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God and Buddha, in Form and Essence




Excerpted from
Awakening to the Sacred: Creating a Personal Spiritual Life
By Lama Surya Das

There is probably no other word more open to interpretation, misinterpretation, debate, and argument than the word "God." That's why talk of religion, along with politics, is so often verboten at holiday gatherings in America. It's just too thorny to risk alienating your family and friends.

To at least some degree, your concept about who or what God is or isn't depends on what you were taught, and how you reacted to those teachings. Here in the West, the vast majority of us grew up with a cultural connection to the Judeo-Christian traditions and the God these religions espoused. And who did God look like? Probably an older white guy with a long beard, seated above or astride the clouds. Or maybe he was a dead ringer for George Burns.

Small pockets in southern India are predominantly Christian. The Jesus depicted in their art does not have light skin or hair. He looks Indian-a lot like the Indian god Krishna in fact, with dark hair and eyes. This is what Joseph Campbell called the God with the myriad faces. Or as Muslims say, Allah has a thousand names.

Despite all this talk of God, many of us in this multicolored, pluralistic, multinational world we live in have either forgotten, or were never taught, the common origins of the concept of the one God. I know that I have spoken with many Western friends who know an amazing amount about Asian languages and religions, yet didn't seem to realize that the Christian God of the New Testament; Yahweh, the Jewish God of the Old Testament; and Allah, the Islamic God of the Koran, are one and the same-or that all three of these "Western" religions evolved from the same source.

As young people here in the West, no matter what our religious affiliation or how we imagined God to be, we all heard a great deal about him-at home, in schools, as well as in places of worship. We went to movies that talked about and sometimes even showed God speaking down from the heavens. In our cities and towns, we regularly walked past churches and temples and heard the songs and prayers behind the closed doors. On Sundays, Christmas, and Easter we turned on television sets and saw cardinals and bishops, and sometimes even the pope, talking about God. During Hanukkah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, we heard about the relationship between the Jewish people and the God of the Old Testament, Jehovah or Yahweh.

A great many of us learned how to pray to God as children. Some of us grew up feeling very connected to the God we prayed to; others had no such attachment; still others remember being afraid of God and his wrath and judgment. It didn't always seem to be a very pretty picture. In short, we were all familiar with the concept of God, whether or not we ascribed to it.

In my family, for example, my father followed the religious traditions of Judaism. My mother, like many of her generation, was less religious and appeared more connected to the Jewish culture than to the religion. I remember my grandmother, however, telling me never to spell out the word "God" because that would be using the name in vain; I would, she said, be tempting God's wrath. "G-d," she assured me, was the correct way to go. Later, I got into trouble on my grammar school papers and reports because I tried to insist on the spelling I had learned at home.

In Buddhist countries such as Tibet one hears little or no reference to the word "God, and yet one hears a great deal about the same concepts that Western religions associate with a belief in a divine presence: infinite wholeness and all-inclusive completeness; sanctuary, refuge, and protection; being at one with oneself and the universe; compassion; unconditional, deathless, divine love.

Buddhism, of course, is not a theistic religion. In theory, Buddhism does not deal with theology, or God as creator or eternal being. Yet the Asian belief system is inhabited with countless gods (small "g") and goddesses, meditational deities, protectors, dakinis, and unseen spirits and forces. These are not, however, to be confused with what Westerners think of as God.

Buddha was not a god, and he claimed no special familial connection to any god. During his lifetime, the Buddha was asked whether or not God existed. On this question, the Buddha remained silent. In fact, the Buddha said that he didn't think intellectual speculation on the existence of God was particularly helpful. He did not assert or deny God; he simply left theology to the Brahmin and Hindu philosophers of his time.

The Buddha's teachings were concerned with finding the nirvanic peace and freedom of enlightenment, the end to all forms of suffering and delusion. He saw these goals as being determined by the cause and effect of individual behavior without divine intervention.

Some say that Buddha was an atheist; most consider that Buddha was not atheistic, but agnostic. There is at least one classical reference to Buddha talking about God. This is found 111 a small obscure "sutra" or Buddhist scripture. In it, the Buddha is speaking to a Brahmin sect in the south of India about the path to enlightenment. As Hindus, Brahmins, of course, believe in God with a capital "G," as well as many less powerful deities or gods. Over the centuries there has been much discussion and debate over why the Buddha would talk about God. The explanation often given is that one of Buddha's great gifts was his ability to speak to each individual in ways that he or she could understand. Thus when he spoke to the Brahmins, he used words that they would readily understand.

Around the world, there are countless different ideas and concepts of God. For some people God is a name ascribed to the Ultimate, the Creator, Absolute Cosmic Consciousness, or Divine Mind. Some people see God as transcendent spirit or energy. Some people speak of God as the personification of truth and love. Some people say God is Reality. Some people only think of God as being "out there" somewhere beyond our human comprehension; others see God as being only "in here" in the deepest parts of the human spirit or soul.

One of my Zen teachers, Sazaki Roshi, once gave me the following Zen riddle, or "koan": "How to realize God while driving car?'' If he were in his native japan, my teacher might have said, "How to realize Buddha while chopping wood?" Yet in California, which is where we were at the time, this great Zen master thought it made perfect sense, when teaching a Westerner, to substitute God and cars for Buddha and wood. He had no problem with the word "God," because the primary riddle, or koan, had to do with the concept of realization. The form was different, but the essential riddle of life remains: How can we practice penetrating spirituality no matter what we do?

Some Hindu devotees say God and guru are one and that by worshiping the guru, one worships God. In Hinduism, one can even worship God by worshiping one's mate. Thus we see Shiva and Shakti, Ram and Sita, Krishna and Radha, all archetypical images personifying an androgynous God in a male and female, polarity - Mr. and Mrs. God, as it were.

I'm sure you have a belief of some kind. Everybody does. Even unbelievers have a belief. Nobody talks more about God than atheists and agnostics do. You may want to define what you believe, or you may prefer leaving it completely amorphous. You may be happiest thinking of God as a significantly larger than life male, female, or androgynous entity; or you may feel closer to the view of God as Divine Presence. I don't think we, as spiritual seekers today, need to be bound by any formal formulation of God. At the very fundamental level, the light is always there even in the darkness, for even shadows are tilled with light.

If you look closely at the large colorful Tibetan mandalas, in the center you will see a representation of the Buddha. This is to remind people of the essence that is contained within the form. Form and essence/emptiness are inseparable.



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