Brad Warner is an unconventional American Zen teacher, who seems sincerely to believe that he has found God, that God should be — or even is — an intrinsic part of Buddhist practice and realization, that others would benefit if they found God too, and who thinks that that believing in God might actually help us solve the world’s problems. He outlines all this in his latest book, There Is No God And He Is Always With You, in which he offers “straight talk about why this ‘godless religion’ [Zen Buddhism] has a lot to say about God.”
Some of the above will be as confounding for you as it was for me. After all, Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. The Buddha was not God, his spiritual realization had nothing to do with finding God, and the teachings that Buddhists follow have nothing to do with God. Buddhism in fact is attractive to many of us because it’s a spiritual tradition that is non-theistic, but Warner stands this on its head:
…in my opinion it’s entirely wrong to say that Buddhism is a religion without a God. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. To me Buddhism is a way to approach and understand God without dealing with religion.
The God that Warner believes in is not the anthropomorphic deity who, in popular imagination, sits in the sky making judgements about us and choosing, on Saturday afternoons, which college football team he will favor. Warner’s God is the entire universe, is us, is essentially indefinable, and is the supreme truth and ground of all being. For example:
- “I believed that the nonmaterial aspects of our existence were real elements of the natural universe, and that we might call those aspects of the universe God.” (page 138)
- “I’m not talking about God as the first cause of everything. I’m saying that our direct experience of life is God. Life is God experiencing God.” (page 81)
- “God transcends any attributes we could imagine. Attributes, qualities, and characteristics all distinguish something from other things. But one of God’s attributes is that he is everything.” (page 122)
- “…the Chinese word inmo … refers to the ineffable substratum of reality, the ground of all being and nonbeing. To me, this is just another way of saying God.” (page XIV)
- “The supreme truth is, to me, another name for God.” (XIV)
Warner feels qualified to teach God as a part of Buddhism because he has, he believes, had an experience of God. One time when Warner was crossing a bridge in Tokyo (although he stresses that his experience was outside space and time) he experienced himself as being “spread throughout the universe and throughout all of time.” It sounds like a powerful altered state of perception, although it might seem odd that a Buddhist — someone practicing in a nontheistic religion, would interpret such an experience in theistic terms, which he does: “This was God. Is God. Will always be God,” and “I came away from the experience knowing certain things for absolute fact. I know now that God exists.”
Now, having an experience is one thing, but having had experiences we want to “explain” them in some way, often in terms of our previous beliefs and mindsets. In fact, Warner actually points out, in the context of how spiritual experiences such as this can be dangerous, “You need to work through a lot of your personal shit before you get into something like this, or you’ll only be able to experience it in terms of your own personal shit.”
So the question that arises for me, as a Buddhist who feels no need to interpret his own experiences in theistic terms, and with reluctance to be reductionist and psychological, is whether God is part of Warner’s “shit” that he has not worked through. Interestingly, it seems that he had been searching for God through his Zen practice. For example, “I got into [Zen] for a number of other reasons … but the biggest one was that I wanted to know if God really existed.” So, it does sound rather like Warner had a pre-existing notion of God — wanted to believe in the existence of God, in fact — went looking for God in Zen (an unlikely venue, I would have thought) and then ended up interpreting a powerful experience of nonduality in terms of God.
There are clues in the book suggesting why Warner felt the need to see his spiritual quest in terms of God. In discussing an early Christian theory that God is beyond concepts like existence and non-existence, Warner points out:
“…in order to agree with the logic, you have to first accept that there is something called God who is infinite and omniscient and transcendent and so on. But what if you don’t believe in that in the first place? What if you’re coming to this discussion from the standpoint that all matter is essentially dead and that consciousness is just an accident arising from the movement of electricity in the cerebral cells of animals who think far too highly of their own random brain farts?
