Monthly Archives: August 2008

What Remains Is God

“The things we normally see do not exist” is one of the phrases for which Geshe Kelsang Gyatso would most like to be remembered. it is a wake-up call to us all, heartfelt advice that we should integrate into our daily lives and our way of perceiving the world.

The reason why “the things we normally see do not exist” is because the things we normally see appear to exist inherently, independent of their parts and the minds which perceive them. During his Universal Compassion teachings in Summer 2008, Geshe Kelsang explained how we can overcome our ignorant grasping at inherent existence. He described how we should analyze with wisdom the way things normally appear to our minds. The following paragraphs are my edited notes from his teaching:

“What does it mean to search for things with wisdom? Through wisdom we develop the sincere wish to understand the way things really are, which is called ultimate truth. With this wish, if we search for things, then we are doing so with wisdom. This is called an ultimate search.

“When we search for things that we have lost such as our car we are searching for things with ignorance. This is called a conventional search. If we lose our car we believe that the car we normally see is lost, but this car does not exist! This is ignorance. Then we believe we have found the car that we normally see. This is also ignorance! We should know that although we see things, our way of seeing things is mistaken.

“When we see a car we see a car within its parts. In reality a car does not exist within its parts because neither the individual parts nor the collection of parts is the car. If we search with our wisdom eye we will not find the car. We will realize that it does not exist in the way we think. We will realize the emptiness [Sanskrit: shunyata] of the car. We meditate on this single-pointedly for as long as possible until we develop deep familiarity.

“In the same way we see our body. Whenever we see our body we see it within its parts. In reality our body does not exist within its parts, because they are the parts of the body not the body itself, however there is no body other than its parts. Through understanding this we will perceive the emptiness of our body.

“In the same way when we see our self we see our self within our body and mind. In reality our self does not exist within our body and mind because they are our possessions and our self is the possessor. However there is no self other than our body or mind.

“We can apply this to all phenomena. Then we will realize the emptiness of all phenomena. We should meditate on this and hold it without forgetting.”

(For more detailed teachings on emptiness, please refer to Heart of Wisdom by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, available from

In a separate teaching Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has said that the mind which is completely mixed with the emptiness of all phenomena can validly be called God (see my article God and Buddhism). So, when the veils of illusion are removed, what remains is God.

In a poem called The Theophany of Perfection by Ibn Arabi, God addresses the disciple, revealing the veiled truth behind “the things that we normally see”.

“Oh, my beloved! How many times I have called you without your hearing Me!
How many times I have shown myself without your looking at Me!
How many times I have become perfume without your inhaling Me!
How many times I have become food without your tasting Me!
How is it that you do not smell Me in what you breathe?
How do you not see Me, not hear Me?
I am more delicious than anything delicious,
More desirable than anything desirable,
More perfect than anything perfect.
I am Beauty and Grace!
Love Me and love nothing else
Desire Me
Let Me be your sole concern to the exclusion of all concerns!”

(quoted in An Ocean With Shore by Michel Chodkiewicz, State University of New York, 1993)

God and Buddhism

What is the place of God within Buddhism? Many people believe that Buddhism is atheistic, but the true picture is more complex. In his early teachings (the Pali Canon) the Buddha refuses to be drawn on metaphysical questions such as the origin of the cosmos, the relationship between body and soul, what happens to a Buddha after death and, implicitly, the existence of God. The reason for this is pragmatic considerations concerning the effort involved in exploring such questions. The Buddha is of the firm opinion that our effort would be better spent realizing the Four Noble Truths. He offers the parable of the poisoned arrow:

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him. In the same way, if anyone were to say, ‘I won’t live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’… or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata.”

The important point is that, in refusing to be drawn on such questions, the Buddha is not taking any particular position on them. He is not denying, therefore, that God exists. What he does explicitly deny, however, is a God who determines all of our actions, and who abrogates free will. In other words the Buddha strongly argues against a fatalistic notion of God. In the Tittha Sutta (AN 3.61) the Buddha recounts:

“Having approached the priests & contemplatives who hold that…’Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation,’ I said to them: ‘Is it true that you hold that… “Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation?”‘ Thus asked by me, they admitted, ‘Yes.’ Then I said to them, ‘Then in that case, a person is a killer of living beings because of a supreme being’s act of creation. A person is a thief… unchaste… a liar… a divisive speaker… a harsh speaker… an idle chatterer… greedy… malicious… a holder of wrong views because of a supreme being’s act of creation.’ When one falls back on creation by a supreme being as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], ‘This should be done. This shouldn’t be done.’ When one can’t pin down as a truth or reality what should & shouldn’t be done, one dwells bewildered & unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative. This was my second righteous refutation of those priests & contemplative who hold to such teachings, such views.”

Instead the Buddha places the emphasis on our own minds and mental actions as the key determinants of our existence. In the Dhammapada (1.1-3) he famously says:

“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.”

It is when we deeply consider the nature of mind that metaphysical questions come to the fore, such as how does the mind create the world, and what is its relationship to God? These questions arise in relation to the later Buddhist traditions of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, which introduce a multi-tiered concept of mind, with the world said to be produced from the deepest ‘root’ mind known as the Consciousness-Basis-of-All or the Continually Residing Mind.

For ordinary beings trapped in samsara our root minds carry impure karmic seeds which produce an impure world, but through practicing the Buddhist path we can purify our root mind until it becomes the Dharmakaya, the mind of a Buddha. When we achieve the Dharmakaya we will inhabit a Buddha’s Pure Land. Maitreya said that when our mind becomes pure our world becomes pure. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has said it is valid to use the name God to refer to the Dharmakaya. Other Buddhist teachers have said similar things. For example, the Zen master, Sokei-An, says:

“… Dharmakaya [is] the equivalent of God … The Buddha also speaks of no time and no space, where if I make a sound there is in that single moment a million years. It is spaceless like radio waves, like electric space – intrinsic. The Buddha said that there is a mirror that reflects consciousness. In this electric space a million miles and a pinpoint – a million years and a moment – are exactly the same. It is pure essence … We call it ‘original consciousness’ – ‘original akasha’ – perhaps God in the Christian sense. I am afraid of speaking about anything that is not familiar to me. No one can know what IT is …” (Zen Pivots, Weatherhill, NY, 1998, pp. 142, 146)

Elsewhere Sokei-An comments:

“The creative power of the universe is not a human being; it is Buddha. The one who sees, and the one who hears, is not this eye or ear, but the one who is this consciousness. This One is Buddha. This One appears in every mind. This One is common to all sentient beings, and is God.” (The Zen Eye, Weatherhill, New York, 1994, p. 41)

Also the Rinzai Zen Buddhist teacher, Soyen Shaku (of whom D.T. Suzuki was a pupil) said:

“At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience … To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, ‘panentheism’, according to which God is … all and one and more than the totality of existence …. As I mentioned before, Buddhists do not make use of the term God, which characteristically belongs to Christian terminology. An equivalent most commonly used is Dharmakaya … When the Dharmakaya is most concretely conceived it becomes the Buddha, or Tathagata ..”
(Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, by Soyen Shaku, Samuel Weiser Inc, New York, 1971, pp.25-26, 32)

The passages above show how Buddhists can use the word God to describe ultimate truth. Indeed, it may be necessary to do so when talking to certain audiences. The Croatian academic Snjezana Akpinar says:

“I had learned from my experience in Indonesia, which is an Islamic country, that there was no way that you say to an Islamic audience, “Buddhism doesn’t believe in God.” That would lead to the instant closing of the door. In Indonesia, there is a policy that five [sic] religions are accepted due to their belief in God: Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Buddhism. The Indonesian Buddhists had suggested Buddhism’s belief in God by speaking in terms of Adibuddha. This was from the Kalachakra (Cycle of Time) teachings, which had been spread to Indonesia a little more than a thousand years ago. Adibuddha means, literally, the first or primordial Buddha. The Indonesian Buddhists themselves didn’t have a full understanding of Adibuddha. But without explaining it, they said, “Here we have the equivalent of God.” Naturally, when I came to Indonesia, the Indonesian Buddhists asked me what Adibuddha actually meant. I explained to them that you could speak about it in terms of the clear light mind. In each person, this is the creator of our appearances, what we perceive; so in this sense it’s like a creator. Using this general interpretation of Adibuddha, I was able to enter into dialogue with Islamic scholars in other countries. Islamic scholars have tended to be very open to this because in Islam, Allah is not personified. Likewise, this creative power within each mind -– which might be seen as something like a creator god found in each person –- also is not personified. As presented in the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Adibuddha is beyond words, beyond concepts, unimaginable. Islamic scholars could relate to this very well.”

The translation of Adibuddha as ‘primordial Buddha’ provides the sense of being outside time which is essential to certain conceptions of God. The term Adibuddha is also associated with many positive qualities by some Tibetan Buddhist schools.

“Adibuddha is believed to be a primordial, self-existent, self-created Buddha who is the personification of Shunyata or emptiness (freedom from confining substance or conceptual graspability) enshrining the infinitely Knowing Mind of Great Compassion; all phenomena lack true separate existence yet still appear, and their basis is the undifferentiated and inconceivable Mind of Buddha (empty of all defects and ignorance)”

For this reason the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism prefers the term Dharmakaya to Adibuddha, because the Gelug school emphasizes the path of negation (via negativa) as taught by Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti where ultimate truth is discerned by deconstructing reality. Christianity, Judaism, islam, Hinduism and Taoism also have their own paths of negation. The via negativa in Islam is described by Snjezana Akpinar:

“I would say that Allah is nothingness, and when you say the basic mantra of Islam “La Ilaha ‘Ila Al-lah” . . . it’s actually inviting you to keep repeating “There is no God except Allah” over and over as you decrease one syllable, or one “lah” at a time . “Lah” means ‘no’, so it’s a negation. And so, Allah is the Great No. Allah is something that you cannot imagine, because it’s beyond everything, and so it is the big “ah” at the end of the word lah that designates the nothingness. When you repeat, “La Ilaha Illa Al-lah”, you are peeling off layers of everything that’s imaginable. You keep repeating it and knocking off syllables until you’re left with that “ah” and that’s the hua or pure breath of God.”

Can We Attain Liberation In This World?

In his Lojong teachings Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that we can see this world as a Pure Land of Buddha, because for a Lojong practitioner every situation provides a perfect training opportunity. However in his Mahamudra teachings Geshe Kelsang emphasizes the impurity of this world.

During his Mahamudra teachings in the summer of 2007 Geshe Kelsang taught about sleep. He said that sleep is a subtle mind which causes sense awareness to cease. While awake we use our five sense awarenesses but

“these sense awarenesses, normally, for ordinary beings, always perceive inherently existent forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile objects”.

These are the five objects of desire.

“We are like flies, always wanting, seeking these objects.”

Our mind is always grasping at these objects, therefore we have no opportunity to experience inner peace during waking, instead we experience unpleasant feelings such as worry, attachment, anger and dissatisfaction.

“We are like a negative person during waking.”

When we sleep our gross minds such as our sense awarenesses cease. All the problems we experience during waking cease. Deep sleep activates our very subtle mind, which functions to perceive emptiness (shunyata), but we cannot recognize it because we have insufficient mindfulness. Therefore we need to train in Mahamudra meditation to activate our very subtle mind during waking. This involves trying to replicate the sleep process by causing our sense awarenesses and other gross minds to cease. (Please see Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books Mahamudra Tantra or Clear Light of Bliss for a detailed explanation.)

