Two blogs this week bring up the question of God which inspired me to respond. One is from an ex-Pentacostal preacher about his conversion experience and in particular reports his conversion experience as a believer in God who was converted to the belief in atheism. The other is a blog by Lawrence Grecco who writes about three common mistaken beliefs about Buddha Dharma including the belief that Buddhists are atheists.
Let’s look at Venerable Grecco’s piece first. His blog post is titled, “Three Myths about Buddhism that Drive People away in Droves.” The three misunderstandings are (1) Buddhists believe that "life is suffering", (2) Karma is a bitch, and (3) Buddhists don’t believe in God or prayer. For Buddha Dharma to be transplanted and acculturated in the West, it is essential that followers of the Buddha Dharma are able to address these three concerns cogently without dodging the nuances and complexities of these issues.
Rather than taking up space to summarize his points here, I suggest just following the link and reading it there. Here’s my response, somewhat edited from what I posted there.
The extension of this mistake about the First Noble Truth is the belief that the Third Noble Truth of the "Extinction of Dukkha" means taking a nihilistic view. Buddha Dharma is the middle path between eternalism (i.e., an eternal life in a heaven) and nihilism (nothingness), both of which in their way posit a materialist universe. Buddha Dharma does not posit a materialist universe so there is no basis for a belief in either eternalism or nihilism in the Buddha Dharma.
The misunderstandings about karma are hard to break through because karma is so complex that the Buddha often did not want to discuss it for fear of confusing his audience. The Buddha acknowledged and affirmed the activity of karma, but he revolutionized the interpretation of karma as it was being discussed in his time. Unfortunately, today people mistake the pre-Buddhist, i.e., the non-Buddhist, view of karma to be the Buddhist view of karma, and they are completely ignorant about how the Buddha saw through those misinterpretations of karma. The commonly conventional view of karma is like saying that inheritance is a matter of “blood” while ignoring that it is really a matter of genetics. To understand the workings of karma is even more complex than understanding the workings of genes and chromosomes.
As Ven. Grecco says, karma is not about “deserving” or “retribution” in the judicial sense. There is absolutely no judging in the function of karma. If I step off a cliff, there is no judgment in the result when I hit the ground. There is just the degree of pain or injury, up to death, depending on the height of the fall.
When something happens to us, the Buddha taught that there may be a karmic aspect to the causal influences leading up to the occurrence but that karma is not ever the sole causative force. If we are astute, then we may be able to perceive the karmic aspect, but it is not always necessary. To take the example from Ven. Grecco, for instance, someone may think, “If you slip on a banana peel and fall down on your face, it’s because you insulted me last night.” That is such a speculative over simplification that is amounts to plain stupidity. However, there may be a seed of truth in it because the inattentive attitude, about how one is relating to others and the world, that one had the night before and which led to insulting someone could actually be an important condition that continued through the next morning as inattention to where the person is walking and not seeing the banana peel. That is, if we don’t watch where we step in our relationships with people and we insult them, then for sure it is not unlikely that likewise we won’t watch where we step when walking down the street. The karma of "not watching where we step" with the actions of our tongue or our feet can be the connecting karmic principle. But again, that has nothing to do with “divine punishment.” It just has to do with our own actions and our attention or inattention.
Similarly, if we speculate “Perhaps that person begging for change on the street was Hitler in a past life, so it serves them right.” that is only our ego's self-serving rationalization that has absolutely nothing to do with an accurate analysis of karma. If one analyzes the context, then it is infinitely more probable that the karma of the person begging on the street is due to his or her having previously (in the past of this life or another) met a beggar on the street and had just that exact thought that the beggar “deserved” that fate. That is how karma works; it is a balancing mechanism that corrects the dualistic views in our relationships with others and the world. If we walk past a beggar and blame the beggar for deserving his or her condition, then we are relating to the beggar dualistically, instead of saying “there but for fortune go I.” If we walk past a beggar and blame the beggar for deserving his or her condition, then the karma that is most likely to flow from that action of ours is that sooner or later we will switch places to walk in the other’s shoes and see from first hand experience how that feels.
