Zen Buddhism is a non-theistic religious tradition. Many people find such a thing difficult to fathom: How can you have a religion without a God? Isn’t God what religion is about?
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Why Zen Doesn’t Talk about God [4:08]
The Bleakness of a Worldview without “Something Greater” [7:22]
A Sense of the Ineffable Is Important to Our Mental Health [11:25]
The Zen Teaching of It-with-a-Capital-I [14:08]
The Seeking Is Not Separate from What Is Sought [20:38]
How We Know This Isn’t Just Wishful Thinking [23:33]
Developing a Relationship with the Ineffable [27:27]
Fortunately for those of us who don’t believe in God, it’s possible to have a rich religious tradition without one. Even without a deity, Zen Buddhists get everything else a major religion offers: Traditional spiritual teachings and practices, scriptures and literature collected over the course of millennia, ritual and ceremony, religious community, mythology and iconographic imagery, initiation rites and clergy, and moral guidelines. While some Zen Buddhists do believe in God – and that’s perfectly acceptable in our tradition – Zen isn’t premised on the existence of a deity.
Still, it is not entirely correct to say that there is no God in Zen. While we don’t conceive of, or worship, an omnipotent personification of the Divine, at the heart of our tradition is the teaching that reality itself is luminous, precious, and infused with compassion. We don’t ascribe an agenda, personality, or gender to That-Which-Is-Greater, but we long to live in harmony with It, and personally experience intimacy with It. These longings infuse our spiritual practice with meaning.
In this episode, I’ll cover three related topics:
- First, I’ll explain why Zen doesn’t usually talk about That-Which-Is-Greater, even though it’s an integral part of Zen teaching. Because Zen is non-theistic, I’ll usually refer to That-Which-Is-Greater by using the terms “the Ineffable” or “It” (emphasized in speech, and written with a capital “I”). Of course, I could also use terms like the sacred, spiritual, or transcendent.
- Second, I’ll talk about why it’s valuable for people, including Zen Buddhists, to have a worldview that includes a sense of the Ineffable.
- Finally, I’ll share a Zen teaching on the Ineffable and give you a sense of how Zen practitioners develop a deeper relationship with It.
Why Zen Doesn’t Talk about God
In one of my favorite books, Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes, “The reality that excites and fulfills the soul’s longing is God by whatsoever name. Because the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature, we do well to follow Rainer Maria Rilke’s suggestion that we think of God as a direction rather than an object.”
As someone who spent part of my childhood as a Christian, there’s still part of me that resonates with the word “God” more than with vague terms like “the Ineffable.” In many ways, theistic religions do a better job than Buddhism does of reminding people about the greater, inspiring truth that underlies everything.
However, Zen is very deliberate in its choice not to conceive of a God, or even to describe That-Which-Is-Greater in any terms that will tempt us to form fixed concepts or ideas about It. The basic idea behind this approach is that the function of our mind is to discriminate – to discern that from this, this from that: Food from non-food, safety from danger, self from other, good from bad. The nature of the Ineffable is unity, or oneness; any discrimination takes you further from an experience of It.
Zen takes what theology calls an “apophatic approach” – describing the Divine by stripping away any limiting concepts you may have about It – as opposed to a cataphatic approach, which seeks to point you toward the Divine using positive terminology, such as, “God is love.” Some of us are attracted to an apophatic approach because even beautiful words like Huston Smith’s “the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature,” inspire us to think that the Ineffable is superior to – and outside of – us. Zen practice starts with shedding our limiting views and avoiding attaching to new ones – whether the view is “It does not exist,” “It exists out there,” or “It exists within me.”
Deciding what approach to take with respect to the Ineffable isn’t just an abstract philosophical issue. It’s really about what works for you. For many human beings, the cataphatic approach speaks more directly to their spiritual experience, or at least it gives them solace and hope. To be honest, even those of us who have chosen the apophatic tradition of Zen sometimes long for some of the inspiration and warmth often found in theistic religions, where That-Which-Is-Greater is described and celebrated on a regular basis.
The Bleakness of a Worldview without “Something Greater”
For a moment, I’m going to set aside discussion of Zen, and return to my hero, Huston Smith. In Why Religion Matters, Smith makes a convincing case that all human beings operate within a worldview of some kind. Even if you don’t think you “believe” in anything, you still have a worldview, and it profoundly affects everything you do.
Smith describes three dominant worldviews:
- Traditional (typically held by human beings throughout the millennia, from the earliest societies up until increasing reliance on the scientific method),
- Modern (science through the middle of the 20th century), and
- Post-modern (since the middle of the 20th century).
