Buddhism and God Sample

Prologue and Introduction to 'Buddhism and God: Seeking the Middle Way': Mud Pie, 2020


My thinking about Buddhism and God goes back in some respects to childhood. As the son of a Baptist minister, I remember sitting in church and just not understanding the point of all this God talk. At the age of nine I refused to go to church any more, although after that I did make several attempts to re-engage with it. Perhaps I was trying to work out what the point was. It seemed so unlikely that so many people would really devote themselves so much to something that was so apparently tedious and pointless, so surely there was something I was missing behind it?

During a gap year between school and university, I thought I had found God and at last understood what they were on about. I went to work on a farm in a steep Norwegian valley, and had ecstatic experiences of my energies uniting in that landscape. I wrote lots of poetry. The experiences were genuine enough, but my over-hasty identification of those experiences with ‘God’ as other people understood him was something I later came to regret. At that point I had too little alternative vocabulary available to me, although I was determined to carry on exploring the spiritual landscape. I voraciously read books of literature and spirituality alike.

As a student at Cambridge, I then encountered Buddhism. The Buddhists that I met did seem to have found something meaningful. I learned to meditate, and was impressed by Buddhist enthusiasm for the arts and for new thinking about how to lead a meaningful human life. I began to call myself a Buddhist. However, after a while I began to encounter dogmatic beliefs there as well. What did all this fuss about enlightenment, and this exaggerated reverence for teachers, actually have to do with the helpful practice I thought I had signed up to? My alienation from church services soon began to be rivalled by my alienation from Buddhist pujas. However, at the same time I also found religion fascinating, and full of potential for human meaning and development. I studied the philosophy and anthropology of religion, and, for a while, became a Religious Studies teacher of 16-18 year old students.

Teaching Religious Studies readily reveals the tensions in what is at best a temporary truce between absolutism and relativism. On the one hand, there is a formal neutrality: one is not indoctrinating students into a particular tradition, but helping them to understand it. On the other, however, some of the teachers involved have strong dogmatic beliefs. To avoid conflict, Religious Studies can seem to teachers with such beliefs (including one of my colleagues) to require them to cut them off and alienate them. I began to think about the problems created by thinking about religion so much in terms of mutually exclusive, absolute beliefs, and about the ways that relativism failed to resolve these problems. It achieves little to just present students with a smorgasbord of religious options, as though they were all equally ‘valid’. People needed ways of benefitting from the insights of religious traditions without constantly running into either absolutism or its attendant relativism, and rather to engage with what religion could offer.

Fortunately, my experience of Buddhism suggested to me that there might be a better way: the Middle Way. I decided to investigate the Middle Way more closely, so as to find effective ways of resolving the clashes between different religious traditions. So, I embarked on a Ph.D. in Philosophy, in which I surveyed how the Middle Way could be applied to moral conflict through the history of Western Thought.

The Middle Way, taught by the Buddha, is not a compromise, but (as I ultimately concluded) a navigation between the opposing absolute assumptions of absolutism and relativism (or, indeed, between many other pairs of opposing absolutes). However, the potential helpfulness of this approach has been much obscured by the confusing ways that the Buddhist tradition has transmitted it, taking specific examples of the ways that the Middle Way was applied in the Buddha’s time to be the Middle Way as a whole.

After finishing my lengthy Ph.D. thesis on the Middle Way as a basis of moral judgement, I realised that this was an unexplored approach, and that this would have to be only the beginning of the work I needed to do on it. Eighteen years later, I have written almost as many books on the topic as the years elapsed. It has become a detailed, multi-disciplinary project drawing on aspects of psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics as well as philosophy and religion. Although it started as an academic thesis, it has used thoroughly pragmatic criteria throughout, and is intended ultimately as a tool of practice. However, most practitioners are not interested in reading detailed academic work, which led me also to try to write introductions, and to found a society, the Middle Way Society, to support the practice as well as developing the theory of the Middle Way.

Although the term ‘Middle Way’, and its clearest application, come from the Buddha, my work from the beginning has been based on its universality. It is a principle that is by no means restricted to ‘Buddhist’ contexts, and can be applied in any other context. At first, following this through has entailed some degree of distancing from Buddhism. I have had to somewhat labour the point that the Middle Way does not have to be interpreted in ways that appeal to Buddhist tradition or its authority. Although for a while I have called myself a Buddhist and been the member of a Buddhist Order, I no longer have any such personal commitments. My personal commitment is to the Middle Way, and that is not the same as Buddhism.

So, my emphasis until recently has been on establishing Middle Way Philosophy as something separate from any one religious tradition. In recent years, however, I have been through a process of looking back and re-engaging with the two religious traditions that have influenced me so much (Christianity and Buddhism). This was partly a way of balancing my own perspective, so as to be consistently positive as well as critical, and to deepen my appreciation of what each tradition offered without in the least accepting any of the absolutism that might be found there. This has led me to publish a pair of books, ‘The Christian Middle Way’ and ‘The Buddha’s Middle Way’. In each case, I wanted to apply the Middle Way to the tradition in an entirely pragmatic, integrative way, separating out the ways it could be interpreted helpfully and unhelpfully.

