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Do Buddhists Believe in God?

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BUDDHISM AND GOD
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In my upcoming book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice (Gotham Books, January 2012), I tell the following story:

Once, when I was on a live radio show being interviewed by a Christian talk show host, her first question to me was, "Do you Buddhists believe in God?"

I had only a few seconds to think of an answer.

"Yes," I said.

"Good!" the host said. "And how do you pray?"

I said that we prayed in silence to reach our divine nature.

"I like that!" the host said.

When I have told this story in talks, some of my Buddhist listeners say, "Oh, that's nice. It's good to be polite." But I wasn't just being polite. I was raised in a Christian church and went to Christian Sunday school. My favorite song as a child was "God is Love." After graduating from college, for a year I attended Christian seminary, with the idea of becoming a minister. I didn't become a dedicated Buddhist until some time after that. I am comfortable with the word God.

It's true that by saying "Yes" I was also making an effort to establish some common ground. It was live radio, our time slot was 20 minutes and I was there to discuss a just-released book. I didn't want to spend the whole time trying to explain what Buddhists believe. Also, I felt that a more nuanced answer, however I couched it, would have come across as some version of "No." I sensed the need to give a definitive answer. The answer I gave came closest to what was so for me -- understanding that I was not trying to speak for the world's 320 million Buddhists, but only for myself.

The host knew I was a Buddhist; I was on her show to discuss my book, Healing Lazarus: A Buddhist's Journey from Near Death to New Life. I sensed from the way she posed her question that all she really wanted to know was whether I was a person of religious conviction and belief -- a person of faith. And I am. I'm an ordained Buddhist priest -- a religious professional. My daily religious practice is the center of my life. I lead meditation groups, I am training and ordaining other priests. In that context, "Yes" is the best answer.

However, even though most of the world's Buddhists recite the name of Buddha or pray to Buddha, Buddha is not a deity or supreme being in the same way that the Christian God is. A lay minister of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Japanese Buddhism once told me that he tries to explain to his Christian friends that Amida Buddha is a principle, like universal love, rather than a god. Another point worth noting is that there is no word for "Buddhism" in Buddhism -- that "-ism" was an invention of 19th century European translators. Gautama the Buddha called his teaching marga, or the Path.

In that sense, the host's second question -- about how I prayed -- was the more interesting to me. For Buddhists, what and how you practice is more fundamental than what you believe. My teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, used to say that people could practice Zen meditation and also believe in God; that was OK with him. My good friend, Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, practiced meditation with us in the early days of Tassajara Zen monastery. Like many other Catholic priests and monks who have taken up, and even taught, Zen, Brother David did not feel a contradiction between his Catholic contemplative practice and Zen meditation. In fact, he felt that there was an affinity between the two. A Tibetan Buddhist teacher once said, when asked about God, "God and Buddha may appear to be different, but when we speak of the nature of God and the nature of Buddha there may be more closeness." I learned in Christian seminary that St. Anselm's definition of God was "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." Shunryu Suzuki often spoke of the inconceivability of Buddha in similar language. In Zen meditation we seek to express and embody this inconceivability.

So when I said to the radio host, "We pray in silence to reach our divine nature," I was not just making that up. I knew that there is a long history in Christianity of the "prayer of silence." In the Eastern Orthodox tradition this is known as hesychasm, which is based on Christ's injunction in the Book of Matthew to "go into your closet to pray." A more modern version of this practice is the so-called "centering prayer," whose ancient origins can be traced to the writings of St. John of the Cross and other early contemplatives.

My colleagues in Zen may object that it is a stretch to call Zen meditation "prayer," or to describe its purpose as a method "to reach our divine nature." I understand; I'm sure this post will receive many critical comments both from the Buddhist and Christian sides. My purpose here is not to defend what I said, as much as describe it, along with the thinking behind it. I think what is most important is that the host and I had a real dialogue. After the show was over, she told me that someone close to her had experienced a traumatic brain injury, as I had done, and she wanted to know more. That was a touching moment, a human connection that was more important, I think, than anything I said or she said on the show.

Interfaith dialogue can sometimes be superficial, but it can also go deep. Dialogue is the universal antidote to misunderstanding and prejudice, especially the religious kind, and I am all for it -- even when it falls short, or seems unfruitful. This week's headlines about Osama bin Laden reminds us all of the terrible cost of misunderstanding, prejudice and hatred. The hatred and the killing will not end -- in fact, given our human propensity for demonizing those who do not believe as we do, such things may always be with us. But we must never stop trying to counter prejudice with efforts to find common ground. That was what I was trying to do on the radio show, and what I am trying to do here by writing about it.

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