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.


Anonymous said...

Hi William,

I have two points to make.

>As a Western Buddhist, I don't believe in demons, gods, or any kind of supernatural beings.

I think you are over simplfying the matter as I am a western buddhist but do believe in demons, gods and so forth but, not in Christain terms. Buddha said there are 6 realms of existence. From hell-beings through to the God realms. Are you saying that as a western buddhist you don't believe this? Or that Buddha was wrong?

>When Buddhism seeks emptiness, it seeks Spirit.

Emptiness is not a thing as such. So how can it be called spirit? Spirit is a thing - a positive phenemona. Nagajuna didn't say this...he said the self is not this, not that, not not not. Emptiness is a non-affirming negation - a negitive phenemona. One of the major problems dealing with subtle and technical topics is language. Often our words are mis-read, I apoligize if I have mis-read yours

Other than these 2 point, your post was very god...woops good :)

~C4Chaos said...

excellent post, my friend. i couldn't agree more. as a person coming from a Christian tradition, i still use the word God but whenever i do, i'm referring to Spirit, the Kosmos, the Divine, the Tao, the non-dual suchness.

however, there are still times when i address God as a "person" (i.e. "as if" God is a sentient being, not necessarily a bearded dude) because it makes it easier for me to project my thoughts and intentions to something i can relate to. because same as you, i have no experience (yet) of the nondual, but i have a (rational) faith based on the experiences of the mystics who have gone before.

so i do understand your use of the word "God." ;)


P.S. as for the demons, gods and so forth. Buddhist literature, Christian literature, and virtually every tradition have them. and according to string theory, and even with mathematics, parallel worlds are plausible. so i haven't discounted that possibility just yet :)

william harryman said...


What I'm saying is that Buddha encouraged us to question even his teachings, and in the light of 21st century science, demons and other supernatural beings don't make sense. However, as I understand it from my studies in psychology, those beings that Buddha suggested are probably projections of unconscious content onto the world. In that sense, they can be very real for those who believe in them.

Buddha lived 2,500 years ago, in a pre-rational culture. It makes sense that some of his teachings won't hold up in rational or post-rational world.

I don't see Spirit as a thing, per se, but as the emptiness that is the true nature of reality.


william harryman said...

Hey ~C,

I agree with you completely. I was raised Catholic, so I can see the value of prayer as a form of meditation -- and sometimes I address Spirit the way Catholics address God, even though I am not really thinking of a divine being.

I hadn't thought about the many worlds theory of physics -- that throws a wrench in things, doesn't it? But as far as this world is concerned, I'm not buying into any supernatural beings as separate entities, but only as projections.