What is God? What am I?

Religion is under attack. Does that really matter? Has religion had its day and must we now, as its critics would say, grow up and dispense with fairy tales and replace them with the hard truths of science? I would suggest not. Let us put aside the old man with the beard sitting up above, ready to put everything right if we just let him know what we want. Let us start by looking at the God of the ancient Hebrews: Jehovah.

We have inherited our idea of a static, logical universe, with a Supreme Being overseeing it, from the Greeks. The ruling power for the Greeks was Logos, which implies structure, reason, and, of course, the word. We got the idea of God as the Supreme Being from Plato. The God of the Hebrews, on the other hand, was not a being, someone, but dynamic action, indeed dynamic action was, for the Hebrews, life itself. The Hebrew word for ‘word’ was dabhar, to be behind and drive forward, which gives an additional dimension to the ‘word of God.’ Dabhar , as dynamic action, is quite different from logos, static structure. But by seeing God as a Supreme Being we have favored the Greek view over the Hebraic.

Religion does not come from on high, from ‘God,’ nor is it given to us by the prophets: by Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Moses or Mohammed. On the contrary, religion is as natural and necessary as breathing. It is the expression of our true nature.

The religion that I am talking about here is not the religion that one might learn about in a course on comparative religion 101. Indeed, to follow what I have to say, you must ask yourself, “What is religion?” This question after all is a variation on the question, “What am I?” To enquire into religion we must take it seriously. The way it is depicted by both those who are supporters of religion and those opposed to it, seems, to the neutral bystander, to be the product of madmen. To take religion seriously, we must take ourselves seriously: the miraculous nature of our life, its sheer impossibility, yet immensity. If we do this we shall see the paucity of the modern, scientific, view of the human being, indeed of all life, and we will demand some greater vision, some vision that will do justice to what we are.

To help get started on the question, “What is religion?” or, “What am I?” let us ask, “What is the real difference between machines and us?” Generally speaking, scientists today believe that you and I are machines. According to Richard Dawkins––the self-appointed voice of science––the only difference between the Boeing 707 and us is the difference of complexity. Yet, to ask why religion is so important to a Boeing 707 would be, to say the least, a rather strange question; but the question, why has religion played such an important part in human lives, why has it been surrounded by so much controversy and turmoil, are a very legitimate questions. They go to the very heart of the question: what is a human being? This question, what is the difference between you and a machine, therefore, is not an idle, philosophical one.

Of course a number of different answers to the question are possible––and I do hope that you will have spent a little time finding your own differences––but I would like to consider one that I think is very important.

A machine is inert. A car will quite readily stand in the garage for weeks, months or even years, the only change it would undergo would be a steady deterioration. Put a cat in the same garage, and in a very short while it would be searching, scratching restlessly, urgently for a way out. Whatever action there is in the car is between its parts, and ultimately between its atoms and molecules as rust sets in. The cat on the other hand acts as a single, unified whole.

In this way we see that complexity is by no means the only difference between us and a Boeing 707: the 707 is inert and has to be put into action by an outside agency; we, as well as the cat, are intrinsically active.

But why, why are we intrinsically active? Why do we find it almost impossible to do nothing?

For many years ‘vitalism’ offered an alternative to the machine theory of life. The vitalist explained the difference between the inertness of the machine and the activity of you and me by introducing a vital energy, a life energy. According to the vitalist, you and I are basically inert, but vital energy animates us and stirs us into action. Yet scientists have searched for years for vital energy without finding any, and so the vitalist theory has lost ground until now it has been thoroughly discredited.

Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, suggested an alternative that I would like us to consider. He said in effect that instead of seeing things as changing, we should see things as change. In other words, there are no things that change: things are change. You and I are not inert matter that have to be put into action: we, and the whole world, are action This is very similar to what Dogen, a 12th century Japanese Zen master, believed. In an article called Uji, translated as ‘Being-time,’ he quoted an earlier master, Yueh-shan, who said, “The pillar and the lamp are uji (time), you and your neighbor are uji, the great earth and the vast sky are uji.” Dogen went on to say, “Thus uji means that time is existence and all existence is time…we must look on everything in this world as time.” He was saying in effect that things are not in time: things are time. Moreover, instead of seeing time flowing against a stable background of eternity – that is like a river flowing between two stable banks – he saw the banks as flowing also. In other words, there is no eternity. He was elaborating on a basic Buddhist tenet: that of anicca, no thing, or impermanence.

