Monthly Archives: October 2011

No Creator, Part 2

One of the first questions that arises when one claims an Ultimate Reality which is transcendent to the material universe is, “What does your God do?” In the West, we are accustomed to the notion of  a deity who is quite active: first, God creates the universe, then proceeds to intervene more or less miraculously in creation, and to make special revelations ot, and for,  select individuals and peoples. My form of panentheism has a God who “does” nothing in regard to the physical world. Amida (or the Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being, the Dharmakaya, the Tao, the Buddha-Mind, the Buddha-Nature) does a kind of salvific  “work”, but that work is purely spiritual. God/Amida does not intervene, for example, in answer to prayer. And why should we have such an expectation?  God/Amida is not a creator. Therefore the Ultimate Reality cannot be praised for the good in the world, or blamed for the world’s ills – for the simple reason that God is not responsible for a universe that God, in the first place, did not create. If we define God in Amidist-Shin terms, it is simply not God’s nature to create.

Not that Amida’s work is not unfolding in the universe. It’s a matter of perceiving that Amida’s work is “in” but not “of” the world. It has worldly effects, but that is because the work takes place within the sentient beings who are themselves, at least temporarily, part of the material universe. God’s “workshop” is “located” within the heart of sentient beings, in their spiritual subjectivity. As Meister Eckhart used to say, “God is known in the soul”, and so neither God nor the soul are properties of matter. Sometimes matter can be used as a symbol of divinity – e.g., the stereotyped pictures of sunsets, of rays of light streaming through clouds, any number of images of natural beauty, etc., are commonly used as “God-signs”.  Sometimes matter can symbolically convey the idea of divinity, in the sense that the Psalmist sang, “The heavens and the earth are full of the glory of the Lord”. The universe can “stand in” for God, but unlike the pantheistic view, the world is not itself God.

Since God/Amida’s activity does not concern bodies, but the spirit, it is the realm of spirit to which we must look in order to see the nature of the divine work. God changes souls, not bodies – or minds, either – if by “mind” we think of our standard mentality.

The earliest Christian claim of spiritual transformation involves metanoia. Commonly translated as “repentance”, metanoia’s actual meaning can be found in the Greek of the word itself: meta means “beyond”; noia derives from nuous,” the mind”. The original Hebrew term means “to return to one’s source in the sacred”. Hence spiritual transformation involves going beyond one’s mind (or at least one’s current attitude and perception of things), by returning to one’s living roots in the divine. This applies generally to the transformative core of most religions.

For salvation, our current mind must be transcended. Usually this transcendence turns out to be so utterly “beyond” –  so transcendent of normative definitions of “mind” – that sages have frequently said, “Enlightenment is not a state of mind”. And this is the core of what God, Amida, Ultimate Reality “does”, i.e., “It” sees to the final salvation of beings – not worlds or bodies or societies, but rather the spiritual essence of sentient beings. In Shin Buddhism, “Amida saves” in a quite different way than any other salvific figure “saves”.

Amida’s salvific gift is not defined by, nor dependent upon (say), an atoning death by torture; a fulfillment of prophecy, a revealed law, code, or sacred book; membership in a “chosen” or “elect” group; believing “one, true and only” dogmas; a rigidly demanding rule of behavior; prayer; avoidance or forgiveness of sins, whether venial or mortal; an apocalyptic gathering up of the faithful; a sacramental system; a set of rituals; a sacrificial system; devotion to a God or gods (recall that Amida is not God by any Abrahamic definition; thus even devotion to Amida is not salvific); and finally – and this is crucial – by any human act, including the act of faith itself. This last point is essential to understanding the non-intervening God’s “action” as regards salvation.

Shin/Jodo Shinshu holds that humankind, especially modern humanity, is utterly degraded and incapable of salvation by any act whatsoever. This differs from Christian salvation theory which holds that humanity is depraved due to sin, and/or has an inherited “sin nature”. In Buddhism, at least in its Mahayanist expressions – including Shin – the basic human problem is not sin, but ignorance. Not ignorance of factual or even moral matters, but ignorance of one’s own Buddha Nature. This state of ignorance is not ascribed to sin or to sin’s consequences. Rather, it is the normal state of the ego estranged from knowledge of, and actively living, the Dharma. Thus, transformative religion aims to transcend the ego and its “mind”.  This is Amida’s role. Sentient beings’ egos are transformed not (as in most other forms of Buddhism) by self-effort (meditation, contemplation, visualization, etc.).

These venerable methods Shin calls “the difficult Path” or “the Path of the Sages”. For Shin, however, most human beings are no longer capable of attaining salvation or Enlightenment through self-power. For Shin, salvation and Enlightenment are the utterly free gift of Amida Buddha. Amida’s action is pure tiriki, or “Other Power”. It cannot be earned, strived for, attained, prayed for, or grasped.  It can only be received. Paradoxically, we have already received it. But Shin consists in offering to sentient beings the conscious discovery of Amida’s grace, followed by the conscious expression of joy and gratitude that is the natural consequence of that discovery. This is a Buddhistic parallel to the conclusion reached by the controversial evangelist Rob Bell in his book, Love Wins. By doing away with the traditional Christian concept of Hell, Rob Bell embraces universal salvation in  a manner quite similar to that of Shin Buddhism.

So the second question in relation to the God who “does” nothing is, “Well, then – what do we do?” Although Shin holds that there is absolutely nothing that we can do toward our salvation and Enlightenment, there are some things that we can do that flow naturally from our experience of Amida’s grace. Some of these are:

Deep Listening: we “hear” the Dharma and the Buddhist texts more deeply than ever; and as recipients of the knowledge of Amida Buddha, we now hear them in the light of Amida’s grace. This practice of profound listening even to “hearing” the daily sounds of human speech and environmental sounds, because as already mentioned, the world sometimes acts as a “stand-in” for divinity and thus for Shin Buddhists, as an occasional “stand in” for Amida’s own presence.

Grateful Meditation and Mindfulness: Although we have nothing salvific to attain through meditation and mindfulness, still as a practical matter, cultivating both states is physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy. We meditate to cultivate calm and mindfulness. This results in a clearer seeing and understanding of Amida’s work, of our innate depravity as well as our innate decency… and of all the other therapeutic things operative generally in Buddhist meditation, including the ego’s problematic nature. The only difference is that we do not meditate to attain salvation or Enlightenment – for the simple reason that Amida is already dominant in those areas.

Recitation of the Nembutsu: this is the recitation of the words, orally or mentally: “Namu Amida Butsu”. The phrase compacts several meanings which express that the devotee is approaching Amida from his/her ignorant, degraded human side; it acknowledges that even the grace to voice the Nembutsu is supplied by Amida, from Amida’s “side”; and that the devotee is gratefully acknowledging the reception of Amida’s grace as it unfolds within the devotee.

The Nembutsu is not a petitionary prayer. It is an expression of gratitude. Reciting it does not earn merit or grace. Nor does it save or confer Enlightenment. Only Amida does those things; all  those things have already been taken care of … and all without human effort. Self-power is futile. Other-Power – expressed in Amida’s saving activity – is all-powerful. This is why it is said that the light of Amida’s grace is “Unimpeded”. Even in Christianity, “the Light” can be impeded. As John’s Gospel says, Jesus’ “light shone in the darkness, but the darkness grasped it not”. Amida’s light penetrates every corner of the cosmos wherever sentient beings are to be found. The “darkness” will grasp Amida’s Light – and thus be darkness no longer… because, ultimately, no “darkness” is sufficiently dense to prevent the dissemination of Amida’s penetrating light.

So for me, Jodo Shinshu is a workable faith, with its non-creating, non-intervening Ultimate Reality – a real but transcendent Other, whose realm of activity is the hidden workshop of the human soul. It requires no intervening, law-giving, miracle-working creator-deity. It only offers a spiritual Ultimate which acts on sentient beings from inside, which for me is more than enough, for the simple,  daily experience of myself as a sentient being who is “on the inside, looking out”, but who now also experiences Amida’s subtle grace  “on the inside”.

For anyone wishing to read a short, lean, wise explication of Amida and Jodo Shinshu I can highly recommend:

The Call of the Infinite, by John Paraskevopoulos. Sophia Perennis, San Rafael, California: 2009.



No Creator, Part 1

The other day I was explaining to a friend why I don’t believe in a Creator – although I do believe in a “god” which is Ultimate Reality. I am no philosopher (as this article will surely demonstrate), but these are my reasons, as cogently as I can put them.

I am a panentheist – not to be confused with pantheist. Pantheism sees the world as God, and/or God as the world. Panentheism, on the other hand, sees the world as existing “in” God; that is, panentheism sees God as an all-embracing Sprit, which contains everything, and in which/by which everything is contained. God is “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent). God’s existence and enfolding presence, however, do not necessarily imply that God is a Creat0r. Quite the contrary.

