Does God Exist or Is Existence God?
Dr. Stephen Fulder
One Friday evening I was sitting with my wife and three teenage daughters in an apartment in India at a Krishnamurti school where we were teaching, and we were singing songs to welcome the Jewish Sabbath. All of a sudden there was a knock on the door and there stood ‘Didi’, an Indian woman whom we knew. Of course we invited her in. She looked all over the room and listened to us singing with more and more puzzlement. ‘But where are your Gods’ she burst out. ‘In the Jewish religion God is One and invisible,’ we said. She considered this for a moment, and then shook her head in pity: ‘Oh! You poor people’, she said.
This comment was hilariously unexpected. For in Western culture, there is usually an assumption that the Judeo-Christian view of one supreme deity is more elevated and sophisticated than the apparently primitive worship of images, icons and godly characteristics. We regard it as an evolutionary development of the intellect, an ability to hold a more abstract and less material concept of the deity. There is also some comfort in having One divine being, instead of a fragmentation of deities often squabbling with each other in an uncomfortable mirror image of life on earth. Yet something in the background tends to spoil this, as pointed out by Didi. That is, that in retaining the view that there is a God, yet thinking about God abstractly, as an invisible Being or Source, we may have lost God inside our own minds. The deity becomes a mere ‘high’ thought passing by, and as such is no deity at all. Indeed most people have an image of God in their minds based on their childhood: often a severe father/bearded grandfather in the sky doling out rewards and punishments. In that case, it might indeed be better if we have an icon in front of us such as a statue of the dancing Shiva, or suffering Jesus, or a picture of compassionate Kwan Yin or Virgin Mary, or of the vast gaze of Ramana Maharshi, that at least helps to remind us of genuinely divine qualities which we can embody. As Patanjali said – God can start with a concept but after that has to be properly conceived (or born) in us. Forms may help in this process although there is the obvious risk that worship of icons and idols, the Ganesha statue on the mantelpiece, stops there. Then indeed we would need an Abraham or a Buddha to shatter the idols of materiality and invite the formless back in.
God as an individual or collective thought is so interwoven into our culture, our history, our language, that it takes on an apparent reality and grows like a great cloud above us. From childhood we are taught that God is creator of the world, the power behind reality, the source of goodness, or basically the universal ‘other’ which we can thank or blame as we go through pleasant or unpleasant experiences. Without any collective sense of what this invisible God might actually be, we still use it conveniently as a jewel box or rubbish bin or safe refuge, or moral authority, or ultimate mystery, to locate there everything that we don’t understand, that is beyond, that makes for life hopes and life pain. For example, driven by insecurity, we cannot bear to contemplate the uncertainties of what will happen to us and so, as in the prayer book of the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur, or in the Christian concept of the Day of Reckoning, we imagine God to be a great clerk writing our fates in a ledger. Of course the sense of a divine being can bring us comfort, relief, and a trust in something greater. But this is mostly self-created, illusory, and dependent on personal beliefs.
Belief means investing a mental event with reality; constructing a conviction that it really exists somewhere out there (e.g.‘above’’). The belief in God is a giant belief, never mind in what form this belief takes. Both theists and atheists are party to this belief. The theists have brought the huge but invisible elephant into the room, the atheists want to kick him out. Truth is laughing at both, and says that the only truth here is that belief has been ignorantly mistaken for reality.
The Buddhist teachings have been described as atheistic. They are far from it. The Buddha, at least according to the early texts, made it very very clear that whether or not God exists should be ‘left undeclared’. Now there were questions that he refused to answer as he said that both yes and no would lead to confusion. But in the case of the existence of God he was much stronger. He was reported to have said that such a belief that God exists or that God does not exist would actually undermine spiritual life, and would in fact obstruct our ability to know the ultimate reality. He said it would get us lost in what he described as a ‘thicket of views’. Since we know how many wars, massacres, brutality, suffering and pain has been and is still caused by religious believers, this thicket is indeed made up of sharp thorns.
The Buddhist path of practice (the dharma) is based on inquiry, a ruthless honesty and love of truth. At the very minimum, honesty would invite us to see a belief as belief, a view as a view, a conviction as a conviction, and not more than that. We need to take ownership and responsibility for our beliefs and views, and know them as such. By this, the teachings say, we retain authenticity. We reduce illusion that our views are true and others’ false. Truth is protected. It is still a long way to go to an awakening in which ultimate truth is actually realised, not merely protected.
