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Discussion 1 to Ask the Patriarch 212
Buddhism for Agnostics

by: Clay Chesney

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This line of discussion raises questions on the relationship between God, religion and spirituality.  

It occurred to me early in life that the God described in the Bible, the one at the core of our religious traditions, was not in evidence in the world and all the things that people saw as divine intervention in their lives were only a testament to man’s infinite capacity for self deception.    I’ve yet to find any evidence for that personified God, the beneficent, malevolent, meddling father figure that pokes into the lives of humans and guides the singular events of the universe, so the question was displaced by the more immediate issue of mortality.  We can live without God, but we are all eventually faced with death and the final question of whether any part of us survives.     

These are the two big drivers of religion; the existence of a God and a heaven.   The God part seems to be nearly indispensible, and if we go by the dictionary, appears to be a defining point for religion.  Ever since primitive man began to interpret natural events as manifestations of the wrath or pleasure of spirits we have been driven to find heavenly fathers (and mothers) in our image.  Belief in souls of the dead inhabiting a realm beyond our physical world is also universally present in human history and merges conveniently with the idea of an invisible domain of God.    But are these two things interdependent?  Can there be one without the other?  Can there be religion without God?

From the description here, Haisch’s God has moved from the personified being to a much more remote entity.  Not the God that looks after us personally but a minimalist God in human affairs, something like a set of defining principles and drives dominating the universe, but with consciousness and intelligence, may be akin to the vision of God held by the deists of the 18th century, including Benjamin Franklin. 

If we take one more step and remove the intelligence from Haisch’s concept, what is left?  Nothing like God as we typically think, but maybe like something that can be found in Buddhism. 

Buddhism, the world’s fifth largest religion, denies the existence of a creator God and teaches that no sentient being has a soul, or core identity, that lives on after death.   On that basis there has always been a question of whether Buddhism is a religion rather than just a philosophy, a moral code, and a practice for attaining altered states of consciousness.  But there is something more to it at a deeper level; if not God, then something like it, in an impersonal way.

From the western point of view Buddhism is difficult to penetrate.  Even a brief exposure to its literature reveals that it contains a number of principles that are self contradictory or otherwise illogical from our frame of reference.   Some of this is intentional, even explicitly stated as serving the function of making the mind move beyond its rational approach to the world.   But it also seems that Buddhism has its own internally consistent sense of evaluating the world, as obscure as it might seem to the western eye.  I have never been able to reconcile Buddhist philosophy with the logic that I know, but it offers a continually tantalizing challenge to understand what is going on in the Buddhist mind.   

At the heart of the religion is the experience of enlightenment, ultimately a blissful state of oneness with everything.  It is this experience, sought by many and attained by few, that has molded the Buddhist view of existence and generated a distinct viewpoint.   What might be called simply an altered state of consciousness is, for Buddhists, the starting point of reality and the source of revelation on existence. 

I have a book on Zen kensho, the process of insight into one’s own being.   Written by an American summarizing the traditional literature, it begins with a discussion of the “True Mind”, saying that its substance is no different in ordinary people, learners, enlightened beings and Buddhas.   “It was not originated in the past and will not perish in the future; it is ultimately eternal... the basic substance of the true mind transcends causality and pervades time...  It is neither profane nor sacred; it has no oppositions... Like space itself, it is omnipresent... All things, pure and impure –mountains, rivers, earth, grasses trees, forests, all forms and appearances come forth from this... When you arrive at this mind, it is everywhere; everything reveals it all... the root source of the evolution of all worlds”.  

The Buddhists do not believe in our familiar God, but they, at least some of them, believe in a creative force that is the coin side of our physical world.  It is not a personified force but a root condition that gives expression to everything, and it is accessible if only we develop the discipline and apply ourselves to the path.    

This is an intriguing concept, and at least it is potentially available for investigation if we were to muster up the dedication to work on it.  Not likely for an apathetic agnostic.  What we can do is apply the usual tools, looking in from the outside, and say that we can see no evidence for it whatsoever.  

What it does show, I think, is that God is not required for religion, or for spirituality.