Saturday, February 22, 2014

"God" As a Very Convenient Hypothesis/Axiom/Myth

     By reality and perfection I mean the same thing. —Benedict Spinoza

     Sub ishwar hai. ("It's all God.") —Neem Karoli Baba

     One spiritual skill I have been working on for years is the ability to love everybody. At the personality level (the level of "my own" personality, not other people's personalities), I have not been extremely successful. It has been difficult, not because loving everybody is hard work—as it is ultimately effortless—but because it requires enough awakeness to break through or transcend semiconscious, automatic habits; and loving everybody is not one of my semiconscious, automatic habits. Even if somebody does have loving everybody as an automatic habit, it's probably not very deep, very high-quality love, being semiconscious and all. Love requires awakeness. Still, such a person would be fortunate.
     The easiest way I have found for loving everybody, which sometimes I can maintain for several whole minutes at a stretch, is to see everyone as manifestations of Divinity and perfection, i.e., as "God." If an old lady is putting rice into my bowl, the shaking of her hands is perfect; the spots on the backs of her hands are perfect; the wrinkles on her cheeks, her failing eyesight, not to mention her care, generosity, and faith—all perfect. A shy little girl with big eyes drops food into my bowl and backs away, stumbling over something behind her, and she stumbles with infinite grace. A boy coughs perfectly. A dog snarls perfectly, snarling being just the thing for him to do at that moment. The sweat trickling down my sides trickles perfectly. The situation is rather like that of the little boy in J. D. Salinger's short story "Teddy," a kid from New York in the 1950's, who somehow becomes enlightened: one day he looks at his little sister sitting in her highchair drinking milk and realizes that he's seeing God pouring God into God. At a different level of seeing things from the usual one, a very high level of seeing the world, everything is already perfect, just the way it is. It's all "God."
     By "God," of course, I don't mean a large, angry, bearded old man who sits on a throne in outer space and is pretty much like Santa Claus except not nearly so jolly, being assisted by angels instead of elves, and wearing a white suit instead of a red one. "God" does not give an Irish damn about answering prayers, has no chosen people, makes no choices at all actually, has no beard, and is not even an individual being. By "God" I mean, essentially, the infinite, formless consciousness (or spirit, or energy, or ¿_?) that pervades the entire Universe, an Absolute . The tricky thing is that anything that is absolutely infinite and formless has no handles that one can get a grip on; it completely transcends the psychologically generated duality of "is" and "isn't," and cannot be distinguished from pure Nothingness. (If this seems to make no sense, it is because absolute Infinity, Ultimate Reality, transcends the "is" of sense. It cannot really be perceived or imagined, much less scientifically proven.) So "God" is just a convenient handle that, however convenient, really doesn't attach to anything. Or else it attaches to everything, depending upon how we wish to choose.
     Incidentally, this way of seeing everybody as manifestations of "God" was facilitated for me by the fact that for years I have adopted "The Simile of the Block of Marble" as my metaphysical Theory of Everything (TOE), in which all phenomena are just potential, virtual images of a sizeless, shapeless Infinity which the Tao Te Ching calls "the nameless uncarved block." (Ironically, although it evoked few comments, and although one person remarked that I had "jumped the shark" by posting it, I consider that article on the subject, posted 5 January '13, to be, pretty much, the central article of this blog, a kind of axis around which all the rest revolves.) For other people the perspective may be facilitated in other ways, such as by an inclination to monotheism, or even by just the open-hearted bliss that comes with exercising the idea.
     I suppose the reason why it is easier to love everybody if one sees them as manifestations of "God" is that "God" implies, practically by definition, divine perfection; and as good a definition as any for the word "perfect" is the term "totally acceptable"; furthermore, since love is essentially open-hearted acceptance, we arrive at a clear logical progression—"God" is perfection, and what is perfect is totally acceptable, and what is totally acceptable is totally lovable; therefore "God" is totally lovable. The same goes for every manifestation of "God." This doesn't feel logical though, in practice. It just flows, naturally and spontaneously. 
     Although other people may be the other way round, throughout my life I've found it easier to see miraculousness and Divinity in nature than in members of my own species. I can see "God" more easily in a lizard, or the moon, or a mangey dog, or a beautiful girl, more easily than I can see It in an ordinary human being. I'm not sure why this is. From a Buddhist point of view, maybe I've spent hundreds of past lives as a Stone Age cave-dweller finely attuned to, and deeply appreciative of, nature. Or from a biological point of view, maybe the parts of my brain that specialize in social instincts, face recognition, and so forth help keep my own species at a more mundane level of perception. Or maybe their similarity to me causes me to see them with jaded eyes. I don't know. It used to be that even blessing a child could be difficult for me; I'd look at the kid and think things like, "How can I realistically bless this kid with good fortune, or a happy life, or anything truly blessed? Look at him. Look at his parents. Look at the meagerness of his prospects in life. How can anything glorious be expected of him?" But lately I look at those same kids, and sometimes I see that they are already glorious, just the way they are. They're already perfect, they're already "God." And the same goes for their feeble, faithful grandmothers and their mangey dogs. Sub ishwar hai. Gawd.

