At the Intersection of God and Buddha



In two of my prior Dharma Bytes, I explored the intersection of Science and Zen, illustrating my thesis that Zen occupies the middle ground between the extremes of Theism and Rationalism, but definitely closer to the latter end of the spectrum. This is because we do not see Zen as a belief-based system of dealing with the world in which we find ourselves, but as an experience-based method, which is closer to the evidence-based truths of Science.

In an interim piece, I explored the ramifications of climate change, an issue that science promises to address, but politics seems to trump – no pun intended – that possibility. And, typically, politics that is based on a theistic view of reality, in which Armageddon is prophesied, and apparently even considered a desirable outcome.

In this month’s essay I would like to take a closer look at one of the central questions that often comes up when discussing Zen with people of other faiths. It will often take the form of “Do you worship Buddha?” or “What do you believe in?”


While it is easy to dismiss such a query as basically ignorant, or even unseemly and aggressive in proselytizing mode, I think it probably indicates something deeper. If we consider why people have beliefs in something they cannot prove, and for which the evidence is scanty, on a psychological level at least I think we can come to some common ground. Something like 25% of the American populace currently poll as not adhering to any particular faith, not identified with any one of the world’s major or minor religions. It is not lost on religious leaders that it is primarily the young, the millennials, who are looking for something else; and that many of them are gravitating toward meditation.

Freedom of religion in this culture is increasingly interpreted as including freedom from religion. Which causes the evangelicals amongst us no end of anxiety and handwringing. They may be genuinely concerned for the salvation of the souls of others, or simply needing to have the assurance of safety in numbers that their belief, or faith, is well-founded.  

My basic thesis here is that we should not be too cavalier about or dismissive of the way others express their faith. There are teachings or at least implications of teachings in Buddhism that smack of similar concepts. Because I am not a scholar, I will not attempt to justify my comments with research and validation from respected sources. I only mean to suggest a more open-minded approach to the interfaith dialog, one that does not aim to convince others, but only to reconsider our own biases and prejudices, which may not be readily apparent. After all, as Master Dogen reminds us:

Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge

and is grasped by your consciousness

Although actualized immediately the inconceivable may not be apparent

Its appearance is beyond your knowledge

If even the most profound insight available in Zen is inaccessible to ordinary awareness, how much more so the subliminal views we may be harboring.

In Zen, or Buddhism, we may hear the expression, “cosmic buddha,” which I think is usually not capitalized, as that designation is usually reserved for the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Vairochana (literally “illuminator,” according to Wikipedia) is interpreted as the primordial, celestial buddha. Brought down to earth, it manifests as the dharmakaya (“essence body”). This was discovered by Shakyamuni, Buddhism’s counterpart to Christ in Christianity, sans claims of divinity.


The three bodies (S. trikaya) are denoted as nirmanakaya (“transformation body”) and samboghakaya (“enjoyment body”) in addition to dharmakaya. These apparently form a ready parallel to the trinity in Christianity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; but are distinctly different in their meaning, again eschewing the Divine.

Briefly, the transformation body is that through which buddhas, or fully awakened beings, appear in the world: in other words, this very corporeal body. The essence body is the actual or complete body in which the separation between self and other is seen as a kind of delusion. And the enjoyment body is, to paraphrase the most amusingly circular definition I have come across, the body in which bodhisattvas enjoy the truth that they embody. Jesus is considered a bodhisattva, or enlightening being, in Buddhism.

I like to think of this tripartite model of our complete body as a form of psychic synergy. Combining the transformation body into which we are born, with the essence body, when fully realized, results in a third new thing—enjoyment—that is not manifest in either of the two when taken separately. Much like a picture without a caption, or the caption without the picture, neither conveys the complete meaning as they do when combined.

These conceptualizations and descriptions are straining toward capturing in words some essential truth that is not readily self-evident (otherwise, everyone would be naturally enlightened). The effort to conceive and define a God, or the Cosmic Buddha, seem to be somewhat parallel, in attempting to express the ineffable.


In order to clarify our thinking around these cosmic concepts, which threaten to devolve into hopeful speculation, it might be helpful to consider the notion of God and intention. We recognize intent in the personal exercise of our faith, whether it be Zen or one of the world religions. That is, we intend to get to the bottom of things in Zen, or we intend to save all beings, the bodhisattva vow. What this actually means is to be revealed in the way we live out our practice in daily life, but we have to admit that some sort of intention is in play from the beginning. We have to accept that Christians and others also exercise a degree of personal intent in the pursuit of their faith, whether it be personal salvation or saving other souls.

