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The Personal God


tariki
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Often a contrast is drawn between the "western" approach to God as a Person and the "eastern" impersonal/non-theistic approach. Thus a lot of Western religion centres around the relationship between our own "persons" and the Person of God, while the Eastern appears to concentrate more on being "one" with Reality.

My own experience has led me to the conclusion that much of this supposed contrast is caused by the total confusion as to what we mean by a "person".

As a starting point I would observe that if we, as we so often seem to do, identify ourselves purely with the empirical ego, and then identify the empirical ego with the "person"..........when we then say God is "personal" (or a person) we are in fact asking for big big trouble.

Some have observed that the empirical ego is in fact the source and centre of every illusion......and not just the Buddha!

As Thomas Merton has observed, and I agree with him, "suffering, as both Christianity and Buddhism see, each in its own way, is part of our very ego-identity and empirical existence."

So we have "person" and we have the "ego self", we have who we see ourselves as being, and there is what we perhaps truly are.

Any thoughts?

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By eastern I presume you mean Buddhist. There are variants within Hinduism that have a personal God that is worshiped but more importantly experienced in a personal way (Bhakti) through the forms and images which seem like different deities but are all just manifestations if the one God (for lack of a better term god is used I sometimes think when translated). Check out The Gospel of Ramakrishna and the experiences of Ram Dass here in the west and his grounding in a personal relationship with God. I know there is the notion that buddhism has no belief in a personal God but it is interesting that early buddhism adopted Hindu cosmology and some variants of Buddhism believe in devas (supernatural beings) who are more enlightened beings butcstll part of samsara. The bodhisattva is filled with self- sacrificial love and devotion toward the suffering of all sentient beings. Recognizing the Buddha in oneself is recognizing the Buddha in all. To me it seems that Buddha did not seem to need to address the issue of the personal God because it was another form of attachment perhaps. He did seem to recognize something greater perhaps that is beyond belief. Belief tontine Buddha seemed to be another form of attachment.

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"Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are." - Thomas Merton

 

Merton seems to have always maintained a commitment to Christianity and to a personal god as he transcended the paradoxes of doctrine and dogma like any mystic does. His interreligious dialogue is invaluable to say the least as he and other exemplified the spirit of Vatican II (see John Main and Thomas Keating off the top of my head) beyond its institutional limitations, who I think gave Christianity an adrenalin rush it needed as it laid on its deathbed and which still continues to recover in its spiritual ICU.

 

Despite the variants in buddhism

 

"At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience ... To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, 'panentheism', according to which God is ... all and one and more than the totality of existence .... As I mentioned before, Buddhists do not make use of the term God, which characteristically belongs to Christian terminology. An equivalent most commonly used is Dharmakaya ... When the Dharmakaya is most concretely conceived it becomes the Buddha, or Tathagata ..." Soyen Shaku , zen teacher.

 

God is unknowable and not a person as Christian theology teaches as well as Jewish I think but knowable through the recognition of the god the divine the Whatever in all of us.

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My personal opinion is that Christianity got off the track early on when it developed the doctrine of the Trinity. Perhaps for ease of understanding God was described as a hypostasis of three distinct “persons”, in much the same way as Christ was said to be a hypostasis of divine and human natures. Despite the obvious philosophical problem of confusing the universal with the particular, this is the way Christianity has presented God to the faithful down the centuries.

 

This being the case, I think it is only natural for Christians to desire a “personal” relationship with God, because Jesus (and the Early Church Fathers) made it possible. So, in Christianity, the main concern seems to be this desire to be “one with”, or achieve union with God.

 

Tariki points out that “person” has become synonymous with “self” or “ego”. If the “self” exists, it is that which is the experience of God, and so the only experience of what we call “God” is merely the experience of self. Without self, or ego, there is no experience of God.

 

Buddhism rejects the notion of a permanent, inherent “self”. There is the “conventional self”, or “person”, and the “contrived” or illusory self. The notion of Dharmakhaya may be understood simply as the Buddha representing the embodiment of truth (Theravada School), or it may take on a more metaphysical connotation (Mahayana/Zen School), such as an underlying absolute ground or truth-body which some might call “God”.

 

Peace.

