His installment begins a new series that will focus on addressing common questions that arise for those practicing and propagating Nichiren Buddhism in the West. Members have long sought assistance in answering questions about the Buddhist view of God, Jesus, Satan, heaven, etc. We plan to provide some straightforward answers over the next few months.
We hope this series will help SGI members better communicate Nichiren Buddhism to their Christian friends and families by examining words and meanings common to the Christian faith from a Buddhist perspective. We also hope to help members who come from a Christian cultural background to better understand Nichiren Buddhism, its similarities and differences, and as a result increase the efficacy of their practice. Additionally, we hope to build a bridge that will help non-members and Christians have a better understanding of, be more sympathetic toward and, perhaps for some, ease their transition into practicing Buddhism.
Before beginning, however, some comments to set the context of our examination.
First, we will focus on what we believe to be commonly accepted tenets of Christianity while acknowledging that there is great diversity of understanding within the Christian faith. It would be impossible within the scope of this series to fully examine all the variations of Christian doctrine. We ask the reader's indulgence for the unavoidable generalization of concepts this approach must necessarily take.
Second, we do not intend to take a refutational approach to Christianity. We see no necessity or value in attempting to undermine a religious tradition that is both widely accepted and demonstrably valuable. At the same time, we cannot avoid the historical evidence of its less noble aspects that have given rise to violent propagation and the Inquisition, and its use as a tool for colonization and subjugation.
Finally, we do not take an exclusivist position - that Nichiren Buddhism is the only vehicle capable of carrying its adherents to the pinnacles of truth and the shores of happiness. While we certainly believe there is only one ultimate reality, we acknowledge that the major religious traditions also seek, and to varying degrees see, this truth as well.
Furthermore, most religious traditions share with Nichiren Buddhism the intention of leading their practitioners to this truth and to the goal of human development and harmonious community. So while we do not claim to be the sole possessors of the truth (Who could possess truth anyway?), what concerns us more is the degree to which a religious tradition is able to deliver on its promises. How many people are actually able to transcend their baser selves and live out the tenets of their creed, becoming people of genuinely worthy character, wise intention, and compassionate behavior? Is a particular religious practice serving as a greater or lesser vehicle in achieving these goals?
Buddhists have long discussed this point using analogies such as a raft to cross the sea of suffering or a vehicle for the journey to enlightenment. Rather than reject the teachings of the elders as untrue, for example, Mahayana Buddhists characterized their practices as a "lesser vehicle" that could take only few - dedicated monks and nuns - to the goal of enlightenment. In contrast, with its focus on developing practices for monastics and laity and its intention to bring all people on this journey, the designation "greater vehicle," Mahayana, was applied to their teachings and practices.
In this context, the major religions are all vehicles; some are bad, some are good, and some are better vehicles, but all are vehicles nevertheless. We also believe there is no greater vehicle than the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin, the vehicle capable of taking all people - not just the special few - on this journey. For most not yet familiar with Buddhism, it has become a widely accepted view that the journey to enlightenment is something few can take- something reserved for saints and sages. This suggests that for most people, the very existence of a great vehicle for the attaining of Buddhahood and absolute happiness is an alien concept, not part of their everyday religious experience. But in Nichiren's Buddhism this journey is now made possible for all people regardless of sex, race, social status, economic or educational level, sexual orientation, or age.
With this as our backdrop, let's begin by examining our first question.
The answer to this question depends heavily on how one envisions God. One survey reports that ninety-nine percent of Americans claim to believe in God. Yet, in spite of the prevalence of religiosity in America, the escalating crime rate, rampant drug addiction, epidemic mental illness, and revival of the death penalty, to name just a few symptoms, are not signs of a spiritually healthy society. Europeans report a growing blankness - a god-shaped hole - where God once existed in the human consciousness.'
What also seems clear is that individual conceptualizations of God are not uniform. There may be as many versions of God as there are people, for the concept of God has never been a static thing. As Karen Armstrong writes in A History of God, "Yet it seems that creating gods is something that human beings have always done. When one religious idea ceases to work for them, it is simply replaced. These ideas disappear quietly, like the Sky God, with no great fanfare. In our own day, many people would say that the God worshipped for centuries by Jews, Christians and Muslims has become as remote as the Sky God."
Armstrong concludes, "Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings."
When asked if we believe in God, we find ourselves responding to the question with one of our own: What God are you referring to?
Is it Abraham's God, the God of the Old Testament? This god was a strict father, a creator, protector and punisher, a giver of law. This god also required the sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac and authorized the conquering and killing of many thousands of people.
