Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On The Existence of God, Or Lack Thereof

Now there's a nice lighthearted topic to discuss with friends and total strangers. If there's a better way to win friends and influence people, I can't imagine what it is. In all seriousness, though, Buddhism has been described as "a religion without a god" by some old dude who was a lot wiser than me. Buddha Himself seemed to think that this was an intractable problem, and predicted that Buddhism would die out within 500 or so years of his death. Which it did, in India, but it had already spread to China by then and was working its way into Japan. And it got back to India, eventually, which just goes to prove something or other.

(India, by the way, has millions of gods. They might have one for every Indian. If not, they at least have enough that everyone who wants one, gets one, and those that don't can afford to give theirs away to friends or family members. "Here, will you take care of my god for me while I run up to the store?" "Sure, in fact, I can adopt it if you want." "Be my guest." Polite bunch, Indians.)

Anyway, Buddhism isn't too hung up on the existence of God. When you read through the Dhammapada, you can get through all five thousand pages (approximately) without once tripping over a reference to the existence of God. Well, unless you count "divine calm," "divine edification," "purity of heart" and stuff like that. Which do sound suspicious; I mean, if they're divine, where do they come from? Gotta be a divine being out there someplace. Or is there?

Pose this question to ten different Buddhists and you'll get twenty different answers, not to mention forty deep discussions. My Buddhist monk friend ChiSing said that if there is a God, He must be an enlightened being, and if He isn't enlightened, He needs to be. I leaned on him a little more (he used to be a Baptist) and he said that it doesn't really matter if there's a God or not; our job in this life is to practice compassion and walk the Noble Eightfold Path. Not because God told us to but because it's the right thing to do. (Is there anything more annoying than the right answer that's not the answer you set out to get? Grrr.)

A long time ago, when I was running with a Lutheran street gang, I told my Lutheran pastor friend I wasn't sure I believed in God. He asked what God, in particular, I didn't believe in. I told him I didn't believe in the Old Testament God with his fits of temper and putting Moses in charge (seriously, is it me or would that guy be the first one kicked off the island on "Survivor"?) and messing with Job's head and almost getting Isaac killed and stuff like that. He said (to my surprise) that he didn't believe in that God, either; he believed in the New Testament God, who said (about Jesus) "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" and offered salvation for the whole world, no exceptions--"that all those who believe in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life" and all that. Given some thought, I could see his point, but I didn't believe in the New Testament God either. Nor, to be fair, did I believe in Zeus, Jupiter, Hera, Aphrodite, Osiris, Isis, Qetzlcoatl or Thor. (Rather fond of Thor, though. Hey, I'm Icelandic.) I was an equal-opportunity disbeliever. I didn't tell the pastor this, though. Somehow I didn't think he'd take the one-more-god-past-pantheism disbelieving as all that good of a thing.

So if there is no God in Buddhism (and again, that point is up for debate), what's the focus? Well, the Noble Eightfold Path, mainly, and compassion and lovingkindness for all beings. I've met religious folks who don't believe it's possible to be a good, moral person without believing in God. I don't get that. Seems like all humans are born with a tendency to like other humans and want to be with them. It's the rest of the world that gets in the way. And to suggest that we wouldn't be good to each other unless we were afraid of going to Hell--well, that's just sad. That's suggesting that human compassion is moot and we're all just robots operated by fear.

I think they're wrong. I know plenty of good, moral people who don't believe in God. Some of them are Buddhists and some of them aren't. And some of them write blog posts. Cheers, y'all.

Book o' the Decade Alert! For those of you trying to navigate the Twelve Steps with no faith in God, or a healthy doubt as to whether God exists, please allow us to present to you Waiting, by Marya Hornbacher. Yes, it is possible to get sober/abstinent/drug free without forcing yourself to believe what you don't believe. Besides that, though, Ms. Hornbacher is an amazing writer. Check out her earlier books - Wasted, Madness and Sane - for some unputdownable nonfiction.


Cele said...

I believe in a divine being/beings, with that being said, I believe in your (or whomever's) right to not believe in said divine being without confrontation or abuse - because trust me, to do that isn't very Christian in my book, but then a lot of "Christians" aren't. The Bible says, "Judge not least ye be so judged." And yet they feel holier than thou to judge all else lacking.I know little of Buddhism, but the peace and enlightenment recommends practing Buddhist to me. People of peace, more please.

Jen said...


This belief in God question wears me out. I believe in something, I just don't know what to call it. I believe we're all one being. We all have these different physical lives and different experiences, but we're all the same being, which is why it's so silly for us to treat each other badly. And I think Buddhists have it just slightly wrong about reincarnation: If we're all the same being, then we've already been everyone else, and we'll continue to be everyone else in the future. It's just that we have this illusion called Time that makes us think it's not all happening at once. Which it is. Seriously, what would you call that? Besides mass confusion?