A Conversation on Zen and God
- By Chuan Zhi
- Jan 05
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Some Buddhists may say they believe in God, others may say otherwise, but the reality of God is independent of anything anyone may believe or disbelieve. Religions the world over testify to the universal urge for our mind to realize that which is greater than itself. How do we describe something that bears no relationship or resemblance to anything else? Do we call it God, Buddha Nature, Allah, Jehovah, Our Heavenly Father, or do we attribute a sound like "Om" to this mysterious essence to which we allude? In the end, these are all just ways of referring to something that defies all forms of reference.I had known her since she was a small child but I hadn’t seen her for many years. She was now in her mid-twenties, lively and energetic, and quite eager to talk. She proclaimed herself an atheist and wanted to know about Zen because, as she put it, "Buddhists don’t believe in God." We talked for the better part of an hour.
"Why do you believe there’s no god?" I asked her.
"Why should I believe there’s a god when there’s no evidence for one? Where is a god I can see, touch, hear, or sense in any other way? Believing in God is believing in an illusion."
"So, you mean to say that because you can’t perceive God with your senses that God doesn’t exist?" I asked her.
"I’m a rational person!" She emphasized "rational."
"What if someone else can perceive God?" I asked her.
"Then they’re fooling themselves."
"How do you know?" I continued with the line of thought. "What if their awareness allows them to perceive god and yours doesn’t?"
"Well, I think if there were a god, I would be able to perceive him. What awareness could someone else have that I don’t?"
"Do you remember when you were a small child," I asked her, "when the world seemed confusing and maybe a bit frightful?"
"Yes." She said, looking at me a bit quizzically for changing the subject. But she went along with it. "I remember being afraid in my bedroom. I pretended there were guard dogs that lived under my bed that would protect me at night."
"Do you still have guard dogs under your bed at night?"
"So, you’ll agree that understanding and awareness can change as we grow?"
"Yes …" She hesitated, perhaps wondering where I was going with the thought.
"So, why do you want to believe there's no god, when, in fact, it may be possible to experience god? Could it be that there's some satisfaction, maybe comfort, in the ‘disbelief’ in god?"
She said she didn’t quite understand what I was getting at.
The mind is a funny thing, I began. It seems that it doesn’t allow itself to learn about or understand new things unless it’s in a receptive mode -- a non-denying mode. When it takes a stand against a thing it denies the possibility of any new knowledge that may lie outside its present awareness. There are many examples of this in the history of the human race -- examples most of us know about; for example, it was decades after scientists and explorers showed that the world was not flat before people would believe it. The mind just doesn’t like to let go of its beliefs. Even today there are those few who refuse to believe that man ever set foot on the moon. They may be a small minority, but they will insist that anyone who believes such things is indulging in flights of fancy. Should we believe them?
Great discoveries happen when the mind reaches outside, beyond its boundaries of existing knowledge. Isaac Newton’s theory of forces, Einstein’s theory of special relativity, Gell-Mann’s theory of quarks -- their contributions to science may be unquestioned today, but it took many years before their thoughts were considered plausible explanations of nature, even by their colleagues. None of these men knew where their forays into unexplored mind-terrain would lead them. Their discoveries were so far outside of the existing scientific collective-mind, they even had to invent new mathematics to describe and explain their otherwise unbelievable discoveries.
"But how can I not believe in god without believing in god?" She asked. "There’s belief and there’s disbelief - one either believes in something or not."
"Do you think Einstein ‘believed’ in special relativity before he discovered it?" I asked her. "Did you know he confessed that he didn’t even believe in it after he discovered it? But that didn’t make it go away; it didn’t affect the fact of special relativity. It didn’t make any difference one way or another what he believed. That’s the way reality is. It’s there whether or not we believe in it."
She stared past me in silence for a few moments. "Reality is independent of what we believe . . . " she appeared to be musing to herself.
"When you want to go to the store you take your keys and go to your car. Do you need to believe in your car in order to drive to the store?"