Is it Augustine's God, the God of the early Christian Church? This is the god of a powerful church, inheritor of the remnants of the Roman Empire. This god judged all humanity based on Adam's original sin. The religion based on this god will have us view ourselves as fundamentally flawed - originally sinful.
Is it Michelangelo's God, a personal God, as painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? This concept of God helped develop the liberal humanism valued so highly in the West. It fit well with an awakening and expanding Europe. This god loves, judges, punishes, sees, hears, creates and destroys as we do. This god inspires. However, it can also be a liability when one assumes that this god loves what we love and hates what we hate, thereby endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them. The fact that this "personal" God is male (and usually white) has raised deep existential problems for women and non-whites.
Is it the omnipotent God that some theologians believe died at Auschwitz? The idea of an all-knowing and all-powerful God is hard for some to reconcile with the evil of the Holocaust. For, if God is truly omnipotent, he could have prevented it. If, they say, he was unable to stop it, he is impotent; if he could have stopped it and chose not to, he is not compassionate.
Our rapidly expanding scientific knowledge about the universe is also making it apparent that God is no longer "up there" or "out there." The heavens seem empty of the protecting, judging and caring divine presence envisioned by the ancient world. The result is, according to John Shelby Spong, Episcopal bishop and author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die, that tens of millions of people are "believers in exile" who have lost touch with these God images as taught from traditional pulpits, but are not prepared to abandon the concept of God entirely.
As a snake sloughs its skin as it grows, are we now witnessing the growth of our collective conceptualization of God, leaving behind the old, and for some now inadequate one even as a new one, not yet clear, is born? Some believe that there is, indeed, a new view of God emerging in this post-modern age. It abandons the external height images of the historic theistic God and is being replaced with internal depth images of a god that is not apart, but an integral and fundamental part of, us. It is a perspective quite consistent with the Buddhist conceptualization of the Mystic Law. [Actually, it is more akin to the Hindu conception of primeval Lord or original Personality of Godhead -- editor Eagle peak blog]
This Mystic Law is the ultimate entity or truth that permeates all phenomena in the universe, but it is not a personified being. There is an ultimate oneness of the human and this ultimate Law - there is no separation between human beings (all human beings) and this idea of God as a Mystic Law. [Law by definition is an impersonal truth principle and it is therefore inappropriate to equate the Mystic Law with god. The Gohonzon or true object of worship in Lotus Sutra Buddhism has been translated in Nichiren's True Object of Worsip as "Supreme Being. -- editor Eagle peak blog]
This eternal and unchanging truth that resides within us is the source from which we can draw the compassionate wisdom that accords with changing circumstances and the courage and confidence to live according to that wisdom. It is mystical, not magical, because its totality is beyond human conceptualization and efforts to compartmentalize it, say in human form, only restrict and limit it. It is a law because it is experientially true in the daily lives of individual human beings.
This ultimate reality, ultimate truth, ultimate purity exists in the depths of every human being. Because of this, Buddhists view all people as sacred and perfectly endowed with the potential to be wonderfully happy and enlightened individuals. There is no us and them, no godly and ungodly - all are children of God, entities of the Mystic Law.
Where others looked to the heavens, Buddha looked within and found the priceless jewel of human wonder and possibility. He recognized that we, too, are made of the divine "stuff" of the universe. We've simply forgotten who we are.
So do we believe in God? By most traditional definitions, no. But in terms of how increasing numbers of Christians understand God, yes, we do believe in God. Our name for God is Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, the Mystic Law. We believe it exists both "in here" and "out there" and that this inner light can shine forth from within when we awaken to it and open our hearts through the act of chanting Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. [Again, Gohonzon or Supreme Object of Worship is more correctly the expression and realityof god, not the Mystic Law of Namu Myoho renge kyo -- editor Eagle peak blog].
There will, of course, be many people for whom this understanding of God will be unacceptable. That's fine. But there will also be many - according to one study as many as twenty-five percent of all adults in America - for whom it will resonate. People who will find that they also no longer really embrace these earlier versions of God; that they've already begun to envision the universe differently; and that the concept of God as Mystic Law matches the understanding that they have reached on their own. They'll discover, as most SGI-USA members can attest, that the Mystic Law will, quite nicely indeed, fill the god-shaped hole in their spiritual selves. [More people will correctly associate Gohonzon with the Buddhst and even non-Buddhist notion of god...as compassionate parent, teacher, and sovereign -- editor Eagle peak blog]
If you have comments or questions on this topic, please let us know: