Thursday, May 19, 2011

Convert Buddhists Hangin' With God and Other Revelations

God talk. Seems like I'm surrounded by it, no matter where I go. Plenty of it floating around the yoga studio where I take my teacher training. Some of it hangs about in my zen center - sometimes offered just as a gesture of connecting with the dominant cultural paradigm, other times maybe it's something more. And for whatever reason, I've noticed a fair amount of it on Buddhist flavored blogs lately.

There was a time when this used to bother me. A lot. I was tired of hearing Bible quotes. Tired of hearing people putting all their faith and energy into a grand deity that may or may not exist. And - if I'm really honest - I was tired of feeling marginalized, ignored, and even held with contempt for not going along with such stories.

Most of that, for whatever reason, has passed on. Finding myself in the middle of a conversation filled with God talk doesn't phase me much. I don't feel the need to identify or not identify with it. I can say what I think on a given day (it changes you know) and let it be. Or say nothing. Or pose some questions. Or just agree with statements like "God is great," knowing that our conceptions of all that are probably entirely different.

But then there's this issue, from Barbara's current post:

I was a bit dismayed by this bit of dialogue I found at Huffington Post

"Once, when I was on a live radio show being interviewed by a Christian talk show host, her first question to me was, "Do you Buddhists believe in God?"

I had only a few seconds to think of an answer.

"Yes," I said.

"Good!" the host said. "And how do you pray?"

I said that we prayed in silence to reach our divine nature.

"I like that!" the host said."

The author, Lewis Richmond, said he wanted to establish common ground with the audience, and I appreciate that. Even so, I think it was a dreadfully unskillful answer. No matter what Richmond means by "God," his "yes" conveyed something to a western Christian audience that is not true.

After a discussion about dating with a fellow yoga teacher student last night, I had a bit of a realization: I still sometimes am too identified with notions around relationships. In other words, I place too much emphasis on either "being single" or "being coupled" - believing, somehow, that one or the other (which one it is changes) is a core identity. Some "thing" that "I" view as "myself."

For people who grew up in Judeo-Christian dominant nations, and/or spent significant parts of their lives as members of one of those religious traditions, it's pretty easy to maintain a certain allegiance with God. Or even identify yourself with God, while still practicing Zen, or any other form of Buddhism.

And, as Barbara's post goes on to point out, there are others who push in the opposite direction, maintaining that one must absolutely have an atheist stance. That because Buddhist teachings deconstruct and dismantle notions of God, we must reject anything remotely sounding like a great divine power out of hand.

Debates about whether there is a God or not were something Buddha put off to the side. Being wise enough to realize that such debates are probably never ending, he sought to point people in the direction of liberation from suffering instead.

And yet, the debates role on, and people go on identifying themselves as atheists, or theists, or agnostics, or whatever. Which seems no different to me than the fussing I do over "being single" or "being coupled." Talking about either is just fine, but when that talk becomes about fixing who I am in this world, then trouble is right behind.

We have a couple of hospital chaplains amongst our Zen sangha. And they often speak about having to offer services and support for the mostly Christian families and patients they're working with. It's been interesting for me to hear both of them talk about letting go of the language and teachings of their Zen practice, and speaking to their patients and their patient's families in the spiritual tongue and forms that they know and love. I don't get the sense that either person has suddenly decided they believe in a God, or identify their lives with God; it's more that they offer up themselves for the others' benefit.

You might think of it as a kind of "identity bardo," which I think is actually a major aim of our practice.

However, it's much easier to just choose a view (I believe in God or I don't believe in God) and then defend the crap out of it. Makes it feel like there's some ground upon which to stand. Some place to call home.

But "home" itself, as we tend to know it, is also just another story we tell.


David Ashton said...

I have to defend Lewis Richmond's statement. Was Joshu unskilful answering 'no' on one occasion and 'yes' on another to the same dog/buddha nature question? Guess I should be posting this over at Barbara's blog. Perhaps I'll wander over and do that...

Algernon said...

I'm glad you posted here, David, since Barbara has been known to censor comments with which she does not agree. I like her own posts but wish she would allow free discussion.

ZM Seung Sahn played this a little differently. He would answer that question "yes," and then say, "You make God, so you have God. So I believe in God." He would then talk about "True God," which has no name, no form, and is never separate.

It's not bad teaching, though many Christians would feel antagonized by these remarks.

Nathan said...

Hi David,

I appreciate your point about Joshu. It does make me wonder what Lewis Richmond would have said if pressed further, or in a different way? I actually have read a few of his books and hadn't noticed the kind of "God Talk" Barbara's post alludes to.


"It's not bad teaching, though many Christians would feel antagonized by these remarks."

This is one of the rubs, I think. Knowing that people might get wound up, how does one speak the truth of one's life and practice, and still make a connection?

I saw Richmond attempting to make a connection there, as much as anything else.

Algernon said...

Dear Nathan,

Aye, there is the rub indeed. That question challenges me still. How indeed, how indeed.