In the world of authentic Jewish life, the emphasis is on 24 hour praxis, and though belief in God may be a kind of program that runs in background, a source and fundamental assumption, it is de-emphasised as a basis for religious life. The Tzaddikim warn against being consumed by belief, which would lead to obsession, extremism, idolatry and false Messiahs. The great Medieval Jewish thinker and sage, Maimonides, said that in order to experience and live with what he called ‘Higher Intelligence’, or the divine, you need to clean the mind by a life of deep 24 hour practice. This would consist of study, prayer, moral sensitivity, and Mitzvot, conscious actions, which encourage awareness and sacredness within ordinary life. Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz, the famous iconoclast and thinker of the last century, once said: ‘Does God Exist? It’s not a Jewish question!’
As soon as God appears in our minds as a thought, it is a limited product of our consciousness and nothing to do with ultimacy. Ultimacy is way beyond thought. It may be the source of thought, as the source of everything else, therefore it cannot be contained by thought. Thoughts about it are like trying to cut gravity with a knife. What we see and know is an interpretation, a learned and conditioned construction. The world as we know it is engraved in our own mind as neural networks. As such it imprisons us in our own constructions. The God view is one of those constructions. If we hold to it, we have invited God into the prison with us and imprisoned both. This is not the way to liberation.
One way out of this is to collapse the duality that there is a mundane limited ordinary reality below, and above is an all powerful God or creator to whom we pray and supplicate. Duality is created by the assumption that there is an apparently solid external world, including a deity, and a subjective world, or internal self, which needs to pray to the external deity. In actual fact we can’t help duality as an integral part of ordinary perception, as it is built in or hard wired as a mechanism of consciousness. But if we are serious about religious and spiritual practice we will be on a journey to reduce duality and live more in a spontaneous awakened non-dual presence. However if duality becomes the essence and direction of our religious life, through the separation of heaven and earth, it may utterly undermine all our efforts and longing for spiritual freedom.
Paradoxically, if we look carefully at some traditional formulations of the God concept itself it may show us this. Consider the names we ourselves have given God. In the Jewish faith the names all point us back into life, not to somewhere above and beyond. The Bible gives us names like ‘Rock’ (Tsur), ‘Place’ (Makom), ‘Presence’ (Shechinah), ‘Source’(Boreh). The only time in the Bible God is asked point blank who he is, he answered ‘I Am What I am’ (Ehiye Asher Ehiye). This can be translated from the Hebrew simply as ‘Being’. Further, the Biblical ‘home’ of God within the Jewish Temple was the heart of the Temple, the ‘Holy of Holies’. It was an empty room. These mythological pointers are clear. If we want to know the divine, we need to look towards ‘Being’ or existence; and this is empty of the world as we know it. How are we to understand that?
Existence itself is not something we can look at, own or understand. We cannot contain it within our ordinary experience, based on neural networks, and self and world. At best we can point to it, think about it and give it names – such as God! But to really see it, we cannot use the mechanisms of the ordinary mind which are constructions born of time, memory and conditioning. It needs a much deeper process, of meditation, spiritual quest and realization. If we do not do this, we are left with just the tip of the iceberg, not the bulk, and this we call God as a way to avoid looking under the surface. We are afraid to do this as all the power and conviction of the self is built around an illusory sense of control over existence. The last thing the self and the mind wants to do is to be absorbed in existence, lost in the unknown, merged with the beyond. So God here is a collective escape, and if we don’t want to get stuck there, we have to surrender, to renounce the attachment to the known, the attachment to control and to explore with all the wisdom we can muster, the essence of this moment by moment existence.
One way of doing this is to allow the impossibility of thoughts about God to emerge, to encourage such concepts to undo themselves, to explode themselves. Just by replacing the word God with words such as ‘The Absolute’, ‘The Ultimate Reality’, ‘Presence’ then thought becomes unsure of itself. It releases a questioning that, like a virus, may run through the mind and undo assumptions and beliefs. Any way that the thought of God can be treated as a giant koan, or impossible riddle, will bring us nearer to the divine. ‘Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived’, runs the well known quote. This can give us the humbling sense that we are limited and conditioned beings that are reaching out to beyond ourselves. Yet if considered carefully, a human being is already a mystery beyond itself. Do we really exist? In what way can we say so? Descartes said that he knows he exists because he can have a thought. ‘I think therefore I am’. But that tells us only that thought exists. The mind cannot actually contain the existence of itself, cannot really understand what is being, cannot understand of what it is really made, let alone how it appeared as it is. So the question of the existence of God is no different from the question on the existence of a thought. To put it another way, thinking about God does not necessarily reveal God, it just reveals that there is a thought of God, and thinking about a thought likewise reveals only thought. And there we stop.