This is similar to the outlook of the ancient Hebrews for whom time was not, as it was for the Greeks and is for us, the interval between two events, it was the event or happening itself. It is also similar to the ancient idea of God as dynamism, as Jehovah.

Let us return to the activity of the cat in the garage, frantically trying to find a way out. This is not simply random activity, or random movement: it is movement in a direction. The cat wants to get out of the garage. The movement is an intentional movement. The cat’s actions are purposeful, directed towards escaping from the garage.

Life, we could say, is intentional. To say this is anathema to most scientists. In the first place it runs counter to the belief that a continuous thread of evolution goes from subatomic matter through atoms and molecules, and so on to living organisms, which would necessarily rule out any difference between a man and a machine, because both are simply complex matter. But also to speak of ‘intentionality’ suggests that an agent of some kind – a self – dwells in the cat; a kind of ghost living in the machine, and that this agent has an intention. But the view that the cat’s action is intentional does not necessarily have that implication. Modern neuroscience and Buddhism both agree, although for entirely different reasons, that the belief in an agent is illusory.

When the cat struggles to escape, the struggle is clearly intentional. We have seen that the cat is naturally active, but that action is not simply any old action but is directed action. Moreover, it is directed action that has to negotiate, and frequently to overcome, obstacles on the way to its realization, which often requires intelligence and even creativity to accomplish. Because a single result will be the outcome of the struggle – leaving the garage – the struggle is action by a single intention. One might say loosely that the cat is ‘single minded’ or ‘one pointed.’

So where has all this got us to in considering religion? We started off this blog talking about Jehovah, and how we have inherited our idea of a static, logical universe, with a Supreme Being overseeing it, from the Greeks. We have seen that you are not some thing that happens to move around: you are movement, or, more specifically, you, like Jehovah, are dynamic action.

The idea that life and the world is dynamic action is supported by modern physics. A famous physicist, David Bohm, said, “Flow is, in some sense, prior to that of the “things” that can be seen to form and dissolve in this flow”. He says further, “There is a universal flux that cannot be defined [known] explicitly but which can be known only implicitly.” He adds, “Definable forms and shapes, some stable and some unstable, can be abstracted from the universal flux. In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather, they are different aspects of one whole and unbroken movement”
However, this flow, or dynamic action, is ‘unified;’ it is not just random action. Moreover, this dynamic, unified action is intentional, and intentional means intelligent. As we shall see later, it is also creative.

My first Zen teacher, Yasutani, used the expression “ku” to speak of dynamic unity. The Japanese word ‘ku’ is usually translated as ‘emptiness.’ But, as Yasutani says, ku “is not mere emptiness. It is that which is living, dynamic, devoid of mass — the matrix of all phenomena.” He goes on to say that the world of ku is “unfixed, devoid of mass, beyond individuality or personality — is outside the realm of imagination. Accordingly, the true substance of things . . . is inconceivable and inscrutable.”

The Tibetan Buddhists were also well aware of dynamic unity, and of its creative nature. A school of Tibetan Buddhists, rDzogs-chen, referred to dynamic unity by saying, “the universe is not only intrinsically ‘intelligent’, but is also a self-organizing whole of what superficially looks like a, or the, One (nyag-gcig).” This One or unity is not an entity or absolute but “the fusion of two contrary notions into a single dynamic one.” Another rDzogs-chen text, talking about dynamic unity, tells us that it is beyond form, and it sees this One in a more profound way as “that fundamental pervasive, unified, holistical process whose highly energized dynamics set up the variety of sub-processes and their associated structures.” The name that the rDzogs-chen text gives to this dynamic unity is the Ground (gzhi.) Gzhi “is the ground and reason for everything.” That gzhi is creative is emphasized by the rDzogs-chen text when is says, “[gzhi is] thoroughly dynamic . . . [and] responsible for the variety of structures, things, and experiences that are said to make up Reality.”

