I remember the first time it happened.
I’m not sure how old I was. Probably no older that 15; the movie in my head shows me the bedroom I shared with my father and a bright warm day outside. I was putting on a sock.
Very suddenly, the entire Universe changed. Very suddenly, I knew the Universe made sense. Oh, I didn’t understand it, I just knew it made sense. It was like when your grandfather shows you his special pocket watch, the one with a hinged back so that instead of seeing the face and the hands that apparently move by magic, you see the gears and springs and see that the hands are moving because of a complicated mechanism inside.
Here’s how Brad Warner, my favorite living Zen writer, described it in his blog not long ago:
In fact, this personal and private something was, I now saw, the personality of the entire universe from the beginningless beginning of time right on through eternity. I saw that this thing I thought was located so deeply inside of me that no one could ever even think of touching it was actually spread throughout all the universe. It wasn’t just inside me. It was inside Tau Ceti and Alpha Centuri and the Great Megallenic Cloud. It was there when the Big Bang happened. It was the Big Bang.
I saw that it was the very same intimate, personal, private something – the “me” aspect – of every person that ever lived, will live or could live – including you, dear reader. It was the personal private something of the sky and the sun and the moon and every ant or rock or piece of bird poop anywhere at any time throughout space. Nothing had ever happened or could ever happen without it knowing every intimate detail, bad or good, happy or sad, painful or pleasant.
If that’s not God, then I don’t know what is.
And perhaps I don’t.
Because it didn’t change me into a better person. It did not grant me moral perfection or freedom from the effects of my bad deeds. It didn’t give me magic powers. It didn’t give me extrasensory perception or vast insight into all things. It didn’t even let me know what color brontosauruses were. And that’s something I’d really like to know.
It didn’t leave me with anything to prove to others that it had visited me, like, y’know, when a guy in a sci-fi movie isn’t sure he really traveled back in time until he reaches into his pocket and discovers he still has the autograph he had Abraham Lincoln sign or whatever. Nope. I got nothing but a funny story I can tell. And not even a cool enough story to get me on one of those shows Oprah Winfrey produces!
(I know how he feels. Putting on a sock? At least Brad was walking across a bridge in Japan.)
I also told my friend it was a little like going through life with a paper grocery bag over your head. Then one day somebody lifts the grocery bag for a couple seconds and you see there’s whole world out there.
Well, Brad’s written a whole book about it now.
Can you be an atheist and still believe in God?
Can you be a true believer and still doubt?
Can Zen give us a way past our constant fighting about God?
Brad Warner was initially interested in Buddhism because he wanted to find God, but Buddhism is usually thought of as godless. In the three decades since Warner began studying Zen, he has grappled with paradoxical questions about God and managed to come up with some answers. In this fascinating search for a way beyond the usual arguments between fundamentalists and skeptics, Warner offers a profoundly engaging and idiosyncratic take on the ineffable power of the “ground of all being.”
Or, rather, he’s written a whole book about trying to make some sense of the experience for others, until and unless they have it too. He quotes a Zen story about a monk who (never mind how) is high in a tree, holding on literally by his teeth when someone comes along and — instead of running to get a ladder — asks him a question about Buddha’s teachings. If the monk opens his mouth to say something, he’ll fall and at least break an ankle; but if he stays silent, he is failing in his duty as a monk.
Talking about this experience is doomed to failure; not talking about it is not skillful, it doesn’t do anything to reduce suffering.
For a Buddhist, talking about God is always a problem. Buddhism doesn’t worship God or Gods, but it sure looks like we do, with statues of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas, and people praying to Kannon for health or to Jizo to protect their children, but the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are really “just” teachers, ordinary beings subject to cause-and-effect just like the rest of us. And the Western concept of God is a tough one — the Outsider Who made us, loves us infinitely … so much so that He made us imperfect, but such a strict Parent that when we fail due to those imperfections He will “cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
So, in There Is No God and He Is Always With You, Brad takes the branch from between his teeth. Early in the book, Brad writes:
What you think of as God does not exist. It couldn’t possibly exist. No matter what you think of as God, it’s an image you’ve created in your mind. … And yet there is something powerful and ineffable that is the ultimate ground of all being and nonbeing, and it created you. And some people use the word God to talk about that ineffable something.
Brad’s thesis is really simple: he thinks this is all rooted in a dualistic (or more divisions than just two!) view that runs throughout Western thinking: the separation between body and mind, spiritual and materialist, body and soul. It’s hard for Buddhism to talk about God in that world because Buddhism doesn’t start with that basic assumption. If you have something that’s made up of two parts, then you can also have something that is the two parts together. A God that stands outside you is a limited God precisely because that God is outside you.
There used to be a popular bumper sticker that said “If you feel distant from God, guess who moved.” My reaction was to wonder about that, asking, okay, who moved? Who stood still? And where did you go?
The experience I had when I put on my sock denies that whole distinction. The Whole Universe — which is, by definition, everything — includes us. We’re not separate from it. The boundaries we see between us and the rest of the Universe, are temporary and accidental, but underneath it is a Whole that is beyond perfect because perfect and imperfect are limits too.
What it is, though, is really really cool.
Brad’s book isn’t that cool. But it’s pretty cool indeed.
image courtesy shutterstock / Jelena Aloskina