Nov 30, 2009

Do Nichiren Buddhists Believe in God?

by Greg Martin-World Tribune

The answer to this question depends heavily on how one envisions God. One survey reports that ninety-nine percent of Americans claim to believe in God. Yet, in spite of the prevalence of religiosity in America, the escalating crime rate, rampant drug addiction, epidemic mental illness, and revival of the death penalty, to name just a few symptoms, are not signs of a spiritually healthy society. Europeans report a growing blankness -- a god-shaped hole -- where God once existed in the human consciousness.[1]

What also seems clear is that individual conceptualizations of God are not
uniform. There may be as many versions of God as there are people, for the concept of God has never been a static thing. 
As Karen Armstrong writes in “A
History of God,” “Yet it seems that creating gods is something that human beings have always done. When one religious idea ceases to work for them, it is simply replaced. These ideas disappear quietly, like the Sky God, with no great fanfare. In our own day, many people would say that the God worshiped for centuries by Jews, Christians, and Muslims has become as remote as the Sky God.”[2]

Armstrong concludes, “Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings.”[3]

When asked if we believe in God, we find ourselves responding to the question
with one of our own: What God are you referring to?

Is it Abraham’s God, the God of the Old Testament? This god was a strict father, a creator, protector and punisher, a giver of law. This god also required the sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac and authorized the conquering and killing of many thousands of people.

Is it Augustine’s God, the God of the early Christian Church? This is the god of a powerful church, inheritor of the remnants of the Roman Empire. This god judged all humanity based on Adam’s original sin. The religion based on this god will have us view ourselves as fundamentally flawed -- originally sinful.[5]

Is it Michelangelo’s God, a personal God, as painted on the ceiling of the
Sistine Chapel? This concept of God helped develop the liberal humanism valued so highly in the West. It fit well with an awakening and expanding Europe. This god loves, judges, punishes, sees, hears, creates, and destroys as we do. This god inspires. However, this can also be a liability when one assumes that this god loves what we love and hates what we hate, thereby endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them. The fact is that this “personal” God is male (and usually white) has raised deep existential problems for women and non-whites.[6]

Is it the omnipotent God that some theologians believe died at Auschwitz? The
idea of an all-knowing and all-powerful god is hard for some to reconcile with the evil of the Holocaust. For, if God is truly omnipotent, he could have prevented it. If, they say, he was unable to stop it, he is impotent; if he could have stopped it and chose not to, he is not compassionate.[7]

Our rapidly expanding scientific knowledge about the universe is also making it apparent that God is no longer “up there” or “out there.” The heavens seem empty of the protecting, judging, and caring divine presence envisioned by the ancient world. The result is, according to John Shelby Spong, Episcopal bishop and author of “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” that tens of millions of people are “believers in exile,” who have lost touch with these God images as taught from traditional pulpits, but are not prepared to abandon the concept of God entirely.[8]

As a snake sloughs its skin as it grows, are we now witnessing the growth of our collective conceptualization of God, leaving behind the old, and for some now inadequate one even as a new one, not yet clear, is born?

Some believe that there is a new view of God emerging in this post-modern age. It abandons the external height images of the historic theistic God and is being replaced with internal depth image of a god that is not apart, but is integral and fundamental part of us. It is a perspective quite consistent with the Buddhist concept of the Mystic Law.

This Mystic Law is the ultimate entity or truth that permeates all phenomena in the universe, but it is not a personified being. There is an ultimate oneness of the human and this ultimate Law -- there is no separation between human beings (all human beings) and this idea of God as a Mystic Law.

This eternal and unchanging truth that resides within us is the source from
which we can draw the compassionate wisdom that accords with changing
circumstances, and the courage and confidence to live according to that wisdom. It is mystical, not magical, because its totality is beyond human conceptualization; and efforts to compartmentalize it, say in human form, only restrict and limit it. It is a law because it is experientially true in the daily lives of individual human beings.

This ultimate reality, ultimate truth, ultimate purity exists in the depths of every human being. Because of this, Buddhists view all people as sacred and perfectly endowed with potential to be wonderfully happy and enlightened individuals. There is no us and them, no godly and ungodly -- all are children of God, entities of the Mystic Law.

Where others looked to the heavens, Buddha looked within and found the priceless jewel of human wonder and possibility. He recognized that we, too, are made of the divine “stuff” of the universe. We’ve simply forgotten who we are.

So do we believe in God? By most traditional definitions, no. But in terms of
how increasing numbers of Christians understand God, yes, we do believe in God. Our name for God is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the Mystic Law. We believe it exists both “in here” and “out there,” and that this inner light can shine forth from within when we awaken to it and open our hearts through the act of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

There will, of course, be many people for whom this understanding of God will be unacceptable. That is fine. But there will be many -- according to one study, as many as twenty-five percent of all adults in America -- for whom it will resonate. People who will find that they also no longer really embrace these earlier versions of God; that they’ve already begun to envision the universe differently, and that the concept of God as Mystic Law matches the understanding that they have reached on their own. They’ll discover, as most SGI-USA members can attest, that the Mystic Law will, quite nicely indeed, fill the god-shaped hole in their spiritual selves.

Artwork Source: Deviantart by bemyunintended

1. Karen Armstrong, “A History of God”, (Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1993) pp. 397-398
2. Ibid., p. 4.
3. Ibid., p. 398.
4. Ibid., pp. 18-19.
5. Ibid., pp. 123-24.
6. Ibid., pp. 209-10.
7. Ibid., pp. 346.
8. John Shelby Spong, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die” (HarperCollins
Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 1998) p. 33.
9. Phillip Hammond and David W. Machacck, “Soka Gakkai in America,” (Oxford
University Press Inc., New York 1999).

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