There are plenty of cosmological models that do not require a beginning in time for the universe; that is, the universe could always have existed. For theology, such models negate the need for a First Cause – a cause which, in most Western religious expressions, is usually personified as both a deity and a creator. This of course is not a problem, since theology then simply suggests that, in regard to the eternal universe model, there exists a creator-god who has been creating the universe for as long as the universe has been emanating from that god; the universe being a continous, eternal outpouring from the continuous creative activity of an eternal creator. If the universe is eternal, then fine – so is its creator and “his” creative activity. But not all theological models  demand that God be a creator. And this, in fact, is my position.

First, it seems to me that the notion of a creator is derived from the making of artifacts by human beings, an idea I first encountered as a youth when reading Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud. My personal take on this concept is that, relatively early, human beings came to realize that they had been born into world of pre-structured “stuff”. It probably wasn’t long before this realization got entangled with the realization that human beings are also prolific producers of “stuff”, via their countless artifacts. From this resulted the natural (but possibly incorrect) deduction that the pre-formed, “given stuff” of our environment must be some type of artifact, made and shaped by an invisible, non-human agency – which, however, shared several important properties with  human beings. Hence the birth of a god or gods who functioned as a creator,  or perhaps, a council of creators.

One obvious flaw to this, of course, is the gradual disappearance of “the God of the gaps” in the face of our ever-growing knowledge about how “stuff” works. Gods as supernatural explanatory causes and factors have been removed from our cosmologies, with the Creator being pushed further and further back, until one can say with Julian Huxley that “operationally, God is becoming more and more to look like the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire Cat” (probably not an exact quote, but the idea is plain). My views take the idea to its final conclusion, namely, that God does not have any relation at all to the function or state of the universe – either as a creator or an intervener … and that this idea of a non-operational deity is true,  conforms to the mystical core of many traditions, and goes some way toward explaining how, although God is real, we continue to suffer as we do. It addresses not only the existence, but – more importantly – the persistence of evil in a world which, after all, turns out never to have been God’s making or a result of God’s “plans”.

Before proceding, I’ll mention the terrific importance the Creator-Deity has in the thinking of Creationists and Intelligent Design theorists. Most, but not all, of these people are less convinced of the Creator’s existence from a study of how the universe works, than from a literalistic belief in the biblical account of creation. Their firm belief – that a 5,000year old, pre-scientific creation myth of one particular ancient Semitic people could actually give a factual account of cosmic/world origins – is the crushing burden with which they have saddled themselves (and which they wish to foist onto the US’s public education system). They must believe in a Creator because their sacred book – literally interpreted – says they must. Obviously, appeals to science, plausibility, and reason are mostly wasted when trying to engage with these people. Worse, let’s look at what the existence of a creator might mean.

Let’s dispense with the Creationist deity right away: Yahweh, the creator-deity of a Bronze Age tribe -and of modern fundamentalists – as described in their scriptures, has many good qualities (for example, the Prophets with their message of social responsibility) and many inexcusably bad qualities. Unfortunately, the bad qualities dominate, particularly if one chooses to believe that this often destructive, crazy, vengeful, insecure, warlike, megalomaniac, arrogant, dishonest, murdering deity  really exists and is really the source of the world and of human beings. If that was really the case, then for humankind all is lost. Thankfully, there is no evidence for Yahweh’s objective existence; and even if there were, people of good will would rightfully reject this deity on moral grounds alone. So let’s dismiss Yahweh as a significant creator figure. (Naturally, I delete from this equation all of the good, decent, educated, progressive Jews and Christians – they usually understand Yahweh and his scriptures analogically and metaphorically – a far cry from the literalist, fundamentalist Creationists and ID position.)

One can only deduce any Creator’s nature from the nature of “his” creation. The Buddha called this world samsara, a “wheel of birth and death” in which suffering and loss predominate. Buddha gets no argument from me. Now: what kind of creator would create an indifferent universe, much less a universe that inflicts suffering on sentient beings? The answer is obvious. This of course does not mean that there is no creator/designer. But it does strongly imply that such a being is unconcerned with creatures to the extent that “It” must be seen as blind, unware,  indifferent, hostile, or even cruel.

So my position is that, for lack of evidence, it is unlikely that a Creator exists. But, if I am wrong in this surmise, the alternative seems far worse than is the case of no Creator. A Creator who is cruel or uncaring is, from my perspective, positively worse than no Creator. And again, if I am wrong, and  a Creator does exist, perhaps in one of the several forms we have become familiar with: as an ancient alien or team of aliens; a hacker or hackers working from other dimensions; a universe-creating technology (whether or not actively maintained by living beings) whose infinitely ancient purpose it is to create multitudes of worlds. It doesn’t matter. In no case are these “first” causes God, and in no case do they display the concern for the world that most religions claim for God. If they exist, they remain aloof, indifferent, hostile, or cruel. (Now, of course, a creator-god could exist, and be indifferent and cruel, but I reject this depiction because it does not conform to most God-definitions extant in theology, religions, and mystical literature.

