not giving god a name

IMG_3405The Buddha taught us that there is positive thinking and there is negative thinking. The most important thing is to stay above thinking.” [Phra Ajahn Jayasaro]
(Thai text translation)
POSTCARD #160: New Delhi: I feel sad that most children in the West don’t receive the same structured guidance or instruction, as they do in the East, about experiential truths in the lineage of Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad – some of whom are called Gods and some prophets. I remember, years ago, asking an old Anglican priest in East London how to find God and he said: ‘are you going?’ Just left it at that. What he meant was: are you going to church? I wasn’t. When I was a kid we didn’t ‘go’, nobody ever ‘went’… there were weddings, funerals, and ‘God’ was never a topic of discussion. I’d had some spiritual insight in this godless condition and was asking the question because I couldn’t understand what the loud hymn singing and dressed-up-in-smart-clothes thing was about; what lay beyond the ‘thou-shalt-nots’ and instruction on the fundamentals of social behaviour. Later I began to see that what the priest meant was, ‘are you actively doing something about this?’ But where to begin? I felt slightly excluded and defensive; ‘going’, was something known only to those who ‘go’… an enigma I didn’t feel equipped to tackle. It didn’t compel me to go back and follow up the conversation with the old priest, and it’s possible he was waiting for me to come back… I feel quite sad that I never saw him again.

I was searching for a context for this state of Godlessness for a long time before I discovered Buddhism in Thailand and became immersed in those detailed behavioural teachings. That was more than 20 years ago, so all this is seen in hindsight. What I understood then, was what the old priest was referring to as ‘going’. The focus is on the immediacy of the here-and-now reality – what’s happening? Where’s it at, this mind/body organism, in relation to ‘the present moment’? What are the tendencies, habitualities in thought that cause me to wander off in my own and others’ suffering and unhappiness? What are the practicalities of the sequence? How can I train myself to break the chain of consequences – to not do whatever it is that causes stress or distress?

There isn’t a creator god in Buddhism, it’s an all-inclusive thing – in the same way there isn’t a ‘self’ outside of consciousness. There’s the operating system, Sila (virtue) Samadhi (focus) Panya (wisdom) and some might say this is God – for Buddhists, it’s better not to call it anything. By not giving god a name, I’m not inclined to develop an attachment to an idea of God according to what I’d like it to be. Better to think of it as nothingness – no-thingness, there’s not any ‘thingness’ about it… I’ve read how it’s a wisdom, a gnosis so completely at one with the thing it knows, there’s an absorption into it. No words for it. Maybe that’s what the old priest was thinking…

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you. [Saint Augustine]
Link to: Publications by Ajahn Jayasaro

66 thoughts on “not giving god a name

  1. I think how a religion is presented and how you respond to it sort of determines how you feel about it.
    I was raised a Buddhist, in a Buddhist household but I never felt any connection to it. And it always baffled me growing up when people (especially Westerners) would drone on about how great and spiritual Buddhism was and what a bore the monotheistic religions are but I had the total opposite experience. Buddhism bored me to no end, I understood it, it made sense, it was logical but no heart, that’s how I perceived it. A big part of is I thoroughly disliked the people associated with Buddhism while I was growing up, they were sneering and judgement in their own ways. I am now a Roman Catholic, the religion of my father and I feel totally connected to God, through Christ and God as His own entity himself. This was religious path I chose for myself. Thank you for writing your blog, it always fascinates me to read how Westerners respond to Eastern religions as I usually have the opposite view. What you call ‘guidance’, I consider it rigidity and inflexibility. So, it’s very interesting to me.

    • Also interesting to me, I see you’re using the word ‘religion’. I take great care about words like that and describe it here as ‘guidance … about experiential truths in the lineage of…’ So it looks like we’re coming at this from opposite sides, that’s also interesting. I got involved in Thai Buddhism, mainly because my wife is Thai and we’ve been together more than 30 years. I don’t know much about Buddhism in India, but I’ve never experienced anyone in the Buddhist world as ‘sneering and judgement in their own ways’. Nope, I’d say the opposite really, in every respect…

      • I’ve never experienced anyone in the Buddhist world as ‘sneering and judgement in their own ways’.