Ku, which Yasutani speaks of, and Gzhi of the Tibetans, are you and me; they are descriptions of our true nature. But, as we have seen, they are also descriptive of Jehovah. As Zen master Hakuin says, “From the beginning all being are Buddha,” or, from the beginning all beings are Jehovah.

Herbert Guenther, the translator of the Tibetan text, said that he would use the word Being instead of ground (Gzhi), but, “It is crucial to avoid associating the term Being . . . with any determinate, isolatable, static essence or thing.” (my emphasis.) We must be just as careful in our understanding of the meaning of dynamic unity and not confuse unity, or the One, with the numerical one, nor with some unified substratum. I am dynamic action, or as one Jewish rabbi said, “I am a verb.”

Unity is a constant theme in Zen Buddhism, although it is most often known from inside as emptiness. But, as we know Buddha said, “Throughout heaven and earth I alone am the honored One.” Moreover koan number 45 of the Hekiganroku speaks of Dynamic Unity, or the One, when a monk asks Joshu, “All return to the One; what does the One return to?” This One is also revealed in the four ways of knowing of an awakened person that Hakuin speaks of, and which I wrote about in the book, Hakuin on Kensho. The Knowing of equality refers to an inclusive unity and the knowing of differentiation refers to an exclusive unity. Exclusive unity is the unity of the Greek philosopher Plotinus who said, “It is by the One that all beings are beings. (If) not a one, a thing is not. No army, no choir, no flock exists except that it be one. No house, even, or ship exists except as the one.” It is the one of Hogen who seeing two monks roll up a blind in an identical manner said, “One has it the other does not.”

Yasutani pointed out that Ku, “is outside the realm of imagination. Accordingly, the true substance of things . . . is inconceivable and inscrutable.” Dynamic unity has no form, and by form I mean not only shape, size, and dimension but I also mean that we cannot feel it, think it, or know it in any way at all. It is the subject of the Prajnaparamita Hrydaya. This is why ku is translated as emptiness. Emptiness is the true nature of Oneness, it is seeing oneness from ‘inside.’ To talk of Oneness, is to talk of a concept.

But, as the Prajnaparamita Hridaya says, form is emptiness, emptiness is form: everything is the appearance of dynamic unity, but dynamic unity transcends everything. All religions have had dynamic unity as their transcendent foundation, and their raison d’être, and each has seen it differently and named it accordingly. The Hebrews called it Jehovah, (or more specifically Ruach HaKodesh, where ruarch means ‘wind, or breath), the Christians call it the Holy Ghost, the Hindus, Brahma, the Taoists , Tao, and the Buddhists, Buddha Nature.

In my first posting I said “we shall find a way by which we can rescue religion from the confusion of misunderstandings and ill-founded dogmas that characterize it at the moment. In doing so we may discover a startling new and meaningful meaning for the word ‘religion.’” I hope that in this posting I have gone some little way to rescuing the word ‘God’ from the morass of misunderstanding, bigotry, ignorance and downright stupidity, by which it has become shrouded. In subsequent postings I shall enlarge further on the meaning of dynamic unity.

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9 Responses to What is God? What am I?

