Buddha, God, and Emptiness

During the symposium on Buddhism in German philosophy and literature, there was a lively discussion on how to compare Buddhism and Christianity on the topic of God and ultimate reality. There was a question from the audience whether the difference between Buddhism as a non-theistic and Christianity as a theistic religion would be a significant matter in an attempt to compare the two. In short, whether the fact that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion would make it inadequate in some way to answer the people’s needs.

This is an age-old matter. The talk started out with the comparison between the two religions on meditation. There is meditation in Christianity too, and it was kind of marginalized as a result of the movement toward rationality in the modern age. Thus meditation came to be regarded as some kind of mysticism. But it was there in the Christian tradition. So the question was posed whether the difference between Buddhism and Christianity on the existence of God would make any differences in meditative experiences. Christians presumably meditate on God and the purpose of the meditation is to get closer to God, but if there is no God in Buddhism, what do the Buddhist meditators meditate on?

For Buddhists this question sounds quite strange, because there are so many things one can meditate on, and there is no restriction that one has to meditate on God only. God does not have a monopoly when it comes to meditative object. In any case, I said during the talk that one way to find a common ground between the two religions is that, instead of looking at God as the creator, one might look at God rather as the Ultimate Reality, one whom the meditator tries to get closer to. If God is identified with this Ultimate Reality, then He would have a lot of affinity with Buddhism, because in Buddhism meditation the goal is also to get closer to Ultimate Reality, to become one with it, in effect.

This Ultimate Reality is known in some traditions of Buddhism as Emptiness. This is the ultimate nature of all reality; it is the real nature of everything. Thus God can be identified with Emptiness, and since Emptiness is just another word for Nirvana, God and Nirvana are in fact one and the same. The goal of the Christian is to become “one” with God, and the goal of the Buddhist is to realize Nirvana, which in other words is to become “one” with it too.

I also said that the perceptible world, according to the Buddhists, has no beginning nor end. The world has existed “since beginningless time,” as Buddhists are wont to say, and it will continue to exist so long as there are causes and conditions for it. Thus there is no creator God, but there is the God that is to be identified with this beginningless world. What both share in common is that they are eternal. God always IS, and reality, Emptiness, whatever it is called, always IS also.

The problem, of course, is that Christians do not accept this picture. Since to say of God that He is identified with the world is to destroy the distinction between the creator and his creation, and if there is no definite future, then no eschatology is possible. No dramatic story of Jesus coming down and give the final judgment.

The Buddhists have no idea whatsoever of eschatology. This only makes sense in the theistic setting and in the context of putting everything under a dramatic plot or a narrative. For the Buddhist future is an illusion created by the deceived mind, and there is no metanarrative that informs every event in the universe. Your future depends on what you do at this moment. You might be born as a god in heaven if you acquire some positive merits, or you go to hell. This is entirely up to your choosing. But there is no such story for the world as such. No, the world is definitely not going to be any particular way according to some preordained plan. The world is just there, and what it is like is up to the people inside it who do their various actions.

One way to understand what I am saying here is this. It is accepted that God creates Himself (sui generis), so isn’t there a problem here about the created and the creator? So why don’t we look at everything as God? God creates the world when we look at Him in one way, but in another way God does create Himself, and He does this continually.

I know I am encroaching upon Christian theology, a topic which I claim no expertise whatsoever. My aim here is only to find a common ground between Buddhism and Christianity and other monotheistic religions. This picture would be quite compatible with Buddhism, just change the word ‘God’ to ‘Emptiness’ according to the Madhyamika, or ‘Ultimate Reality’ according to the Abhidhamma, or the ‘Mind’ according to the Yogacara.

I also know that this picture is pantheistic, and thus unacceptable as a Christian doctrine. But that is not my problem. So Christian theologians would have to find their own solution if they do not want to go the pantheistic route. If the goal of the meditation is to enter the state of union with God, how is that going to be possible if there is this unbridgeable gulf between the creator and what is created?

4 thoughts on “Buddha, God, and Emptiness

  1. Cittasamvaro February 8, 2009 / 8:31 pm

    I like the idea of Sangata Asangata – conditioned and unconditioned as = to created and uncreated. The words mean the same thing at least.
    But you are right, it is a touchy subject for traditional Buddhists and Christians.
    The idea of the end of the world works fine in Buddhism if 6 senses = world. But that would still leave the ‘world’ out there.
    Interesting blog.

  2. Seeker June 7, 2009 / 12:58 pm

    Think of a bubble (universe) existing by itself. There would be three levels of Emptiness: Inner (Closed), Outer (Open), and Transcendent (Or Ultimate Reality). The Inner and Outer Emptiness, are, due to the bubble-material, illusory and subject to the matter of the bubble. However, the Emptiness that provides the “Context” for the entire scenario, is independent of the other two levels of Emptiness, and is neither constrained nor pressed as the inner and outer are, respectively, if the bubble changes in form. This Ultimate Emptiness would be the source of the bubble, and its’ related inner and outer emptiness, as well as being Infinite and Eternal in nature- despite the fact that it could not be fully comprehended by anything existing in the inner/outer emptiness defined by the material bubble. The bubble- waters above, waters below, could both hold a creation, as well as facilitate a “Spirit moving over the surface of its waters” on the outside… yet this Spirit in the outer emptiness would only represent the Transcendent Emptiness, which is everywhere/present yet intimately hidden by the Creation. Father-Transcendent, Son-Bubble, Spirit-Inner/Outer Space.

  3. soraj June 8, 2009 / 9:37 am

    Thanks for your comment. I like the idea now buzzing in physics about “parallel universes” and “multiverses” This appears to resonate well with passages in the Buddhist text where it is mentioned that there are countless “universes” or “cosmoses,” each of which is perfectly round and is stacked against one another like ball bearings.

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