Sunday, May 8, 2011

Do Zen Buddhists Believe in God?

Whether I believe in god or not is an interesting question to be asked. I think the most accurate answer would be: "I don't care."

As a Zen Buddhist, I can believe in a god if I want...or not. Since it shouldn't make any difference, it's not a question I should spend any mental energy trying to resolve.

From a personal standpoint, I have been an atheist most of my life. However, my study of Zen Buddhism has taught me to feel most comfortable saying I don't know whether there is a god or not. And, further, that I do not accept that this is an important question to answer.

What I can say with some conviction is that focusing on the concept of god could be a source of delusion. A distraction, if you will. Instead of experiencing reality directly, I might be taking a 'shortcut' to truth based on what a book, preacher, or 'god' tells me. From a Zen perspective, this would be thoughtless. So belief in god could be harmful if it becomes an influential part of one's view of reality.

Zen Buddhism is not a deistic religion out to worship something; it's about disciplining the mind and experiencing truth. Since no one needs a god to do this, I would argue that Zen Buddhists must ultimately feel that the question of "Is there a god?" belongs to the same category as the question "If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound?" It's an interesting question, but the answer ultimately doesn't (and shouldn't) make any difference.

Also see: Do Zen Buddhists Believe in God (Part 2)


Anonymous said...

I've always liked the lack of theism in zen. I think zen and meditation is a great philosophy/physical activity for living in the here and now.

As a ZB though, couldn't you still firmly say that there isn't a god? Nothing exists that factually proves god. Science has clearly shown that "god" is not an accurate descriptor of how our natural world actually works.

Are there firm indisputable facts/truth in ZB? Factually false statements wouldn't be acceptable in ZB? How can a false statement (could be a god) be equal to a factually true statement (not a god). I guess I'm trying to understand how you get to your "could be/could not be" stance?

Paulie D

Pete said...

I think this perspective frees Zen from theism even more than an atheistic mindset, because it denies the relevance of the god/no-god question completely.

The idea is that pondering god, heaven, or the afterlife is never 'in the moment' thinking. As a result, it's a distraction from enlightened thought and should be avoided.

Now I certainly have an opinion about whether god exists. Just like I have an opinion about whether aliens or bigfoot exist. But why would I expend any energy on such issues in seeking truth? No way! Why bother?

To a Zen Buddhist, the question of god is beside the point. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

Yes, makes sense. I do think though that atheism equally denies the relevance of god/no god. To an atheist it's very clear there is no god. Atheism makes no claims other than our natural physical world. The question only comes into play when atheists have to counter the claims by those who believe there is more than the natural world. Atheism is really only a counter to theism and makes no original claims of it's own.

Most atheists didn't start out that way either and therefore their pondering of the question is just to undo what they were taught. Once they finally ditch god they are more free to be present in the moment. I think an atheistic viewpoint is the most compatible viewpoint with zen.

Isn't ending human suffering a basic tenet of all buddhist traditions? Theistic belief, at it's philosophical core, does cause great human suffering. God kills daily!(I say that with a smirk.) So contemplating god/no god in light of countering theism is certainly not a wasteful effort. I would think a zen master would believe that slapping believers up against the side of their head to be the most compassionate response to theism.

Personally I consider theism to be mankind's greatest threat and of course I try to press this viewpoint onto others. I think ditching god is a major step on any societies evolutionary path. The sooner we get rid of him the better!


Pete said...

Ending human suffering is not a basic tenet of Zen (and probably not Buddhism either). Zen suggests suffering is temporary, so we should not base our mindset on it or adapt to it. You keep your center and move through it, and perhaps grow from the experience.

As to theism, my point is that you are not free of theism if you are pondering it or countering it. Atheism kills god theologically but can end up re-enthroning god politically. Dismiss it. It is not important to think about (at least that's where I've come to in Zen). It's not a decision not to believe, it's a shift of perspective that renders belief/ non belief irrelevant.

'Zen master slapping upside the head'. LOL! No, no, no! Someone enlightened doesn't bother about what other people believe.

Anonymous said...

the four noble truths of budhism is all about suffering. the zen tradition follows from that?

what is the purpose of zen then? why do it? follow it? sincere question, just not hassling ya on this topic.

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 then have the same response to religion?

