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Ask A Buddhist: Is Buddhism compatible with gods?

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Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Submit your questions online or if you would rather not take your answer ‘on the air’ please let Conover know by providing your email with your question.

By Sarah Conover

I am curious about the G-O-D word. Is Buddhism compatible with gods? Is maybe the opposite true and it’s incompatible with them?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Your question, Dear Reader, is one that has flitted in and out of my own mind for years. Raised a Presbyterian, a comparative religions major in college, I jostled the G-O-D question academically, but that’s quite different from now, when my life’s meaning derives from the practice of a non-theistic religion. The question is both inessential and essential for the spiritually minded. The question may lead us delightfully into what Buddha called, “a thicket of views.” The question may lead us out of that thicket to a threshold words can’t cross, deep into the mystery pointed to in a recent poem entitled, “Another Country” by the late Jim Harrison.

I love these raw moist dawns with

a thousand birds you can hear but can’t

quite see in the mist.

My old alien body is a foreigner

struggling to get into another country.

The loon call makes me shiver.

Back in the cabin I see a book

and am not quite sure what that is.

Your question stirs up issues fundamental for many who want to make sense of Buddhism (and other Eastern religions for that matter), yet whose cultural indoctrination precludes room to take seriously a religion without a single G-O-D at its core. Even if you didn’t attend a church, a synagogue or a mosque growing up, an Abrahamic umbrella of a Creator God seems to be fixed in the DNA of Western Civilization. Think of the parade of monotheistic symbols, myths and allegories suffusing our waking and dreaming hours from childhood onwards. These same icons of Western monotheism manifest in centuries of Western architecture, stories, artwork, films, literature, and music. I didn’t understand how deep my cultural paradigm of G-O-D was until working on a book of Hindu stories and myths this past year, wrestling first-hand with the task of wrapping my mind around 330,000,000 gods. My Hindu partner in writing Ocean of Stories: Hindu Stories for Every Age, pitied my limited imagination, saying: “One God is so utterly boring!” He has a point. But the fact is that the overthrow of polytheism is a fundamental aspect of all the Abrahamic religions.

In fact, by using the singular, proper noun God (which our publishing stylebooks tell us must be capitalized) and also gods, (which same books says must not be capitalized), your straightforward question reveals the entrenched bias. This Western Abrahamic prejudice is disguised in the seemingly benign convention of newspapers, books and magazines. G-O-D makes sense to us culturally and we honor it with capitalization; alternative belief systems are unconsciously denigrated to lower caps. Reluctantly, I’ve had to use the same conventions in my books on Islam (only a single God ever mentioned) and Hinduism (many gods share many worlds).

OK, OK, but what about Buddhism and the G-O-D question? I started off this essay claiming that Buddhism was non-theistic. That’s not a totally true statement. In point of fact, the Buddha did talk about Gods (I’ll buck convention here if the editor will allow it)—the Devas that populate different realms of existence. The three realms of existence in Buddhism echo much of the Hindu cosmological map but with a crucial difference: While Devas do have certain powers, like humans, they are not liberated from cyclic rebirth (samsara). Indeed, in Buddhist circles it’s said to be more difficult for Gods to attain liberation from the God Realm than for humans from the Earthly Realm because life for the Gods is seductively comfortable, and suffering doesn’t push them into seeking the escape of liberation.

According to the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, all phenomena are constructed, no entity exists truly independent from anything else. I think of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetic essay called “Clouds in Each Paper:”

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.

“Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Nothing exists apart from anything else. Buddhism is non-theistic even though the Buddha talked about godlings. According to the Buddha, there’s no single Creator God, an entity that actively intervenes in our lives. Sister Donald Cocoran, a Benedictine nun, in a conversation with Venerable Thubten Chodron, a Buddhist nun, discuss some of the differences:

It is certainly part of the Judeo-Christian experience that we experience God as personal, as a being (italics mine) with whom we interact…God is personal, providential and loving, and we even have a human incarnate form in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the experience of God is personal, and yet it’s a person that opens out onto mystery.

Venerable Thubten Chodron responded to her with this comment:

Buddhism, on the other hand, has no concept of a personal God or creator. There is belief in beings who are highly developed spiritually—the fully enlightened Buddhas, the liberated arhats (saints)—but these beings exist in the continuum from our present state….in Buddhism, there is no unbridgeable gap between the holy beings and us. We too can purify our minds and develop our good qualities infinitely. We too can become fully enlightened beings, we have that Buddha potential.

