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Norman Fischer - What is God?


What is God?


Norman Fischer, Mar de Jade, December 2006.



Someone the other day asked me, and I think that they where not entirely happy with me when they asked me this, because they said, how come you are talking about God? Isn’t this a little bit un-Zen, isn’t Buddhism atheistic. And anyway, what does anybody mean by God when they say God, what do you mean by that? So these are good questions. And when people ask me what do I mean by God, I usually give them a completely true and a hundred percent accurate answer and I really mean this answer but people think it is some sort of trick or that I am joking somehow; but I am completely serious. The word God, God in English anyway, is a three letter word. That’s what God is. In Spanish it is “cuatro” letters. God is a three or four letter word that people often use when they talk about religion. And really it is the most accurate and most important thing about God for us in our human world. It is a word we use and it has a history and many associations in different cultures and different families and so on. And some of us feel really good about this word because we have positive and profound associations with it, and some of us don’t like this word because we have had bad experiences and associations with it. Maybe we learned the word by hearing it from people who are talking about God and using that word and sounded to us dogmatic or foreboding, or at the very least unfriendly. So we would do well, you know, to realize that really we are talking about a word and our association with it. Of course! It raises further questions, you know. What is this word referring to? And what do people mean by it when they use it? The answer to this question is more difficult and I would say the most honest answer to it is: that no one knows exactly what this word refers to. And I think that’s true, no one knows exactly what the word refers to. People give various definitions; maybe the most common one is that God is the Supreme Being; but you know, this makes no sense at all. What we mean by God could not be a Supreme Being, one being among many other beings. Most usages of the word God defy that definition. God could not be a being like us, you know, but only bigger, like much taller or something like that. People write long disquisitions on this question, and have done it for two or three thousands years. So, obviously let’s not go into it too much. But I would just like to suggest to you the possibility, which I believe is a strong possibility that what all these disquisitions about God have amounted to, is to say that God isn’t anything. This is what the most profound theologies really come down to, the idea that God isn’t; that God is essentially beyond everything and yet it is at the same time the heart of everything. So God is far beyond you and me and also exactly at the heart of you and me. So we can say the word God is a word that stands for that and how we feel about all that and seemingly we need to talk about that, which is why we have that word.


Why in the world do we need to talk about that? It’s so slippery, you can’t taste it, you can’t feel it, and you can’t define it. Why do we need to talk about that? Because we know that it is our destiny as beings to un-be sometimes. In other words, to die, and we know that this also makes no sense to us and it is impossible to discuss and yet there’s no way to live without having some understanding of that. So we have the word God and God is a very practical word for us, actually.


But she said, Buddhism doesn’t talk about God, Buddhism doesn’t have a God. And that is entirely true; the whole discussion of religion and Buddhism does not have anything equivalent of this three letter word or four letter word. Unless you say that Buddha is God. But most Buddhists are quick to point out, that no, Buddha is not God. But I am not sure; yes and no, I mean Buddha is a person, but also not a person, kind of like Jesus. So Buddha isn’t anything, just like us: because in the middle of us, of you and me, we are also nothing. And this is something you can actually discover for yourself on your meditation cushion, possibly. You can find out quite directly that in the middle of your self you aren’t anything. If your mind becomes very still, you can notice that there’s really nothing there; usually if you begin to notice this you become immediately frightened, so then you interpose some thoughts and feelings to give you the feeling you are actually there and it’s OK, there is not nothing in the middle. But maybe when you relax a little bit you can try to disappear into that nothingness, which is always there anyway and it is also in between each thought and it is actually in the middle of every thought if you would investigate each thought thoroughly enough. One comes to recognize that one is beyond all ideas one has about oneself. So it is not so clear why Buddhism doesn’t have something equivalent to God within it. When the Chinese people first learned about Buddhism they couldn’t understand it and of course they couldn’t understand it, because all the talk about Buddhism was in Sanskrit. And, you know, the Chinese didn’t understand Sanskrit, so they undertook the tremendous project of translating Sanskrit texts into Chinese. So what happens when you translate is that you take something that actually cannot be said in your language and in your conceptual system and you search for words that already exist in your language and conceptual system to be equivalents for the words that are not. So actually there’s no such thing as translating, we are demonstrating this now. In other words, every translation is not really a translation of something; we are not taking something across into another language, we are making something new. Laura is not translating my talk; she is giving a Dharma talk in Spanish that is loosely based on the words I’m saying in English.


So this is really the truth, every translation is a renewal; every translation is a new making. So when the Chinese translated from Sanskrit they literally made a new Buddhism, a Buddhism that had never been seen before and they even gave it a new name, they called it Chan. And when the Japanese translated it from the Chinese into Japanese they also made a new name, Zen. Picking words and concepts that didn’t exist in their language and finding equivalents that already existed in their language and in this way creating something new. And that is why I talk about God, do you understand? Because God is a word in our language that already exists and it is a word that we have used for many thousands of years to talk about religion. And whether we use that word or we don’t use that word that word is in the background of all of us speaking in English or Spanish about religious practice. And it has always been my policy to face what’s there instead of ignoring it, and very directly the word God is a very important word for many of us. And the truth is, I think, that it is an important word for all of us, even for those of us who don’t like that word and I think that we can become Buddhists to avoid it. I’m afraid there is no avoiding God. This is the whole thing about God, isn’t it?


