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.
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