So we have a classic false dichotomy here: There is either a God, or we live in a dead universe in which consciousness is nothing more than meaningless “brain farts.” God or meaninglessness. Some of us don’t feel the need to be trapped in that dichotomy and in fact see the Dharma as a middle way — as providing a sense of the life and the universe as containing meaning without recourse to the terminology of “God.” Certainly the Buddha seemed to have no need of such concepts, and I think he knew a thing or two about his own realization.
Similarly we find (on page 188) “When we forget God we treat one another and the world we live in as objects.” This is a classic argument: if we don’t believe in God we can’t be good. God or meaninglessness. And yet many of us — Buddhists, atheists — find that we are perfectly capable of not treating others as objects. Lovingkindness and compassion are virtues that, in Buddhism, don’t rely on God. Morality in Buddhism does not rely on God. In fact morality, in Buddhism, arises from the very structure of the mind, in that our suffering or lack of suffering depend on our volitions, and the thoughts, words, and acts that spring from them. Thus, morality is intrinsic to the mind, and therefore to the universe.
Warner apparently cannot disengage life having meaning, a sense of the universe being alive, and morality from the concept of God. It’s not, therefore, surprising that he went searching for God, nor that he found Him.
On the whole I find Warner’s writing to be very interesting and endearingly honest. For example he’ll tell you something about quantum physics and then say he doesn’t understand it and so isn’t a good person to explain it. But often his talk strikes me as less than “straight,” and he repeatedly uses phrases suggesting that God is an established part of Buddhism. It’s fine when he says something like, “To me Buddhism is a way to approach and understand God without dealing with religion.” But then he’ll say something like “I think it expresses the Zen Buddhist approach to the matter of God very succinctly” (emphasis added). That Zen Buddhism has an approach to the matter of God is a surprise to me.
“There is no God and he is always with you” may sound like a simple non sequitur or a typical pointless Zen riddle. But it expresses the Zen point of view about God very succinctly. Even though what you think of as God can’t possibly exist, there is a real spiritual dimension to this world. There is something that can be called God. [Emphasis added.]
So again we have “the Zen point of view about God,” which seems to be suggesting that God is a part of Zen Buddhism. This Zen point of view, we’re told, is that “there is a real spiritual dimension to this world” (which few would argue with), but also that “there is something that can be called God.” That there is something that can be called God is not, to the best of my knowledge. a part of traditional Zen teaching, although Warner’s choice of words suggests that it is.
And again, he states that the book is an “attempt to make the Zen approach to the question of God comprehensible to a contemporary Western audience steeped in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions.” Not “one Zen Buddhist’s approach to the question of God,” nor “my approach to the question of God,” but “the Zen approach to God.”
If this is a technique for trying to give the impression that Zen (or Buddhism generally) has a position that is favorable to God, then it’s one that I’m disturbed by. It strikes me as talk that is the opposite of straight.
A similar pattern is found in Warner’s discussion of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. At first we have clarity: “Dogen’s writing never mentions God specifically.” Then Warner states his contradictory opinion, making it clear that it is an opinion, “In spite of this, I believe that Dogen’s Buddhism directly addresses questions about the nature of God.” That’s Warner’s belief. That’s fine.
But then the slippery slope begins: “Whenever I read this chapter I tend to substitute the word God for inmo. I don’t know what else Dogen could possibly be talking about other than God.” I don’t know any Japanese, but “inmo” (in other places I’ve seen it as “immo”) seems to be the Chinese or Japanese translation of the Sanskrit “tāthatā,” which is usually rendered as “suchness” — an odd-sounding word meaning something like “the way things are” or “reality.” In a Buddhist context it never means anything like “God.”
Then the momentum of our slippery slope grows: “it’s useful to look at what Dogen wrote about his concept of God” (emphasis added). Now we’re being told that Dogen has a concept of God, although he wrote about no such thing; he wrote about tāthatā, which Warner imagines must be God because he doesn’t know what else Dogen could possibly be talking about. I guess if you have a hammer and are desperate to use it, then everything starts to look like a nail.
