What do you imagine when you think of God?
Yesterday a friend said she thought I didn't believe in God. I asked her, "Why do you think that?" She said, "Because you're a Buddhist."
True, I am. And before that I didn't believe in God. I had rejected my Jewish upbringing as a teenager and went through an atheist streak that led to a period of really depressing nihilistic thinking. As a result, much of my early life and decisions were dominated by fear and misery.
Then a few years ago, when I was about 25, I worked with a man who inspired me (and others) with his fearlessness, his patience, and his down-to-earth wisdom. He told me I was wrong about most things, especially in my choice to let fear structure my life. "Don't make fear-based decisions," he told me a hundred times. Being stubborn, I tried my hardest to prove him wrong, but I failed. So that's how I came to suspect, reluctantly, that there was more to reality than my stupid teenage nihilism could explain.
To understand the guy's secret, I went on a spiritual kick, reading the Tao Te Ching about 30 times and giving a second look to the Torah, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Qur'an. I found ancient teachings from Gautama Siddhartha, aka The Enlightened One, and modern teachings from Alan Watts, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Shunryu Suzuki. At first, I had an egotistical motive--I wanted to cheat suffering and death and somehow save my mind from annihilation. But reading this stuff didn't save me or turn me into a saint; it was just a scramble of intriguing words that had no visceral impact.
In Freedom from the Known, Krishnamurti asked what it would take to make these ideas as urgent as a snake underfoot, or a blazing house fire. He never answered the question.
I got frustrated and felt like I had to do something big. I wanted to break out of my old habits. They were blinding me. I wanted to leave them behind. So I ended my lease, packed my car with the essentials and--to begin the practice of letting go--I gave away most everything else. Then I hit the road.
That journey changed my life. There was a lot of boredom and aching loneliness, punctuated with occasional flashes of danger, awe, romance and revelation. On the road I discovered the practice of Zen Buddhism, and it brought about radical improvements in my understanding, feelings, and behavior. For the first time in my adult life, I didn't feel lost. One by one I faced the dumb cravings and fears that had obstructed and confused me. One by one I brought down the blocks that prevented me from caring deeply about other people. I eventually came to believe that I was capable of fulfilling my childhood dream, which was to become a doctor. So after a year on the road, I went back to school.
Some time has gone by and life right now looks more like a routine than a journey. Still, I'm making progress by practicing Zen meditation and studying the Buddha's teachings, both on my own and with others.
Yet the big questions are still there. For one, do I believe in God?
Last night, I told my friend that Buddhists aren't necessarily atheists. Buddha occasionally talked about God, although he did it carefully. He said that words like "God," "Divine Reality," "Ultimate Truth," "Pure Beingness," and "Nirvana" all point to the same thing, but fall short of capturing its essence. Buddha went to great lengths to teach people about the pitfalls of using words to describe something that transcends ordinary existence, which is why Buddhists do not talk about God very often. In this regard I see a connection to the second of the Ten Commandments of Exodus, which forbids the creation of an image of God. Whether the image is made in our hands with clay or made in our minds with words, the image will always fall hopelessly short of its intended meaning, and confusion will begin.
The main idea is that Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions can point toward the same meaning, even though the words and the superficial forms are different.
So I'm a Buddhist, not because I do or don't believe in God, but because Buddhism is a practical way for me to keep my mind open to what that Ultimate Reality is, without getting caught up in images. That's what works for me. Different people come to understanding through different paths. If you seek the truth, it's hard but necessary to accept that one path is not more correct than another in any fundamental way.
Going forward, I want to keep exploring the various means of seeking truth: different religions, spiritual practices, philosophical and scientific investigations, and lifestyles. By sharing my opinions here, I hope to illuminate what these practices have in common and what they can share, rather than advocate one over the other.