By David Guy
A Dualistic God?
A friend who read my post on prayer wrote and asked, “Are you talking about prayer to a dualistic God?” At first I wanted to say, what do you think I am, nuts? But he hadn’t read earlier posts, and it’s a natural question. If you’re praying, who are you praying to?
It reminds me of the story of a Zen teacher’s decision to become a priest. He’d been practicing Zen off and on for years, and at one point went through a difficult breakup with a partner. There were hard feelings on both sides, and he had trouble getting over it. His teacher told him to do 108 floor bows every morning, and with every bow to say, Please forgive. That number of bows is common in Korean Zen, but unusual for the Japanese.
“But who am I asking and who needs forgiven?” the student said.
“Just do it,” his teacher said.
He did. After about a month, he had some kind of opening, and realized he wanted to ordain as a priest.
I have written earlier about the moment in my life when my feelings about God and religion began to shift. I was ten years old, and the whole situation was profoundly uncomfortable, but it was one of the most important moments in my life. I went through days of deep fear and insomnia, for which my only comfort was my father’s sympathy, and his physical presence. Many of my life crises have been characterized by similar feelings of fear, and bouts of insomnia.
My father said something to me on one of those nights when I came to him with my fears, something I didn’t understand at the time and puzzled over afterwards for years. Sometimes I thought it was profoundly true; sometimes I thought it made no sense; sometimes I thought he didn’t address my fear at all. I have written about this occasion multiple times, don’t have any idea how close my memory is to what my father actually said. He spoke to a ten-year-old boy, and I’ve pondered his words as an adult.
My memory is that he said that when we’re children, we believe that the world revolves around us. We cry and our mother comes to pick us up; we scream for food and our mother feeds us. We seem to be the center of the universe, but our life gradually teaches us that that isn’t so. Inasmuch as we mature, we understand that God is the center of things, not us. The process of growing, maturing, is to understand that. Becoming a mature human being is a process of moving away from that preoccupation with ourselves, and moving toward God.
The thing I didn’t understand about that image was that it implied that the human being kept growing, larger and larger, until he more or less merged into God. My memory is that my father said growing toward God, but what could that be but growing into him? And if God himself was infinite, how could you grow toward him? The whole thing made no sense to me at the age of ten. I put it into that category of things my father said that I didn’t understand. There were a fair number.
Twenty-five years later I was in another such crisis, though this one lasted for years, not days, and exhibited itself as a chronic low-key problem, rather than a crisis. (I saw it as a psychological problem, not a religious one. I was seeing a therapist. I am reminded of Jung’s statement that in his experience the problems of the second half of life are not psychological, but religious). I had abandoned any attempts to practice a religion, to believe in anything, because I couldn’t buy what religions were selling. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I didn’t think there was something wrong with religion (though I might have framed it that way); I thought there was something wrong with me. That feeling manifested as anger at religion. A friend had noticed that in me, and I asked my therapist about it. He agreed. I was terribly angry at religion.
He thought he knew the reason, though he mentioned it with some trepidation. He said that when someone was a teenager and lost a parent (my father died when I was 16), he was likely to feel anger toward religion. That young person had probably been struggling with religious questions anyway—people do that as teenagers—and then when the parent died people came to him with banal explanations. God needed another angel in heaven. He has a plan for us all, and this was His plan for your father. We heard those explanations and reacted to them with adolescent rage. We never got over that.
What he said made sense. I could see it in my life. But it wasn’t true that I didn’t believe anything. I believed something; I just couldn’t find it in any religion. I believed that God was the force of Creation, not just the original creation of the universe, but the ongoing creation, which happened constantly. He was the waves breaking, the sun shining, the flowers blooming, also the creative force that arose in any human breast. He didn’t answer prayers—what did he have to do with the petty requests of individuals?—and didn’t have anything to do with morality. He created good and evil. He created everything. The proper attitude toward God was silence and awe. It wasn’t to sing the Doxology and recite the Apostle’s Creed. Those things were trying to contain Him, but God burst beyond all bounds.