The mistake about how Buddha Dharma relates to ideas of God is also one fraught with nuance that most people want to avoid because judgment of good and bad is so much easier within our mental conditioning. The most important nuance is found in the question of whether or not it is beneficial to conceive of God as a being or a thing. If someone believes in a God, then Buddha Dharma won’t argue with the person because the person’s belief is exactly what defines their notion of God. This is how we can say that some people believe in money as belief in a God. When someone says, “There is no God but God.” then that comes closer to the Buddha Dharma because it points to the truth that God is not able to be grasped by notions that objectify God as a person or thing.
The theism of the Buddha Dharma has been most closely related to the term "panentheism" (not "pantheism"). There is a very interesting chapter called “The God-Conception in Buddhism” in the book Zen For Americans by Soyen Shaku written over 100 years ago In this essay, Reverend Shaku says,
“At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience.” (p 25-26)
The spirit he is referring to is the spirit of objectifying God as a person, supreme being, or creator and attaching anthropomorphic images of God as a separate entity. In Buddha Dharma there are many words that are the equivalent of the term “God” such as Dharmakaya, Shunyata, Tathagata, True Suchness, the Unborn, etc. However, the Lankavatara Sutra teaches that the Tahtagata is inconceivable, so the multitude of names such as “God,” “Lord,” “Creator,” etc. are just names all pointing to the same reality. To know that the name is just a name doesn’t mean that the name doesn’t really point to reality. If one wants to truly know that which is designated by a name such as “God” then one has to stop grasping at the name and turn one’s awareness toward what the name is pointing at. When we turn our awareness around from our belief in the discrimination of objectified external things toward the unified principle at the root of our own mind, then it no longer matters whether we call the fountainhead of our awareness by the name of Tahtagata, Buddha, or God.
When Carl Jung was asked about whether he believed in God he said, “I don’t believe. I know.” That is the whole point of Buddha Dharma. Don’t talk about believing or not, but instead do what it takes to inquire on one’s own to know on one’s own. The central clue we only need to remember is that as long as we objectify God as a separate person or thing, then we are still in the realm of belief and not knowing.
This story by Jerry Dewitt is a classic story of conversion. Sometimes the conversion is from not believing in God to believing in God. Here the conversion is from believing in God to not believing in God. It is just a story of turning from belief in one delusion to belief in another. It doesn't matter which direction the turning goes.
The word "conversion" means to convert, "to turn with." It means turning from one belief to another. The interesting thing about conversion is the emotional aspect. We bind up a raft load of emotions in our belief systems, some of them conscious but mostly unconscious, and when we let go of a belief system we experience an overflow of free flowing emotional energy in our body and mind. Then when we latch onto the new belief system the flooding emotions become anchored in the new patterns of thought and feeling, and we feel a tremendous relief. Then we take that feeling of relief as the self-fulfilling evidence confirming that the new belief is the real truth. Sadly, the relief and excitement of conversion is not proof of anything other than that a genuine conversion took place. It is not proof of the new beliefs to which we have been converted. But new converts always take the emotions to be such proof.
With the belief in God and the belief in atheism, there is truth and delusion on both sides. The belief in an anthropomorphic image of God is no more or less of a delusion than the belief that there is no God. The truth found in the belief in God is that "God is," but the delusion is that God is an anthropomorphic being or a thing. The truth found in atheism is that there is no possible image that accurately portrays God, and the delusion of atheism is the conclusion that because there is no conceivable image of God that there is no God.
Rather than mistaking conversion as something real, we should know that converting from one belief system to another is not the answer. It doesn't matter which direction the conversion goes: from theism of one kind to theism of another kind, from theism to atheism, or from atheism to theism. The conversion is nothing bur the switch from one belief system to another. The actual truth of God can only be found in the space between belief systems, can only be realized in the brief time within conversion when our beliefs are not fixed and polarized in either system and our mind has the freedom of its own awareness unencumbered by belief systems.
This returning to our true state is called reversion. In the Sanskrit language it is called paravrtti. It is the remembrance of our true home, our actual birthright as aware human beings, and it has nothing to do with beliefs or with philosophical arguments or assertions about whether a God exists or does not exist. When we turn the light of awareness around to see the fountainhead of our own mind, then we can experience God on our own and not have to worry about belief any more, because then we know.