The Problem with God

I’ve been reading a fun book called, “Buddha or Bust” by Perry Garfinkel. It’s part travel journalism, part social studies, part history, part self-exploration. He traces the history of Buddhism from its origins in India to the various countries and cultures as the spiritual tradition spread East. During his travels, he also highlights some new directions in which Buddhism is moving.

Throughout the book he focuses not only on the history and culture of Buddhism, but how it’s being used as a social and healing tool these days, something called “engaged Buddhism”. For example, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne founded the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka. Its a self-governance program based on Buddhist principles that serves the majority of the country’s villages. Sarvodaya means ‘the awakening of all” and Shramadana means “a gift of labor”. And around much of India, a simple mindfulness meditation called “vipassana” is taught in schools, government departments and even prisons.

The author discovers an interesting trend while interviewing monks in India, Thailand and China. Apparently the “repackaged” Buddhism from America has found it’s way back into the cultures of these countries. The American version is cleaner, less cluttered with the superstitious and animism practices often found in the ancient Asian cultures where it originally took root.

The Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO is often host to Thai monks wishing to learn from their integration of Buddhist teaching into every class. In Hong Kong, clinical phychologist Helen Ma learned about the Buddhist based stress reduction techniques of Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts. Kabat-Zinn teaches a course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) which has been clinically proven to reduce stress. And Shantum Seth in India realized the injustice promulgated by Hinduism, with its oppressive caste system. While Buddhism originated in India, Seth’s search for something more suitable to his spiritual needs ended in California, where he met the Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.

Garfinkel enounters a confounding melting pot of Buddhist styles in Japan, all of which migrated by way of China. By far the most pure and interesting late form of Buddhism is Zen, which has also been refined in the US by the late Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki’s son is head priest of a Zen temple in Yaizu, Japan.

It was during an interview with Suzuki-roshi that Garfinkel has an “Aha” moment about the problem with our Western concept of God. During a discussion about Western spiritual suffering, Suzuki reasoned the problem arose “Because they are looking for answers outside rather than inside. The Buddha said the answer are not out there; they’re within our selves.” When Garfinkel continued about how God is so much part of our traditional thought and language, Suzuki retorted, “Who is this God you keep talking about?

Garfinkel then launches into his own discovery of the truth.

The question was so simple that it cut through all the theological bullshit and suddenly–aha–I realized that belief in God perpetuated suffering. When the Buddha explained that the universe is not divided into self and non-self, me and no-me, that it is rather one interconnected entity, he essentially disavowed the existence of god, for God would be something or someone else. Without God, all the responsibility for the stubbed toe and everything else falls back on me. That in itself may be the reason we invent God, because it is easier to point the finger than to take the blame. but if we accept non-dualism–that is, that there is no difference between subject and object, between knower and that which is known–there is no blamer, no blamee. […] This whole theological conversation–of whether there is a God, of two gods, or even that we are God–becomes moot when tested against one of the Buddha’s main theses: that we should accept only what we can experience directly or observe empirically with our five senses. […]…until I could point to something the two of us could “see” in that dining room, then the subject of God remained in the realm of hypothetical…

I’d say that about sums it up for me.

8 thoughts on “The Problem with God

  1. Hi, Our friend Kelley Bell sent me a high reccommendation for this site. Now I see why.

    Interesting tha the American culture, one of the most materialistic in the world, would be a filter for Eastern Buddhism.
    I wonder if they will discover some newly-interpreted level of feminism embedded in the layers of mantra? (Om mane madre om?) My friend Mary Magdalene has reinterpreted the Gnostic Gospels and carefully subverted the male authority within those documents. But who reads that anymore? Thanks for the great read.

  2. Very thoroughly put. We cannot see the air we breath most of the time but it is nevertheless very important to all of us except Buddha himself who no longer needs such luxuries.

    Man has had the opportunity for centuries to improve and has only succeeded in proving that he is helpless to purify himself. Even Buddhism requires an outside influence (Buddha’s teachings) to approach his standards of living. So, it is not from within except to the extent that something useful is put there by an outside medium.

    Christianity is no different in principle. We believe that we can not cleanse ourselves of sin (or wrong doing) and so rely on Christ to first cleanses us and then teach us to stay clean. The difference is the author of the teachings. Christ is a living help. He too teaches from the inside through the Holy Spirit and outwardly by the Bible. And we even find strength from one another.

    By virtue of Buddha’s teaching as you describe them, no outside help is needed. Are they then disavowing any need for his teachings?

  3. Milton, Thank you for stopping by. You are welcome anytime.

    I believe Buddha was explicit in his teaching that we are all capable of helping ourselves see the purity (Buddha nature) already in us. His teachings are guides pointing toward our own Buddha nature, not to strive for some golden afterlife which may not exist. Buddha’s goal is to teach us to alleviate suffering in this life, a much more practical and useful path.

    Yes, we all need guides, but not ones laden with such reliance on faith in miracles and heaven and fear of hell. Those things exist only in ourselves, and can only be remedied through ourselves. Christ’s teachings without those things are quite valid, in my opinion.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful comment. Though we may not completely agree, we both have good intentions.

  4. PinkFem- I apologize for my slow response in welcoming you. I’m glad you stopped by. I like your playful sense of humor! No wonder, you’rea friend of Kelley’s. take care, D

  5. Hi, David
    Just stopping by. The title of the post caught my eye. I love these kind of discussions…thoughtful, graceful, without rankor, harsh judgments, even when we disagree.
    Oh. And thanks for stopping by my place. I’ll put the coffee on next time and we’ll chat.

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