Through many years of practice and teaching, I’ve discovered that many Buddhists (and non-Buddhists who know me) are either silently or loudly asking a nagging question that they can’t seem to shake; “What about God?”
To look into a question like this, we must first ask which god are we referring to? There are many. For me, in simple terms, God is love – and love is greater than hate because it can include and accept hate – hate can’t accept love.
I spent 9 years in Catholic school (for the better I might add). I was an alter boy and considered becoming a priest before I left the church. From a very early age, I experienced many definitions of God. Even at a young age, it seemed to me that God changed depending on who I was talking to.
Both of my parents were not emotionally well so when I was 8 years old or so I used to pray for God to help them. It didn’t seem to work. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t listen to me, a child. Yet my experience of God was vast, indefinable by words and I felt safe in that experience. I found tremendous compassion and kindness in this refuge.
I know many rational people who believe in God. Of course all of us can use reason to justify wholesome or unwholesome intentions, so being “rational” won’t be enough if it isn’t guided by other faculties such as wisdom and compassion. In this arena I know believers of both stripes.
In fairness, although Brahma and the Christian notion of God share some similarities, the Christian version did not come to fruition until Christ about 500 years after the Buddha. So from a Theravada perspective the Buddha never addressed this view of God because it didn’t yet exist.
Generally speaking, God seems to fall into one of 3 camps:
1. The institutional God of organized religion
2. The personal God of spirituality, and
3. The god of the new age world where anything goes so long as it feels good.
It appears to me that many Western Buddhists, including Monastics still get caught in framing their religious or anti-religious views around a contention to their idea of God or organized religion – and this idea has many faces depending on which view of God one subscribes to. Even though we would like to, we can’t escape it – trying is like a fish rejecting water. God is the water that Buddhists are swimming in here in the States, if not the West.
The roots of Buddhism in the west are still new. Whether we like it or not, Buddhism is growing up here within the context of a culture that is powerfully dominated by Christianity in all its forms. If we foolishly engage that culture with arrogance rather than understanding, we risk putting the Western sapling of the Dharma into a hurricane of unnecessary misunderstanding.
To put it simply, if we are to make a difference in this cultural contest, we must let go of the contest itself. Buddhists would do well to embrace the many faces of God in this culture with wisdom and compassion. The Dharma can and must accept God in all its forms, even if God in all its forms can’t accept the Dharma. My former zen teacher addressed this quite skillfully – as a requirement to complete Jukai, we first had to make amends with and embrace our religion of origin. This rocked a lot of our boats to say the least. But it worked.
The collective Catholic version of God did not open my heart, so I left the church. When I came to the Dharma and began practicing, I found what I had been looking for in that 8 year olds prayer – the dependable heart and the wisdom to know the difference between my idea of God, and just god. I’m 47 years old now and since 1986 I have studied, practiced and eventually began teaching the Dharma. When I investigate nirvana, the deathless, the unconditioned, Buddha Nature, any of these indescribable states, I end up in the same place I started – an experience that is vast, indefinable by words and I feel safe in that experience – it is a refuge. To me, God is love – God is Nirvana.
God as I understand God and the deathless are one and the same to me. In Buddhism, Christianity and my own heart they are only separated by a failure of imagination.
I offer these thoughts for your reflection – please take what is meaningful and true for you and leave the rest.
-Dr. Manijeh Motaghy