Form and Emptiness: A Buddhist Defines "God"
- By Yin De Shakya
- Jan 07
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"Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy." A. Einstein
Some Unitarian Universalists claim a belief in "God" in one form or another. Some consider themselves Agnostic and others happily call themselves Atheists. Some Unitarian Universalists are Buddhists, and some Buddhists speak of "Gods" and "Hell Realms". Some Buddhists avoid "the ‘G' word" at all costs. So, can a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist like me then define "God"? You bet I can, but no matter what you think, the definition is not what you think.
In previous talks I've given here, I have read to you a piece of Buddhist sacred scripture called the Heart Sutra. It is my opinion that this scripture comes as close to defining God as one can come within the limitations of human languages. Still, no matter what you say about God, the moment you speak you miss the mark. In Buddhism, we have a saying "Don't mistake the finger that points at the moon for the moon". This means that regardless of what is spoken of to point you in the direction of understanding, the words fall short and are not the actual thing referred to. The reality of God cannot be spoken of, just as the experience of enlightenment cannot be spoken of. Still, the Buddha himself spent 45 years in his ministry doing his best to point a finger toward the moon.
Whether or not "God" exists might be one of the most pondered and perplexing questions we will deal with throughout our spiritual careers. Indeed thousands of books have been written both supporting and opposing the existence of God.
I think too many people miss the real question because they ask the question from an invalid point of view. This invalid point of view is the position that there is one common definition for what "God" is. If everyone agreed on what God was, then maybe the question of the existence of God would be a valid one, but what people are really asking when he or she asks if one believes in God is whether one believes that the asker's beliefs about the nature of God are valid and correct. They are sometimes seeking validation for their own personal definition of God. But there's a problem here as well. One cannot have a personal and valid definition of God without direct experience of God.
Many people who were raised in a given faith will have been educated on what an acceptable definition of God is, based usually on their holy scriptures or the stories passed along in their particular religion. This is not a valid understanding however, because it is not based on personal experience but rather on what someone else has said. "My mother told me that God is the creator of the Universe, and that he lives in Heaven and watches over us, and I believe her."
In reality, the question of whether or not God exists is an invalid question to begin with. If God exists, our asking and answering the question won't change that, and if God does not exist, our asking and answering won't change that either. So, in reality all we can do is to try for ourselves to understand what God might mean for us. If you are sitting here in a Unitarian Universalist Church listening to a Buddhist Priest talk about this, then it's probably safe to assume that at the very least you are either open to other interpretations, or that you haven't made up your mind yet, and it's quite possible that you do not accept the explanation that God is the creator of the Universe, lives in Heaven, and watches over us.
So what are we left with? We are left with plenty of options. It is my belief that all religions, and all spiritual traditions are based on a common but unspoken theory that there is something remarkable going on behind or above the level of human consciousness. There is some principle or some "thing", which is not really a thing that underlies all that is, was, or ever will be. This principle or "thing", which is not a thing has been variously labeled as God, Brahma, Vishnu, Krishna, Ein Sof, Yahweh, The Tao, The Way, The One, Universe, Collective Consciousness, and the Dharmakaya among other labels. These labels have created all the division and trouble within and between all religions of all times.
In a philosophy class last year, I was given a long list of questions from which I could choose one as the topic for my final paper. Being the slacker that I am, I chose the easy one; the one that asked "Does it matter whether there is or isn't a God?" With this question in mind I set out to see what a handful of old philosophers had to say about it, and I want to share my findings with you now.
To answer the question, I asked a few more questions, like "What is God?" "Can God's existence be proved?" "Does God's existence really matter to people?" "What are some historical philosopher's positions on these issues?" Ultimately, as we all have to do, I drew my own conclusions. In order to consider the question; "Does it make a difference if there is or isn't a God?" I first had to address what was meant by "God".
The concept of God means different things to different people. Some religious traditions insist that God is an actual personified being, who responds to and interacts with human beings. In the Judeo-Christian traditions, God is seen as the creator of the universe and all that exists in it. Plato insisted that things were either good or bad because God said so, rather than because they had any inherent goodness or badness of their own. This stance assumes that God has form, will, and volition. Other religious traditions conceive of God as a kind of force acting in the universe, rather than a being that exists in the Universe.
Is God the force that makes people act morally instead of immorally? If there were no God, would people behave differently? Do people require that there be an actual God, rather than just the idea of God in order for them to act morally? In many religious traditions, including Christianity, faith in God is enough to force adherents to act in accordance with what they perceive are his wishes. Therefore, in religions like Christianity there may be no need for God to be real, since faith is the driving force for Christians, rather than scientific proof.
