By David Jones
It’s no secret I believe in God.
Brad Warner wrote that he and Zen masters he’s talked to believe in God. Thich Nhat Hanh did too. I think many Buddhists do, but they’d never use the loaded word “God.”
It’s not that Buddhists say The Ultimate or The Universe when they really mean God; that’s ridiculous. Instead, it’s that humans—regardless of religion or tradition—pick words to refer to something which the limitations of human thought and language can’t really express. It’s just as easy to shrug, or call it Mu, but we’re still moved to describe it.
See, the word “God” comes with certain qualities, attributes, behaviors, and expectations we’ve attached to it; because of that, the word “God” comes to refer to only exactly this, and therefore we can only believe or not believe in exactly that. We cling to belief in or against this image. That’s God Attachment.
I mention God Attachment because it’s a massive problem here in the US at least. Folks who say they do believe in God and folks who say they don’t still base their opposite positions on their attachment to that exact same Old Guy in the Sky concept. And like any attachment, it’s often the source of suffering.
Let Go of God to Find God.
Warner said he likes using the term God because it forces people to stop and deal with it rather than just ignore it and go on. But I’ve noticed folks can’t see beyond the descriptions of God they cling to.
Here are some examples:
If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he stop all the killing?
If God is all-loving, why did he call for the genocide of the Canaanites and microwave the District of Sodom? Men, women, children, animals, all destroyed without mercy.
If God is truly just, why does he let his followers get away with stupid and heinous stuff?
If God is fair, why did he cure Timmy’s cancer and not Debbie’s?
If he’s an all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful being of supreme love, why does he allow evil or offer vouchers for eternal swimming lessons in a lake of fire?
A capricious, prejudiced, cruel deity with anger issues who supports slavery and misogyny, and commanded the slaughter of children just for living in a location he’d promised to someone else? Man. Put it like that, I’d run too.
But all these images stem from our God Attachment. I think the problem here is that no one has shown us how to let go of this attachment. That’s what I want to do by applying Beginner’s Mind.
Beginner’s Mind and God.
Beginner’s Mind doesn’t tell you to become naive, to forget everything you’ve known and learned and experienced. Instead it wants you to use all that as you circle back around to square one.
So let’s see: where did all of these examples of divine anger and retribution and harsh judgment come from? They came from the Bible, right? That means those examples are only an issue if you believe the Bible is literally true in everything it says.
What if the Canaanite massacre didn’t actually happen? What if they experienced tribal skirmishes like everyone back then but continued to live happy, productive lives? What if the global flood was a freakish local flood writ large? What if Sodom was wiped out by a meteor and not an angry God? What if the ancient Hebrews created stories to explain their understanding of their world the way every other culture did?
So we have to use Beginner’s Mind to look at Biblical accounts (and all religious interpretations and assertions) with brand new eyes, which we can then apply to our notions of God. Our old views need to make room for our maturing understanding.
God didn’t “decide” to cure Timmy, so there’s no reason to think he was supposed to cure Debbie. He doesn’t start or stop wars, he doesn’t have eternal punishment in store for anyone, nor does he hope you screw up so he can smite you with hemorrhoids and kangaroo rats. He doesn’t hate folks in marginalized groups. He doesn’t see women as inferior to men.
Heck, he isn’t even a “he.”
How did we get all these unskillful views? Simple: humans drilled them into us, and Beginner’s Mind is our gateway to freedom from these views and our attachment to them.
Beginner’s Mind helps us understand that a lot of what we blame on God isn’t about God but people and religions which claim they represent God. Part of God Attachment is blaming God for crap humans do. Fixing human problems? Ain’t God’s job, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama explained.
Thich Nhat Hanh explained that saying God exists or doesn’t exist is pointless, because to exist or not exist requires a Self, something neither you nor God have. Once you let go of this limited concept of God, you’re free to engage the empty reality I and others simply call God, Suchness, the Ultimate, and so on.
He believed God was beyond our ability to fully express but not beyond our ability to fully experience. This God (the Supreme source of life, love, and enlightenment, not some limited creator God stuck in heaven) can be experienced, but only—I repeat only—after we free ourselves from our attachment to the old views we cling to.
God is Empty and Emptiness, beyond existing and not existing, beyond form or label or limitation. God is beyond reason, beyond logic, beyond religious fervor, beyond pretty much everything we think of when we hear that one word.
But attachment to these traditionally limited notions of what God is, and the suffering arising from clinging to them, persists. I want to help free folks from it and the suffering it leads to. Because in the end, the suffering doesn’t come from the Ultimate but from an attachment to views and expectations, which we can actually do something about.
Where folks go from there? That’s their journey.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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