Twenty-five years ago, one of my teachers, Ajaan Suwat, led a meditation retreat in Massachusetts for which I served as translator. During a group interview session one afternoon, a retreatant new to Buddhism quipped, “You guys would have a good religion here if only you had a God. That way people would have some sense of support in their practice when things aren’t going well.”

Ajaan Suwat’s gentle reply has stayed with me ever since: “If there were a god who could arrange that by my taking a mouthful of food all the beings in the world would become full, I’d bow down to that god. But I haven’t found anyone like that yet.”

There are two main reasons these words have continued to resonate with me. One is that they’re such an elegant argument against the existence of an all-powerful, all-merciful Creator. Look at the way life survives: by feeding on other life. The need to eat entails unavoidable suffering not only for those who are eaten but also for those who feed, because we are never free of the need to feed. Wouldn’t an all-powerful, all-merciful Creator have come up with a better design for life than this?

The other reason is that Ajaan Suwat indirectly addressed an idea often, but wrongly, attributed to the Buddha: that we are all One, and that our organic Oneness is something to celebrate. If we really were One, wouldn’t our stomachs interconnect so that the nourishment of one person nourished everyone else? As it is, my act of feeding can often deprive someone else of food. My need to keep feeding requires that other living beings keep working hard to produce food. In many cases, when one being feeds, others die in the process. Oneness, for most beings, means not sharing a stomach but winding up in someone else’s stomach and being absorbed into that someone else’s bloodstream. Hardly cause for celebration.

Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery. Walton Ford, Boca Grande, 2003. Watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil on paper. 59 5/8 x 40 in.

The Buddha himself never taught that we are all One. A brahman once asked him, “Is everything a Oneness? Is everything a Plurality?” The Buddha replied that both views are extremes to be avoided (Samyutta Nikaya 12.48). He didn’t explain to the brahman why we should avoid the extreme view that all is Oneness. But three other passages in the Pali canon suggest the reasons for his position.

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