In his descriptions of these worldviews, Smith points out that while modernism gave us science, and post-modernism gave us social justice, in many ways the latter two worldviews are very bleak compared to the traditional one.
Here are five comparisons Smith makes between the traditional worldview and the two later, scientific ones:
In the traditional worldview, spirit is fundamental and matter is derivative: Matter, including embodied life, coalesces from a greater ocean of spirit, or is animated by that spirit. In the scientific worldview, the closest thing to spirit – the phenomenon of consciousness – is limited to human brains, which are like tiny islands surrounded by an infinitely large universe devoid of consciousness.
In the traditional worldview, humans are the “less” who have derived from the “more:” Human beings, with all of their talents and flaws, are part of something much larger, and this larger reality is more beautiful and amazing than anything humans can come up with. In the scientific worldview, we are the highest products of evolution. As Smith says, “Nothing in science’s universe is more intelligent than we are.”
In the traditional worldview, there is a happy ending: The happy ending may come at the end of a human life or at the end of an age. In the scientific worldview, Smith says, “Death is the grim reaper of individual lives, and whether things as a whole will end in a freeze or a fry, with a bang or a whimper… is anybody’s guess.”
In the traditional worldview, everything is pervaded with meaning: Life was created by or flows from Perfection and is meaningful throughout. In the scientific worldview, any meaning we find seems subjectively projected (e.g. some people are lucky enough to “find meaning in their lives”).
In the traditional worldview, humans feel at home: Humans belong to their world and play an important role, and, Smith says, “They are made of the same spiritually sentient stuff that the world is made of.” Nothing like this can be derived from the scientific worldview. In fact, given our actions and destructiveness, many of us wonder if humans are scourge on an otherwise beautiful planet.
A Sense of the Ineffable Is Important to Our Mental Health
I included Smith’s comparisons of pre- and post-scientific worldviews not because I am going to formulate a Zen worldview for you (that’s a huge topic and I want to stay focused on the Ineffable). Instead, I brought them up because I wanted to point out how bleak human life can appear once we’ve been converted to the scientific worldview. This conversion, for many of us, means we lose our belief in God, or our sense of the Ineffable. We then become vulnerable to something Victor Frankl called “the existential vacuum.”
Frankl was Jewish and spent years imprisoned in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps during World War II. He came out of his experience convinced that people were much more likely to survive the kinds of horrors he experienced if they were sustained by a deep sense of meaning in their lives. In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl argues that having a sense of meaning is essential to our mental health, but finding meaning in our lives can be difficult. Unlike animals, our lives are no longer ruled by instinct and we constantly have to make choices. With “the traditions which buttressed [our] behavior… rapidly diminishing,” Frankl says, no instinct tells us what we have to do, no tradition tells us what we ought to do, and sometimes we don’t even know what we want to do. We end up in an existential vacuum, and often end up succumbing to things like anxiety, depression, aggression, or addiction.
In his book, Frankl quotes Friedrich Nietzche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” I think most of us have a strong sense that this is true. Those of us who no longer hold a traditional worldview may look back at it somewhat wistfully, imaging what it would be like to believe we were part of something larger, our lives were meaningful, and we belonged in this universe. How comforting and strengthening it would be to believe that God or the Great Spirit thoughtfully designed this world and has an overall, benevolent plan! How inspiring to believe He loves us and that our little individual lives actually matter!
The Zen Teaching of It-with-a-Capital-I
However, if we don’t actually believe the traditional worldview, we don’t get to just “go back” to it in order to make ourselves feel better. What can we do? Fortunately, Zen offers us some beautiful teachings about That-Which-Is-Greater, how It pervades our lives with meaning, and how we can directly experience It. To adequately explore these teachings – or even just give you an overview of them – would take much more time than I have right now, but I may devote future episodes to the topic. Here I will simply introduce one prime example of a Zen teaching on what I feel is the Zen version of God. (Others may argue this point with me – and I invite you to send me comments because that will be a fascinating conversation. However, I suspect true atheists will see more commonality than differences between theism and the Zen teachings I’m about to describe.)
Many people don’t know it, but the great 12th-century Zen master Dogen frequently taught and wrote on the Ineffable, although he uses many different words and images to point to It. Dogen is certainly not the only person in the Zen tradition to have done this, of course, but I’m focusing on Dogen because he dedicated a whole essay to discussion of the Ineffable in his masterwork, the Shobogenzo. The essay, or chapter, is called Inmo.
