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My Worldview

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.

Like energy, 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.

Though 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.


My understanding 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 Aristotles 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).


Further, the 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.


He held 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.


Situations 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).


Monotheistic 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.


The innovation 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.


When philosophers 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.


According to 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.


The opposing 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-pass surgery.


Another objection 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.


Unity Consciousness


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. 


Emanationism 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.


The conclusion 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 the precepts?”


This 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: