Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition. This often confuses followers of other religions, as most religions are theistic.
How can religion allow for atheism and agnosticism?
This is a complex point, but briefly it should be pointed that religion encompasses more than just beliefs regarding the
supernatural. Indeed, the division between natural and supernatural is not a Buddhist concern, for everything tangible or
intangible is considered natural, whether or not it is “normal” as we understand the
term. Simply, whatever is, is. Metaphysics (the study of the foundations of reality) and epistemology (the study of knowledge)
only have relevance insofar as Buddhism is a yogic path. In the terminology of Western philosophy and psychology, Buddhism
is a system of “phenomenology”
(analysis of our experience of the world) rather than “ontology” (analysis of being). Whatever objects
arise in our awareness are relevant to the extent that they seemingly relate to a subject (us). The investigation
of the subject, and the effects of phenomena on the subject, is what is important; the intrinsic status of objects
themselves is not at issue. Of course, investigating the nature of the subject is ontological in a way, but it is based on
a phenomenological project of mental transformation, not philosophy for its own sake.
None of this should imply that Buddhists (a varied bunch, just as with any group) cannot have their own theological positions.
So what do I believe then?
I reject a God who creates the
universe ex nihilo (out of nothing). Rather, my position is emanationist. I believe the universe unfolds out
of non-being, you can call it “God.”
Admittedly, I use the word “God”
in a very unconventional sense. It’s an easy shorthand
that saves the time of having to keep defining “God”
as an empty signifier with many possible referents; ideas determined by individual and cultural outlooks. Let it be clear
that the only “significants” I will seriously consider for this heavily
loaded word are Unmanifest reality.
God is neither created nor destroyed. God does not increase, decrease, leave anywhere, or come back to anywhere. There is
no locality. The entire universe is not bound to some command and control structure that is above, beyond,
or even within it. Nor is there some ultimate separation between us and the universe.
the universe as we currently know it has a finite age, science has difficulty speculating about what preceded that
origin.* There is ample evidence to support the big
bang theory that about 14 billion years ago, the universe exploded into existence from an extremely hot, dense kernel. However,
this theory does not describe conditions prior to this state. For all we know, a cycle of universe-collapse-big bang-universe
has been going on endlessly.
Nihil ex nihilo
fit – “Nothing comes out of nothing.” The corollary is that things can only come from
things. No phenomena or material entity pops up magically out of nowhere. I would agree with Christian theology,
and its antecedents in Greek philosophy, that God is the unmoved mover of the universe – the still point in
the silent center – but I disagree with the assumption in the Kalam argument that the created universe must
have only one absolute starting point, or that something “outside” the universe must
be responsible for this starting point. Complexity arises out of simplicity, and that is all you need to explain its origins.
of quantum theory, or what little I know of it, is that matter is composed of subatomic packets of vibrating energy called
“quanta” that flash in and out of existence at a dazzling rate of speed. It would seem that matter does seem
to come out of nowhere, on this score. I cannot say whether this is scientifically valid or not, but apparently one way of interpreting quantum phenomena is that the building blocks of matter emerge out of a non-material
void. This does not mean physics has proven the existence of God. (Ken Wilber’s argument – If God’s existence
depends on today’s physics, what happens when tomorrow’s physics finds new discoveries the render our current
theories inadequate? Does God go down too?) What we know is that subatomic particles, even though we can measure
them and make precise predictions, cannot be completely accounted for with certainty with respect to both velocity
and position (i.e. “Heisenberg’s
uncertainty principle”). The physicist
David Bohm even theorized that the universe has an “implicate order.”
So if we hold
that a higher intelligence (God, so-called) is involved, what kind of God is this? If God is a completely self-subsisting
individual, how was the universe created? Where did God get the tools and raw materials to build with if the things weren’t
there before? Either God is a thing, not produced by other things, who made every thing, or God is not a thing
but made things when things had never existed before. Neither possibility is logically convincing.