Another major recent influence must also be mentioned: Jung’s Red Book. This extraordinary document, written and illustrated by Jung as a record and reflection of a series of self-induced visions that he experienced around the time of the First World War, was not published until 2009. Studied carefully, it is as rich and rewarding as any religious scripture (and it resembles a religious scripture in style). However, unlike earlier religious scriptures, it shows a constant awareness of the visionary’s responsibility for his visions. It is a record of Jung’s encounters with a variety of figures encountered in those visions, representing archetypes of God, the hero, the anima (feminine) and the shadow (evil). It also records the process of his learning to engage with them with deep seriousness without projecting them as in any sense ‘supernatural’ entities beyond himself. The Red Book also discusses the Middle Way, quite explicitly in places. In relation to God, Jung’s Middle Way is a navigation between both psychological and supernatural kinds of reductionism. God cannot be reduced to a set of abstract beliefs either way (there is no ‘just…’ anywhere), but his full power lies in recognising him as a full-blooded aspect of human experience.

It is the Jung of the Red Book (not necessarily always consistent with the later Jung), who has primarily inspired me with a sense of the importance of God, not as a supernatural ruler, creator or revealer, but rather as an experience. I also feel no differently about Buddhism. Buddhism is also not helpfully seen as a set of revelations of truth from the enlightened, but as a way of engaging with our experience and making appropriate judgements about it. Religious traditions themselves are thus far less important than how you choose to interpret them.

I no longer identify myself either as a Christian or as a Buddhist, because, as things stand, accepting either label would be too great a potential source of misunderstanding. However, my appreciation of both traditions has grown a good deal deeper as a result of the process of exploration and writing I have been through in the last few years. I was thus very happy to accept the invitation from Mud Pie to try to give a brief expression to some of the key points of the relationship between Buddhism and God as I see them, and would like to express my gratitude to its founder, Tony Morris, for his generous support and encouragement.


‘Buddhism’ and ‘God’ are not just a pair of abstract concepts. Each relates to a living experience for millions, even billions, of people. ‘Buddhism’ is a tradition of practice found throughout Eastern and Southern Asia, and now also increasingly in the West. ‘God’ is the focus of a sense of basic meaning and value for the two biggest religions in the world – Christianity and Islam, as well as Judaism from which both are descended. I cannot trifle with these concepts. What I write must at least attempt to respect such a massive weight of human experience: of awe, ecstasy, and inspiration as well as conviction, debate and conflict. If one can say this either for ‘Buddhism’ or ‘God’ alone, how much more so when they are combined?

Yet, commonly, discussions of Buddhism and God are dealt with simplistically: that is, in an over-abstracted and ideological fashion. There are several groups of people with specific interests in keeping things that way, so that they can maintain their exclusive claims and avoid the possible challenges involved in investigating other people’s concepts on their own terms. Let me start with a brief list of those groups.

  1. The exclusive theists, that is, believers in God as a supernatural entity, who want to maintain the view that this belief is the correct one, the only route to salvation. For them, Buddhism is at best a ‘human religion’ (as the Catholic Church has patronisingly described it) or at worst a Satanic threat.
  2. The exclusive Buddhists, who believe that the Buddha’s enlightenment gives a route to truth not offered by any other source. They point out that the Buddha did not believe in God, and may even claim that ‘The Buddha was an atheist’. Theistic religion, for them, is deluded because it is a form of ‘eternalism’, of a kind the Buddha rejected.
  3. The Universalists, who want to claim that Buddhism and God both point to the same final ‘truth’. God and enlightenment are different ways of talking about ‘ultimate reality’. They argue that we should not be misled by the ideologies of either Buddhism or the theistic religions into assuming a conflict that doesn’t really exist deep down.

It should already be obvious from this list that I do not wholly accept the assumptions of any of these three groups. They are each dogmatic in different ways. But all three are also based on the experiences of specific groups of people, and those experiences tell us a good deal about the value and significance both of ‘Buddhism’ and ‘God’. All three are worth probing more deeply.

This is not, however, a straightforward task. The first major stumbling block is not merely a matter of disagreement. People in modern society are relatively used to disagreeing, especially where religion is concerned, and in most cases won’t make too much of a fuss about that in itself. No, the much more intractable problems are created by language. Each of the three views I have listed are built on views about what ‘Buddhism’ and ‘God’ respectively mean. People who are happy to accept disagreement within their own way of understanding those two terms can still rapidly become incandescent with rage when someone challenges their assumptions about what they ‘essentially’ mean.

If you wish to come with me on this short journey of exploration as to how those three mutually exclusive positions might be reconciled, I’m afraid you’re going to have to let go of any essentialist assumption that you know what ‘Buddhism’ and ‘God’ “really mean”. That’s not because I claim to know what they “really mean”. Rather it’s because I have developed ways of using the terms that are motivated by practical considerations. If you want to stay within the security of your own group’s way of talking about these things, then you will be responsible for having chosen that limitation, with whatever further consequences it may have. If you venture beyond that zone of security, however, you will need to be willing to enter a land where meanings are negotiable, and where we try to take responsibility for the meanings we adopt, rather than assuming that they have been divinely (or enlightenedly) revealed to us in their current form.

If you do agree to come with me on this journey, it will involve, first, looking at what ‘Buddhism’ means, and what ‘God’ means, in a way that is based on the experiences of those who use those terms, rather than via the preconceptions with which their traditions may encourage them to interpret that experience. Such a journey needs to be motivated by a sense of independent judgement and responsibility. Yes, we can think these things out for ourselves. Yes, we do respect the insights that religious traditions offer us. But no thanks, we don’t accept dogmatic assumptions from those traditions when they fail to do justice to people’s experience, and only have the effect of creating conflict.

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