Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I have begun reading “The Hidden Gospel,” by Neil Douglas-Klotz. Klotz is a scholar of religious studies and psychology and a spiritual practitioner. One of his interests is probing into the Aramaic Jesus. Jesus was a first century Aramaic speaking Jew from the Middle East, specifically that part that has come to be known as the Holy Land.

Jesus had the mind set and mental processing formed by his Jewish heritage, shaped by the Aramaic language he spoke. Each person’s perspective of the world and the way he sees it is greatly affected by the language he speaks: its vocabulary; its grammar; perhaps, even the sounds themselves. A native Greek speaker in the period in which Jesus lived would perceive reality and formulate it differently than a person born an Aramaic speaker. (Jesus probably knew enough Hebrew to read the scriptures although there is some doubt he was able to read.)

When the words and thoughts of Jesus conceived in Aramaic were translated into Greek---this transposition was a radical one from the intuitional, earth based Aramaic to the intellectual, conceptualizing Greek.

The subtitle of this book is “Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus”.

Klotz uses the Peshita, the Bible of the Eastern Christians which is written in Western Aramaic sometimes known as the Syriac. Even this Bible probably in most cases does not contain the actual Aramaic words of Jesus -- but if there is a more or less unbroken line between the time of Jesus and the Peshita -- the Peshita should have a closer content and feeling to the original words of Jesus than the Greek Bible.

Moving the gospels from the Aramaic world of the first century to the Greek world was about as radical a move as would be possible.

During the first two centuries after Jesus’ death there were many more groups in the Jesus movement than Christian churches and denominations today. Call them Christian Jews or Jewish Christians but there was not a single group among the many that could be labeled “orthodox”. And for the first three centuries there hundreds of “gospels” used by these numerous and varied gatherings of believers.

At first there was just the oral tradition --- the memory of what Jesus said and did. Earlier people seemed to be quite good at preserving their traditions through memory.
However, there were many “Christian” groups each with their traditions. Eventually, some of them began to be put their traditions in writing. This transmission involves selection of materials and the words to be transcribed. The end result is a loss of variety with no assurance that the most faithful or accurate memories were the ones ending up in written form.

Constantine a Roman Emperor converted to some variety of Christianity in the 4th
Century. He “...realized that a stable empire could not be built upon hundred of conflicting interpretations of who Jesus was. In 325 CE he ordered a council of bishops and theologians to gather at Nicaea (in what is now Turkey) to settle once and for all who Jesus was and what he said and did.”

Pressure was upon the various church leaders to come to an agreement acceptable to Constantine. If they did not, he might even rescind his decision to make Christianity the State Religion.

The prelates also drew up the Nicene Creed which uses the methodology and words of the Greeks and their philosophy to encapsulate what these clerics felt needed to be believed and assented to by all persons who wanted to be considered Christians. The Creed makes use of obscure language and concepts from the Greek to express its dogmas ---
for example, that Jesus was “...begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

The doctrine of The Trinity was announced despite many present, perhaps the majority, believing that God was One, a Unity -- a key belief in the Jewish tradition from which Christianity rose.

The author in this book is attempting to re-discover some of the spirit, world view and teachings of the original Jesus -- before he was dwarfed and submerged in the institutionalization of Christianity.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Do Buddhists Believe in God?

Recently a friend posed the above question to me in this way:
"I have always had a problem with the Buddhists because I thought they had no 'god'. True they believe in self development and walking the path, but not focused on a single or multiple 'power greater than themselves', and certainly not a 'creator god' like the Christians. Have I got it all wrong? "

I suppose I could give a quick and simple answer, but as frequently is my case, I found there is more to the answer than simplicity.

First of all not all "Buddhists" are the same. There are either two or three major traditions and within each there are sub sets.

However, in the early Buddhist scriptures written in Pali, we could say that Buddhism appears as "non-Theistic". This does not mean the Buddha was an "atheist," -- one who does not believe in "God". Nor, does it mean he was an agnostic -- one who does not believe that God can be known. He taught a way that was non-theistic --- in which the idea of a God does not appear. Why? Because in the India of his time and for years before---debating about God seemed to take up a terrible amount of time. People were lost in trying to define God and had no time for living a wise and compassionate life.
When I think about it --- this problem has been with Christianity for centuries.

In his search for the answer to "suffering" the Buddha came to conclusion reached by his own experience as to the nature of reality and the "antidote" for suffering (not pain). He discovered that ultimately his path led to a state called "nirvana". Nirvana, IMO, may just be another name for the presence of God.

In an earlier blog -- I wrote this:
"The most important thing --- as I see things, is that if you believe in God or Allah or Brahman or Sacred Emptiness ----whatever term you use for the sacred core of things--- you must experience The Sacred. God cannot be described, but this being can be experienced. Knowledge of "God" comes through intuition, through feeling, through sensing this presence---which you know is Reality itself --- but which you cannot encase in a conceptual capsule."