        Then you’ve had the good fortune to not hear the chauvinistic drivel that so often emanates from the Sinhalese Sangha. IMHO, lot of Californian Vajrayana teaching – including that of Tibetan born rinpoches – could be characterised that way too.

      • Hmmm, I should have said I was referring specifically to the Theravada form mentioned in my About section. I’m sure you’re right. I tend to select situations that’ll not involve confrontational assumptions…

      • Part of the chauvinism of the Sinhalese Sangha is that they see themselves as the only pure repository of Theravada Buddhism (despite their casteist interpretation of it).

        But I think the most sneering and judgmental aspects of Sri Lankan Buddhism are directed primarily against the Tamil minority and are rooted firmly in their interpretation of the Mahavamsa.

      • Thanks, wow! ok so, when caste comes into Buddhism, the whole thing falls apart. Plus the oppression of the Tamil minority and the interpretation of the Mahavamsa, clearly controversial, I see in the Wiki page the V. A. Smith description: “a tissue of absurdities” – all kinds of stuff…

      • ok so, when caste comes into Buddhism, the whole thing falls apart.

        Well, that’s how I see it. To me casteism also flies in the face of some of the Suttas but in Sri Lanka they read it differently.

        Bhikkhu Bodhi has some pretty funny anecdotes about how some Sinhalese monks justify casteism but I’m not sure how accurately he depicts their arguments. I’ve read some articles by prominent monks in the Sri Lankan press that twist texts and logic beyond my recognition but they sure didn’t make me laugh.

      • I’m pretty sure the Buddha had caste on his social-change list – that’s why he ran into difficulty with some Brahmins, and after his death the force of Hindu belief destroyed Buddhism in India – some help from the Mongols. Another indication of caste is the huge upsurge of Ambedkar Buddhists but I’m not sure if they really know what they’re doing yet.
        I notice that monks like Bhikkhu Bodhi make light of the traditional sangha attitudes, it’s an East-West thing and Western monks are compromised by being always the ‘outsiders’ having to tow the line…

      • I think Bodhi made light of Sinhalese casteism and the rationales the Sangha offered for it at least partly as a counter to my own outrage over it. But also because he’s inclined to make light of lots of stuff.

        For decades the Sangha put themselves squarely in the way of any peaceful rapprochement between Sinhalese and Tamils (as well as encouraging discrimination against Muslims). Given the resultant bloodshed it’s pretty difficult to just dismiss it as traditionalism or East-West mutual incomprehension.

        If you ask me it’s not an East-West difference at all. The Mahavamsa basically gives ‘divine’ endorsement to the notion of Sri Lanka as a homeland for Buddhist Sinhalese. The Sangha takes the same position some Jewish clerics take over Greater Israel, that the Dutch Reformed Church took over apartheid South Africa and that Wahhabists take over Saudi Arabia.

        God as the Supreme Real Estate Agent strikes me as a Very Bad Idea no matter who comes up with it.

      • The list goes on, Christian inculturation is a sensitive issue here in India. And the rest of the Asia really, Africa, America. I know of a Buddhist monk in Thailand actively trying to develop a Dhamma teaching in schools that’ll counter the Christian influence there. Everybody trying to grab a piece of territory as you say…

      • A bit about my background, I am biracial – Chinese and Anglo-Irish (mother/father), mother is Buddhist, I lived with her and her family after my parent’s divorce, being Buddhist wasn’t a ‘choice’ just like being Christian probably wasn’t a ‘choice’ for you. We are Buddhist from the Chinese tradition which is a mix of the Indian tradition mixed in with the very regimented Chinese mentality. Not fun for me. Also, though I lived with my Chinese family, I was quite ‘Western’ in many ways. I found the whole thing a bore, a colossal chore I couldn’t wait to get away from and I realize all of this is my problem not Buddhism at its teachings itself, I fully acknowledge that, which is why it’s so interesting to me when I see other Westerners embrace if so fully as it’s the antithesis of Christianity in some ways. Also, we were affiliated with the California Berkley Buddhist community here, and I shall leave it at that and not offer any more comment. 🙂 You can real all about them with a quick google search. 😀 Thank you for your blog. I love it very much, it’s quite nostalgic to read and had I been taught or introduced to Buddhism by someone like you, I may not dislike it so much.