If we move from
deductive to inductive reasoning, perhaps we can find an example in the microcosm that explains the macrocosm.
What about Aristotle’s point about acorns
and seeds (form and matter)? A small seed that contains the potential for the growth of a complex organism, while
miraculous in a sense, is still not the same as creation ex nihilo. Really, there is no instance, as far as I know, in
which we can observe a thing in nature that was caused by nothing (this is to not deny, as per Alan Watts, that
existence and non-existence both depend upon each other and define each other as ying and yang, only that causality is
more than conceptual contiguity, it is when one thing can be shown to reliably predict another).
doctrine of creation ex nihilo may not have been the original belief of those in the biblical era, but one that
developed over centuries after the Bible was penned. At any rate, the Bible can be understood literally or figuratively.
Literally, there is the creation story of Genesis as it has come down to us. Genesis starts with the creation of the earth
but does not really explain how God accomplished this feat. Figuratively, there are esoteric teachings such as Lurianic
Kabbalah and its emanationist vision, which is similar to Hindu Vedanta. Kabbalah and Vedanta are not
identical teachings - they diverge on the issue of whether the universe was created purposely or automatically, and whether
creation was a meaningful act, but I won’t go into that debate.
If God is an
omnipotent authority, why would “He” give us the ability to question His existence? Fundamentalists have an easy
answer – God doesn’t make you question Him, the devil does. This leads to the problem of theodicy, which examines
how a rival power or evil force can co-exist with an all-good and all-powerful God. The philosopher/theologian Kierkegaard
cut at right angles to these issues.
that an abstract meaning of life cannot explain away the very real, concrete dilemmas of your personal life. We need something
firm to guide us. For him the starting point was subjective truth. Objectively we can assert truths that are analytically
or empirically valid. E.g. 2 + 2 = 4 is true by definition, or the proposition “the sun is yellow” can
be shown to be true. But facts like this are irrelevant compared to the important issues in our lives, in that finding
these things out make no difference regarding the sobering realities of finitude, loss, and death. And
our fear in the face of it.
in life require us to make choices. For Kierkegaard, Christianity is either true or it is
not, and if it is, it requires a commitment to a way of life based on those truths. Religious faith boils down to Tertullian’s
statement that “I believe [in Christianity] because it is absurd.” An idea that fits our common experience of the natural world is not difficult
for most of us to accept or believe. However, trust is only genuine if it entails a surrender
to the unknown and unknowable. Since religion cannot be proven rationally, it requires something deeper on the part of
the believer, that is, a leap of faith, and trust in the salvific/transformative power of a supernatural agent.
This makes sense,
but I see red flags. First, his either/or requirements do not prove the necessity of accepting Christian dogma. The existential
philosophers Sartre and Camus, fully consistent with Kierkegaard’s insights on self-responsibility, authenticity, and
free-will, firmly chose atheism. They resolved their ethical choices without recourse to an unquestionable, divine Lord.
An example of
this faith is the story in the Old Testament in which
Abraham was told
to sacrifice his son Isaac. If he didn’t follow God’s commandment, he would be punished. If he did, he would kill
his own son. No matter what decision he made, there wouldn’t be a good outcome. After much struggle he chose to follow
God’s irrational demand.
Of course God, being good, intervened right before Abraham plunged the knife into his son and rewarded him for his
obedience. But here’s the problem - Judaism insists the God is truly loving. But why would such a great being or
deity test humans in such a cruel, exploitative way? I cannot accept that God is above our moral judgments in any anti-nomian
sense, for if God programed us to have moral sentiments, then this sense would not be opposed to the author of it (perhaps
this is a Kantian bias, however).
religion ushered in the idea that God cannot be manipulated like other gods through special rites. God demands more than rituals
of appeasement, and there is no formula or incantation that can manipulate God’s will. But should God manipulate
us, just because He can? Just because He is all-powerful? If you notice, in the Bible God did not ask Jews to make any
more sacrifices after that incident, rather, Judaism required atonement through ethical behavior. This means that, strangely,
despite God’s absolute power, we have free will.
was the view of humans as fully responsible for their lives. And responsibility means nothing without the ability to reason.
