Even as I was leaving Christianity I still knew that I would always be religious by nature, so that I would probably always “believe” in the Sacred Transcendent in one way or another. So quite naturally I read comparative religion, Eastern religion, New Testament scholarship, and the ideas of “modern” sages like Krishnamurti, Osho (yes, I know he’s controversial), Ramana Maharshi, Ken Wilber, Alan B. Wallace, Adyashanti, some Ram Dass, etc. I also had the privilege of having been taught by the late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg who had a great influence on my thinking. I also delved deeply into Carl Jung and “depth” psychology.
During that process I discovered that I was a panentheist (not pantheist). I found that I could “have a deity” Who did not need to be a creator, intervener, or judge in order to be real, and Whose real “power” and “activity” functioned as a transforming Presence in the soul/my deepest subjectivity. A God who is both “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent). That is, the Absolute of the mystics, of the Gnostics, of divine union and communion. Not a acting as manipulator of matter, but rather as an “invitational” (not coercive) activity within me.
And during that process I came across a wise, compassionate article about “good Christians” whom the media and the general culture have a tendency to despise. It was written by the Buddhist sensei Jose Tirado, who is of the Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhist school. I then looked into Shin and found that it fit like a glove. Its Amida Buddha, although not a deity, nonetheless shares several functions in common with the panentheistic notion of a non-creating sacred Source, and also with the mystical notion of a sacred Ultimate working with us “from inside”.
So I converted to Shin about 9 years or so ago. I am a solitary practitioner and attend no Hondo or local Sangha. I just keep up with the practice of Nembutsu recitation – Shin’s only official practice, which is simply a prayer of thanksgiving: “Namo Amida Butsu” / “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”. Other than that, I keep reading Shin books and visit Shin-related websites – that’s my “church” these days. One of the most helpful teachers in the Shin universe is John Paraskevopoulos –
– whose work has been most beneficial to my journey in Shin.
While Shin practitioners remain “bombus” – samsaric beings led by blind passions and spiritual ignorance – and who do not become Enlightened in this life – they have also received Amida’s unearned gift of perfect faith called “Shinjin”. Shinjin is Buddha Nature that will be sparked, vivified, and caused to blossom at death when we take birth in the Pure Land.
So that is my personal story of my path from Christianity to Jodo Shinshu.
From my Western/philosophical Panentheist point of view, “God” (the ultimate infinite compassionate Reality) is both “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent), which to me simply means that everything unfolds in God’s presence.
It doesn’t mean that God is a spy, a judge, a bedroom-or-bathroom invader.
It doesn’t mean that God is a creator who is morally obligated to intervene in material processes for reasons known only to “Himself”.
What it does mean is that the universe is in God, and God is in the universe. Hence, “pan” (everything) is “en” (in) “theos” (God). If memory serves, it was St. Augustine who made the illustration of Panentheism wherein the world is represented as a water-soaked (“God-soaked”) sponge, floating in an infinite sea (which is also God). God is in the world, the world is in God.
However, the current God-debate is more often than not constricted to the theology of supernatural theism, which posits a kind of sky-father deity “out there”, who, as a creator, maintains and intervenes in the world. That, however, is an arbitrary view. Saying that God – in order to be real, to BE God – must be a creator, is as inept as saying that the moon must be made of green cheese, or it doesn’t exist.
One application of this concept is Jesus’s teaching about the fall of sparrows, “birds of the air”, which happens naturally without any intervention by God. The point is that the fall of sparrows and humans does not happen without context, in a vacuum. Rather, it occurs in the loving presence and awareness of God, the God who, precisely because “He” is not the creator or maintainer of the world, and does not intervene in its processes. Spying and miraculous intervention are simply not part of God’s “job description”.
So in actuality, it can be said that God does absolutely nothing as relates to the construction and maintenance of the world, for the simple reason that such activity is not in God’s nature to do so. Against the traditional view, God is neither “mighty” nor “All-Mighty”.
God is not “Doing”. God is “Being”.
But this does not mean that God is impotent or powerless. It only means that God does not materially relate to or act upon the world.
However, that does not mean that God is inactive – because the presence of God does act in our deep subjectivity as a catalyst toward spiritual growth and enlightenment. This is the God-experience of mystical union and communion which is not about miraculous physical intervention in the world or in the human body, but rather about the manifestation of God’s presence in the souls of sentient beings.
Once one becomes aware of the inner presence of God in oneself, one no longer has to entertain the idea of, or has a need for, a creator deity “out there” who supernaturally intervenes in the material universe. Because one already “has” God in the only place it really counts – the human soul, the human heart. God conceived as a transformative inner presence trumps God conceived as a mechanistic, intervening creator deity. The person him or herself is the locus of God’s activity. The material world spins on, following its own self-directed laws without divine intervention.