A perfect manifestation of "God"

     I must admit, though, that it's much easier to love others if they also love you. To accept someone open-heartedly who openly despises you can be quite the challenge. And naturally it's much easier to see "God" in everyone if they see "God" in you. (Someone like Ammachi might have such a positive feedback loop going that makes this easier and easier for both parties.) I suppose this is a big reason why it's easier for me to love Burmese villagers than to love most Americans. I would guess that neither my supporters or my detractors in the West have much conception of the fact that in some parts of upper Myanmar I am literally revered like a deity ("a nonviolent Colonel Kurtz"). Even so, I would prefer to live in the West most of the time, if I could manage to do it spiritually. Maybe in part this is because I need to learn how to love Americans better. After all, they're more my own species.
     But all this kind of talk is not particularly Buddhist, not Theravada Buddhist anyway—not only the business about "God," but also the idea that everything is ultimately a manifestation of perfection. Buddhism teaches that everything in this world (and every possible world) is not perfect, that everything is dissatisfactory, in accordance with the First Noble Truth. But still, seeing (and loving) everyone as "God" can be justified, to some extent, even by strict Buddhist standards.
     Mainly the issue hinges on the difference between Ultimate Truth and relative truth. The First Noble Truth of Dukkha applies to relative truth, to Samsara; but if one transcends relative truth, and transcends the dualistic distinctions of self and other, of right and wrong, of enlightenment and unenlightenment, of relative and Ultimate, one accesses an undifferentiated Absolute that may as well be called "God" as Nirvana. Anything we say about the Absolute will necessarily be relative, and therefore invalid. So talking about It as "God" is invalid, yet talking about It as "Nirvana" is equally invalid. But if we are going to talk, we've got to say something—again, it depends on how we wish to choose. So long as we realize that what we say, and think, is ultimately invalid, but is simply a worldly convenience, then it doesn't matter. It's important to realize that, though.
     Mahayana Buddhism, some schools of which are metaphysically much more sophisticated than Theravada (methinks), has generally expressed a deeper appreciation of this idea of a timeless Absolute which is completely off the scale—giving It names like the Dharmakāya, the One Mind, the Indeterminate Ground, etc. etc. Also, I have read that the Advaita Vedanta of ven. Shankara was significantly influenced by the philosophy of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana, despite the ironic facts that Vedanta acknowledges the existence of "God" while Madhyamaka, the school of Emptiness, declares that even consciousness itself is not ultimately real, and that all is Void. The thing is that Shankara's "God" and Nagarjuna's "Void" melt together quite effortlessly. The two systems go about spirituality somewhat differently, but that is simply because their formulators chose somewhat different ways of approaching the unapproachable—with each way being "right" to the extent that it works.
     Getting back to the exalted (or humble) idea of loving everyone, one may consider what motivation a strictly orthodox Theravada Buddhist would have for this. Theravadins can't see everyone as "God," and thus as perfectly lovable, because Theravadins are metaphysically atheists. Nor does Theravada teach that we are all ultimately sharing the same essence or spirit, that we are all a big us. Loving everyone would not appear to be metaphysically necessary. It is true that the Pali texts encourage us to have love and compassion for everybody; but we Westerners especially might consider a purely dogmatic sense of duty to be not particularly inspiring or motivating. So, without an underlying "God" or essential interconnectedness, why should we love everybody? I suppose one good reason is that having love and compassion for everyone, putting ourselves in their place, feeling their own lives to be as important as our own, makes our practice of morality and ahimsa much easier, practically effortless. If we are so open-heartedly accepting of another being that we feel their pain as our own, then naturally we won't want to cause them pain; and if we are so finely tuned that we would feel even the slightest negativity or attachment as pain and enslavement, then we pretty much have no choice but to uplift and help everyone, if we can.
     Anyway, if you can manage to love everybody along orthodox Buddhist lines, with no hint of "God" at all, then that's lovely, and good for you. But for beings like me it's easier to veer off into unorthodoxy a little ways and occasionally think in terms of "God"—while bearing in mind that it's just a convenient axiom, a valuable myth. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

