some form of evidence that to date has not presented it, the big human God simply doesn’t exist.

But that certainly doesn’t put the larger question of the divine to rest. As Father Merton and the Dalai Lama’s conversation points for us, there are many meanings given to that little word God. For me the fullness of that mystery, and particularly the silence of it, the nothingness of it contains volumes. It’s all about where we’re facing.

I recall once visiting with some friends, one of whom was dying. Has died now. In he course of sitting with them I had conversations. One with a developmentally disabled family member. And then later, of another conversation with an extended family member who is an Episcopal priest.

The developmentally disabled person wanted to pray. And I found I had absolutely no qualms about praying with him. I felt no sense I was being hypocritical or lying, either to that person or to myself. Nor did I feel some sense of being superior. We weren’t in such a place. We were sitting with hurt and longing and, really, before a mystery greater than any other. In the face of nothingness, in the face of silence, we lifted our voices. Prayer felt right and it didn’t matter if those prayers were at least in their outer form addressed to a conscious entity outside the universe and couched in petition for healing, if possible. It was heart crying out. It was an act of being present and human. We prayed. And I felt it right.

And then later with the priest, who knew my Unitarian Universalist Zen Buddhism, we talked a bit more abstractly about God. A wonderful conversation. He spoke of his own understanding informed by his Anglican tradition, as well as the early writers, and fired through a deep interest in Existentialism of the Christian sort. We had some things in common there. In response I acknowledged how for me Buddhism’s sunyata, which is traditionally translated as emptiness, could just as easily be translated as God. Emptiness not as lack but as beyond all categories of name. Not this. Not this. Not this. Nothingness.

And, again, I think, I feel into that nothingness. Right down to the bottom. And from that I do find the miracle…

Only this. And this. And this. Well, nothing more here.

So, a prayer and a conversation. Each of us as authentic as we could be. I certainly felt so, anyway. And, in those moments, I felt the power of that nothingness that is God.

Just that, hanging in the air, like the full moon lighting the dark night. Hurt and longing and love, all rising out of the great empty, all bubbling forth, birthed from the mother of us all…