An additional comment from a Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhist framework, from which this blog hopes to operate:
Jodo Shinshu’s “Ultimate” – Amida Buddha – is not a creator deity, but rather the highest celestial primordial Buddha. Just as with the non-creating God conception, Amida does not intervene in the material world – first because he did not create it and bears no personal responsibility for it, and second because his effulgent grace causes the salvific reality of Shinjin – “perfect faith” – to arise in the deep subjectivity of sentient beings.
Shinjin is a free gift from the Sacred Transcendent. That is why Shin calls it “a raft from the Other Shore” – a vehicle that makes landfall softly and unbidden and that carries us across the ocean of samsara, all without any effort and self-power practice on our part. Our own Amazing Grace. Not a God, but rather the Buddha whose grace ensures the vivifying sparking of our own aspiration toward Buddhahood. Where, in his Pure Land, our own Buddha Nature finally blossoms and we begin to do the selfless work that enlightened Beings do.
It has been said that religiously experienced people think differently because they see differently. They have a perspective on life that mere World cannot convey. Their view of life prior to religious experience changes after the experience.
The changed view of life changes our life-perspective. It causes us to see or perceive differently relative to ourformer view(s), providing light in the darkness, a wider perspective or higher prospect from which to see people, animals, and universe. Since my conversion to Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhism, I now see all good and bad things in a larger context of connection to the spiritually Transcendent “Other Power” of Amida Buddha.
Bad days in our lives are only to be expected because bad days are de rigueur in the Samsaric realm – and the same applies to the good days. I think it was Albert Camus who said, that despite the suffering and absurdity of life, still, “joy, too, is inevitable”. So days spent in connection with Amida Buddha and the Buddhist Dharma are days understood in a certain light, a light that illumines daily life with a new shade or tone. That’s the central core: Life lit from within by the Dharma’s immanent (“here”) presence, and by its Transcendent (“there”) existence.
Post-conversion, I have not done many new and different moral or social things, the chief reason being that Shin is not a works religion. The adherent is expected to follow the basic Buddhist moral code (but does not expect to be saved or Enlightened thereby). Amida Buddha provides Shinjin (perfect faith) and his grace alone is the factor that will spark the fulfillment of our innate Buddha Nature when we cross into the Pure Land. We do not, and cannot, do this for ourselves, or earn it as a reward. A bad day for me, consisting (say) of sickness, public humiliation, theft, assault, personal loss, affects me no differently than it would anyone else. The difference is that now I see both good and bad, suffering and joy, unfolding against a backdrop of the divine presence of Amida Buddha. It really makes all the difference in the world – at least, to my world.
In Jodo Shinshu, no “good works” are required of us – at least, if they are directed toward the goal of Enlightenment. Good works are required, however, to lighten the load of fellow suffering beings – the practice of “compassion in action”. But all kinds of people, religious and non-religious, already perform good works, whether or not in expectation of earthly or heavenly reward. What makes Shin different is that it teaches that no good work or self-effort practice can redeem us or erase our karma or “wipe out our sin” (except that there is no sin in Buddhism). Amida does all that for us.
Living in the Amida-Dharma means acknowledging our own powerlessness to save and Enlighten ourselves; it means throwing ourselves into the merciful arms of the Buddha’s Other Power; and it means “letting go and letting Amida”. Our outer lives may not change very much, but our “inner man”/”inner woman” is indelibly marked by Amida’s powerful yet gentle touch.
(Cross-posted from a Disqus Forum discussion. This has been touched upon here earlier, but might legitimately bear repeating:)
Atheist Gore Vidal:
“God or what have you, is not to be found at the far end of a syllogism, no matter how brilliantly phrased.”
Philosophy, therefore, can’t disclose God (except perhaps intellectually, but then we are only left with the God or the non-God of the intellect, which is not “the real God”).
Science cannot disclose God because science only deals with matter whereas God by most standard definitions and connotations (except perhaps pantheism) is non material spirit.
This leaves personal experience, the direct apprehension of the divine or the Spirit, as happens in “gnosis”, intuition, and/or the specialized perception that occurs in mystical states and/or as a result of contemplation, prayer, and meditation.
Note that all of these latter things are private, non material, and completely subjective. Neither science, doctrine, the “rational intellect” nor philosophy can enter into this most intimate experiential field. Its contents, like the qualia, are not communicable and cannot be brought out into the external material world. For that reason, it is simply erroneous to think that they can be externalized or publicly shared and quantified.
“Prove to me that God is real!” is one of those inept questions. It’s like asking, “Prove that you love the pursuit of the good/the true/the beautiful”. At most, such things can only be suggested or hinted at. They cannot be shared. However, they are “invitational” and hinge on attainment of personal experience.
There are three steps in knowledge-acquisition:
1. The Injunction: If you want to know “X”, then DO “Y”.
If you want to know if it’s raining, then look out a window. If you want to find God, then look through the “windows” and “lenses” designed for that purpose.
