One of the very first things I heard about Buddhism, long before I ever became a practitioner, was that it was “a religion without a God.” This continues to be a popular way of describing Buddhism. But I’m not so sure it’s true.
As Buddhist practitioners in Western society we have a unique challenge that most of our Asian co-practitioners never have: We are constantly asked to define our philosophy in terms of God. Although the Indians of Buddha’s time had gods like Brahma, Vishnu, and Indra, who were thought of as powerful and capable of creation, they never really developed the concept of a single all-powerful creator deity like the one worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Those of us in Europe, the Antipodes, and the Americas live in a culture where most people either believe in God or react against belief in God, but where very few take a truly neutral position.
I didn’t grow up in a religious family, so I had no indoctrination into beliefs about God. But in my teens I found that I really wanted to understand the idea of God. The religious people I encountered when I was growing up in rural Ohio seemed mostly delusional and irrational. Science, on the other hand, made rational sense and could be demonstrated to work, so I couldn’t just reject it the way the religious people around me did. And yet there seemed to be something valuable in this idea of God. I wanted to pursue it further.
I got into Buddhist practice because I wanted to understand God. Buddhism offered me a way to approach God without religion, or at least without what we usually think of as religion. Buddhism doesn’t have any belief system that you’re required to buy into. It’s not atheism, however, because atheism is also a belief system. Some Buddhists believe in God and some do not. But I think the ultimate object of inquiry in Buddhist practice can be called God if we choose to call it God. Dogen Zenji, the founder of the order of Buddhism that I belong to, preferred not to name it at all. He just called it “it.” He said this “it” was infinite and intelligent, that “it” sees and knows all, that “it” is the source of compassion and truth, and that we are intimately connected to “it.” Medieval Japan had no other name for “it.” But we do. And that name is God.
As Western Buddhists we are forced to practice with God whether we like it or not. Even people like me who had no religious indoctrination in childhood were raised in a stew of ideas about God. It’s part of our psychological makeup whether we actively believe in God or not. In Karen Armstrong’s book The Case for God, the world religions scholar explains that the words faith and belief didn’t always mean what they do when used by mainstream Christians today. “The word translated as ‘faith’ in the New Testament,” Armstrong writes, “is the Greek pistis . . . which means ‘trust; loyalty; engagement; commitment.’ Jesus was not asking people to ‘believe’ in his divinity because he was making no such claim. He was asking for commitment.” It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the words faith and belief began to mean accepting that a certain claim was true without having been able to test it for oneself. When mainstream religious people today insist that we believe in God, they’re imposing a contemporary reading of the word belief that did not exist when their Bible was written.
Unfortunately, some Buddhists today have adopted the contemporary understanding of the word belief and insist on cramming it into Buddhism. In his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor writes of being told by his Buddhist teachers that he had to believe in karma and reincarnation in order to be a true Buddhist. A few years ago I was castigated by a Buddhist organization because they thought I denied the truth of what they called “literal rebirth” and was therefore not really a Buddhist but a dangerous heretic.
In the Kalama Sutra, the Buddha clearly warned his followers against accepting anything that they could not confirm for themselves as true. This is the cornerstone of Buddhist belief: that we should not blindly believe anything we can’t verify for ourselves. So what do we do when our friends, our neighbors, and our families ask us what we Buddhists believe about God? It’s popular these days to say we don’t believe in God at all. But I think that’s going too far.
The physicist Michio Kaku said “[Einstein] did not believe in a personal God, or a God of intervention. He did not believe that God answered our prayers. But he did believe that there was a God of Spinoza. This is the God of Harmony. He said we are like children entering a huge library for the first time, not knowing how to read the thousands of books that are beyond our understanding. Many scientists, therefore, might say that they believe in a God of harmony.”
I would say that Buddhism also believes in a God of harmony. But it is more than that. Our practice exposes us to the underlying reality of the universe. And that underlying reality is not just dead matter interacting at random. There is order and beauty and truth. And our universe is fully alive. We ourselves are expressions of that life, order, beauty, and truth. As Buddhists, we seek to align our behavior and our practice with that underlying orderly and living truth of the universe. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that in our Buddhist practice we are seeking to know God. I don’t even think it’s too much of a stretch to say that we are seeking to obey God’s will.
I realize this is a controversial position to take. Some Western Buddhists react very strongly to the implication that Buddhism has anything at all to do with God. I understand that. The word God has been so abused that it makes perfect sense to want to try to avoid any contact with it. But I think it might be better for us to try to practice with God rather than use our practice to fight against God.
Every time Buddhism has moved from one society to another, it has found a way to harmonize with the prevailing beliefs of that society while at the same time subtly working to transform those beliefs into something that is more in line with the underlying truth of the universe. Perhaps it is our duty as Western Buddhists not to tear down society’s prevailing belief in God, but to help transform that belief into something more rational and true.
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