Belief is two steps removed from the reality of what’s being believed. When we talk about belief we talk only about belief, not about anything else -- belief creates its own reality. Belief is the mind’s dualistic response to an idea or perception. Reality can only be perceived directly, before the mind filters it. Once the brain interprets reality the new reality is merely the interpretation. This is the first step removed. After the mind has completed its interpretation, then it checks to see how the interpretation fits with the rest of the experiences it has processed throughout the years. Since the mind is inherently dualistic, that is, since it categorizes things as true or false, good or bad, right or wrong, it overlays opinion on top of interpretation. This is the second step removed. Once we’ve gone this far, we tend to lose any grasp we may have had on the reality that began the whole episode. Instead of seeing a pile of used cans and paper cups on a street corner, we see a "pile of ugly trash"; or instead of seeing a man walking down the street we see a "wretched homeless person."
"So, are you saying we shouldn’t believe in anything?" she persisted. "Don’t we teach our children what to believe and what not to believe so that they can survive in the world when they’re adults?"
"When we teach our beliefs to children, are we not just teaching our beliefs? Aren’t beliefs abstractions of what’s real? We read a story to our children about barnyard animals and they learn something from that. Then we take them to a farm and they see and feel a pig or a horse. They learn a bit more from that. When they get older, maybe we set them on a horse and let them ride on it, or we let them feed the pigs and the ducks. They learn even more about the animals from these experiences. Now, if we were to take away all these experiences from them as they grow up and only tell them stories about barnyard animals, they would know about them only through the abstractions of the stories. Is there a difference between these two types of knowledge? Not really, but there is a difference in what is known. Would the children raised only on stories not have to rely on faith that the stories are based on an underlying reality -- that there are indeed barnyard animals in the world even though they had never seen, touched, smelled or fed one?"
Faith, without belief, prepares us psychologically for encountering The Real that has not yet been glimpsed. For this reason, faith in God is taught in many religions as a way to prepare us for an encounter with God. Once The Real is encountered, faith and belief drop away like a butterfly’s cocoon. The protective shell of faith is no longer needed. The child who has only read about barnyard animals acquires faith in their existence, but later in life, maybe after living on a farm for a few years, he simply knows about barnyard animals. There’s no faith involved. To him, the notion of having faith in the existence of a cow is ludicrous.
Some Buddhists may say they believe in God, others may say otherwise, but the reality of God is independent of anything anyone may believe or disbelieve. Religions the world over testify to the universal urge for our mind to realize that which is greater than itself. How do we describe something that bears no relationship or resemblance to anything else? Do we call it God, Buddha Nature, Allah, Jehovah, Our Heavenly Father, or do we attribute a sound like "Om" to this mysterious essence to which we allude? In the end, these are all just ways of referring to something that defies all forms of reference.
She said she hadn’t thought about things in this way before, then asked how Zen fit into it all.
"In Zen, we meditate to be able to look deeply into our own nature - to transcend the confining ego. Thoughts, when filtered through the ego, lead to argument and argument brings conflict and confusion. Contemplation leads to understanding and ultimately, to wisdom. It doesn’t matter what people tell us, or what we may think about this or that. We can’t expect to realize God with our thoughts or by unquestioned belief. But when we can become empty of self, the question of God disappears altogether. We call this Divine Union or Samadhi.
I stopped and we remained in silence for a short time. She seemed suddenly very tired.
Giving up what we think we know to be true and false about the world we live in is a difficult thing, even painful. Those of us who have traveled this path understand it as a death: the death of the ego, the demise of our sense of existing as an independent entity, separate from everything. The Buddha realized it was because of a sense of separation that we, as human beings, suffer. He, like many others after him, was able to transcend this alienated, samsaric existence. Nirvana, he explained, is found through emptying the mind of its baggage; its attachments. The effort is entirely an internal one. It requires perseverance and an enduring faith that the effort will pay off.
We talked a little longer then ended the conversation and she thanked me for my explanations. We had covered a lot of territory in a short time. She told me she wanted to talk again sometime but that she wanted time to digest things. I wished her well.