According to Dogen translators Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, “Inmo” is a colloquial Chinese word that is used to indicate something when there is no need to explain what it is – like the pronouns “it,” “that,” or “what.” Nishijima and Cross explain that Chinese philosophers would sometimes use the term “inmo” to indicate the ineffable, or that which is beyond words. Subsequently, they say, Buddhist writers used it to indicate reality itself, which can never be fully conveyed by words. For the purposes of this discussion, I consider the best translation of inmo to be “It-with-a-Capital-I,” combining the pronoun-like character of inmo with the tradition of capitalizing English words when they refer to God, or the Divine.
In the essay “Inmo,” Dogen writes [the italicized it is a translation of Inmo]:
“How do we know that it exists? We know it is so because the body and the mind both appear in the Universe, yet neither is ourself. The body, already, is not ‘I.’ Its life moves on through days and months, and we cannot stop it even for an instant… The sincere mind, too, does not stop, but goes and comes moment by moment. Although the state of sincerity does exist, it is not something that lingers in the vicinity of the personal self. Even so, there is something which, in the limitlessness, establishes the [bodhi-]mind. Once this mind is established, abandoning our former playthings we hope to hear what we have not heard before and we seek to experience what we have not experienced before: this is not solely of our own doing.”
Dogen’s writing is pretty poetic and esoteric, so this takes some unpacking. However, it’s important to realize that Dogen used words to point to what is beyond words, so explaining his writing in straightforward prose often misses the mark. I suggest using explanations of Dogen as doorways into his teachings, but then allowing the teachings evoke things in you the way good poetry does – even if you don’t necessarily understand every line of the poem intellectually.
To explain a little, then: we wonder who we really are, and what our relationship is to the rest of the universe. We discover that we can’t locate who we really are either in our body, or in our mind. Both are constantly changing, and not fully under “our” control. Although we experience undeniable aliveness, it defies lasting identification with the things we consider to be part of our personal self. We realize, after some practice and study, that we are empty of any inherently-existing, enduring, independent self-nature. Instead, we are a flow of Being through time, shaped by countless causes and conditions. “We” are nowhere to be found. (This is the Zen teaching of emptiness, or no-self.)
“Even so,” Dogen says, “there is something which, in the limitlessness, establishes the [bodhi-]mind.” In Buddhism, the bodhi-mind is the “mind that seeks enlightenment,” or the part of ourselves that seeks something greater. One day we wake up and ask, “Is this it? Is there something I’m missing? Is there a way to live more fully and compassionately?” The bodhi-mind is established and we set out on our spiritual journey, but Dogen reminds us (italics mine), “this is not solely of our own doing.”
The Seeking Is Not Separate from What Is Sought
Dogen asks us to consider where how this bodhi-mind arises. We are a flow of Being through time, shaped by countless causes and conditions, so what inspires us to look beyond what we think we know? “We” can’t be ultimately located, so who (or what) summons the will to awaken? Dogen suggests the bodhi-mind arises because of Inmo itself, which is not actually separate from us (all the uses of “it” in this passage are translations of inmo):
“Remember, it happens like this because we are people who are it. How do we know that we are people who are it? We know that we are people who are it just from the fact that we want to attain the matter which is it.”
Another way of putting this is “we know the Ineffable exists because we seek the Ineffable.” This might seem like circular reasoning, where you state that A is true because B is true, and B is true because A is true, and then walk away as if you actually proved something. However, what we’re trying to do here is describe a real-life relationship rather than formulate an abstract logical statement. Huston Smith addresses this relationship in the following passage (from Why Religion Matters):
“…the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite. This outreach strongly suggests the existence of the something that life reaches for in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of air.”
Without air, a bird’s wings have no function and would never have evolved. Perhaps we can also say that without the Ineffable, a human’s longing to have a sense of something greater would also have no function, and would never have evolved? However, if you’re anything like me – that is, skeptical – you may be wondering whether it’s just wishful thinking to suggest the Ineffable exists because we long for it. Fortunately, Zen doesn’t stop there.
How We Know This Isn’t Just Wishful Thinking
So far, our discussion has been philosophical. Inevitably, purely philosophical discussions about Inmo get convoluted, and unconvincing. This is why Zen masters throughout the centuries have slapped their students on the head with slippers, or uttered apparently non-sequitur phrases that called the student’s attention to the nearest tree or cup of tea. At some point, we have to leave behind our attempts at intellectual understanding in order to pay attention to our direct experience.