Steve

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No argument with that. I don't see Christianity as having a notion of a permanent self either, though Christianity has always been in tension with this. Jesus says nothing about the same person or same ego being resurrected even if you believe in the literal resurrection of the body. He can really describe what the ego will be whenever he is asked to describe it as it is based in traditional an limited forms we understand of relationship. That perhaps is the weakness of Christianity. It remains grounded in the ego. But there is inherent in the theology of Christians that the human being will cease to be as he/she is now. We're stick non this side of it just as Buddhism is stuck on always pointing toward the image and therefore the attachment to the historical Buddha. If Buddha attained nirvana and upon his physical death was freed from samsara then it's quite ironic that we always have to refer back to him when he doesn't even exist anymore. Unless the Buddha attained Buddhahood in much the same way Jesus was elevated to God upon his physical death and the resurrection is merely not literal but also symbolic. The reality for me is that I don't know. I can only follow their leads - Buddha and Jesus - or any other figure for that matter - Krishna, Ramakrishna, etc who were supposedly manifestations of the Divine Mother, God, the Godhead, whatever in this physical realm. Yoga is one path. Prayer and other disciplines another. What is uncovered when these and other practices are really and truly exercised is a Person both within and without. The images and illusions of separation are peeled away as hundreds maybe thousands maybe millions have demonstrated throughout history in different times and in different context. It always remains "personal" with or without the notion of a God.

Edited by matteoam
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I think you hit the nail on the head, Matteo. It is for sure a “person’s” intention and practice that leads to understanding. But, it is also this type of understanding which is not easily communicated, so there are very few qualified teachers. I think is one of the reasons the Buddha refused to speculate about metaphysical things, was that they can lead us deeply into our own deluded minds, and they are really irrelevant for practical purposes.

 

Jesus also seemed to be wary of speculation and so he taught mainly how we could live in order to experience the Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t think that’s so far removed from the notion of Nirvana.

 

Peace.

Steve

Edited by SteveS55
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Ironic though that for Jesus the Kingdom language was somehow necessary for some framework - or at worst the authorities saw for to use this framework- while Buddha employed language that people could relate to at the time.

 

The irony too that Christians are still preoccupied with metaphysics. Even Buddhism in the west is subject to metaphysical preoccupations even if it is somewhat necessary in some variants of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism for example despite the work of Chogyam Rinpoche and bothers. It's hard to find non-metaphysical Christianity (though I have found done respite in the Rule of Benedict).

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I’m glad you mentioned the “Rule”, Matteo. Among all of the current Christian monastic communities, the Benedictine Order has had perhaps the longest amount of time to develop. And the “Rule” may be one of the earliest methodologies aimed at the actual “practice” of the Christian life.

 

This kind of methodology, in the form of precepts, is something I have found generally lacking among mainstream Christians. I think many get hung up on doctrinal points which they either find completely absurd, or blindly accept in their totality. Then there are those who retain some traditional beliefs and discard others. Outside of perhaps professing Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, following some ritual practices, or doing a few works of mercy, there generally doesn’t seem to be much substance.

 

I think I’ve stated here before that while knowledge of doctrine is helpful in getting the general lay of the land, the spiritual life is more concerned with “practice”, than inferential knowledge. In my opinion, any transformational processes we seek come as a result of practice, which should result in clarity of mind and purpose, as well as being in compassionate relationship with ourselves and others. Benedictine spirituality certainly has a very long tradition of this kind of transformational change.

 

Peace.

Steve

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For those who might not be familiar with and might be interested check out this site

 

http://www.thomasmertonsociety.org/altany2.htm

 

And the article articulating Mertons journey.

 

With all the hubbub against orthodoxy and traditional Christianity (justifiably do) I personally think had I been exposed to Merton and others like him when I was much younger I might have remained Catholic.

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That’s a very nice article about Thomas Merton. He and Meister Eckhart have probably been the most influential Christian writers in my own spiritual development. I have a contemplative Catholic background, so I have found the same ease of entry into the study and practice of Buddhism as Merton did.

 

For me, it is the realization of the wisdom of emptiness (of self) and compassion where contemplative Christianity and Buddhism intersect. Each has a different doctrinal understanding, but both agree that such a realization marks the end of suffering.

 

Peace.

Steve

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