One reason I like Buddha’s teaching so much is that it doesn’t require me to believe in a personified god—an omniscient, all-powerful being who created everything. The Buddha tells us that we can never know the first cause and that it’s fruitless to try to trace our karma back to its origins. Furthermore, according to the Buddha’s teaching, our rewards and punishments come not from some deity who watches over us handing down judgments but from the laws of cause and effect. Everything that goes around comes around.
In Theravada Buddhist texts, Brahma and other Hindu deities appear now and then, but one gets the sense that they just happen to be hanging out in the Buddha’s neighborhood. He doesn’t seem to pay them a lot of heed or obeisance. In fact, in the Pali Canon the gods are usually portrayed as bowing down to Buddha. Even though it was Lord Brahma who supposedly convinced the Buddha to begin teaching, later on in the texts the Buddha can be found teaching the gods themselves. At one point the Buddha even tells one of his disciples that Brahma must be a little confused if he truly believes that he, Brahma, created everything. According to the Buddha, the gods can’t even become enlightened, because they are simply too infatuated with being gods.
In general, I don’t think much about the gods, except to wonder at how much trouble they cause in the world. The main problem is that people keep killing each other in the name of one god or another, or warring over the holy places where some god supposedly walked or spoke to one prophet or another. So-called holy wars have been taking place for so many centuries you’d think we would have figured out by now that they aren’t holy at all.
Recent anthropology reveals that there have been hundreds of religions and countless gods and goddesses; that they change over time; and that no one tribe or people seems to have a permanent lock on the true god, or even the true name of God. Imagine, for instance, a family that’s been living along the shores of the Mediterranean throughout the last five millennia—its generations might have believed in, successively, Chronos, Zeus, Jupiter, Jehovah and Jesus. It seems that even among the gods there is occasional regime change. Meanwhile, the relativity of the gods was noticed way back in the fifth century B.C. by the historian Xenophanes, who wrote, “The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair.”
Many people say they know for sure who God is, and if you don’t believe in their particular god, they will kill you. Others won’t kill you but can assure you that when you die, their god will cast you down into a fiery pit where nasty horned creatures will stick you with pitchforks to make you scream in pain, forever and ever. (Imagine, a god would do that to you just for being a nonbeliever.)
But why should we care if people call our god by a different name than we do? Can you imagine any self-respecting god saying, with menace, “Hey buddy, what did you call me?” Why should anyone be bothered if we call our god Omega, Felix or Martha Reeves and the Vandellas? In fact, I can imagine that someday the heavens will open and we will all hear a booming voice proclaim, “Humans! You all got my name wrong!” (Pause) “And I forgive you.”
Maybe God doesn’t even have a name. In fact, there’s a good chance that God isn’t a being at all, or at least not some humanlike being. Do you think we are so good-looking that a god—who could look like anything, or nothing—would actually want to look like us? Would any god with taste decide to have nose hairs or butt cheeks? “Vanity of vanity,” sayeth the preacher. “All is vanity.”
Even if you don’t believe in one, I would guess that most of you reading this will have a certain image of God—and that He’s an Italian! He’s got a flowing white beard and long hair—kind of an aging bohemian. (Cool, man!) I’m referring, of course, to the god who lives up there on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Italians were the ones who gave us this image of God as a buffed charismatic creator with a life-giving finger.
You may remember that the Jews said we are not supposed to make a graven image of “Him” because “He” is much too great and no one could ever gaze on “His” face. (At least we knew that this god was male.) But when the Jewish god came down to meet with His people, He always hid inside a bush or allowed Himself to be heard as a disembodied voice. That was before the Italians inherited the Jewish god and couldn’t resist the urge to paint Him.
(By the way, the Jews really had a brilliant idea with this god that can’t be seen, a god who has no form. It saves a lot of money on statues. No need to put a golden calf on your altar, which might just fall off and break.)
Anyway, I have a proposal for how we can deal with humanity’s god problems. First we call all the gods together for a “summit” meeting. Maybe it could be held on Mt. Olympus or Mt. Kailash, where there are already many gods around who could host the gathering. (There will have to be separate tables: Bacchus needs wine, but Buddha won’t touch the stuff; Demeter wants corn for dinner, and Jehovah prefers lamb; Zoroaster wants candles for a centerpiece, while Tor would rather gaze upon an ice sculpture.)
Once we have all the gods together, we beseech them—all of us beseeching our own particular deities—to do humanity a great big favor and decide on a common name. Since I’m the only one working on this project, I will take the liberty to offer the first suggestion.
If you’ll notice, many of the names we already use for deities end in the syllable ah—Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, Tara, Diana, Krishna. Perhaps we could get the gods to accept the common nickname Ah. (I haven’t been hit by lightning yet, so maybe I’m onto something here.) Ah is the first sound most of us make when we are born: “Waaah!” It’s also the last sound we make as we die, crying or sighing, “Ahhh. . . .” With a god named Ah, the first word of life would automatically become a prayer, and the last would signal our complete surrender and a sigh of release from this hard duty as humans. I suppose people could still use their special tribal names for God but with extra emphasis on the last ah sound. Then we all could agree that we are talking about the same ultimate almighty. Totally Ah-some!
Another possibility is to name our highest deity Ma, which in almost all human languages refers to mother. Instead of looking up as we pray to “our father who art in heaven,” we would then look down at the Earth, the womb of all life, the goddess whom the Greeks called Gaia. (There’s another ah for you.)
Maybe we could even use both names—Ah and Ma. We could think of God as two, male and female, yin and yang, just as many of us humans have always believed. “Ah Ma! Ma Ah! Ah-ha Ma!” The possibilities for songs and praises are endless.
Of course, my ideas for how to deal with humanity’s god problems will likely not be adopted anytime soon. Until then, I hope you are happy with your god or goddess. Or with your unknown spirit, energy field, Mind, no-god or don’t-know-mind manifestation. The deepest wisdom I can find tells me that when it comes to the great mystery, your guess is as good as mine.