We know the Ineffable when we encounter it. We know It in our so-called “hearts,” which can’t be located physically in our bodies but seem to function as sensors attuned to the Ineffable. Our hearts swell when we witness incredible acts of compassion; when we hear stories of individuals who dedicated their lives to a noble cause; when we witness awesome spectacles of nature, listen to beautiful pieces of music, join in hearty laughter with a child, or read good poetry. Personally, I also think we perceive the Ineffable, or It-with-a-Capital-I, whenever we look into another person’s eyes, and that’s why it’s usually too intense to do that for very long.
In these heart moments, it’s like the clouds briefly part and the sun shines through. Or, for a moment, we remember what’s really important, and all of our petty concerns and fears melt away or are at least put into perspective. For a moment, we are relieved of our skepticism and have a child’s open, hopeful, innocent heart. We know love is real and the beauty of this world is beyond comprehension. We have a sense of who we are, what is means to be human, and why life is worth it.
In the scientific worldview, these “heart” experiences are just emotional phenomena we are tempted to overinterpret in order to give our lives a sense of meaning. They’re just little “pros” on the opposite end of the scale from all the “cons” when you evaluate whether life is good or bad. However, what if, instead, there really is a deeper, inspiring reality underneath everything, and our “heart moments” are when get glimpses of it?
There’s no hard, objective evidence to be had for either view, and maybe there never will be – so which view would you rather hold? For myself, I figure the approach that brings ease and happiness to my life is probably closer to reality than the one that makes me feel forlorn, isolated, and depressed. It’s like I have two wooden blocks, one triangular and one square, and I need to slip one of them through a hole I can’t see. The hole is either triangular or square, but I can’t tell which. I clumsily feel around and try one block, then the other. One of them won’t fit through the hole, but the other does. This is like choosing to operate as if there’s a deeper meaning pervading life; it’s not really a matter of what’s true in some abstract sense, and more a matter what actually works.
Developing a Relationship with the Ineffable
Despite my appreciation for Huston Smith’s discussion of worldviews, I hesitate to use the words “view” or “worldview” when talking about Zen. This is because Zen is about shedding all views and experiencing reality directly. It’s not very helpful to adopt and hold on to a view – for example, to listen to this episode, form a view of the Ineffable, and then try to believe it or live by it. Instead, the emphasis in Zen is on developing your own sense of reality through your direct experience: paying attention to what your own heart senses, not to some nice thoughts you’re having about your experience.
One of the views we need to drop is our sense we are separate from the Ineffable. My descriptions of “heart moments” above were hopefully able to give you a certain sense of Inmo, but they can also leave you with the impression that the Ineffable is “out there,” hidden behind the clouds except at peak moments of experience.
In contrast, Zen teaches that the Ineffable can’t be located, sought, or discovered. Neither is it special, transcendent, better, larger, or bigger. These are all ideas we have, and they get in the way of our realizing the Ineffable quality of this very moment, just as it is. Heart moments aren’t rare glimpses of the Ineffable, they’re moments when we forget our sense of separateness – moments when we get out of our own way and perceive Reality. Once we realize this is the case, once we’re convinced that we’re actually swimming in the Ineffable like a fish swims in water, we can sense It more and more often – even in the mundane situations of everyday life.
Naturally, if the Ineffable is Reality itself, we’d like to hear descriptions of It so we know what to look for and what to expect. What is it like? Are we part of it? Is it boundless, joyous, beautiful, or full of peace? How do we know when we see it? Is it personal, or impersonal? Once you see It, do your problems go away?
Usually, Zen refuses to describe the Ineffable for us so we will stay concentrated on our practice, and not chasing after some idea. Still, one of my favorite Zen masters, the 12th-century Chinese monk Hongzhi, is generous enough to give us a few verses to inspire us:
“The place of silent and serene illumination is the heavenly dome in clear autumn, shining brightly without strain, gleaming through both light and shadow. At this juncture the whole is supreme and genuinely arrives. The clear source is enacted with spirit, the axis is wide and the energy lively, everything apparent in the original brightness. The center is manifest and is celebrated…”
One last thing: it may not make any sense intellectually, but even though Zen does not conceive of the Ineffable as being personified, we still believe there is something incredible intimate and personal about it. Dogen writes, “We ourselves are tools which [Inmo] possesses within this Universe in ten directions.” We are not part of the Ineffable in spite of being our personal self, or in addition to being our personal self. There is no Ineffable apart from the myriad manifestations of the universe, including our personal self. Just as the Ineffable shines through a beautiful piece of music, it shines through us.
Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Leighton, Taigen Dan. Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
Nishijima, Gudo, and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 2. London: Windbell Publications, 1996.
Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.