So: I do not believe in a Creator; or –  if a Creator exists – I want nothing to do with It.

And yet: I do believe in a God that is real, but Who (or Which) is not a creator or an intervener, a God by nature transcendent to the world, yet mysteriously “in” the world by reason of embracing the world in Its own divine Presence. As a devotee of the Buddhist sect of Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism, I give to this transcendent entity the name “Amida Buddha”.

In Part 2 of this essay, I would like to explore Amida as Ultimate Reality, Infinite Wisdom and Compassion, and Unimpeded Light … as well as the dynamics of a “theistic” spirituality in which there is really no God, no Creator, and no intervention: certainly an oddity from the general Western perspective that thinks of religion and spirituality in Abrahamic-creatorist categories.



Good Jews

Anti-semitism is always raising its ugly head in modern society, all too often in the form of the tired old lie, “the Jews killed Christ”.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. “The Jews” during Jesus’ lifetime probably heard very little of this itenerant preacher from Galilee. Those who did probably reserved “in their hearts” the points they thought worth pondering, and made a prudent judgment about his character and claims at some unknown later period. And much later, when some of Jesus’ disciples began to claim that their master had ascended to heaven and was sitting in God’s Judgment Seat, Jews living in Judea at that time would have had some startling new ideas about Jesus to consider and react to.

In any case,The Gospels are clear that “the Jews” collectively are not to blame for Jesus’ execution. In fact, the Gospels explicitly name Jesus’ executioners mostly as influential members of the priesthood and certain scribes… and of course the Romans. Thus both “ethnicities” – Jewish and Gentile – had a hand in Jesus’ death. Which is simply to say, theologically, that “we all killed Christ by our wickedness”. But the Gospels do not blame ethnicity for Jesus’ death: they blame human evil and sinfulness, presenting the interpretation that Jesus’ death was an atonement for ALL human sin, regardless of ethnicity and religion.

Anti-semites are fond of citing Matthew 27:25, “Then all the people answered, saying, ‘Let his blood be upon us, and upon our children’ “,  mistakenly taking this to mean that “ALL” the Jewish people uttered this sentiment.

This is glaringly wrong, since Matthew’s “people”, “crowd”, and “multitude” do not – cannot – refer to the entire Jewish people – for the simple reason that this text refers only to the small fragment of people who had crowded into Pilate’s courtyard. Even at that, these were not necessarily the anti-semites’ much-vaunted “Jews against Jesus” … because as Matthew 27:20 says, it was “the chief priests and elders” who “persuaded” this small gathering to choose Barabbas over Jesus. The entire scene was, according to Matthew, a put-up job by the priests, not an action undertaken by “the Jewish people”.

Moreover, Matthew 26:3-5 states that Jesus was so popular with his own (of course, Jewish) people that the “priests, scribes and elders” were afraid to arrest Jesus for fear of creating “an uproar among the people”. What people? The Jewish people of Jerusalem and the Jewish people of Galilee who had come south to celebrate the Passover. Nowhere does Matthew suggest that “the Jews” were collectively responsible for Jesus’ execution.

Mark 14:55-59 shows that at Jesus’ trial, some “false witnesses” were brought in to condemn Jesus, but their testimony conflicted and was worthless. Moreover, Mark explicitly states that “the chief priests and all the council sought for witnesses against Jesus to put him to death; but found none“. That is, no valid Jewish witnesses recommended Jesus for execution. Again, “Jewishness” and “the Jewish people” or “the Jews” did not condemn Jesus, but only certain politically-motivated collaborationist priests who were inseparably entwined with Roman rule.

Luke 23:27 claims that many Jews took pity on Jesus and openly supported him on the way to Golgotha:

“And there followed him a great company of people – and of women, who also mourned and lamented him.”

What “great company”? What “people”? What “women”?
Answer: all were Jewish people. Enough said.

Those who insist that “the Jews” crucified Jesus, are obviously scripturally and historically ignorant, as well as being consorts of the hate-mongers. Knowing full well that only a tiny fraction of an elite Jewish aristocracy – a collaborationist group of Rome-supporters – were agents of Jesus’ execution, these ferocious anti-semites continue to broadcast their old lie that “the Jews killed Christ”. One can only stand aghast at the abysmal hatred and willful ignorance of such intellectual and moral cowards, and work toward quashing the lie every time it is disseminated.