Geshe Kelsang says that the path to liberation taught in Mahamudra Tantra is different from that taught in Sutra, because in his Sutra teachings the Buddha never mentions subtle or very subtle minds. In fact, in the Sutras the Buddha teaches that liberation (nirvana) can be attained by working with our normal (i.e. gross) perceptions. For example, in the Rohitassa Sutta (Samyutta-Nikaya (I, ii, 3.6)) Rohitassa, the some of a god (deva) asks the Buddha if there is some place

“where, lord, does one not get born, nor grow old, nor die, nor leave one’s sphere for another, nor get reborn? Now is one able, lord, by walking to come to know the end of the world, or to see it, or to get there?”. The Buddha replies that there is no such place, but that “it is in this fathom-long carcass [i.e. the human body], friend, with its impressions and its ideas that, I declare, lies the world, and the cause of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the course of action that leads to the cessation of the world.”

In the Sutras the Buddha therefore recommends, as a path to liberation, meditative practices which work with our normal sense perceptions and mental awarenesses, such as the four ‘close-placements of mindfulness’. (For more information on these close-placements please read the book Satipatthana – The Direct Path to Realization by Ven. Analayo.)

The idea that this body is a suitable basis for achieving liberation is in accordance with the Abrahamic religions. At the core of all of these religions is God’s creation of Adam and Eve in His own image or form. According to Muslim tradition God fashioned man from clay and then breathed life into him. Muslims believe that man has a privileged place in creation because God taught man “all the names” (Qur’an:2:31).

“To say that God created man in his own form implies that man’s meaning is designated by God’s all-comprehensive name, which denotes both the Essence and all the divine attributes. When the Qur’an says God taught Adam “all the names,” this means that he taught him all the names of God and creation. These names designate God as the One/Many, the single Essence that comprehends all reality, what Ibn ‘Arabi commonly calls “the Divine Presence”.” (from Ibn ‘Arabi – Heir to the Prophets by William C. Chittick, OneWorld 2005, p74).

It is because God taught man “all the names” that man has the potential to achieve perfection (i.e. liberation).

Fantastic and Crap

A Buddhist monk once asked me to comment on a particular retreat center in Spain. I said that in my opinion it was “fantastic and crap”, which made him laugh. It was fantastic because there was a palpable, magical spirituality about it. it was crap because it had many of the tedious problems associated with human communities such as poor communication, wasted effort and resources, project delays etc. Little did I know at the time that I was later going to build my joke into a whole philosophy — but here goes!

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is the truth of suffering, the unsatisfactory nature of life. The entire realm of existence is said to be pervaded by unsatisfactoriness. Even our moments of pleasure and happiness have an unsatisfactory quality about them. The third Noble Truth is the truth of cessation. It is possible to achieve a True Cessation of suffering. This True Cessation is Nirvana, and only Nirvana is peace. This fundamental teaching of Buddhism describes a yawning chasm between our current state of suffering – samsara – and the holy state of Nirvana. The fourth Noble Truth is the path to get from samsara to Nirvana.

In his deconstruction of all conceptual categories, including the four Noble Truths themselves, the 2nd century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna showed how neither samsara nor Nirvana exist inherently, from their own side. They are both empty of inherent existence, which means that they are dependent-related phenomena. They both depend upon mental imputation.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on the Tibetan Lojong tradition imply a way in which we can see this world as both faulty and perfect. At the heart of the Lojong tradition is the teaching on Exchanging Self with Others, which is described in detail in the article A Place Where We Cannot Be Harmed. If we fully exchange self with others then, although there continues to be suffering, we are no longer be harmed by it. From this point of view we have achieved Nirvana while remaining in the world.

In his oral teachings in 2008 Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explicitly stated that even for the trainee Lojong practitioner this world is like a Buddha’s Pure Land, because it enables us to experience the perfect conditions we need in order to advance on the path (to generate renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom realizing emptiness). From the point of view of the Lojong practitioner the world is both perfect and faulty at the same time. It is faulty because there is suffering in it, but it is perfect because if we exchange self with others then we are able to transform suffering into the path to enlightenment. For Lojong practitioners whatever conditions we encounter are perfect for our practice. As Geshe Chekhawa says:

“Do not rely upon other conditions. Apply the principal practice at this time.” (quoted in ‘Universal Compassion’ by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso).