  1. Who I am as nouns, as this or that thing, as a Buddhist, a carpenter, as a french speaking Québécois, as this body, as this mind, as whatever we wish to name and identity ourselves to, has more or less value and validity within a very limited fleeting and for ever changing context, beyond these contexts, it (both contexts and the names I identify with) actually means nothing at all. If we would have no words and names for each others, who would we fight against? There is a price to pay for peace, and that price requires that in some ways I do not believe a single word, a single name by which I mistakenly and quite stupidly identify myself with. That I find a way to break the spell, a way to escape my own fascination to this world of words. It is not so much the words themselves, as much as it is the fascination we all have for words. The etymology of the word fascinate:1590s, “bewitch, enchant,” from M.Fr. fasciner (14c.), from L. fascinatus, pp. of fascinare “bewitch, enchant, fascinate,” from fascinus “spell, witchcraft,” of uncertain origin. Possibly from Gk. baskanos “bewitcher, sorcerer,” with form influenced by L. fari ” to speak” . We do not only look at this world of words, we also and possibly much more importantly look from this world of words. What we look from ‘is’ what we look at, two different ways of talking about the same ‘thing’.
    And then, who am I as I intentionally struggle meaningfully and purposefully to find out? Who am I as verb? What is practice? What is religion?

  2. Sandra Olney says:

    It is interesting (and helpful to scientfically-minded people) to see eminent physicists embracing that which is ‘beyond’ materialism. The celebrated physicist Freeman Dyson suggests that we “are now learning ways in which life was implicitly present in the very dynamics themselves, from the very first moment.” (Swimme, Journey of the Universe, p. 12). I am personally blown away by the realization that the very carbon elements in each of the cells of my body were born during the explosion of a star (supernova explosion). It is said, “What are we to make of this…the very existence of life depends upon it (the supernova’s spectacular destruction and creation). Could it be that life is not possible without vast, mysterious, and ongoing transformation?”

  3. wpbyers says:

    What is this “dynamic unity”? Where is it? Where is it at this very moment? Where is it when you go for a walk, do the dishes, or sit in zazen? Is it some thing? Is it some substratum of the mind?
    Where does it go when you watch television, read a book or write a blog? if you have to look for it it’s not yours but how can you resist looking?

    It is so intimate. Enormous power, perfectly contained… I have always known it but keep turning away.

  4. anitalow says:

    To me, your statement ‘Religion does not come from on high’ is the key.
    Some can live a life being vigilant. Vigilant in his/hers awareness of what is real. These people live awakened to the dream. In their compassion they try to strip away the curtain of illusion for others. People, in the dream, recognize deep in their core this truth and long to understand. They think it is something outside that they must search for so they embark on a quest. They call this quest Religion. And then over time they put the cart before the horse.

  5. louis says:

    beyond all religious forms, and yet through all of them, who cries out in the desert? beyond all music, and yet through all of it, who sings in the desert? beyond all art forms, and yet through each one, who is drawing in the desert? beyond this web of words, and yet in each one, who speaks in the desert? is it one? is it two?

  6. Bruce says:

    Where science ends, religion begins, but scientific materialism will have none of that. Materialism is a sort of conceptual disease. It is the claim that one can know the universe entirely in terms of deterministic mechanism. This view was shown to be wrong a hundred years ago and yet the illusion persists. As one who works in science, it has been a hard task to disavow myself of the materialistic worldview and become open to religion. The one religion acceptable to me has been Zen Buddhism because of its rejection of beliefs and concepts. It is only through this ongoing attempt to know the unknowable that one can heal the conceptual disease of materialism and see the dynamic unity that underlies reality. This is what true religion is, but try to sell that to the masses. Nevertheless, there seems to be a great shift in this direction although it will take time for a full transition. I only hope that humanity does not destroy itself and the planet through wrong views. The world desperately needs more teachers like Albert to show us the way. Thank you, Albert, for creating this blog.

  7. Andre Martel says:

    Religion comes from within ( the heart ), dont go looking for it anywhere else. It is the very question, who am I (what am I etc…). We should be looking for a way ( or ways) to blend science and religion for they are essentially the same question. R B Fuller too said, I seem to be a verb and that, eternity is not a very long time ( never ending ) but rather no time at all, a sort of beyond
    time. Somehow the notion that the univers is a space-time continuum makes more sense to me
    from the point of view the One ( Emptiness ) Emptiness like vast space being time.

    With deep gratitude for Albert

  8. Randy H. says:

    A very wise friend and teacher once told me, “The world is intelligent and creative! You may call that God, if you wish. But why call it anything?”

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