I want to begin by celebrating my inability to complete my assignment—which was to write about God and Buddhism in 1,000 words or less. The Tibetan Buddhist canon, which I’ve studied for the last several decades, consists of some 370 volumes and is more than 230,000 pages long. Yet I’m reminded of the rabbi who, asked to summarize the wisdom of the Torah while standing on one leg, was up for the challenge: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Rabbi Hillel proposed.
Like others of my generation, when I left my parents’ home at twenty-one, I also put behind me their church (Catholicism) and God—or so I thought. Then, early in 1979, while embarked on a reading of the collected works of Plato, I had an experience during a self-directed meditation which brought me back to “God” with a jolt and a shock.
But was it “God” I’d rediscovered? Three decades later I find myself driving my nonagenarian parents to church every Sunday, and I remain unable to write directly about the experience that forever altered my life.
I don’t mean to be coy. In thirty-five years I’ve spoken about this experience to no more than half a dozen people. I’ve decided to risk writing about it now in part because I want to remind myself of the implications of this milestone in my life. Having begun, I suspect I will eventually return to a fuller unpacking of it.
The problem is primarily a linguistic one. The word “God” has been so richly abused that my first reaction on hearing it is to wonder just how the speaker plans to manipulate me.
The difficulties don’t end with the word “God.” If that were it, we could set up an equivalency, agree on St. Anselm’s definition (God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” something I’ll never forget because it was sung to us by a philosophy professor who’d set the famous proof to the tune of “Waltzing Matilda”) or John Lennon’s (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain”) and go on from there.
Unfortunately, the problem of trying to describe my experience goes far deeper. It begins with the pronoun “I” and extends to the very concept of a “self.” Because the self changes constantly (a mother treats her child one way, the mailman another, one hopes), it’s fair to ask what it means to claim one has a self in the first place. And who exactly is it that possesses this “self” anyway?
Complexities abound, extending forward and backward to words like “is,” “being” and “nothingness.” While these linguistic and epistemological conundrums are variously addressed by Western philosophy, when added together they render the word “God” marginally useful, prone to abuse, and often more misleading than helpful.
Were I inclined toward theological speculation—and I’m not—I’d feel most comfortable with what’s called apophatic theology, which tries to describe God by saying what God is not. The ninth-century philosopher Scotus Erigena put it this way: “We do not know what God is. God himself does not know what God is because he is not anything. Literally, God is not because he transcends being.”
Yet my experience growing up inside a culture created and in many ways defined by Judeo-Christian traditions makes me aware of how much of our language and thought are saturated by, and steeped in, religious texts. What is that “still, small voice of conscience” which seems so important to me except a rephrasing of a passage from Elijah, which speaks about “the still, small voice of God”?
And what would be the value of an experience that left one with only negative indicators? Although I have not yet found the language for relating exactly what I went through at twenty-four, and despite all that can’t be said, there is also much to assert.
My experience left me no doubt that we are right to hope, no doubt that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, that there’s nothing to fear, all are lurching toward the light, that we are—quite literally—born of the sun and toward it we are, each in our own way, moving.
For years after my experience, I looked for a discipline that might honor my brush with the ineffable. Buddhism offered just the ticket. The Tibetans even had a text specifically designed to fulfill the insight at the core of what I’d been through. It’s called the Lamrim Chenmo, or The Graduated Path to Enlightenment: a step-by-step guide to what one should do to fulfill one’s evolutionary mission. While there are far more poetic and exhilarating texts on the subject, the dry scholasticism of the Lamrim was precisely the antidote my own all-too-flammable temperament required at the time.
Thomas Merton once observed in a letter that he no longer cared what anyone believed and only looked at what they did. Kindness remains the moral quality I respect most because it comes closest to recognizing our circumstances. We are utterly in the dark about everything—or almost everything. No. One thing is blazingly clear: whoever deliberately hurts another being, for whatever reason, plunges himself, and the rest of us, deeper into confusion.
My parents’ Greek Catholic Church is as smoky with incense as any Tibetan temple. Both are soul-shelters crowded with images of saints whose lives are meant not to shame but to inspire us to bolder living. Catholics believe in God. Buddhists do not. What does that mean? I ask you.
The story goes that minutes before Shakyamuni’s enlightenment under the Bo Tree, Mara, lord of evil, generated armies of monsters intended to stop the future Buddha from going the distance. As the sky-high, multitusked elephants roared toward him, shooting fire from their nostrils, the Buddha didn’t flinch. He merely touched the ground. And they disappeared. Poof. Every last demon, every final fear, gone. Nothing there but a self that doesn’t exist by itself alone, and of course the rest of the world, waiting.
Askold Melnyczuk has published several novels. His latest, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press, 2008), was an Editor’s Choice selection of the American Library Association Booklist. Forthcoming is Smedley’s Secret Guide to World Literature. Melnyczuk was the founding editor of the literary magazine AGNI. He lives outside Boston.