This is where [Dogen] starts to talk about God. He says that another name for “it” [i.e. “inmo/immo, or tathatha/suchness] is the “supreme truth of bodhi.” The word bodhi means “enlightenment” or “awakening.” Dogen says, “The situation of this supreme truth of bodhi is such that even the whole universe in ten directions is just a small part of the supreme truth of bodhi: it may be that the truth of bodhi abounds beyond the universe.”
“This is where he starts to talk about God.” I see no talk about God in that passage, or in anything else Warner quotes from Dogen. I see some deep and intriguing talk about tāthatā and about “the supreme truth of bodhi.” But there’s nothing about God.
And later, “the Buddhist view of things is that God is neither spirit nor matter.” I was unaware that Buddhism had such a view.
These statements seem to me to fly in the face of Warner’s claims to be delivering “straight talk.”
I’m not arguing, of course, that Buddhists, especially in modern times, have talked about God one way or another. Warner gives examples, such as Nishijima Roshi (“God is the universe, the universe is God”), who has taught a lot of westerners and thus has had to deal with questions about God. The expression “There is no God and he is always with you” comes ultimately from Sasaki Roshi, who has also spent a long time (in the US) teaching westerners. But these are responses to people trying to reconcile their existing belief in God with their explorations of the non-theism of Buddhism.
So I’m just saying that God is not an established part of Buddhist teaching — in fact is alien to Buddhist teaching — but that Warner’s choice of words suggest he’s trying to give the impression that Dogen and other traditional Buddhist teachers have a view of God. But even in discussing contemporary teachers, Warner again tends to insert God where he hasn’t been mentioned:
“In Kobun Chino’s words, ‘You are held by the hand of the absolute’: that is, God holds his own hand.” But Kobun’s statement had nothing at all to do with God. He was again talking about tāhtatā, or something similar.
Warner admits that his use of the term “God” is problematic. He says more than once that it’s “dangerous” (page 175) and that it’s also divisive:
I think it would be better for us as Westerners to start using that dangerous and divisive word God when we talk about what happened to Buddha all those centuries ago and what continues to happen to contemporary people who follow his way.
He also accepts that the term God is eternalistic (that is, it contradicts impermanence) and dualistic, but seems to see that — somehow — as a plus:
The fact that eternalism/dualism is enshrined by the word God is one of the many facets of it that makes the word so useful, I think. The nature of my practice has always been that whenever I believe I’ve finally figured out what things mean, there ’s always another aspect that I’ve missed. Just when I believed Buddhism was all about getting rid of eternalism and dualism, there it was in the very fabric of the universe itself, something eternal and dualistic.”
Why does Warner think that this problematic, dangerous, divisive, eternalistic, and dualistic language is useful? Partly because there’s too much talk about enlightenment being something easy to attain, in contrast to “seeing God,” which is not easy to attain:
This is one reason that I’m trying to introduce the word God into the Western Buddhist dialogue. The word enlightenment, or substitutes such as transformation, seems to suggest a psychological state that one might induce with some kind of seminar or fancy technique or drugs. If we start talking in terms of “seeing God,” it might become clearer to everyone that we’re talking about something much grander and much more difficult.
I think this is an insightful identification of a problem, combined with one of the worst conceivable suggestions for a solution. In traditional Christian terms, “seeing God” was indeed a task for spiritual heroes, who would have to go to extreme lengths (sometimes literally — they were often hermits) and commit to challenging and sometimes dangerous practices (some saints starved themselves almost to death in order to see God). And Buddhist teachers touting workshops that promise help you to “realize a deep experience of True Self” (In only two days! For $5000!) are clearly presenting a misleading account of what enlightenment is and how it is attained. But perhaps rather than introducing an alien and problematic concept to Buddhism we should be trying to promote a better understanding of enlightenment and of the difficulty of attaining it. My own equivalent of “seeing God” is my quest to “know the mind of the Buddha,” which is something I see as a lifelong quest, and not something that can be done in a two-day event at the Embassy Suites, LAX South (10:00 AM Monday to 6:00 PM Tuesday).
