Sunday, September 16, 2007

I'm an Atheist, Sort of

Any time writers use the word "god," even in a creative piece, they do so at their own risk. God is such a loaded word in this culture, especially with the recent rise of atheism in the media, as embodied by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, among a handful of other less vocal voices.

I posted a poem last week in which I used the word "god,'" and it prompted a regular reader to express some confusion about a Buddhist referring to god. As a Western Buddhist, I don't believe in demons, gods, or any kind of supernatural beings. So I can see the confusion that might arise when I mention god in a poem, or anywhere else.

The god that the atheists are railing against can best be summed up in this famous image from the Sistine Chapel:


Many people do believe that God is a being who created humans in his own image. But that is a mythic belief that is pre-rational. The atheists have a good point in dismissing this point of view.

When I use the word god in any sense, what I am really pointing toward is the Spirit that informs the entire universe, from which all things arise and toward which all things are evolving. This is how Ken Wilber defines it:

Spirit is the summit of being, the highest rung on the ladder of evolution. But it is also true that Spirit is the wood out of which the entire ladder and all its rungs are made. Spirit is the suchness, the isness, the essence of each and every thing that exists.

The first aspect, the highest-rung aspect, is the transcendental nature of Spirit--it far surpasses any "worldly" or creaturely or finite things. The entire earth (or even universe) could be destroyed, and Spirit would remain. The second aspect, the wood aspect, is the immanent nature of Spirit--Spirit is equally and totally present in all manifest things and events, in nature, in culture, in heaven and on earth, with no partiality. From this angle, no phenomenon whatsoever is closer to Spirit than another, for all are equally "made of" Spirit. Thus, Spirit is both the highest goal of all development and evolution, and the ground of the entire sequence, as present fully at the beginning as at the end. Spirit is prior to this world, but not other to this world.

I suspect that the atheists would also dismiss this viewpoint as irrational. But I think that rather than being a pre-rational assumption based on mythic belief, this is a viewpoint that is post-rational and based on the experience of a great many explorers of non-dual consciousness. Nearly every mystical tradition presents some variation of this viewpoint, albeit in different language depending upon the faith tradition from which it rises.

So, if this is to be considered some form of belief in god, then I am not really an atheist. But I don't really see Spirit as a god-type force or entity. Spirit has no interest in individual human beings beyond the fact that each person (each everything) is an embodiment of spirit.

From a Buddhist perspective, this belief is not out of line. We might easily equate Spirit with Buddha-nature:

Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamaka, presents a view that states that Buddha-nature is Shunyata (empty). The primary sutras on Buddha-nature maintain that what the Buddha-nature is empty of is not its own ever-enduring reality but impermanence, impurity, moral defects, and suffering - in other words, the painful constrictions and imperfections of samsara.

Spirit is non-dual, empty of anything we might recognize as human. When Buddhism seeks emptiness, it seeks Spirit.

It's important to note, for those who see faith as a serious problem, as do Harris and Dawkins, that I have not yet experienced non-duality. I take it as a matter faith, based on the experience of those who have attained this experience, that it is real. Those who have reached this level of consciousness have laid out the paths that can lead others to the same experience. If we follow the protocols, we too can transcend samsara.

It is also important to note that in the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhism, we are all already enlightened -- which is to say that we are all already capable of experiencing non-duality because (and they use different words) we are all Spirit in our essence -- it is only our conditioning that convinces us we are separate from Spirit.

Our ultimate nature is said to be pure, all-encompassing, primordial awareness. This 'intrinsic awareness' has no form of its own and yet is capable of perceiving, experiencing, reflecting, or expressing all form. It does so without being affected by those forms in any ultimate, permanent way.

How similar does this sound to what Wilber said above? It's fair to note that Wilber has been practicing Dzogchen Buddhism for very many years, but this view is not too different from Vedanta Hinduism, either.

So back to my original point -- when I refer to god in any way on this blog, what I mean is Spirit, or Buddha-nature. I know it will confuse those who are not regular readers of this blog, but that's OK -- I can live with that.


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