Now, the next thing you might think if you have a sharp and critical mind is, well then, aren’t we inherently misunderstanding Buddhism when we translate it into another language? Is anyone who is hearing words only in Spanish, because that is what they can understand, missing the entire point of what’s being said? Well, we have to face the possibility that maybe it is so.


Then of course this raises another question. What am I actually talking about? And if I seem to be talking about Buddhism or Zen, you know, what is Buddhism or Zen actually talking about? Are they saying something that we should understand in the proper way and not in the improper way? Well, if we kind of follow along today’s discussion and we accept basically that God isn’t anything, and you and I at the heart of us are also not anything; why should we think that Buddhism is something? I think Buddhist teaching is really not anything either.


This may sound like bad news to you. But to me it is very good news, first of all it makes my job a lot easier, but second of all it means that Buddhism is really alive. It is not a set of ideas and doctrines that we can get wrong or get right, it’s alive; it’s a particular way of being alive, and life as we were talking the other night is not a piece of chicken on a plate, it is not something just laying there, its always transforming, its always new. And that something is always new means that it dies; and it springs to life and it dies, isn’t that what change is after all? Isn’t that the only way that something can be new?


So this is why it is a good thing that the Chinese had to understand Buddhism in their own way. And that we have to understand it in our own way. Our translation of Buddhism makes it come alive literally and when Buddhism is translated into Spanish it comes alive again in Spanish and it is a different Buddhism in Spanish than it is in English.


So, some people are archeologists and it’s a valuable profession, but we are not archeologists, and our purpose is not to accurately understand what the eight century Chinese people understood in the way they understood it. Our purpose is to bring our own life to life so that we can transform ourselves and also transform the world.


Anyway, there is a good Zen story about this:


One day Huang-po came to the assembly and did all the stuff that I was doing, you know, bowing and so forth. And when he bowed the world went flip flop, just like it did this morning. And then ─he was not nearly as nice as I am. I try to be really nice because I don’t want you to hate me. But Huang-po didn’t seem to care whether they hated him or not, so the first thing he said to them all was this: he said “you people are all slurpers of dregs”. I believe that maybe near Huang-po´s mountain there was a place where they made wine, so the fresh living wine was sitting on the top, leaving on the bottom the crappy dregs, so this part was considered disgusting and nobody wanted to drink it. In other words, it was the waste product left over from the living waters. So this is what Huang-po meant, I think, when he said you people are the ones who are slurping the dregs. You are not drinking the living wine you are slurping the dregs from the bottom. And then he said to them, “If you keep on like this, when would you see today?” So I think what he is saying to his students is, you are looking for a fixed teaching, something that you can master and understand, and if you keep looking for that, how are you ever going to come alive in your own life? And then he said to them: don’t you know that in the whole of China there are no teachers of Zen? So then, an innocent but courageous monk came forward and said to him: “but what about all of those people like yourself who guide followers and guide groups to various places?” And Huang-po answered: “I don’t say there is no Zen, just that there are no teachers”.


So, it would be a big mistake to think that there is something called Zen, and therefore by virtue of that, some other teaching that is not Zen. One of my teachers used to say over and over again, Zen means life, completely living life; which means completely facing life and embracing life, which means love. So this isn’t really a teaching and there’s no scripture for it really. Now, of course, as we are demonstrating here in our retreat we can talk about something and we can study something and we can make some intentional effort, but if we stick to those things we study and we stick to those teachings and stick to those efforts, what happens? Our attachment and aversion are hooked, and now we are hooked in Zen, so we are in trouble all over again and now we have a higher class of trouble, a fancy Asian trouble. So we use anything and everything that will help. We learn how to work with our emotions, we learn how to do zazen, we learn how to bow and chant, or maybe not. So in other words, we can do things, we can live our practice, and we can be our practice. Each one of us has to be our practice. But all external teachings and practices are just devices to help us out. And that is why Huang-po says: “I don’t say there’s no Zen, only no teachers of Zen”. Because there’s really no teaching so how can there be teachers? Although in Mexico people call me “Maestro”, which I feel is extremely charming, I really enjoy it ─I am considering getting everybody at home to also call me “Maestro”. Actually I am not teaching anything, so you know, it is not quite right to call me a teacher and certainly in my own mind I don’t think I am a teacher and I don’t think I have students, I never refer to “them” as my students. What I think I am doing is, I think, I am trying to practice truly the life that I have been given and to follow my destiny to the last drop and I feel very very happy to be able to do that side by side with all of you, because your effort really encourages me and touches my heart. It gives me a lot of faith to practice with you and to see you all changing and growing. So I am happy to do the best that I can side by side with you. But it will be a big delusion for all of us to think that I am teaching you something.


