Thomas Aquinas- Catholic theologian, Doctor of the Church
"So for me now when I say the word God, what I image, what I feel, thanks to Buddhism, is the interconnecting spirit -- this ever-present spirit, this ever-present, interconnecting energy that is not a person, but is very personal, that this is the mystery that surrounds me, that contains me, and which I am in contact with in the Eucharist, in liturgies, and especially in
meditation." Paul Knitter, Catholic theologian and Buddhist practitioner
“I looked for Him on the Christian cross, but He was not there. I went to Hindu temples and shrines- but nothing. I visited the Ka’aba in Mecca, I did not find Him. I questioned learned scholars, but He outstripped their understanding. Finally, when I peered into my own heart- there, and nowhere else, was His home.” ~ Jalal Al-Din Rumi- Sufi poet
Once I sat across the table from a Catholic nun who is a good friend and who is sympathetic to my Buddhist/Christian practice. We were talking about various things spiritual, including the Buddhist way of talking about reality vs the Christian way, the existence of God, etc. I told her the Buddhist experience is that, at the deepest levels of reality, there really is no such thing as Mike McMahon."
"But I'm sitting here looking at and talking to Mike McMahon."
My response went something like this: Something is going on across the table from you, something is happening here, but we can't say exactly what it is. Whatever is happening here, it is completely dynamic, constantly changing, more a process than a thing or being. It is intimately connected with, interpenetrating, one in being with all other aspects of the cosmos (the energy of the sun is a constant aspect of Mike McMahon's being, the oxygen of the plants, the waters of the ocean, the minerals of the earth, the experiences of others penetrate and shape Mike McMahon's heart and mind- if I keep going, I wind up naming every molecule, every person, place and thing, every event in the history of the cosmos as comprising my being.)". According to Buddhism, Mike McMahon is composed completely of non-Mike McMahon elements. He is empty of a separate self, but full of the entire cosmos!
Living life day to day, we live in the relative world of people, places, and things in relation to one another. We need to use concepts like Mike McMahon, sun, tree, up, down, high, low, good, bad, to function in this world. But if we are not able to touch deeply the ultimate level of reality- not just as an idea,but with our whole being, if we are not able to touch the realm where there is no separation, is no person, place or thing, and if we only have the capacity to touch the relative world where everything is separate, then we bring tremendous and unnecessary suffering into the world. From the Buddhist point of view, separating reality into God/Creation can be, if we are not careful, part of this suffering. According to Buddhism, confusing concepts with reality is the cause of most unnecessary human suffering- and most human suffering is unnecessary.
If we want to use the word "God" to describe the ultimate reality that we are all part of, that's pretty safe. But when we begin to use other words, God as father, God as Judge, God as creator (and we, creation, separate in a fundamental way, "less-than" in a fundamental way, fallen), then, according to Buddhist experience, if we are not careful, we will be moving out of touch with the deep nature of reality and creating suffering.
When we begin using words to describe something in the world, we take a reality that is living, dynamic, infinitely large and deep, mysterious and beautiful, and interpenetrating and interbeing with all other aspects of the cosmos, and, if we are not careful,we make it small, separate, static- an entity amidst other entitities playing out as some sort of drama (usually with we humans in the center of it all). With words we can drive a thick wedge into the deep intimacy connecting all aspects of existence.
We need to use words and concepts in order to live, but we must be very careful. We must understand the nature of words and
concepts versus the deep, living nature of reality. Words and concepts are tools which we have created to help us organize, understand, and manage our life in this world. When we confuse our words with living reality, we create a lot of suffering for ourselves and others. When we use fire, we must know the nature of fire, the nature of ths situation we're using the fire in, how we are applying the fire, etc. We want to have sovereignty over the fire and use it to help and not hurt.
Whatever the ultimate reality of being, whether we call it God, Buddha nature, the cosmos- that reality will be infinitely deeper, richer, more elegant and beautiful, and, in my experience, more consoling than all of our concepts, philosophies and theologies could ever describe. It's more important that we enter into deep and meaningful relationship with that reality than that we define it.
Below is the song, "Mystery" from Paul Winter's "Earth Mass"- a beautiful evocation of the fullness/emptiness of God.