Does God have to mean "creator"? Or can God be theoretical and ideal? For most people who use the word "God", God refers to the creator of the universe and to a real entity that is separate from and greater than all other beings. There are groups, however, that assume God to be an ideal, or a theoretical force of order rather than an actual entity in its own right. These groups may have different ways of referring to God, but if pressed most would agree that "God" is what is to be inferred. For the purpose of investigating the question for this philosophy class, I decided to assume the commonly accepted God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - the God of Abraham.
The next step was to ask whether God's existence could be proved. According to Rene Descartes, to even have an idea about God proves the existence of God, but this is not actual proof; it's a black or white fallacy. Some would argue that if we had physical scientific proof of God, then we would no longer have a need for faith in God. Indeed, proof to most skeptics means scientific proof.
Many philosophers through the ages have offered what they call "Proofs" of God's existence, but these proofs usually boil down to beliefs and systems of logical reasoning and assumption rather than to science. Some philosophers have offered convincing refutations of the "proofs" offered by earlier philosophers. For example, Immanuel Kant gave strong arguments against the ontological proof, when he showed that "existence" was not a characteristic of something. There is in fact, no physical evidence that can be offered as of today for the existence of God. We can't look at God under a microscope or through a telescope, we cannot communicate with God in a two-way meaningful dialogue the way that we can communicate with one another, and we cannot touch God with any of our other senses as we normally can with things that have been proved to exist.
Does God's existence really matter? We already have the concept of God. People as far back as we care to look have sought out something greater than themselves. They have searched for meaning to life, and they have searched for a reason why there is something rather than nothing at all. These searches have led most civilizations to the idea or concept of an all powerful, overarching and ordering principle, which both created and guides the universe.
I would not agree with Anselm's ontological argument, which states that if we even ask the question then we already believe in a God. We may simply believe that people have the concept of a God, and the concept and an actual God are two very different things. This would be the same as saying that since we had the idea back in the early twentieth century that little green men lived on mars, they must have been real. We have since proved this not to be the case at all. We have also been able to establish that there is no Santa Claus and no Easter Bunny, but we still have the notions of them. So Anselm's ontological argument fails.
In my opinion, if we were to have physical evidence in the form of sample material from God's body, then we would have effectively destroyed our previous notion of what God is. I'm not the first philosopher to think that God must be greater than the greatest phenomenon we can conceive of, and that means that we could not conceive of what a physical sample of God would be like either.
If God exists somewhere "out there" in the universe, then he or she is surely much too far away for us to ever reach or see. The cosmic speed limit prevents us from ever leaving our own Milky Way let alone reaching one of the billions of other galaxies out there. Even if we could, where would we look for God? Does he live in the middle? Where is the middle anyway? Indeed, physical proof of God is an impossible demand.
In my opinion, those who really believe in God don't need proof. In fact you cannot show them proof. True believers are so certain that to ask to show them proof one way or the other might be like saying "Hey, I can prove to you that water is wet and that ice is cold."
If God were scientifically disproved tomorrow, we would still have to deal with war, peace talks, poverty, natural disasters, and issues of faith. Those who believe in God will not accept even scientific proof of his non-existence.
In my opinion, it is the concept of God that matters, not an actual manifestation of God. People want to connect with something larger than themselves and the way to do that is to create an idea of God. It has been done by every civilization with higher thinking capabilities throughout history.
Aristotle said that God is the "unmoved mover", by which he meant that all things strive for change and improvement with the exception of God. So we can assume that Aristotle felt that a being or thing which existed in a state of perfection, above which no other thing could exist, would be called God. God was the greatest thing, of which nothing greater could be conceived.
According to Aristotle, the earth is what he called a "mortal sphere", meaning that things on the earth are in a state of constant change. Things come into being and they cease to be. Things on earth are in a state of constant change in an effort to become perfect and godlike - as much as possible. Aristotle asserted that "god alone is pure act and perfect actualization; changes in the natural world go on without ceasing".
Aristotle gave us the theory that humans have three souls, and they form one unity. "The first is the vegetative soul, the source of nourishment and reproduction. The second, the animal soul, is the basis of sensation as well as the ability to move. The third soul is the intelligent or spiritual soul. According to Aristotle, it is this third soul that can know the nature of God.