So now I’d like to not exactly contradict all that I’ve said above, but boldly state the ultimate goal of a Buddhist—liberation—and the apprehension of the Divine or G-O-D in theistic religions seem to overlap. Sister Cocoran hints at it above in saying, “…the experience of God is personal, and yet it’s a person that opens out onto mystery.“ Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of the classic Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, says this: “Buddhists believe in the nature of God, which is truth, but not in the concept of God. I asked Ajahn Anan, one of Thailand’s foremost Buddhist teachers, to explain. He recounted something he’d said to a group of visiting Catholic nuns:

If you compare the Buddhist state of emptiness (nibbana or liberation) then Christ and Buddha can be in harmony…Once we purify the mind…the mind state can be compared to being with God if you think of God as being empty of self…if you think of God as an entity—doing this or that—that’s not it. If you can let go of that idea of God, then those states of mind can become the same in a state of purity.

In just the same way that many theologians find it difficult to assign attributes to G-O-D, the Buddha avoided describing liberation, nibbana, the ultimate goal of a Buddhist practitioner. Both Buddhism and Christianity share a long history of utilizing an apaphatic approach to clarify ultimate religious experience by what it is not rather than what it exactly is. C. S. Lewis, in his book, Miracles, advocates the use of negative theology when first thinking about God, in order to cleanse our minds of misconceptions. He goes on to say we must then refill our minds with the truth about God, untainted by mythology, bad analogies or false mind-pictures.

The apaphatic tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, says Wikipedia, “which focuses on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, an experience often unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion or by the conditioned role-playing and learned defensive behavior of the outer man.” The Buddha taught just such a “cultivation of individual experience,” a knowing beyond the relative, a state of being that the discursive mind cannot reduce or capture.

I know I’ve leaned heavily on Christianity so far for contrast, but all the Abrahamic traditions grow mystics—often the great reformers of  religion. Walter Kaufman, in his translator’s introduction to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou, says Buber’s most significant ideas cry out to be liberated from language altogether: “The sacred is here and now. The only God worth keeping is a God that cannot be kept. The only God worth talking about is a God that cannot be talked about.” Many Muslims celebrate Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi. A story goes that a man once asked Rumi, “Why is it you talk so much about silence?” His answer: “The radiant one inside me has never said a word.” Indeed we discover a lot of overlap of East and West (not to mention North and South) religious experience when we journey into mysticism. To me, the strange and Technicolor myths of Hinduism convey a language of religious experience over mere words. Of course I’m painting with a big, fumbling brush here. Forgive me. I’ll get myself out of this thicket with the Taoist axiom—the way that can be spoken of is not the way.

The Buddha is one of history’s most practical spiritual giants.  He taught praxis—practice as distinguished from theory or cosmology. The Buddha left unanswered questions that have to do with the soul, life after death, or the origin of the universe. The Buddha’s teaching presented a path of effort, not an ontological map. He wouldn’t answer questions about the origin of the universe because the question itself assumes an origin. Instead, he encouraged his followers to use their direct experience and appears to have regarded concentrating on questions such as infinity as distractions. In fact, the Buddha, a great maker of lists (in my opinion the logical response to the profusion of Hindu beliefs), lays out “Questions that should not be answered” in the famous Malunkyaputta Sutta: 1) Whether the world is eternal or 2) noneternal; whether it is 3) finite, or 4) infinite; whether the soul is 5) the same as the body or 6) different; whether an enlightened person 7) exists after death or 8) does not or 9) both does and does not or 10) neither does or does not. This list pretty much tears an ontological map into confetti.

The historical Buddha’s teachings relate to empiricism—with reality as experienced rather than deduced or hypothesized. Thomas McEvilly in The Shape of Ancient Thought, says that the Buddha viewed the rational and anti-rational types of faith in Islam and Christianity as obstacles to liberation. For this same evidential reason, he rejected the prevailing view of the Hindu’s around him. In the Tevijja Sutta, he criticizes various Brahmins—Hindu priests—for teaching a reality (the brahman) which they have not seen face-to-face (The Hindu concept of brahman is fairly synonymous with G-O-D).  Further, in the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha rejects the authority of scriptures, revelations, teachers, experts, common sense or convention and hearsay. He sends his students back to their own experience: is something both true and useful? “Be a lamp unto yourselves,” he says, “Hold fast to the truth as your lamp.” We have the Buddha’s instructional guidebook to attain liberation, nibbana, but not a map of the terrain. Do we need complicated speculations about G-O-D, or gods, when there is so much individual effort needed towards living wisely? The Buddha didn’t believe so.

Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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