The book "The Good Heart" is based on a conference between Christian (mostly Catholic priests, nuns and lay people) sponsored by the Benedictines and featuring the Dalai Lama as the center of the proceedings. The Dalai Lama had never read The New Testament. He was asked to comment on selected passages each day of the conference which led to interesting and enlightening interchanges.

During these sessions the Dalai Lama said that Buddhists do not believe in a Personal Creator God as Christians do. However, he had no objections to the Christians believing this way since it appeared to provide spiritual growth and the development of compassionate living. In addition, he said that he felt Christians should attempt to plumb the depths and explore the variety within their Christian Faith --- before considering other religions, including Buddhism.

Jim Pym an English layman, who is both a Shin Buddhist and a Quaker, in a book he wrote says that many Western Buddhists believe in God --- simply because it is so much a part of their culture and background. He doesn't believe this hampers their Buddhism. He also points out that many non-Western Buddhists pray. Go to the temples in Thailand and Burma where you will see thousands of lay Buddhists at prayer. From both reading and personal experience, I know that Tibetan Buddhists pray. When I was doing a Tibetan practice there were prayers, e.g. for the long life of the Dalai Lama and other teachers. Then there are prayers to the Medicine Buddha.
Jim also points out that a number of well known Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh and Joshu Sazaki Roshi. The latter, now in his eighties once said that all of his life he had been nursing at the breast of God.

Does "God" have to be a Personal Creator God? The Hindus may have the "highest" thought of God: Brahman. Brahman is impersonal, without identity-- and yet nothing like a "rock" --- but full of all life and energy. Brahman's manifestations appearing as creating; nourishing and redeeming; purifying and destroying. Hence, the Hindus have Brahma (God the Father); Visnu (The Redeemer); and Shiva (The Purifier). IMO, the Absolute by whatever name one bestows upon it --- is not like us. God's identity or personality is something we humans provide -- for our own benefit. We, by nature are anthropocentric -- so our God is seen to be like us. We say that we are created in God's image. It may be more true that we have created God -- in our image.
As to the necessity of a Creator. Again, I look at Hinduism a religion I greatly respect. It stems from the very beginnings of human civilization -- when their great seers lived in a time when the Absolute may have been easier to perceive and to find unity with through meditation. Brahman "created" the "world" from Brahman. The world is the "dream" or the "play" of Brahman. Nothing was really created because there was and is nothing but Brahman.

Leaving what some would call the esoteric beliefs of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) --- I, personally, do not believe the world was created, but that reality in some form or the other has always and will always exist. It is said that every effect must have a cause, ergo, the World needs a cause. That cause is "God". The question springs instantly to mind: "Who or what created God?" The answer given by creationists is --"God is the First Cause."
For me, this response is---unsatisfactory. I am content to live in a world without a creator, and I feel that his belief is perfectly plausible.

Mahayana Buddhism speaks of
"sunyata" --- which might be thought of as sacred emptiness. If you probe deeply enough you will experience this underlying reality. In the very early Pali suttas of Buddhism the Buddha spoke of the necessity for the existence of "the Unborn, the Uncreated, the Unconditioned" -- as far as I know he only did this once.

Shin Buddhists -- and I feel I am part of this tradition -- put their enduring trust in Amida -- the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light. We know that as
bombu or foolish and weak beings -- we cannot achieve enlightenment, liberation or salvation through our personal efforts. So, we step aside -- and rely entirely on the compassionate and loving embrace of Amida. Our simple prayer is short: Namo Amida Butsu --- I take refuge in Amida Buddha -- the spiritual being of wisdom and compassion (who is NOT a Creator God).

One final point---There are those who have this attitude: "If you don't believe in a Personal Creator God you are not open to spiritual or supernatural realities. You are also, in all likelihood, an immoral person.

And, you will end up in Hell. Some of these persons say further than you must believe in the Nicene or Apostles' Creed word for word; or you must believe that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins; or that the Bible is the literal words of God. And, depending on the sect or denomination --- there are more and more criteria.

Swami Satchidananda claimed that if all the scriptures of the world would be destroyed -- including the Hindu ones -- the Absolute could be found in Nature.

If there is a Personal Creator God--then I believe he will condemn no one to Hell ---- his grace will grant salvation to all.

As for Buddhists, they all take "refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (the teaching) and the Sangha (the fellowship). Some also have special devotions and connection to other spiritual beings: Green Tara, Chenrezig, Amida etc. Buddhists, in general, have at least the faith in the spiritual and the sacred that Christians, in general do.

Buddhists believe in another life to come -- and this, in itself, makes this life more special in many ways.