2. The Experiment: Apply the Injunction; proceed along established lines; take notes.
3. The Conclusion and Peer Review: share the process and your conclusion with those who have previously, adequately performed steps 1. thru 3. This happens, for example, in the Zendo, where students submit their experiments and conclusions with those (the senseis) who have previously, adequately performed the process.
God-experience is open to all for confirmation or disconfirmation. It is not a matter of someone else being capable of, or obligated to, “prove God”.
THAT is only up to the individual who is willing to perform the three steps of knowledge-acquisition – and with the awareness that the knowledge so acquired is private, and can only be publicly “circumambulated”, not “proved”, with those who have already done the three step process.
Which makes the Conclusion in one sense open to being shared, but not to public confirmation, as with scientific/material quantification. The confirmation only comes individually, privately, and subjectively.
Thus is disclosed the folly of asking someone or anyone to “prove God”. The “proof” either comes spontaneously, or it comes at the Conclusion of the three step process. It cannot come from some other person, or from any other external source. “Only YOU can do it for yourself alone.”
Best to stop asking the question altogether.
A short coda from the Jodo Shinshu point of view:
For Shin Buddhists, Amida Buddha has saved us from the three step process as surely as He has saved us from our samsaric plight. The three step process is perhaps important to those who are still seeking. But Shin people are no longer on the seeking path. Amida has found them.
This is posted from the Disqus discussion boards, with a few modifications, in answer to a thread inquiring about what spending a day with God would be like. I wrote:
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It seems to me that one major problem with the modern God-conversation is that God is constantly being defined as some kind of responsible world-agent – a creator. Of course, a creator – especially one who is held to be all-knowing and all-good – is ultimately responsible for “His” creation. No excuses can be offered for the putative creator’s misbehavior. And I’m not even (yet) talking about the depredations of the Biblical deity. No, the creator – as we now have “Him” – is sufficiently evil, indifferent, inept, mute and incompetent to be existentially and morally condemned under the Epicurean mandate.
However, I personally believe that “God” is real, but is not a creator, intervener, or judge.
For me – a panentheist (not pantheist) – God is much less a creator and much more the being Who and Which is spoken about in Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and by the mystics of all traditions. A silent Presence, the Tao, the Absolute, the Dharmakaya, Bodhi, the Unconditioned/the Unborn, Salvation, Light, Wisdom, etc. … a being and/or a category, that is, whose only “doing-ness” or activity is limited, and natural, to its transformative effects in sentient beings, but which is non-functional and irrelevant vis-a-vis the creation and maintenance of physical worlds, universes, things and processes.
Thus, as pertains to the world/cosmos/”life”, God is not all-mighty; in fact, God is not “mighty” at all, the word “might” being a crude projection of gross material, physical “power” onto a spirit being.
This type of God is immune from both the Epicurean critique and the normative Western theistic view, because both base themselves on the idea of an all-powerful creator deity. They assume that, for God to be real – “for God to BE God” – God must be a creator – or “He” isn’t God , and “He” does not, or cannot, exist. But that is as silly and inept as saying that either the moon is made of green cheese, or it does not, or cannot, exist.
The conception of a non-creating God immediately releases one’s God-definition from the burden of creating a theodicy. A theodicy is an argument that claims to explain evil – and more importantly, the persistence of evil – in a cosmos that was supposedly created and is currently being maintained by an all-good, all-powerful creator deity. If we remove from our theological perspective the conception of an all-good/all-powerful creator deity, we also remove the conception of divine intervention, as well as the embarrassing necessity of needing to account for “God’s” obviously neglectful behavior.
The non-creating, non-almighty God thus cannot be blamed for the world’s evils, nor can this God be praised for the world’s goodness. There is no one – “no One” – to praise or to blame. The universe goes its own “samsaric” way without deity-influence, interference, or manipulation, while God simply, deeply, remains as the silent Presence within the depths not of matter, but rather in the perceiving souls of the sentient beings who seek divine union.
In one narrow sense, Jodo Shinshu’s Amida Buddha can be seen as a kind of functional equivalent to the non-creating but spiritually-transformative God. Buddhas are not gods or creator deities, and neither is Amida Buddha. However, if by “God” is meant an all-compassionate, all-wise, luminous, transcendent Being who saves and enlightens not by physical intervention but by sheer grace – in the form of Shinjin in Jodo Shinshu – then, surely, Amida “fits the bill”. Not a creator, not a physical intervener, not a judge, not a divine warrior or apocalyptic vengeful destroyer, not a dying-and-rising savior, Amida can be seen as the compassionate, transforming, transcendent spiritual Ultimate – a “God” for all sentient beings, who at the same time is source and spark of their future Buddhahood in Amida’s Pure Land, where those beings recognize and realize their own “godness” as Buddhas in their own right.