      • Thanks for liking my blog and your kind words. Interesting background, you have the benefit of both East and West. I grew up in a family (also divorced) who were ‘Christian’ but not church-going, not practicing, so it was all just a void for me. I can imagine if you were forced to comply with rituals and ceremonies it would have no meaning. There was no meaning for me either, although by apathy, lack of interest. I notice Chinese Buddhists do have a lot of energy and seem to have associated superstitious rituals included in their view of the Buddha’s teaching. I don’t know anything about the California Berkley Buddhist community, just had a look at their page. The idea of a Buddhist community doesn’t carry a lot of meaning for me, I’m more inclined towards the study side. My Buddhist friends are individual practicing monks living quietly and I only see them from time to time, skype calls. We all live with our perception of being…

      • Yes, I very much have the privilege (I consider it one) of Eastern and Western influences growing up. Chinese culture, especially the more traditional families such as mine, we take Confucianism along with Buddhism very seriously. It was only until recently I begun to appreciate Confucianism, I used to find that a real bore too, but now I know why he was and is so important to Chinese societies. Being ‘Western’ gave me the freedom to pursue my goals and to be ‘me’ and worry what others say (a trait which annoys my mom’s side of the family very much). So, I am very lucky to have so many choices in my life based on my heritage. Much love and peace.

      • Interesting position to be in. I used to teach English writing in a university class in Bangkok and I’m aware of the differences in perception – maybe cognition. The West is more heavily deductive and the East is inductive. What I mean is the Western deductive paragraph starts with a hypothetical statement (the subject of discussion), backs it up with supporting material and draws a conclusion. The Eastern inductive paragraph is hard for Westerners to understand; there is no indication at the beginning about the subject, just many statements (supporting material) that gradually start to suggest a subject with or without a conclusion at the end. I wondered if you’d noticed this in ordinary spoken expression…

      • Hmmm that’s very interesting now that you mention it. I noticed just during conversations with my mom and her family they’d be talking and half way through I’d have to interrupt them and say, ‘what are we talking about?’ And it’s not a language barrier but they’d go off on these tangents. Whereas I am very direct and to the point. I love hearing other viewpoints regarding East v. West. I always learn something new.

      • It’s exactly what I’ve noticed speaking with Thais. There doesn’t need to be a ‘subject’ because it’s understood, either that or it’s cultularly correct not to refer directly at anything really. Can be really confusing. On the other hand I think the idea of discovering what the subject is, in the process of considering it’s attributes, is very much the way ‘insight’ occurs in Eastern spiritual teachings…

      • Yes perhaps, however, I didn’t inherit the ‘patience’ gene for that sort of thing. I can be rather impatient especially when I am in a hurry and am usually in no mood to ‘discover’ the subject 🙂 But I am getting better as I get older. I’ve come to appreciate a lot more of my Chinese heritage, especially the aspects I loathed growing up. Confucianism is one of them.

      • I know what you mean, I didn’t inherit anything of course and it’s taken me 30 years of frustration to get kinda used to it. At the same time, I seem to be able to understand Eastern ways of thinking better than before.

      • I do ‘understand’ it at its fundamental levels of course, due to my upbringing, but I don’t think I took care to implement what I understand. The studies of East and West is fascinating. I get lots of questions on them, for obvious reasons. And, for all my faults, I am quite adept at explaining the differences of East/West to both Westerners and Easterners so I am blessed in that regard too. I take for granted my innate understanding of ‘cultural’ differences, whereas someone else have to go learn them (sometimes by trial and error).