So what Huang-po is telling us is that there is no dogma in Zen, that Buddha is a six letter word and Zen is a three letter word. In other words, all Zen words and ideas are exactly that, words and ideas and there’s nothing behind them; there’s nothing that they refer to, so there can’t be any dogma, there’s no truth, there’s no teaching and yet we are human beings and so words and concepts have a giant influence on us. They influence the way we think and the way we live and the way that we see the world; and maybe if we are lucky we can use Zen and Buddhist concepts to undo the unsuccessful concepts that we came with and we can change our life that way. And we can wake the whole world up and we can have some freedom.


When there is dogma you can’t have a critical mind that asks questions and wonders about things. When we have a dogmatic teaching we have to stop ourselves from feeling some things and thinking some things. Now a lot of people actually like that idea, they like the idea of not thinking some things and not feeling some things. Maybe we think some of the things that we think and feel are bad or evil or certainly painful and we just assume not to have those things and if we could have a dogma that will cover over those things that would be very good, we think. But the truth is that is not really good, it is not healthy and also at the end it doesn’t work, at the end dogma won’t help us. To really see God or Buddha we have to go beyond dogma, we have to come out into the open, because that’s the only place that we can be free and we can be whole. It is out in the open, and we can stay in the open by allowing ourselves to question and to feel and to think.


The other thing that is bad about dogma, I think, is that when you hold onto a dogma you can’t talk to any body else, because you can’t even see that they are there, and that goes for oneself as well, you can’t even see yourself, because all the time you only see this looming dogma in front of you like a big wall that holds you off from everything and everyone. And that dogma can be a religious dogma, which is good, because we can blame it on somebody else; but we also have our own personal dogmas, so we have to be critical, we have to have a critical mind and critical thinking. This keeps us open and when we are open we can actually meet one another, we can actually hear one another.


But like everything else, critical mind and critical thinking also have a problem too, maybe you’ve noticed this. If your critical mind criticizes and questions everything and doesn’t know what it means to rest, it becomes impossible to love. How do you love something if you constantly criticize it? If your critical mind will tear it apart till there is nothing left. So this happens. On the one hand it is important because it opens us up but also if you don’t hold it in the right way and if you’re not careful it can tear everything. It is like a knife or a sword, you know, if you use it in the right way you can prepare lovely meals, if you use it in the wrong way you can hurt yourself. So love always defies critical thought. When love is present critical thought in that moment dissolves. So we have to be capable of realizing that a critical mind can also be kind of dogma, right? We have to learn how not to be hooked by our critical mind.


So, another Zen master made a comment on Huang-po´s story about “dreg slurpers”. He said: “When you face the situation, you don’t see Buddha; when you capture lions and tigers, there is no time for teachings”.


So, I am sorry this morning if I got a little carried away with all these funny thoughts, maybe a little to complicated and useless and I apologize, and I hope I haven’t made more confusion than you had before or put anybody to sleep, although this morning it seemed that no one was sleeping. Sometimes a few people are falling asleep, and this morning so far no one was sleeping. But on the other hand, I console myself with the thought that it is probably good if you are confused and if somebody did nod off once or twice, well, you are getting up pretty early, you need a few moments of sleep and actually this is the main virtue of my Dharma talks, this is why Zen retreats have always Dharma talks in the schedules. Because it gives you a little break of the relentlessness of your mind and the various ache and pains of your human body. It gives you something to distract yourself with or if necessary have a short nap.


Anyway, Zen talks are not supposed to tell you anything, so this morning I have probably done a better job than ever, than usual. We don’t come to retreats to listen to talks. We come to face the situation and the situation is by its very nature always something unknown, which is why facing the next moment of our lives, if we really appreciated what that is, always takes a lot of faith and courage and love. And this is what we are doing in retreat, always simplifying the human situation down to its basic so that you can see what it means to face each moment. And to capture lions and tigers means to always be ready to act with courage and accuracy in the midst of life’s many situations. And as the commentary says, teachings don’t help us with this. We have to rely on just ourselves, as we are in that moment. We have to hope that whatever skill we have or whatever knowledge we have will come forward but also, and maybe most especially, we have to relay on the deep human center that isn’t anything, that’s completely empty and is nothing, and therefore love flows in, because love rushes into a vacuum. So if we can act in our lives in that way, when action is needed, that’s really good. Then in the very next moment we will be challenged all over again, and if we cannot act that way in the midst of our human situation, this is also good, because then we can learn from the pain that will come.


So don’t be slurpers of dregs. If what I say today in any time makes sense to you that’s very nice and as soon as I’m done speaking, which is in about a minute, forget it. On the other hand, if it doesn’t make sense to you don’t worry and also forget it.


In walking, in sitting, in standing, in swimming around in the ocean, in eating the meal, in going to the toilet, in looking at the full moon at night, face the situation, capture lions and tigers.


Thank you.



Transcripción: Mikael Lomelín Benchetrit, Xalapa, Veracruz.