not like this

EPILOGUE: On the morning I finished writing this essay on universal love and compassion, I was building a fire for heating coffee water in front of the cave. Soon after the fire started burning well I noticed a small spider crawling on the sticks that were catching fire. I had to make a quick decision: to scatter the burning sticks and put out the fire in the hopes of saving the spider, or to let the spider take its own chances at saving itself. I decided that putting the fire out would be too inconvenient, and let the spider try to save itself, and it probably burned to death. Practical Dharma is a magnifying glass for cosmic issues.


  1. As one who 'self'-describes as a Christian Buddhist (or Buddhist Christian - which is the noun and which the modifier?), I was delighted to be directed to this essay. No aspect of the Jesus message is harder for many than his 'new commandment' to love, unconditionally. As you suggest, it is easy to love 'nice' people. Some years ago, I had to work (as a counsellor) with a local couple who were serial killers (Fred and Rose West). Nothing has so tried my intellectual decision to "love the sinner, hate the sin". Realising that these two deeply damaged people were as loved (and, thus, as lovable) as the greatest saint or my own children revealed the deep nature of reality to me which goes beyond words. As Gurdjieff said to my father: "Some things can only be said in dance."

    Thank you

  2. Dear Simon, I'm not even sure that we can love the sinner and hate the sin, since I don't know how they could be differentiated. How can a person be separate from his/her own behavior? It seems to me that, according to the "theory," we should love EVERYTHING, since all of it is, ultimately, a manifestation of the ultimate. But loving it and imitating it are two very different things.

    Bless your heart.

  3. Do you believe that in some parts of upper Myanmar 'you' are literally revered like a deity, or, do you make the distinction that your 'robes' are revered like a deity in a religiously superstitious tradition?

    1. Burmese Buddhists consider all monks to be beyond the normal human level, but because my outward practice was so radically beyond the "normal" Burmese village monk who mainly just takes it easy and socializes, they jumped to the conclusion what I was a saint or even a fully enlightened being. As I've written elsewhere, if a monk is relatively serious, doesn't handle money, and meditates in seclusion, before long he is liable to get a reputation of being a great saint.

      Anyway, better a religiously superstitious tradition than a materialistically superstitious one.

  4. I see. I am not convinced that it is automatically "better" to be religiously superstitious than materially superstitious. Unless your premiss is that religious superstition is closer to a spiritual nature than materialism is. Superstition is superstition. A little is ok, and I don't believe that any human is above some level of it, or hypocrisy. It's a matter of degree and perhaps, ultimately irrelevant (including my comments).

    1. Yeah, the main point was that at least religious superstition leaves the door open for something higher than spiritual bankruptcy. It's my belief that ALL belief is essentially superstition. What we consider to be modern enlightened scientific common sense is just a kind of superstition we haven't seen through yet.

  5. Also I would argue that superstition can burden a person regardless of the nature of the superstition. That has been my personal experience as well as my perceptual observation of others.