My struggle with religion had been going on for years. But the conversation with my therapist prompted me to write what I believed in my notebook. Not long after that I picked up a book that had been sitting around my house for years—it had belonged to my first wife—and read these words:
“There was something vague before heaven and earth arose. How calm! How void! It stands alone, unchanging; it acts everywhere, untiring. It may be considered the mother of everything under heaven. I do not know its name, but call it by the word Tao.
The Tao is something blurred and indistinct.
How indistinct! How blurred!
Yet within it are images.
How blurred! How indistinct!
Yet within it are things.
How dim! How confused!
Yet within it is mental power.
Because this power is most true,
Within it there is confidence.”
I couldn’t possibly say how wonderful those words made me feel. They weren’t exactly what I thought, but they were at least in the same ballpark. (As I discovered later, the translation is in much dispute. The Tao Te Ching sounds exactly like what I thought, or not so much like what I thought, depending on who translates it.) And they weren’t the words of some New Age nut. They had been written down some 2500 years before. The ideas they expressed were older than that.
I wasn’t alone in the world. Some Chinese guys from 2500 years before agreed with me!
The book where I read these words was The Way of Zen, and for years I would be passionately devoted to the works of Alan Watts, who opened things up for me considerably. That whole process had happened to many of my friends when we were in college twenty years before, but I was too busy studying literature to get into religion. I was also probably too conventional. Too stunned by my father’s death. Something.
The question remained: what do you do with such an image of God (or the Tao, this great unnamed thing)? How do you worship it, or come in touch with it, or have some relationship to it? Watts diminished the idea of sitting meditation, as had his mentor, D.T. Suzuki, but once again I had the great good fortune to meet a new woman in my life, have many fiery arguments about religion (she was a devout Catholic), take a meditation class with her (she was looking for some common ground for the two of us). And there I found a religious practice that made sense to me, in every way. You sit and do nothing. You encounter What Is. You come into relationship with that. The relationship deepens over time.
There is a dispute in Japanese Buddhism about whether we come to know What Is by Self Power or Other Power. Practitioners of Zen seem to be taking on a vast spiritual task all by themselves, sitting for countless hours, sometimes to the point of physical harm, bowing and chanting, doing physical work. The Pure Land School—a more popular movement—puts its belief in Amita Buddha, and believes that if they sincerely devote themselves to Amita Buddha, which they do by chanting, they will be reborn in a Pure Land where enlightenment will be assured. Amita Buddha, the Buddha of life and light, sounds a lot like what people think of as God. A Chinese woman who was Christian once told me that her mother believed in God, “but she calls Him Amitabha.”
This dispute is often presented as hard core people vs. easy way people, strenuous doers vs non-doers. Most Zen people don’t use the word God, don’t particularly believe in the existence of Amita Buddha, and think the idea of a Pure Land is a fairy tale.
Yet when I read about Pure Land practitioners, some seem to have achieved a kind of peace that Zen people only dream of. And if Zen people believe there is no Other—no Amita Buddha—they have to come to terms with the fact that their own doctrine says there is no self. If there is no self and no other, what is there? Nothing? Hey dummy, look around. It looks like there’s something to me.
My experience of zazen over a period of years is of feeling myself gradually disappear, and becoming completely other. Some days when I sit, and you ask what I am, there’s no I, just am. I’m the birds in the trees, the cicadas in the grass. I never get to that place by anything I do, by anything that could be called self-power. I get there by not doing anything.
But there’s something there. It’s in me and I’m in it; those two things are happening at once (or neither is happening at all). The Kingdom of God is within you, the Bible tells us in one place, and in another: “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” That’s the experience I’m having. Both those things are going on at once.
There’s nothing dualistic about it. I don’t know what it is. But it’s not a fantasy. I can feel something.
What has happened is like what my father said to me when I was ten, that 41 year old man who had only another six years to live. How did he know?