Unitarian Universalist Church, Rochester, MN
Sunday Sermon, February 17, 2008
ROCHESTER, MN -- I picked the topic for today's
sermon, ''Do Buddhists Believe in God?'', because I'm asked occasionally to speak
about Buddhism at churches around town. This is usually the first question to
come up. If it's not the first question, it's at least always the one that generates
the most interest and anxiety in the room.
Everything goes quiet when somebody
finally asks, ''Do Buddhists believe in God?'' I believe this quiet that descends
is out of deference for what most people today believe is the ultimate
question, the one that spiritually matters the most.
The Buddha was careful in answering this question. On the one hand, he often maintained a Sphinx-like silence when asked it, refusing to answer one way or another. At other times, he implied that the answer was "neither knowable nor unknowable," and that spending lots of time and argument trying to find an answer was therefore "not conducive to spiritual life."
And yet, there is an important
sense, one that serious Buddhists acknowledge, in which questions about God certainly
are the ultimate spiritual questions.
Many contemporary Buddhists consider
Haven't each of us had moments
where we seem to be in touch, even if briefly, with a higher power? No matter
what our religion, this is a common human experience which we register not just
intellectually, but even more so bodily, emotionally, and spiritually.
During such moments and sometimes
long after, we may feel the powerful, natural arising of positive intentions such
as compassion, equanimity, generosity, patience and truthfulness.
What are these moments about? Why
do they happen?
Where does morality come from?
Seen in this way, few if any
Buddhist masters from 2,500 years of history would object to saying that Buddhist
practice is about finding this living God within oneself, and in one's daily
There are three major contemporary teachers
on the relationship of Buddhism to Judeo-Christian notions of God. They are the
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and many recent Buddhist interpreters of the Gnostic Gospels, discovered in
the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dalai Lama compares Christian
notions of God and compassion to Buddhist teachings. His favorite device is to
compare Buddhist texts to Bible passages, such as the Matthew 5 passage where
Jesus teaches people to turn the other cheek and ''To love your enemies and pray
for your persecutors.''
The Dalai Lama says: ''This passage could
be introduced into a Buddhist text and it would not even be recognized as
traditional Christian scriptures.'' To demonstrate, he quotes the Dhammapada, a
collection of the Buddha's sayings, whose most famous passage reads: '''He insulted me, he hurt
me, he defeated me, he robbed me.' Those who think such thoughts will not be
free from hate. For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love.
This is eternal law.''
The Gnostic Gospels, as most of you
probably know, are the ''lost gospels'' of early Christianity. Many people believe these texts describe authentic
Christianity, that is, before institutional religion distorted Jesus' original teachings
to suit the needs of a powerful, global, proselytizing church.
Whether that last accusation is fair,
the Gnostic Gospels surely offer a very Buddhist-like early Christianity, and a
very Buddha-like Jesus.
For example, the Jesus in the Gnostic
Gospel of Thomas, just like the Buddha in the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow,
time after time warns his followers to avoid trying to find his essence in his words,
or in any system of religious or conceptual thinking.
Every time his followers try to pin
him down in this way, Jesus spins away. He says in the Gospel of Thomas:
''If those who lead you say to you, 'Look, the Kingdom is in the sky,' the birds of the sky will get there first.' If they say, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will get there first. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the children of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty.''
The Buddha, like Jesus, used many verbal ploys to illustrate that his true, living nature had nothing to do with words or thoughts or definitions.
In one story, soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha's extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence.
The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?" "No," said the Buddha. "Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?" Again the Buddha answered, "No." "Are you a man?" "No." "Well, my friend, then what are you?" The Buddha replied, ''I am awake.''
The Buddha taught humans to seek this state of being awake within themselves. ''Be a lamp unto yourselves,'' he said.
Jesus also used the metaphor of inner light to describe his living essence, both in the Bible – ''I am the light of the world'' he says in John 8:12 -- and in the Gospel of Thomas when he says: ''I am the light that is over all. I am the all. The all came forth out of me, and to me the all has come. Split a piece of wood, I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.''
Instead of focusing on these words or the ideas they express, you might try an experiment. What I am offering here is a traditional Buddhist meditation.
To understand the meaning of Jesus’s or the Buddha’s inner light, be aware of your body and your mind as it is right now, at this very moment, right here in church. Ask ''How is my body and mind right now?'' Don’t look or strain to hear anything special, inner voices or glinting sunbeams, or anything like that. Just note whatever little aches and pains or heat or tingling you may feel, anywhere in your body, just little sensations here and there. As ordinary or boring as it may seem, just with these for as long as you can.
Just notice whatever is happening in your body and your mind for a few continuous moments.
This is a standard Buddhist meditation, but it is also, you see, very much like inviting you to experience your own body and mind as that piece of wood, or the lifted rock, from the Gospel of Thomas.
This is where Jesus said he was to be found.
More than any other contemporary Buddhist, the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has drawn parallels between the Christian and Buddhist conceptions of God.
Thich Nhat Hanh calls God by a name that he invented, called ''interbeing.'' I’ll end my remarks today with a passage from Thich Nhat Hanh, taken from his book that compares Buddhism to Christianity called ''Living Buddha, Living Christ.''
''When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, there could be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made entirely of non-flower elements. It has no independent, individual existence. It 'inter-is' with everything else in the universe. When we see the nature of interbeing, barriers between ourselves and others are dissolved, and peace, love and understanding are possible. Whenever there is understanding, compassion is born.''
To Thich Nhat Hanh, to the Dalai Lama, and to many other contemporary Buddhists, the being born anew every moment – as registered in our everyday aches and pains, our little spots of passing pleasure and our ordinary sensations – are what really matters.
This is not a question to be pondered, a theory to be debated, or a belief to be grasped.
It's an experience to be had. And it can be had right here, right now.
It is, both Buddha and Jesus tell us, a chance to experience the living God.
Copyright @ 2008 Douglas McGill