I'll pick your brain about this more when I see ya in person!


Anon said...

Fro your information, a true Zen Buddhist believes that the Buddha is a God. Therefore, they worship him and other Buddhist gods because that's part of the Mahayana, which is the second version of Buddhism and is Indian for "Greater Vehicle." You see? Zen is part of that version.

The first version of Buddhism is the Theravada, which means "Doctrine of the Elders." And its followers don't care whether or not any gods exist. Therefore, they're indifferent to gods.

Since you a Zen Buddhist who does martial arts, you should believe that the Buddha is a God and worship him. After all, those are part of your religion as is being a martial artist. I'm telling you these because I learned about Buddhims and not because I'm a Buddhist.

And those people who posted against religion are biased because they're bigoted towards it. One of the things that the Buddha taught is tolerance. As a Buddhist, you should be tolerant of people who are different from you whether or not they follow any religion.

Pete said...

Hmmm...thanks for the post "Anon". You seem to acknowledge there is a version of Buddhism that has no need for a deity. I would not suggest to anyone they must or must not believe. What I have learned through meditation is that a deity is not relevant to my path and, since the Buddha himself said knowledge is within us, I cannot envision any reason why a deity is necessary.

Of course, part of my rational here is not about Zen but simply springs from science and what it tells me about the world. So, for me, this is not merely a religious question but a question of scientific fact.

Anonymous said...

Anon got it switched. Theravada believes in gods. I live in Thailand I know. Zen, as the author above said correctly, doesn't really care if gods exist or not.

If they exist, zenists would acknowledge them but they will not worship the gods. Because Zen mainly teaches to rely on oneself no matter the circumstance.

Pete said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for adding to the conversation!

Anonymous said...

Dear Pete: there is nothing to be found within or outside us for there is no place to search for something that does not exist. And I shouldn't even be writing this.. as it is equally as wrong. right? - Wrong!

Pete said...

LOL! Very clever.

Anonymous said...

I´m a zen tenderfoot. Here´s how I think.

If the supreme -the true truth- is emptiness, nothing to be talked about,
it doesn´t follow that it´s nothing, just no thing, no concept.
Nothing at all only to us somethings, worshipping a world made of something.

That the Buddha didn´t want to speak of what Nirvana is couldn´t
mean it´s non-existant. As a supreme reality,
that might also (and this might be swearing in the Zen-church:))
be acessible through means other than zazen, like deep, subtle prayer.

But, as long as we think of "God" as in any way an object, an idol
of different forms "He" is about as (un)real as you and I- in many varying degrees of non-emptiness, non-freedom.

To me the point of zen seems to be:
The fact that we can´t talk or think about
"the supreme", with our human-term perceiving-communication apparatuses,
has nothing to do with it´s fundamental existence or not.
Or our ability to wordlessly-in an empty way- open up to this Existence.

It´s been said: Neither self nor not-self.
This, to me, says: We- sure do exist. In the end and right here and now.
But not in anyway how we image, think or conceptualize it.

Same goes for Gee O´Dee: Neither Such nor not-Such.

...We and Gee. The original faceless Self...
(or selfieless face...?:))

Pete said...

I'm not sure I follow your comments 'Anonymous'. Sorry!

Keep focusing on the moment, and quiet the mind.

Anonymous said...

You don´t? What part? Couldn´t be clearer to me LOL.

But that´s good advice, there:).

Anonymous said...

Here´s an interesting interview by a long time zen monk guy:
This is what I was talking about:

"On the one hand there is no God in the sense that everything you could ever imagine about God is always mistaken. But we don’t deny that there is an ultimate ground to all being and non-being. And this ground, which is the source of everything, is not just dead matter interacting at random"

Pete said...

Much more concise! Thank you. I once participated in meditation at Brad Warner's zendo in Los Angeles while I was in the city on business. It was a great group of friendly and intelligent people in a wonderful environment (at least based on my one visit!). Would have gone back on future trips, but I changed jobs.

Warner wasn't there the day of my visit, so I never met him. However, the interview you point to is interesting. It touches on issues I haven't addressed yet in my posts on the subject, and it inspires me to write a third post for this 'Do Zen Buddhists Believe in God?' series.

Stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

Cool:)! Will look out for new posts from you on the subject.