I’m actually sympathetic to what Warner is trying to achieve. As well as wanting to get away from the idea that enlightenment is easy to attain, he wants people to escape the notion that the universe is “dead” and meaningless. He wants people to see the world as alive, and to have personal connection with reality. He wants people to see themselves as being vaster than they can possibly imagine. These are all excellent aims. But you don’t need God for any of this. Buddhist teachings and practice already lead to these perspectives, and in fact it was presumably Warner’s Buddhist practice that provoked realization of connectedness, timelessness, and a profound sense of meaning. But he’s unfortunately interpreted that experience in terms of (to use his expression) the “shit” that he hasn’t worked through about God.
For an example of the universe as a loving, living presence, here’s one of my favorite quotes from Jan Chozen Bays’ book, How to Train a Wild Elephant:
Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out?
A sense of the world being imbued with a loving presence is not uncommon when we practice the brahmaviharas which, unfortunately, are an aspect of Buddhist practice that has been dropped by the Zen tradition.
Or in the Indo-Tibetan tradition we have the teaching of the universe as the manifestation of a primordial, living reality. Here’s the Dalai Lama:
I understand the Primordial Buddha, also known as Buddha Samantabhadra, to be the ultimate reality, the realm of the Dharmakaya — the space of emptiness — where all phenomena, pure and impure, are dissolved.
But His Holiness also clarifies: “It would be a grave error to conceive of [the Primordial Buddha] as an independent and autonomous existence from beginningless time.” In other words don’t think about this primordial reality as a separate God. Actually, that’s pretty similar to what Warner says, but without the problematic language. Which is my point; Buddhism already has it covered.
The Indo-Tibetan approach is subtle because it allows for us having a personal relationship with reality — a sense that the universe is imbued with compassion and wisdom — but at the same time it has a non-dualistic view. As the Dalai Lama puts it, “we do not visualize this source as a unique entity, but as the ultimate clear light of each being. We can also, on the basis of its pure essence, understand this clear light to be the Primordial Buddha.” We can even feel a strong sense of personal connection with the Dharmakaya (primordial reality) as it manifests through the Sambhogakaya — the forms we perceive as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, with whom we can have a personal connection, all while not seeing them as separate from the nature of our own mind.
This may need some unpacking, or even some struggle, for many peple to understand it, but it seems clear to me that Buddhism already has, in non-theistic terms, what Warner sees as God, but without using the term God.
I think real problems emerge when you try to force God language into Buddhism. Warner at one point says that God is a good term to use for what Zen is about because “shoving the word God into a tidy intellectual container would be like trying to shove a live octopus into a Kleenex box.” But shoving the word “God” into Buddhism is equally problematic.
One practical problem is that many people are in fact looking for a religious tradition that doesn’t hinge on belief in a God, and will be put off by God-talk.
Another is that there’s a serious danger that once you force God into Buddhism, you no longer have Buddhism, but some kind of New Age quasi-Hinduism, or even something barely distinguishable from some of the nicer forms of Christianity.
And the very term “God,” as Warner points out, is divisive, dualistic, and dangerous. He thinks this is a good thing for Buddhism; I don’t. And once you start thinking of your spiritual quest in terms of wanting to know “what God wants from you” (the title of one of the chapters) you’ve opened the way to some dangerous delusions.
Despite my many reservations, there were things I liked about this book. I could write a lot about themes he raised, but I’ve already gone on longer than I’d intended. Short version: Brad Warner is a funny and interesting teacher. He’s endearingly self-deprecating. There are some great discussions about the nature of faith, about the need to be ready for awakening, about the nature of time, and about the problems of translation. Having read his book I definitely want to hang out with Dogen’s Shobogenzo.
But on the whole, the last thing I think Western Buddhism needs is the intrusion of God.