Yes, there is always mystery. But is absurdity a good guide to action? A fanatic who kills in the name of God can just as
easily make the same claim. I do only what God wants, and I can’t explain God’s intentions. If the victims
were good, God will reward them, if not, they needed to be punished anyway. The logic is circular. A psychotic who
says “the devil made me do it,” is basically operating on the same deluded principle.
Since the Middle
Ages there has been an increasing tension between philosophy and theology. Aristotle’s writings were used to prove the
biblical view of how heaven and earth operate. When flaws were found with Aristotle’s science, authorities had nothing
left to stand upon. If the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, if the ancient Hebrews were wrong about the firmament,
humans must not be important because they’re not literally the center of all creation. We see the same tension today
between biological evolution and creationism.
point out limitations in theological arguments, the debate is ended by the phrase “God works in mysterious ways.”
There is nowhere you can go from here; this is a cop-out. If it is unknowable how the universe works, you can’t then
say that the truth of holy books is clear either. Many people believe these things just because they’ve been taught
to, not because it’s provable. Like anything else, theology is a product of human thinking, and humans are creative.
The problem is not so much faith as it is the repression of inquiry.
Stephen Jay Gould, science and religion are different “magisteria,” or
types of truth. Science deals with facts about the physical world, whereas religion deals with subjective meaning. Religious
narrative, whether taken literally or not, is meant as a guide to life.
argument is that religions are often based on claims of real events in the world (Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai,
Jesus was crucified and ascended into heaven, etc.). However, there are religious people who take those claims with a degree
of liberality. Even the Vatican has ruled that evolution does
not negate Christianity. Science and religion are used for different ends. A biology text won’t tell you why life exists,
only how. The Bible might explain the meaning of history, but it does not provide information on, say, how to perform
by skeptics is that only scientific truths, being falsifiable (testable), have any bearing on reality. Facts are only acceptable
if we are able to disprove them, or show how they are wrong. Science requires precision, so vague statements
are useless. It follows that a vague statement about
God is also meaningless (the logical positivism argument).
But this negates
the value of subjectivity, as found, for example, in the arts and humanities, which do not require the precision of science,
as they have a different purpose. And, as Wilber has pointed out, spiritual truths can be empirical (experienced) on their
own terms. Again, the important issue here is whether reasoned debate and inquiry are allowed, and thus how mystical
experiences (personal or impersonal, sensorial or super-sensory) can be interpreted by the rational mind.
The idea of Unity
Consciousness is found in the Western Mystery Tradition (Hermeticism), Kaballah, Neo-Platonism, as well as in Hinduism, Mahayana
Buddhism, and Sufism. Pantheism holds that God is everywhere and everywhen. Further, in the view of pan-en-theism
the universe is within God, but there is more to reality than the manifest. Process philosophers and liberal
Protestant theologians have posited a God that is both immanent and transcendent.
has important implications. First, it challenges the perception that everything, including ourselves, exists as a self-enclosed
unit. Second, it means that God is not a person or an object. We can worship God, but this is our own projection. We
give God a personality because it gives us a sense of purpose, soothes our fears, and helps us relate to the mysteries
of existence in a concrete way. Our mind perceives through the “eye of the flesh,” as early Christian philosophers
referred to sensual input, rather than “the eye of the soul.” The God of the former is a being approached through
worship, rites, and rituals, whereas Godhead is known through intuition.
is that since we are all emanations of Spirit, selflessness and all other spiritual qualities constitute our true
nature. There is a Zen story that illustrates this point. A student asks a master Bassui, “Are you saying that someone
who sees his own nature and is free from delusion is innocent of error, even if he does something which breaks the Buddhist
precepts?” He replied, “If someone’s actions come from their essential nature, how could they be breaking
wisdom is found in other religions as well. Meister Eckhart said “God became man so that man might become God.”