So cannot a thought reach out beyond itself? Yes, surely it can otherwise there would be no world – a memory of the face of our mother or the sight of an olive tree represents something out there even though we cannot say absolutely what it is. However when a thought tries to reach out so far beyond itself that it basically attempts to know the infinite, the source, including the source of itself, all it is left with are some negatives (‘non-ordinary’) or superlatives (the omniscient, the all-knowing, the compassionate). It leaves us feeling that we are sitting at the bottom of a well trying to know the back of the sky. Clearly we need some wisdom as to what powers and means we have that could take us to the beyond. How can we use thought to make a jump beyond thought? In the world of the known, how can we unleash the power of the unknown, which seems far far greater than the small territory of the known?
This is actually the very basis and ground of dharma practice. And the way outlined in this practice is vast, rich and sophisticated. One can pick out one or two themes. The first is a consistent direction to release ourselves from attachments and clinging. To all those things that create an automatic life, that tie us to the known world of things, concepts, views and selves. This involves deep practice of seeing things as they really are, and letting them go – seeing our patterns and constructions, and deeply seeing that they are essentially dynamic and free. It is like digging a well, and throwing away everything that is not water. We do not define what is water, it is subtle, hard to see and deep, but we will know it when we reach it. The biggest amount of earth to be discarded is the belief in me and mine. This ego-centered view of reality, the solid subject who automatically sees everything including him/her self as solid objects, cements an inherent dualism which is applied to all moments of experience. Including of the divine. We discard the God concept along with the self concept along with all conceiving as subject. This involves deep meditative practice and the practice of mindful awareness of the nature of experience. Fortunately, when we do this we find that we do not have to work so hard to get rid of things, they go by themselves. For their essential nature is dynamic and free. The earth vanishes as we start to dig. When we examine carefully any of the constructions which we are conditioned to believe in, such as that I own my body, it proves to be unfindable, ephemeral and elusive. We are shown the transparency of so called solid reality, and we can see through it to the divine.
Put another way, if there is a hint of ownership or identification with what we call the divine or ultimacy, its gone. ‘Our’ God is no God at all. We cannot claim that Being in any way belongs to us, or is even interested in us. Being just Is. Owning God is losing God. This also applies more subtly to the issue of Divine Providence. If we go down that road it leads us to illusions of expectation, illusions that somehow God is there to provide (‘Providence’): benefit and not harm. We forget that benefit and harm are descriptions of experiences defined by us, as subject. They are not inherent in reality itself. If we believe in Divine Goodness, then when harm arrives we lose faith, as so many Jews did after the Holocaust. It is unnecessary. The Divine is in the essence of the unfolding moment, within the magic of existence itself, never mind whether this unfolding moment is convenient or inconvenient to this body-mind.
Another aspect of spiritual practice is development of powers of mind which then lead us beyond thought. The ability to be tranquil, calm and silent, to be steady and concentrated, and to light the fire of curiosity and interest, are examples. Science has shown that meditation can balance and harmonise the right brain, which is the part of the brain that allows global, oceanic experience, and the left brain which is more involved in creating the boundaries of self and world. Using such a coherent brain, when we look at something so simple as the breath, we can see through it to the immediacy of the experience as well as the dynamic unbounded nature of things. If we look at our weight pressing on the ground we can see through it to the pull of gravity which is not owned by us. Powers of mind include powers of the heart. Based on a happiness and inner freedom which is felt in our very cells, the power of love is in its nature boundless, it is a power which opens worlds and breaks barriers. All of these powers will take us beyond the imprisonment of dualistic thought.
In that place things look different. There is no longer the need to construct some perfect ‘Other’ and place him above and us below, in some lower place. We ourselves become the field where above and below meet and are then transcended. The Absolute and the Ultimate and even Being lose their capital letters and become absolute, ultimate, presence. Being becomes beingness. As in Rabbi Cooper’s book title, ‘God Is a Verb’.
To realize the Divine, we need to die to the ordinary world of concepts, the consensus reality, the known, the world of thought, the world of identification and analysis, the ordinary world that we know and construct through our consciousness. ‘Die Now Into the Now’ says Nisargadatta Maharaj. ‘No man can know me and live’ God says in the Bible. The High Priest in the Jewish Temple was at risk of dying when he went into the Empty Room. He had to undergo intense purification and internal preparation to come out ‘alive’. Actually in that place we are more alive than ever. It is a place of pure being. But Being is also the nature of the ultimate. In the silence of no concept and no belief, in the quiet of pure presence, God finds us. In that place the word God and the word Truth are interchangeable. It’s scary. We are afraid to let go of the known. Few are ready to jump into that abyss but if we are, and when we can let go, we may then realise the movement is not like jumping but more like falling, and as much falling out of, as in to, and the abyss turns out to be the Garden of Eden. This launch into space is not entirely in our hands. But we can prepare the ground. And be entirely available to hear the call from beyond.