God may not be as incompatible with Buddhism as you thought

Ask many Western Buddhists about God, and you’ll probably get a dismissal. “The Buddha was an atheist” they may say, or “God is irrelevant to Buddhist practice”. If they’re referring to belief in God, they may well be right. Belief that there is a shortcut supernatural source of perfect information clearly has a negative effect, as the Buddha was said to have recognized in his early life. At best we are distracted by speculation about claims of an infinite being that lies beyond experience, and at worst we wage dogmatic war on his behalf. But is belief all that God is about? The massive role that God as a concept and a symbol plays in Western tradition is not just about belief.

The alternative way of understanding the role of God is not as an object of belief, but as meaning. When the medieval mystic talks of God as the cloud of unknowing, glimpsed in ecstatic experience, this is God as meaningful experience. When the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes of the glory of God suffusing the world, this is meaningful experience in which the world has become a symbol for God. When the artist Carlo Crivelli paints God as the mysterious origin of a ray of light in the sky, penetrating even into the heart of a woman kneeling in a remote room (above), this is God symbolising our experiences of unexpected joy, creativity and awe: our capacity to question our assumptions about our current identity and imagine a greater potential beyond it. You do not have to believe in God to find such symbols, associated with such experiences, profound and inspiring.

If one talks in these terms, Buddhist objections to ‘God’ may suddenly vanish. Instead of evoking a resistance to being drilled into ‘beliefs’ in a childhood experience of church, this account of God may start to be recognizable in relation to more elevating and creative experiences: perhaps in meditation, in an art gallery, or in an open landscape. It may, indeed, connect with what Buddhists may identify with as ‘enlightenment’: again, not as a remote goal or as a source of authority, but as a symbol evoking certain sorts of experiences.

Perhaps making this connection to the meaning of God is the first step in recognizing the basis of a compatibility between God and Buddhism, but the second is realizing that it is our responsibility how we interpret a complex religious tradition. Both Buddhism and Christianity are complex traditions, with not only many schools of interpretation, but an ongoing process of re-interpretation by each generation and by each individual. Complex traditions do not have essences — as Buddhists may recognize if they have studied non-essentialism (anatta) in Buddhist teachings. Instead, they are systems linked by ‘family resemblances’ or overlapping connections — systems that have developed to serve people’s needs in particular ways through the centuries. We cannot claim that Christianity or Buddhism essentially consist in a particular set of teachings that we should believe — even if that’s how each exclusive cult or school would like to present their version of it. So, it’s OK for you to interpret God according to your own experience of his meaning, however much the scholars may disapprove.

I think that God as meaning (or as archetype) is fully compatible with Buddhist practice — as long as one also interprets Buddhism, in turn, as a practice inspired by a connection with certain symbols rather than as a set of absolute beliefs. That is not at all the same as what I would call naive universalism: the claim that all is “really” one, such as one often finds in Hinduism or in New Age circles. That’s still an absolute belief about essential unity, not just a meaning. But meaning is prior to belief and should not be reduced to it. Treating God as meaning is compatible with being as critical as you like about God beliefs — though it’s better to take this as a prompt to let go of ‘belief’ as a frame for religion, rather than to embrace opposing beliefs such as atheism that are still stuck in the same frame. To let go of ‘belief’ you need an understanding of how meaning can be independent of belief, and how our need for inspiration can be fed by archetypal meaning. Embodied meaning theory provides a well-developed intellectual framework that can support that practical distinction if you need it.

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My recent short book ‘Buddhism and God’, published by Mud Pie, provides a more detailed exploration of this approach to overcoming the conflict between Buddhism and theistic religions. It looks closely at the assumptions both Buddhists and theists tend to make about the meaning of God and the meaning of Buddhism, and also suggests a critical rather than a naive understanding of universalism. You can buy the book from Amazon here, and also watch a video of the launch event on Youtube where I talk more about the book.

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Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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Robert M. Ellis

Robert M. Ellis

Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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