Thomas Aquinas asserted that God's existence cannot be ascertained by merely using Anselm's ontological argument, but Aquinas did offer Five Ways to prove the existence of God.
1. First mover - natural things are in motion and they did not put themselves into motion, therefore God must have started them into motion.
2. Nothing can cause itself, so there must have been a "first cause" and this had to have been God.
3. "There must exist something the existence of which is necessary" Aquinas said that most things - in fact anything you can touch, see, smell, taste, feel, or hear need not exist. Therefore, he says that there must have been a time when nothing did exist and so there must therefore be something that the existence of is necessary. That would be God.
4. "All natural things posses goodness, truth, nobility, and other perfections" so there must be something which can be identified as the source of these perfections. That's God.
5. "Natural things act for an end or a purpose" is Aquinas' way of saying that things act from a plan or by design and therefore there must be a "planner", which would be God.
Friedrich Nietzsche felt that the notion of God was no longer feasible among rational and intelligent people. He also felt, however, that most people didn't have enough sense to realize this fact. Nietzsche's opinion that there is no God, but the majority of people don't understand this fact, goes to show that it's not the physical reality of God that matters, but rather the notion or concept of God that is important.
Rene Descartes was always certain in his belief in the existence of God. Perhaps the most famous idea everyone knows from Descartes is his assertion that "I think, therefore, I am" - Cogito, ergo sum. Descartes basically said that he could not challenge his existence because that would require him to think, and thinking means he exists. Descartes went on to relate this line of reasoning to his proofs of God's existence:
Descartes' first proof: Since I have an idea of God, the perfect being, there must be a cause for this idea - the cause could only be God himself.
Descartes' second proof: I exist, and the only thing that could have caused me is God.
Descartes' third proof: I perceive God as possessing perfection. Only things which exist can posses perfection. Therefore God exists.
For all the efforts that philosophers have put into proving God's existence, they have not proven a need for God to actually exist. Many people have a need for the concept of God, but not for an actual God.
It may well be true that more important than proving the existence of God is questioning and developing one's own or one's group's relationship with their concept of God. In other words, the argument can be made that the actual existence in physical time and space of something known as God is not at all important. Rather, what is important is that the people who accept a certain definition of God dedicate themselves to doing what they believe to be his or her (or it's) will.
As an example of the position that it makes no difference whether or not there is or isn't a God, we can look at a hypothetical. Today, in the year 2007, virtually everyone uses electricity on a daily basis. For the invention of electricity, we generally give credit to Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, and a few other 18th Century entrepreneurs. Now, imagine that tomorrow someone were to say to you "I don't believe that there was an actual Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin; I believe these are fictional people who may represent ideas rather than actual human beings". Well, even after the question is asked we still have the electricity, so does it really matter whether or not these men ever existed? It certainly does not matter to the electricity, so why should it matter to those who use the electricity?
The above example can be interpreted as basically saying that since we have the beliefs, morals, values, and religions associated with God, then it really doesn't make a difference whether there is an actual God or not. We don't need the creator if we have the creation. For an easier example, if we are drinking a glass of milk, do we need to make sure that there was an actual cow from which the milk was taken? No. The existence of the cow is unimportant if all we want to do is drink the glass of milk.
It may be that the mere concept of God is enough, and that knowing whether or not there is an actual God is irrelevant. As long as people believe that there is a God, then they will act accordingly. So the existence of God may not be as important as the belief in God.
Well, that's enough of the philosophers take on the existence of God. Let's look at Eastern faiths. Eastern faiths have a different notion of God, one that is a unifying principle rather than a separate personified being. Buddhists for example generally don't use the word God, but have a concept of "Buddha-nature" or "Dharmakaya" that can be thought of as their definition of God. Buddha-nature is the inherent ability in every living being to awaken to the truths of reality and to an understanding of everything in the universe. "Dharmakaya" is sometimes defined as the underlying essence behind all nature in the universe - it is what Buddhas and humans are made of, but it is also that which makes up animals, plants, minerals, concepts, ideas, and all other phenomena.
This last definition, for me, comes probably as close as I can hope to come to a definition of God to give to other human beings in an effort to point my finger at the moon. But still, it fails. It fails because it is a concept, a notion, a label... mere words and thoughts. And remember at the beginning of my talk when I told you that no matter what you think, my definition of God is not what you think? It's precisely because you think it that it misses the mark. A famous Zen Monk named Seung Sahn said "Open mouth already a mistake".