If we step outside of the personal we can consider what is the intent of existence itself. That is, if God is the creator of the universe, what is the fundamental intent of that creation? If God is God, he or she does not need the universe to exist for personal reasons. So the intent of creating the universe would have to be for the sake of others. Most religions, which are all human-based (we don’t know about the whales or dolphins), would probably agree that their theism would admit of some intent, that has to do with the existence of humanity. Either we exist in order to come into some appropriate relation to the creator God, or as a test of our ability to conform to the rules of existence, or the religion, or the Tao, the Way, to realize a level of insight that is commensurate with the overwhelming reality of sentient existence. In the absence of God, man would have to invent God.


All such endeavors, including philosophies and the application of rational and scientific approaches to existence can be classified as a search for meaning. For some primitive belief systems, life, and pleasure, provided meaning enough. For others, jaded with sybaritic lifestyle, or regarding its consequences as harmful, a search for deeper meaning ensued. Buddha’s original teaching, the First Sermon, essentially pointed out the futility of each approach — devotion to either the indulgence of self-gratification, or conversely, self-mortification — and resolved that the most direct path to the natural life is the Middle Way.

This may not be as satisfying as coming down on one side or the other of the existential fence. It requires that we surrender our tendency to look for simplistic solutions to complex realities. For this reason, again, we should not too readily dismiss the attempts of others to come to terms with this dilemma. We are not so sure of our own understanding. In Zen we embrace the “don’t-know-mind,” the fact that finally we are left with ambiguity, as Master Dogen is said to have asserted.

In Zen we hear this expression, “your original face.” All beings and indeed all things are said to manifest this original face. While this is an intriguing construction, and must, on its face, be true (how could everything be manifesting some face that is not original?), we might re-phrase it as the “original interface.”


The interface, like that of your computer, consists of icons and symbols (such as these letters and words) that are familiar as a result of acculturation, and training in the use of social media screens. The “face” we are looking at and responding to is a digital interface with others who are engaged in the same manipulation of the media to correspond. Similarly, our consciousness is our interface with reality.

The teachings of Zen do not amount to an attempt to describe an objective reality, outside of the purview of the observer, as science does (although that pesky uncertainty principle comes into play). Buddha being the observer of what he observed was the whole point and meaning of his experience, just as it is of whatever insight we may gain. Nor are they beliefs based on no evidence at all, as is characteristic of theism.


Buddha described his truth as superior to the other two types, in that it is based on a direct, self-identity with a larger truth. In it, there is no separation of mind and object, self and other, et cetera (all dualities merge in non-duality). But acceding to this truth requires the surrender of the self, as do most religions. The self has to be given up to a higher power, or a truth that does not include the self-constructed self. In the case of theistic belief systems, this surrender of one’s life to the will of God or into the hands of a savior, is the road to salvation. Ironically, it posits a self that is eternal, the immortal soul, which amounts to a denial of impermanence, a cardinal tenet of Zen and Buddhism. This contradiction is irresolvable until and unless the individual actually experiences the surrender of the self in reality. Then the differences are seen to be largely semantic in nature, not worth debating.

These concerns often arise as the result of our engaging a practice — Zen — that is not indigenous to our culture. Living in the Bible belt, the odds are greater that one’s family and friends, and even colleagues at work, or select members of our neighborhood, are not likely going to be practitioners of Zen, or even any other form of meditation, other than Yoga, which, secular as it is, is sometimes suspect.


Because we live in this context, we have to engage with it in a way that does not create undue conflict, or unnecessary suffering, for ourselves or for others. When coming into contact with others who hold strongly-felt beliefs, it is helpful to remember that they probably do not have any kind of meditative method that helps them to moderate their defensive response to challenges to their beliefs. In order to carry on a dialog with friends and family, or worse-case scenarios where the corporate culture at your place of employment is oppressively and inappropriately coercive around personal choices such as religious affiliation or non-affiliation, Zen has a few suggestion as to how to handle this interface of the personal and social.

We generally avoid arguing or debate, though doing so skillfully in a proselytizing milieu may be difficult. One approach I recommend, which I learned as part of my professional training in end-user research, primarily for new product development, is the nondirective interview technique used to gather information from focus groups or individuals, depending on market segmentation for the subject under study. The method was developed by Carl Rogers during WWII, when he was tasked with interviewing draftees, who were often hostile and resistant.

In uncomfortable situations, it comes in handy. We learn that we can carry on a meaningful dialog with others of disparate views, without having to have or assert an opinion. We are perceived as good listeners, genuinely interested in the views of the respondent(s). By establishing rapport, and lending a sympathetic ear, we gain their trust, and allow them to open up to us on a deeper level. At the deepest level of dialog, we may find the common ground that reduces seemingly incompatible, even intractable, absolute differences to the relative realm of semantics. At this point, they may even become interested in what it is that allows you to be so empathic. The answer is Zen meditation, sitting upright in the Samadhi of self-fulfillment. If there is a God, he or she is sitting in it.

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