I do not feel obliged to believe that same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use.
A student e-mailed me recently with an interesting quandary. She had been coming to one of my meditation classes for a few months with a friend, and had stopped me afterward a couple of times to say how much she enjoyed it. So I was caught off guard by the topic that had been keeping her awake at night. She wrote, “I’ve been getting a lot out of meditation. The talks really resonate with me, and I’m noticing a lot of positive changes in my life and in my reactions to things, but I think I have to stop coming. The problem is that I believe in God. Since your meditation class is in the Buddhist tradition, and Buddhists don’t believe in God, it doesn’t seem right. Do you have any thoughts on this?”
I don’t personally feel conflicted about believing in God and meditating in the Buddhist tradition. But I read articles in papers about how yoga is banned from some schools for the subversive Hindu messages some believe get programmed into the kids. Secular mindfulness is taught in many, many public school with outstanding outcomes for both kids, parents and teachers. But every now and then you hear rumblings about an administrator pulling the program for the same reason. Here’s my personal journey with this question.
I was raised Christian, primarily in the United Church of Christ. I loved the notion that church was “God’s house,” and I can remember looking up at the vaulted ceiling of our church when I was about five or six and thinking he was floating around up there somewhere looking after us. It’s also around that same time that I earned a reputation for being a bit of a heckler in Sunday School. My Mom used to tell a story about how my teacher pulled her aside one Sunday after class, smiling. Apparently, she had read us the Bible verse John 14:6, where Jesus tells his disciples “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Now, for any non-Christians out there, this concept is a fundamental tenet of Christianity. In fact, it’s more than a tenet, it’s like, the whole religion. But I raised my hand nonchalantly, and said, “I don’t think that’s exactly right. There are some people who don’t know about Jesus, and God lets them in too.” And thus began my long history of bumping up against religious doctrines that I just knew in my heart were not exactly right.
This little glitch only got worse as I got older. A few weeks ago I was going through the mountain of stuff that we saved after moving my parents out of their house over a year ago. I found the “Statement of Personal Faith” that I had written before my confirmation at age fourteen. I remember that my confirmation class met individually with the minister to discuss what we had written, to make sure we were taught well and would be good representatives of the United Church of Christ. The kids ahead of me in line were in his office for about 10 minutes each; I was in there for almost an hour. On a faded piece of paper, clipped to my Statement, the minister wrote, “It’s clear you have thought a great deal about this. You have some interesting ideas about the nature of God, some of which are non-traditional, but I applaud your curiosity and encourage you to pursue them to their end.” Well, I guess you could say I’m still pursuing those ideas, and I’m not sure there’s an end.
When I began studying Eastern philosophy about twenty years ago, and specifically Buddhist meditation, sometimes people would ask me if I still believe in God. It always made me smile a little, because what I know to be true about God has not changed a whole lot since I was five years old. I don’t experience God as a concept that is subject to “belief,” a deity that is separate from everything else, whom I must believe in in order to ensure my salvation.
To me, God is a force that is part of our very cells, that is operating at all times, whether we believe in it or not. It’s sort of like the force of gravity that keeps us stuck to the Earth. Gravity is the most mysterious of the four physical forces, because its properties can’t yet be fully explained by science. You can therefore say you don’t believe in gravity, and argue all kinds of complicated theories about why your belief is right. But in the end it doesn’t really matter, does it? When you jump up, you will still come back down. Your whole life is influenced by the force of gravity.
Likewise, whether or not we practice a particular religion or none at all, whether we live a righteous life or are mired in greed, hatred and delusion, our lives are moved by the force of God. This force pulls us toward wholeness, toward awakening to our own true nature. Everything that happens to us, the people who show up in our lives, the decisions we make – for better or worse – move us steadily in the direction of wholeness. Put another way, the consequences of our actions ultimately lead us to the full realization of our own Buddha-nature, toward the realization that “the kingdom of God is within us.” And I call the force that leads us, God. Now, I certainly don’t speak for Buddhists, many of whom don’t see the same overlap that I do, because they have no language at all for the idea of God. Buddha himself is not a figure who is worshipped or prayed to, but simply a reminder that it’s possible to “wake up” in this human life.
In my personal opinion, all traditions that teach the values of compassion, kindness and love are valuable and worthy of respect. I also honor that every individual walks his or her own path, one that gives deep meaning and purpose to their lives. Some take the well-groomed trail of organized religion, passed down from one generation to the next, with prayers and creeds and rituals that serve as trail markers in a dense forest. Others start off on one of these well-groomed paths and for one reason or another wander off into unknown territory, finding their way by following their own inner compass, looking at the stars and checking to see what side of the trees the moss is growing on. Still others are born in the back county, climbing mountains, bushwhacking and crossing swift streams like a pro, believing that trails are for suckers. No path is to be feared, ridiculed or made to be the evil “other.” God pulls on us all equally.
Christian philosopher St. Anselm defined God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Zen master Shunryu Suzuki spoke of the awakened mind as capable of “astonishing, prodigious, inconceivable, powerful miracles.”
Ultimately, my questioning student decided to stay. She shared that she had come to the realization that the boundaries she had created between meditation practice and her experience of God existed only in her mind. And that it was actually through her meditation practice that she had come to know this. God does indeed work in mysterious ways.