Why should Buddhists think about God? Why should Christians or other theists think about Buddhism? Answer: to get beyond the quick dismissal based on an abstract caricature. Surely, the central concerns of these religions involve facing up to challenges, engaging with the Other? Yet too often Buddhists dismiss God, and theists dismiss Buddhism based on a shortcut abstraction, a mere piece of groupthink in which the complex experiences that underlie the other tradition are turned into a reductively conceptual belief. Belief in God is eternalist error, say Buddhists. Buddhism is a merely human religion with no link to the true inspiration of God, say theists. All is one, say universalists. Surely qualities valued in all these traditions – faith, mindfulness, love, or wisdom – require us to go beyond these inadequate brush-offs?
There are two underlying problems. One is what people are attached to a particular account of what is ‘essentially’ meant by God or by Buddhism. Another is the assumption that religion is all about ‘beliefs’, so that opposed religions are just set in intractable opposition. My own process of thinking about this subject, based in an understanding of the practice of the Middle Way, leads me to question both of these unhelpful sets of assumptions. The Middle Way is not just a Buddhist practice, but a more general way of making sure that we base our judgements on experience rather than dogma, whatever tradition we may be working in.
That we should let go of our supposed ‘essential’ definitions is perhaps the hardest thing for many people. What is God, for instance? An abstract definition of perfection and infinity? A source of certainty? Or a massively empowering archetypal experience of potential, going beyond what we recognise in our current limited lives? The abstract definitions of God, which become a matter of ‘belief’, set conflict in stone before we begin, because absolute assumptions inevitably conflict with each other.
If, however, we recognise God to be an experience, there are no such necessary conflicts. Recognising that experience to be archetypal is a way of understanding its power without in the least underrating it. A symbolic God is no less powerful in our experience than a ‘real’ one, and far from being psychologised away or made ‘relative’, can be seen as all the stronger once liberated from the tyranny of abstract ‘beliefs’.
Of course, much of the perspective that might help us sustain such an experiential attitude to God comes from Buddhism, with its emphasis (at least as interpreted in the West) on practical engagement and working with mental states. But, despite these advantages, Buddhists have no call to be triumphalist, because all the same tendency to use absolute ‘belief’ as a shortcut (in enlightenment, or in the Buddha’s revelation, for instance) can be found in Buddhism as well.
Many Buddhist dismissals of the experience of God come from an out of date error theory that charts the path as one between ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’. If you see the Middle Way in such fixed terms, it is likely to become fixed itself – just another piece of metaphysics. To stop Buddhism also being a matter of ‘belief’, based on inflexible assumptions about what it ‘really’ means, we need to focus, not on concepts of the ‘dharma’ as ‘truth’, or of enlightenment as an end point, but rather on the principles we apply to judgement at each point in our lives. The Middle Way is not a metaphysical abstraction, but a principle of judgement – avoiding both positive and negative absolutes, seeking experiential meaning and justifiable provisional beliefs at each point.
Finally, too, apart from fixed assumptions in theism and in Buddhism, there is a third kind of dogma – the naïve universalism that claims that Buddhism and theistic religions are ‘all one’ because they all point to the same ‘ultimate reality’. There may be a genuine attempt to overcome conflict in such an approach, but its claims about ‘ultimate reality’ are just as dogmatic as anyone else’s. In my book I argue not for a naïve insistence that ‘all is one’, but rather for a critical universalism. In critical universalism, we don’t assume that all traditions are of equal value, but we do subject them all to the same standards, seeking to sort out what is helpful and unhelpful in them. Thus we do not need to abandon our traditions for any kind of vague mish-mash, but can nevertheless be empowered to get beyond the habitual abstract assumptions that entrench us in conflict.
Robert M. Ellis