      • Could be as a child, with the option of either, the deductive way of thinking is the simplest – thus all Westerners are children 🙂 I’d imagine there would be all sorts of business consultants keen to have you on board (both East and West) as part of their grand marketing strategies, make a lot of money, retire early, buy a yacht etc.

      • This comment is in response to tiramit’s “There doesn’t need to be a ‘subject’ because it’s understood, either that or it’s cultularly correct not to refer directly at anything really.”
        … or it could be a matter of not bringing everything to bear on a subject at all (unlike those of us raised in a highly subjective and reductionist culture) but rather letting the relationship between all the elements of the conversation suggest a way forward. Or not.

      • I like the idea of not immediately bringing focus on the subject and instead looking around at how things are anyway – in the process of it seemingly having led to this present outcome. The bigger picture…

  2. Hmm. I can’t help wondering if Merton slipped up in thinking his nakedness and his emptiness and his hollowness and his mistake is somehow more real than any of the other ego projections he clothes ‘himself’ in.

    Maybe it’s just a function of how language actually works. By its nature it’s caught up in time, subject/object and fundamental dualism.

    How can you talk about ‘god’. Words immediately divide reality into what they refer to and what they exclude. ‘Cat’ also implies that-which-is-not-a-cat. To say ‘god’ is also to say ‘that-which-is-not-god’. For many that brings devils and demons into being. For others it objectifies god and so implies an inherent unholiness in themselves.

    ‘Thinking’ is, of course, a process. Inherently time-bound and therefore not of the moment. But thinking in words adds all the limitations of language and the subject/object assumptions inherent in the concept of communication. To imagine you’re thinking or speaking of god is to impoverish the sacredness of what is.

    • ‘To imagine you’re thinking or speaking of god is to impoverish the sacredness of what is.’ Well, I agree completely, in fact you’ve expressed it much better than I, saying ‘not giving god a name’. This post was a remembering of times past, how I arrived at the way things are. Language is naming, identifying, and ‘there are no words (for this subject). Maybe that’s what the old priest was thinking…’
      I was curious about the Merton quote, I suppose identified, still, with his Catholic background and seeing ‘selflessness’ in that context.

      • Seeds of Contemplation was written fairly early in Merton’s spiritual journey but I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ve read a fair bit of his stuff and he seems to have come to a mystical understanding of the emptiness of self at quite an early stage, though I’m not sure he ever fully came to grips with the limitations of language in trying to express mystical insights. I doubt I ever will either.

        My understanding is that Merton had a Quaker mother, was raised as an Anglican, became agnostic, an atheist Marxist, then had an epiphany and eventually converted to Catholicism. Some orthodox Catholics claim he’d drifted well away from the doctrine and when he died was on the verge of leaving Catholicism, voluntarily or not. In any case, I don’t think he was overly committed to a narrowly Catholic worldview.

        I’ve always thought it kind of ironic that a Trappist monk became so famous for what he said and wrote about the ineffable.

      • Ironic is the word, in his writing he was walking a fine line – in the eyes of the many conservative Catholics who would be happy if he weren’t there, had an accident with an electric fire in a bathtub in Bangkok, for example…
        His life was an example of someone who struggled to be free of the Western model of spirituality some of it was bridging the gap but he couldn’t quite make it. If he had lived longer perhaps. He was a social activist and a poet…

  3. I keep thinking of the French philosopher Foucault. We are part of this social construct carried forth as a persona that provides a sustainable system as long as we continue the hierarchy.

    But when we recognize all the structures, including our disturbing emotions, we see into a different self. The structures still exist, but they also separate. Perhaps Buddha’s separation allowed him to see something and no-thing.

    What I still see are mixtures of canvases–some culturally painted and others opening to full expression of no-thing, which I tend to call spaciousness.

