Saturday, May 21, 2011

Do Zen Buddhists Believe in God? (Part 2)

My friend Paul has been asking me questions about my recent post Do Zen Buddhists Believe In God? Here was his latest question:

"The four noble truths of Buddhism is all about suffering. The Zen tradition follows from that? What is the purpose of Zen then? Why do it? Follow it? I'm having a hard time grasping the null response to god/religion concept. Sure, saying that god is the #1 serial killer of all time is overblown but surely you have to admit that religious belief does cause real harm and actual death to people. What would the Zen response be to murder? War? Falsehoods? Surely they would have the same response to religion?"

This question provoked a ton of thought from me, so I wanted to post the result of this thinking.....

First of all, I know very little about Buddhism. The Zen tradition flows from it, but my sense is Buddhism is much more complicated. There's all that 'four noble truths' and 'nine directions' and 'five worlds' and 'three hells' stuff, and I'd be willing to bet part of the origin of Zen was a rejection of this complexity.  Second, you do not practice Zen for a reason. By practicing it, you experience reality directly, discipline your mind, understand truth, and ultimately may become enlightened. However, there is no goal, 'finish line', or set of rules. Last, since Zen is first and foremost a personal experience, I doubt there is a 'Zen' response to anything (including murder, war, or falsehood). Speaking for myself, here's my stab at what I believe about these subjects from a 'Zen perspective'.

Falsehood (i.e., lying).
Lying that springs from delusion (e.g., you are pretending to be something you are not) is wrong because it necessarily takes you from the path. Beyond this, neither honesty nor lying are good or bad in and of themselves. Example: Your mother just got her hair done for a big party. She loves it and asks you how it looks. You think it's awful. Is it right to be honest or to lie?

The answer depends on the facts. If her hair is truly embarrassing and hideous and she'll make a fool of herself at the party, then you should tell her just enough truth so she gets the point without being hurt. As such, it would not be right to be totally honest and tell her she looks awful (even if it's true) and list out all the reasons why. On the other hand, if it's just your personal opinion that she looks bad and telling her this will achieve nothing more than to hurt her feelings, then it would not be compassionate to do so. This does not mean you actively lie and say she looks twenty years younger or anything like that. You answer the question so as not to hurt her, while speaking as little untruth as possible. On the other hand, some friends value you because you will give them the 'unvarnished truth no matter what'. In this case, lying - even to spare their feelings - is not compassionate and is wrong. Given all this, you see that neither honesty nor lying can always be right or wrong.

If a child hits me, I do not hit back. If an adult hits me to get past me and kill my child, I would without hesitation hit the adult back and if necessary kill them to protect my child's life. If a country does another country wrong but there is no harm, invading that country is senseless. If a country invades yours or threatens to (and is able to) destroy yours, defending yourself is necessary. Now defense can take many forms, not just overt war.

Using war when it is not the best means of self-defense is wrong. Avoiding war when it is the best means of self-defense is also wrong. Engaging in a war you cannot win is wrong (or more precisely stupid). Using a quick invasion to destroy a dangerous enemy who has attacked you is good (or more precisely intelligent). Given all this, you see that self-defense can be good or bad depending on the situation. Naturally, war is always tragic because it leads to so much death and destruction. That is why war, violence, fighting it is not the first thing a person should leap to.

God/no god
Believers do not accept science as valid proof and non-believers do not accept faith as valid proof, so this debate cannot be settled beyond yourself. For me, I do not believe in god(s), but it's certainly possible I could be wrong. However, Zen Buddhist considers fretting over a question that cannot really be solved as cluttering your mind. It's delusion that just takes your from the path and solves nothing. Frankly, I think my realization that this question is irrelevant (and then clearing my mind of any quibbling around it) has propelled me forward tremendously. So you see that the existence of god is not an essential question for a Zen Buddhist to answer.

Now some people say make a second point that - even if you can't prove there is no god - that religious belief is bad because it has led to the murder of millions of people over the centuries (and other bad stuff). Therefore, we should root it out. While I most certainly believe that for many people religion becomes a delusion that keeps them from reality (and this delusion is what leads to the negative outcomes of religious belief),

I also often wonder if when religious people pray and say that god speaks to them whether they are in a form of zazen (albeit an inconsistent and not very disciplined form of it). Further, there are many people who engage in acts of kindness and generosity every day largely (and sometimes solely) because they are spurred by their religious beliefs. Religion can be a force for good or evil depending on the person, but I will say I believe people who become wrapped up in a religious belief are more likely to suffer from delusion and therefore act in negative ways because they become invested in preserving their delusions so they can avoid thinking deeply about themselves or their lives.

This was an interesting thought exercise because it made me think about how Zen gets you away from a dualistic view of the world. At bottom, demonizing religion or money or power or war is like blaming handguns for the murders people commit. It's blaming something other than ourselves for our failings. Zen Buddhism suggests to get past all that wrong thinking by getting in the moment through zazen and disciplining your mind. Truth and clarity come on their own without effort when you do this.


Anonymous said...

I think I get it now. Zen doesn't really address morality or the intellectual mind. It's a whole different subject from those two things. Zen doesn't preclude someone from having a moral/intellect response either. My child is threatened, I defend. One could be an atheist and practice zen. One can consider god/no god irrelevant yet still intellectually act against the harms of religion?

I would intellectually disagree "that religion can be a force for good". People are good and do good things without religion. Good people don't need religion but religion needs good people. It's like religion latches on and leaches off of natural human kindness. I don't see what "extra" good people get out of religion.

Do you believe religion is based upon a complete or partial falsehood? If so, then how can something be good that's not truth based? I think it would be better and more evolved to dump religion which does carry innate harm. Why not correct the cognitive misstep in one's practices?

I think religion is philosophically rotten to it's very core. When one acknowledges the existence of an omnipotent creator god the very first thing they do is give up some of their self-hood. They no longer own themselves or are the greatest authority on themselves or aren't fully responsible for themselves.

The concept of original sin or lower re-birth, that you must practice and do what someone more reverend than you tells you what to do in order to secure a better spot in the afterlife. It all plays into a lowered sense of self-hood.

To believe religion one has to suspend a whole lot of logic. If religion is at the core of one's belief systems then it is so easy for people to suspend logic in many different ways. ...which leads to all the harms caused.


p.s. You will vilify religion before this is over!!! :P

Anon said...

Don't believe that Anonymous because he has no respect for religion and is biased against. Like what you posted, religion can be a force for good or evil. But using religion as an excuse to harm and kill is never good. The proper course of religion is to help people and not harm them.

As I pointed out earlier, part of being a Zen Buddhist is to worship the Buddha as a God but not in a fanatical way. If you don't follow that belief at all, then you shouldn't be a Zen Buddhist. In act, you should follow the Theravada instead.