Inquiring Mind —In This Issue - The God Issue

Fall 2013 (Vol. 30 #1)

What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And me to you?
    —Gregory Bateson

It's hard to talk about God. Impossible to name the Nameless. "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao." Yet in The God Issue, that's what we're asking of ourselves and our contributors: Can a Buddhist believe in God? Can a Christian, Jew or Muslim who also practices Buddhism reconcile the two traditions? How might a relationship with God enrich or conflict with one's Buddhist practice?

There are countless notions of God. There is the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Jesus and Mary; there is Mohammad's Allah and the Yorùbá Olódùmarè. Recall the Hindu Trimūrti—Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu—or our indigenous people's Great Spirit. There is the Goddess in her countless manifestations, and of course, let's not forget the Higgs boson and all things quantum.

In the West, there is a widespread assumption that you can't be Buddhist and believe in God. These pages explore that assumption. Turns out some believe, some don't. A lot of Westerners are drawn to Buddhism precisely because it's a way to explore the unknowable without any mention of God. And some, like me, find God in the Buddhist teachings of interconnectedness. Still, I can be sheepish when mentioning my Christian faith—I don't want my concept of God to be misunderstood as exclusive or simplistic. I might blurt, "Yes, I go to Grace North Church, but it's not what you think! It's not uptight or dogmatic. It's actually cool."

At nineteen, I encountered the Four Noble Truths and the concept of dependent origination, which revolutionized my worldview and changed my feeling about God. I came to understand God as a kind of Emptiness. God is neither a groovy nor grim character overhead, directing the world stage. God is light-years beyond fathomable! Still, after twenty years of vipassana practice, I notice that in my heart of hearts I talk to God like a person. I plead for guidance. I use human words in seeking this nonentity—this emptiness beyond the sum of all our parts—hoping for connection. I pray to what I cannot comprehend, believing that something out there can hear me. I accept that what is "out there" is also in here, in me, and is called by many names: God, Buddhanature, Atman/Brahman . . . or by no name at all.

On my altar you will find the cherrywood Buddha I received in Korea and a miniature icon of St. Thérèse. There is no internal struggle when I sit down before these objects. The Buddha taught suffering and the end of suffering. Jesus preached total self-emptying. It seems to me they weren't saying such different things. At my altar, there is nothing to reconcile—symbol and myth are tools for making sense of the Unknown.

Susan Moon, Barbara Gates and I have marveled at the complex responses of our contributors. We fall in a long line of humans who have craned their necks toward the dark canopy of stars and wondered. We invite you to join us, as Buddhists wondering together about the unnameable, which some of us call God.

—Martha Kay Nelson


God Is a Three-Letter Word
Norman Fischer finds no inconsistency in praying to God while leading a Jewish meditation group and giving Zen teachings that never mention God.

Beyond the Gods
Tracking the gods in early Buddhist texts, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi discovers deities who need lessons from the Buddha. Often, when they inquire into the idea of a creator god, the suttas take a satirical turn that might give you a good laugh—on the gods.

The Great Matter
Susan Moon never imagined her Zen path would wind its way to a Benedictine hermitage. Looking for God at Sky Farm, she met an extraordinary priest who helped her see that God is with her as long as she keeps looking.

What God Is Not?
Years after leaving the Greek Catholic Church, Askold Melnyczuk had a powerful experience of God. Through Tibetan Buddhism, he found a way to understand this experience.

There Is No God and He Is Always with You
In excerpts from his new book and in a Q & A, Zen priest and teacher Brad Warner advises us to "sit down and shut up," to find out what God wants from us.

Every Consciousness Rides a Steed of Wind: An Interview with Anne Klein
Buddhist scholar and teacher Anne Klein unravels the mysteries of Tibetan deity practice where we encounter ourselves in the disguise of the divine.

Is As-It-Is Enough?
Tom White brings his training as a scientist and Zen student to the question of intelligent design, concluding that there is no need to introduce "God" as the explanation for the awesomely beautiful construction of the universe.

Dance & Sit: A Conversation with Pir Shabda Kahn
Sufi teacher Pir Shabda Kahn, once a Jewish boy from New York City, draws from many traditions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam—all of which supported him through the Madoff disaster, cancer and the death of his son.

Being-ness, Your God
A Buddhist-based spiritual practice returns Yael Shy to her original Jewish faith and a fresh understanding of the Hebrew God.

Ye Gods!
Searching for the divine takes a whole new form in Andrew Chaikin's word puzzle.

A Nontheist's Journey
A chance meeting between Thomas Merton and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche provides a backdrop for Rob Lee's personal odyssey from Roman Catholicism to Vajrayana Buddhist "nontheism."

Woman in the Sky
On a harrowing van ride through Himalayan foothills and on a chairlift near Vulture Peak, Barbara Gates confronts her fears. Each jolt furthers her pilgrimage, loosening attachment to self.

Everyday Deliverance
In her bathtub, Martha Kay Nelson wrestles with her devils—or are they angels in disguise? Through practice, she "gives away" the answer.

Practice: Getting Real About Exhaustion
Chris McKenna teaches mindfulness for those in high-stress situations, which may include everyone alive in the modern world.

The Dharma & The Drama
Wes Nisker calls together all the gods and goddesses for a "summit meeting" and proposes a solution to all of humanity's holy wars and religious struggles.