    • The cultural aspect, ‘mixtures of canvases’ I like the idea that the diversity is all-inclusive. I wonder how it was in feudal North India at the time of the Buddha. And how Foucault understood attachment (to self), as in the 4 noble Ts? He arrived at selflessness by a different route, one I’m not so familiar with…

  4. I find the obscurity of the word nothing or no-mind is a hiderence to most in
    Western Religion. The Gap so to say between thoughrs in Christianity is often over looked and it takes a different tack to”get it” for most, which is the”Letting go” to no mind. I find it appropriate to see how you see the priest in hindsight much clearer after being emmersed in eastern religion.
    I believe you cansee how in my writings I try to connect the two to point at the nothingness both eastern and western phioshies are referencing but often misunderstood
    I hope my book Double Vision gives people a helpful way to focus on The Gap as that is my intension which I believe you already know.

    • Yes, I think there are a few, like the old priest mentioned here, but the context is so rigid they can’t easily teach others. The majority have this short little attention span and just don’t see. The word ‘nothingness (‘no thingness’) represents a sudden lack, a falling-into-the-abyss, all the constructs swept away because they were built up and maintained by belief without foundation. They don’t immediately see the truth of letting go – form/formlessness.
      I’ve been reading the development of your book online, chapter by chapter. Thanks for dropping in…

      • Ditto Tiramit. The new Pope “gets it”. I was completely surprised to hear what he said when he visited US.
        When you hear it in someone, you know it. I love the fact that it comes to us how ever it does. It’s not like we have the correct change. What ever we got in our pocket, works.
        Thanks for following my book, also

      • Thanks Tommyg, as we speak I’m looking through search engines to find the new Pope’s words. I remember at the time thinking I wonder if there is something hopeful here. I understand what you’re saying about whatever you have will do, it works for everyone…

      • I don’t know how to add a pic to this message.

        About eight months ago WordPress made it really simple. Now you just have to paste the URL of the pic (or YouTube clip) into the message. The only complication is for pics on sites that use embedded scripts to display them, in which case you have to find the URL of the pic itself rather than the HTML instruction invoking the script.

      • Do you think so?

        The reason I ask is because I have a theory that all or most people have the occasional mystical experience but that unless they can contextualise it in some way it slips from their narrative memory like a dream. I suspect that ‘acid flashbacks’ aren’t caused by LSD at all but rather by the way previous LSD experiences provide a context whereby brief departures from ordinary states of consciousness can be brought to the forefront of awareness and woven into narrative memory.

        I think for many people the ability to integrate experiences is closely linked to words. We tell our own story by articulating it to ourselves and for many people that means turning it into words. But it also means things which can’t be rendered into words become lost.

        I think that many systems of thought – particularly religious ones – calculatingly or not exploit this phenomena by providing a narrative framework whereby followers can articulate what seem to be very profound experiences within the ontology supplied by the thought system.

      • Some time I’ll write a post about the experience. It was shortly after I arrived in India for the first time – that overwhelming feeling of the whole of history and all humanity comes over in a wave. Then I’d had dysentry and using Flagelin med and reading Sri Aurobindo at the same time. So that would have been the context for it as you say here. I was quite convinced about the Pondicherry Ashram, stayed there for a year (not all the time in the ashram). Then I moved to Bangalore and stayed there for a year, during which time I was able to let go of the association with Pondicherry etc. A couple of years later I had another experience of altered state, not dissimilar, and this time it was Theravadin Buddhism. I agree that for ordinary folk, living in the same place most of their lives, ‘religion’ manipulates what would otherwise be a natural human experience. I can’t give any examples of LSD experiences…

  5. Wow! I really found both the post and the discourse interesting but then started to feel overwhelmed and then I read the above comment,, LOL! I have always been fascinated by Buddhism but then chose the Christian path mainly because of the experiences I was having. I never learned enough about Buddhism which is something I have been telling myself for years that I need to put right. I have a suspicion that when you dig deep into the teachings of Jesus they may not have been so different. Although your post makes me understand that there is less sentimentalism about God in Buddhism. I experience God as Love incarnate but yes also see God as All that is and we are all part of that.