In the Holy Qur’an it says “Everywhere you turn, there is the face of God” and “God is closer to you
than your jugular vein.” In the Upanishads, this is expressed as “tat twam asi” (you are That). Your deepest
Self is of the same essence as God, but you can’t see this because of what the Yoga Sutras call “citta vritti,”
or mind-movements. In modern terminology we could call this the activity of the central nervous system. Like the Buddha, the
yogic sage Patanjali taught that true seeing happens when there is stillness,
because your vision is no longer distorted.
On a similar
note, I once heard a teacher of Sant Mat (Surat Shabda Yoga) use an interesting analogy. Our attention is normally
like a TV channel surfer with a remote control. There is the food channel, the bathroom channel, the money channel, the
work channel, the sports channel, the children channel, the sex channel, the clothing channel, etc. But there is a very important
channel we have forgotten about. If you could adjust the TV correctly you would find the God-channel. By focusing on this
very special channel, you would find the one frequency that all of the static and noise on TV are merely variations of
[the Self behind the mind].
Does this mean
that God is equal to human beings? Exoteric religion and status quo society are largely correct to judge individuals who claim
to be God as confused, arrogant, or insane. Everyone has the potential to find higher consciousness, but this has no bearing
on the relative worth of any single person. Godhead is discovered as our deepest inner reality (the Beyond within).
Because no individual is perfect, we need guidance and morality. Even secular society needs rules. (This does not mean the
rules cannot be debated or that they cannot change).
If I am to be so presumptuous as to reduce the Divine to an explanation, I would say there is one Godhead
in two aspects. Like the Tao, there is yin and yang, or the male and female principles. Hindus would say Shiva and Shakti,
and Neopagans would say the God and the Goddess. Male and Female are OK metaphors, but I’d rather reframe
it as “active” and “passive.” To use
an analogy from Plotinus, the Unmanifest is like the sun, and the manifest is like the rays beaming out from the sun.
They are of the same essence – light – but while the former is One, the manifestations
are a multiplicity. Godhead is ultimately timeless and spaceless. This is the dimensionless point “prior” to the
big bang (I put the word prior in quotes because time depends on space. An eternal
God is actually free of time and any sequential reference, in a relationship to a universe with space, is misconstrued).
This is the God we can’t perceive and have a hard time conceiving, but can realize through transrational contemplation.
God is ultimately beyond dualistic categories, even those of good and evil, though fully good because
there is no shadow. God can be personalized as the essential qualities of the entire manifest universe which emerges.
The personal God is moving, striving, giving, receiving; calling us to participate in creation. This God wills. Actions have
consequences, so morality matters.
So what is the
consequence of this worldview? In no particular order, my worldview means that:
- The world is not perfect, nor is it bad. How good or bad life is depends on us. We reap
the consequences of our speech, actions, and thoughts on an individual and collective level.
- Good and evil exist in a relative sense. There are always going to be problems in this world, but we
can learn from them. From the standpoint of eternity, there is no time, action, or opposites.
- Humans are not wicked children who need the supervision of an authoritarian
deity. Though we have limitations, we also have enormous potential.
- Everyone has the right to pursue whatever religion or path suites them, given that it helps
them become a better person (less fixated on the small self).
- Every life-form deserves respect, meaning non-violence and non-harm. It is not practical,
or even possible, that this can be done at all times, because all life-forms feed off of others in a world of limited resources,
but kindness is still better than cruelty. This obviously relates to how we treat other humans.
- Every person is born with inalienable rights. No one should be disrespected, condemned,
abused, or denied simply because of the circumstances they were born into.
* For those of you interested in the cosmological issues I raised, I recommend the
book Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang
And also this link on the rival Baum-Frampton model: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070130091159.htm