Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Do Convert Buddhists Need God?

I found this post interesting, in part because of its provocative title. Which I rephrased above as a question.

From the blog:

When I write that people need God/no God, what I mean is that they should be asking themselves what they are overlooking by rejecting a particular perspective on life, by dismissing a particular orientation to existence. What can't they see or feel or understand because the narrative of life, the universe, and everything that they have embraced and which is bound up in their sense of identity, is closed to certain points of view?

I myself have gravitated between God and no God, including "Who cares?" and "What does it have to do with me? The same with religions such as Buddhism and Christianity and philosophical movements such as compassionate or engaged Humanism.

Yesterday, I was part of a team that visited another organization to discuss potential partnerships. Zen center is currently considering moving, and with that has opened up space for other ideas as well, including developing new collaborations. The organization we visited had a focus on spirituality and healing, with what appeared to be a loosely Christian flavor, although they're folks who explore across spiritual/religious borders. After we walked through their building, a former Catholic convent, our executive director commented on how she was pondering the differences between a Zen aesthetic and a more Christian one. Eventually, one of their folks brought this comment back up and corrected the "Christian" attribution, but I think what was happening there was more about this God/no God issue. And how spaces look and feel based on which side of the fence those who organize them tend to fall on.

During the early days of my blog, I had a lot more heat around these issues. There was within me a "need" for some sort of clear demarcation between theistic religions and Buddhism, for example. Even though I also rejected the fixation on solely rational approaches to the dharma, and what felt like atheistic dogma being applied to our practice.

Something has softened around all of this now. My views haven't changed a whole lot, but the clinging to them is less.

And yet, the wrestling with such issues as "secular Buddhism," or is there a God or not, have been most fruitful for my practice. It's not so much that convert Buddhists "need God," but more that we need to maintain a life of questions. To not give in to the seductive voice of "I know the truth and that's that."


Algernon said...

For a period of time, Seung Sahn Soen-Sa was leading regular zen retreats for Catholic monks at Gethsemani. That was before my time, but witnesses say Seung Sahn did not break out the Buddhist vocab or tell many zen stories, but spoke freely about God. (Note: He was born into a Protestant family in what is now North Korea, and later converted to Buddhism.) A western Christian asked him later if he believed in God and she seemed shocked when he said, "Yes! Sure I do! Why not?"

Nathan said...

Go figure. Merton spent all those years getting hell from the leadership at Gethsemani for being so "unorthodox", and after he's gone they end up having Zen retreats.

Anonymous said...

I would be very concerned about any Christian "flavor" being part of any Zen or Buddhist tradition. From my readings, its a part of Christian dogma to get converts and the Zen and Buddhist philosophies would get watered down, if not drowned by the Christian least in the long run. Since the existence of God cannot be proven and so many religions claim to have the inside scoop on God and Heaven, I probably would oppose it. But then again, I am not one to join any groups per se, because I usually object to something going on. I don't fit nicely into groups. I will admit I also have issues with the marriage of church and state within our government. Hopefully, I will never be called to lay my hand on the Bible and "solemnly swear" anything because that will open up a whole other "can of worms."

Nathan said...

I also have issues with the marriage of church and state here in the U.S. It's long been problematic, despite the language that is supposed to protect us and maintain separation and freedom to believe what you want to.

As for the the Christian dogma issue, I think it depends a lot on the particular church or group of churches. Some take such talk very seriously, and prove to be quite hostile to anyone who isn't "of their flock." But in my experience, there are also plenty of Christians who aren't out there trying to convert folks, and genuinely respect people with different spiritual/religious backgrounds than their own.

tinythinker said...

Thanks for sharing/considering the issue.

In the context of the source of the quote used, "God" represents the things that people are closed off to because they find it uncomfortable, because of negative associations, or as Nathan suggested because of a kind of dismissive certainty.

I decided to leave the specific directions such reflection might take blank rather than fill it in for others, since each person might have different issues and concerns to bring to the table. Whatever resistance or annoyance each person discovers should reflect the challenges of their own path and practice.

For example, some might consider that even within Christianity "God" has many facets and nuances, some not unlike Buddhist descriptions of the Dharmakya. Especially among some strands of the contemplative/mystic elements of sacramental Christianity, since Merton was mentioned.

If one is uncomfortable with or even hostile toward their view of what "God" is/means/represents, then it will be very important to deny Dharmakaya as an unnecessary addition to Buddhist thought, to try to list 1001 ways that it is nothing like "God", or engage in some similar strategy of negation.

This isn't just a problem for Western Buddhist converts (I followed up with "Why Western Christians Need 'No God'"), but it is illustrative of how we can react to and interpret a tradition from a very narrow and self-serving perspective, shaping Buddha or Christ or Amida or God into our own image rather than being challenged by (a longer term/broader view of) them.

Thanks again for the interesting response and subsequent replies. Be well.

Nathan said...

"For example, some might consider that even within Christianity "God" has many facets and nuances, some not unlike Buddhist descriptions of the Dharmakya. Especially among some strands of the contemplative/mystic elements of sacramental Christianity, since Merton was mentioned."

Very true. One of my first exposures to Zen was through reading Merton's journals. I loved that he explored across what felt like artificial boundaries, and somehow that has always stuck with me, even during the years when I was more militant about projecting "a Buddhist image." (Whatever that is...)

Anonymous said...

You know? Zen Buddhists beleive that the Buddha (which is Indian for "Enlightened One") is God. Therefore, they worship him because they think that he governs that universe.

You see? Zen, which is Japanes efor "mediatation." is part of the Mahayana, whi9ch is "Indian for "Greater Vehicle" and the second version of Buddhism (Indian for "Enlightened Religion"). And the followers of that version beleive that the Buddha is the king of all gods.

As for the first version of that religion, it's called the Theravada, which is Indian for "Doctrine of the Elders." And those who follow that religion don't care whether or not any gods exist. In fact, they're indifferent to gods.

I'm pointing all that out because I learned about Buddhism and not because I'm a Buddhist.