This definition fits the descriptions of God as given by the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), along with their offshoots, and two of the other “world religions”: Zoroastrianism and, with some important reservations, Hinduism. But Confucianism, Shintoism, Taoism and, the main subject of this article, Buddhism, do not fit into such a category and might be more accurately called “God-less paths.”
Science of the Mind
Buddhism has survived for over 2500 years providing immeasurable comfort, support, wisdom and compassion while never insisting upon belief in a God. It has been variously described as being more a “science of the Mind” or a “path of Awakening” than a religion and continues to confound those who insist directly or indirectly that a “religion” must contain a “God”.
So what is Buddhism then, and how can it be approached? The simplest answer might be contained in one of Buddhism’s most famous stories. When asked by a local King if he was a God, since he was so revered and beloved by all who came in contact with him, the Buddha answered, “No.”
“Are you a saint then?”
“Are you a demon?”
“Then what are you?” asked the King.
“I am awake,” the Buddha simply said. Buddhism, then, is all about waking up.
What Makes a Path a Path?
But how is it possible that a “Godless path” can become so widespread and grant its “believers” spiritual comfort while speaking constantly of “suffering”, denying the existence of a soul and asserting that everything is connected to everything else through a timeless, beginning-less and endless procession of causes and conditions?
What made Buddhism spread, what made this path “a Path” was its assurance that each of us can become enlightened too, if only we learned to see things as-they-really-are (yatham-bhutam). This “seeing”, this dynamic experience of Ultimate Reality is, in fact, Truth itself. And that must be actualized by each person individually, through practices collectively known as “meditation” but known in Sanskrit (the literary language of Buddhism and Hinduism) as bhavana, or, “mental cultivation”.
Experiencing Complete Freedom
In the most basic terms, Buddhist meditation can be divided into calming (s’amatha) and insight (vipas’yana). We cannot begin to understand the infinite complex of causes and conditions that make up who we are without first calming down the constant babbling that takes place within us. Once this is achieved to a stable degree, we can then move into careful observation of the constant flow within us. How everything, starting with our bodies themselves, the sensations, our feelings and the thoughts connected to those feelings, comes up, stays a little while and then fades away. This process of arising, temporarily staying and passing can be said to apply to all things, animate or inanimate. It is an infinite flux, a vibrant impermanence that initially threatens our limited “self” but eventually offers us complete freedom.
In practical terms, we can actually experience this intimately, loosening our attachment to the habitual patterns that keep us tied into our own private little neuroses. We can gradually free ourselves from the process of solidifying around one particular pattern we call “me” and learn to actually change ourselves. We can experience the utmost freedom; a liberation sometimes described as a “pure awareness.” Living always in this experience is Awakening, and we can all have glimpses of this if we want. And no need for any mention of “God” to begin…
Rev. José M. Tirado is a poet, writer and Green activist. He is also a Shin Buddhist priest teaching in Iceland. www.thepathofmyexperience.com