In theistic religion there is a similar gulf between the perfect state of the Creator and the faulty, suffering state of the creatures. Because of this gulf many mainstream Muslim scholars insist on God’s transcendence rather than immanence with regard to the created world. They say that to argue that God is immanent in the created world is to deny both God’s unity and perfection.

On the other hand, the great Sufi Muslim scholar Ibn ‘Arabi argued that we need to investigate reality with two eyes: reason and imagination. With reason we will, as the other scholars say, discover God’s incomparability (Arabic: tanzih) with his creation and therefore we will understand the truth of transcendence. But if we explore with imagination we will discover God’s similarity (Arabic: tasbih) to his creation, and so we will understand the truth of immanence.

“Ibn ‘Arabi’s contribution was to stress the need to maintain a proper balance between the two ways of understanding God.” (Ibn ‘Arabi – Heir to the Prophets by William C. Chittick, OneWorld Publications, 2005, p19).

By viewing the world with the eye of reason we see that it is crap! By viewing the world with the eye of imagination we see that it is fantastic! But we don’t want to suffer from double vision. We want to develop a unified vision which is able to handle conventional and ultimate reality at the same time.

The Burden of Purity

Here is a thought experiment:

Stage 1: Imagine that you are the leader of a small religious denomination. Let’s call the religion ‘Prayerism’ and your denomination is called the ‘Traditional Prayer Church’. Imagine that Prayerism is a major world religion, which is thousands of years old with hundreds of millions of followers. The Traditional Prayer Church is only a small denomination, numbering perhaps ten thousand followers.

Stage 2: As the leader of the Traditional Prayer Church you sincerely believe that the whole religion of Prayerism is under threat. You believe that over the centuries the religion has degenerated, and that it is now in its final decline. You believe that the vast majority of people practicing Prayerism are either practicing an inferior version of the religion, which is missing some of the essential truths, or they are practicing a degenerate form of the religion in which important truths have been distorted or mixed with outside elements (which means it is no longer ‘pure’ Prayerism). You believe that now only the Traditional Prayer Church is teaching a pure and complete version of Prayerism.

Stage 3: As leader of the Traditional Prayer Church you are living in a country which has not traditionally been Prayerist, and where Prayerism is not part of the indigenous culture. Your students are mainly first generation Prayerists who are relatively inexperienced and who rely very heavily on your interpretation and authority.

Stage 4: As the leader of the denomination one of your main aims is to train people as full-time teachers and practitioners of Prayerism, who will embody the very highest ideals of the religion. You therefore face a dilemma — should you share your belief about the degeneration of the rest of the religion with your students? Clearly this is a dilemma, because believing that you are one of the few remaining upholders of a major religion is an incredible psychological burden. As leader you strongly feel the weight of this burden.

Stage 5: In contemplating this dilemma do you focus mainly on the truth of what you believe, or do you mainly consider the impact that burdening your students with this belief will have on them? Will it be productive for their spiritual development if your students believe that they are the only guardians of a major religion? Or will the enormous pressure cause them to self-destruct?

Stage 6: Alternatively, what will happen if you never share your pessimistic belief with your students. Instead of thinking that they are in the only pure denomination and that all the other denominations are either degenerate, inferior or impure, your students will grow up thinking that they are just one group of Prayerists among many. In this scenario they are likely to have more respect for members of other Prayerist denominations. Do you want this, or as leader would you prefer that they looked down on other Prayerists? Do you want them to feel superior, to feel ‘purer than thou’? Or do you worry that if you do not share your pessimistic beliefs that your students will not feel enough pressure to perform? Are the traditional religious motivations alone insufficient to bring your students to a state of purity?

Stage 7: Another option is for you to give different teachings to different students. In your public teachings you can sometimes teach respect for other denominations, but in your private briefings you can criticize them. If you adopt this approach you may be accused of being disingenuous, and your close disciples who have received the private briefings will still be burdened with an enormous sense of responsibility.

What should the leader of the Traditional Prayer Church do? Please suggest answers in the comments section below.