    • Thanks for dropping in, yes it gets busy here. A long time ago somebody left a note on my blog: Buddhists are like trees, providing oxygen to those of us whose way of life is more cumbersome and noisy. (I made a note of it but don’t know whose it is.) I like to think that all spiritual paths are aspects of the same directional route. Maybe Buddhism is the one that provides a map…

      • Hmm mm interesting idea. I got lost on Eigg at one point because there were so many ways to get back home. All of the ways would have gotten me there in the end but I was trying to find the exact way I knew because it was less cumbersome. I already wrote a blog about it but haven’t posted it. I hadn’t thought of the experience as an illustration till now. I will have to do a bit of rewriting. Thanks! 🙂

      • Hadn’t thought of that; on a small island it’s impossible not to be able to find your way back if you get lost, yet one still chooses the preferred route. Look forward to reading your post…

  6. Lovely post and quote from Mr. Merton, and a very enjoyable conversation following it, Tiramit. I enjoyed the discovery that some have moved West to East, and others East to West. I agree with Teresa that some of the distinctions are not nearly as substantial as they seem, but it does require digging into the essence of things– seeing beyond dogma. When we grow up in a culture, it’s easy to see the need to look elsewhere to transcend the dogma. We become jaded on the particulars of a given situation I think. Or at least we can. I simply felt what I had been taught wasn’t the whole story. I wanted to understand how huge tracts of the population could possibly be wrong, simply by being different? How does that work? It can’t!

    I find the teachings of both Buddhism and Christianity to be indispensable, but if you lay out the result on paper there may not be a tremendous amount of either group who would lay claim to the result. For me a great deal of what we call “spirituality” or “God” or “religion” boils down to a comfort with the parameters of our given experience that is rooted in the recognition that the given experience is ever and only a modicum of a much vaster and extended “reality”. We are both right here, and so obviously more than right here. Both at once. We can get caught up on the philosophical, but there is such power and beauty in settling into a simple comfort with the human “condition”– simply being at peace, which allows us to ultimately be authentic and “empty” expressions of loving kindness.


    • It’s this action of ‘digging into the essence of things’ that is typically Eastern (inductive) I find, having tried (and failed with) the Western strategy of looking elsewhere in order to transcend the dogma – eventually coming to the realisation that in fact more digging into the essence of things is what’s needed. It’s a shared sense of subjectivity… we’re all in this together – mostly doing things with difficulty, hardship (the Buddhist ‘suffering’). You could say there’s no real difference in the world’s religions, except that Buddhism is the one that provides a map (sorry I’ve said this earlier somewhere). Dependent Origination maps out the smallest mind-moments simply falling into place, dependent on what has immediately occurred; the structure of linking causality citta ‘moments’. The teaching is an intervention strategy (steps 7-8) in the automatic sequence – here we can we find a way out of ‘suffering’ and how to actually change our destiny.

      • “Time
        What is that?
        I’ve no time
        To care”

        – Sandy Denny

        Do you know the “diamond” approach to enhancing one ability to explore Lucid dreaming?

      • Thanks for this Ben. I didn’t know it but after searching around in google, some familiarity arose. Found this: “…to recognize that life is happening all at once. It is only our “Perception” that arranges our dramas into linear or “timed” order. So just as a diamond just is, each facet if viewed as an individual experience, still is going on at the same time the “Dream Body” experiences as well. This method is also known by Remote Viewers. Remember it is just a slight shift in awareness that this exercise calls for.”

      • recognize that life is happening all at once. It is only our “Perception” that arranges our dramas into linear or “timed” order.

        Yeah, I can buy that. Though ‘all at once’ has pretty limited meaning under the circumstances.

        I sometimes wonder if everything possible is happening ‘all at once’ and that the perception of time and continuity is just us selecting sequences of very similar slices and lining them up. Like going through a bin containing pictures of yourself in every position, sorting the most similar ones side by side, then flicking through them to create an illusion of motion in the same way very similar pictures on a roll of movie film do.

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