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Barbara O'Brien

Brad Warner's New Book

By June 10, 2013

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The new book by Brad Warner is titled There Is No God and He Is Always With You: A Search for God in Odd Places. Here is my formal review of† There Is No God and He Is Always With You. Consider this post the short and informal review.

This is a lovely book. I enjoyed reading it. It is engaging and funny and moving. I even agreed with most of it.

Here's a caveat -- Brad Warner and I both practice in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. So his perspective on many aspects of dharma is familiar to me. Most of the references to Dogen were familiar to me, also. It's possible that a reader with a different background might have more trouble "getting" this book. But maybe not.

Also, Warner says something on page 79 that I think is wrong. He writes, "I'm really not very bright." To which I say, Oh, get over yourself, Warner. You are too very bright. I can see that. The brightness shined through this book, no matter how hard you pretend otherwise. What you are not is scholarly. This is OK with me. In my late so-called career I edited university press books and scholarly journals, and I've had scholarly up the wazoo. And, believe me, there are plenty of scholars who really are not very bright.

So, why mix up God and Zen? Fellow Zennies and other students of†Mahayana will recognize Warner's God as the†unity of absolute and relative, or†enlightenment, or†Buddha Nature, or all of the above plus some other stuff. So, why God?

I normally advise people who come into Buddhism from an Abrahamic tradition to try to kick God out of their heads as soon as possible. But it may depend on your background. I grew up in a church-going family in the rural Bible Belt. Warner says his was a non-church-attending family from Akron, Ohio. The God in my head probably was a lot more demanding than his.

The fact is, I see people stuffing God, or something like God, into a lot of Buddhist teachings. People often speak of the Absolute or Suchness or Buddha Nature in ways that strike me as worshipful. Or, they go in the other direction and sort these teachings into a neat intellectual filing system. And over the years, I've done both of the above. But Warner writes,

"The word God, on the other hand, is much more immediate and richer. Rather than asking you to ponder its meaning, the word God just punches you in the face, after which you have to deal with how to respond. It has all kinds of messy layers of meaning and connotation. It sparks emotions and tangents. Sometimes it makes people feel settled and happy. Sometimes it makes them angry. Or it makes them confused. Or it makes them frustrated. Or all of the above at the same time. It's a dangerous word.

"That's what I've encountered in my practice. Zen is not something dry and orderly. It cannot be easily fit into premeasured boxes. It's very messy, because it is alive. The universe we inhabit is a dynamic, living thing. God†is a good word to use for what Zen is about because shoving the word God into a tidy intellectual container would be like trying to shove a live octopus into a Kleenex box."

I have no experience with live octopii, so I must assume they resist being shoved into Kleenex boxes. But I do like what Warner says here about messiness and danger and being punched in the face. I say if your practice isn't occasionally pushing your buttons and shoving you out of your comfort zone, you aren't trying.

June 11, 2013 at 10:29 am
(1) cl says:

sounds like something to check out.

it occurs to me that what people who grew up with a particular religion imposed on them (unlike myself) , especially catholicism, seem to have issues understanding the absence of ‘absolution’ in buddhism.


June 12, 2013 at 12:14 am
(2) Rob says:

You like, I buy! Thank you. I’ve read most of his other books, and I like his “style.”

June 13, 2013 at 9:25 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Rob — let me know what you think when you’ve read it. Thanks!

June 13, 2013 at 5:27 pm
(4) Hein says:

I appreciate the message that Brad wish to convey (i have read your review akso) and also understand that we practice within a certain background (Western scientific/Judeo-Christian), but i fail to see the benefit one who practices Buddhism might derive in reading about “God”. Having rid oneself – with some difficulty i have to add – from the concept of “God”, i fail to see why one have to bother about it, even though being open-minded is a virtue. In my limited view its like telling a rehabilitated acholic about wine.

June 13, 2013 at 7:58 pm
(5) Rick de Yampert says:

I didn’t see a comment space on your formal review of Warner’s new book, Barbara, but I was intrigued especially by one passage, so I will respond here.

That passage is:
“And then there is the absurd question of whether God exists. Never mind what “God” might mean; what does anyone mean by “exist”? The dogmatic materialist or spiritualist may see the nature of existence as self-evident. But to me, “existence” is a more interesting mystery than “God.” And if you don’t get “existence,” you won’t get “God,” either. Or yourself, for that matter.”

I’ve become intrigued by “existence” too, especially since reading Alan Watts’ books of the 1960s. He’s drawing heavily from Vedanta, more so than Buddhism in these works . . . My summation of his summation/distillation of Vedanta is this: We are all so intimately connected and perpetually CONNECTING to our environment, the universe, etc. Therefore, despite that our Western mindsets convince us otherwise, we humans are a process rather than a biological object or thing. We are a verb rather than a noun. Rick is something I “do” rather than something I “am.” Just food for thought . . .

June 13, 2013 at 8:36 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

Rick de Yampert — In Buddhism, there is just doing, no “I” to do it.

June 13, 2013 at 8:08 pm
(7) Patsy Seo says:

It is really quite simple. The creator God, The light that no one can tolerate. The light of Moses in the Old testament is the same as nirvana. Buddha and Jesus and a few other mortals have reached Buddhahood, i.e. They became enlightenment and are Gods, In Jesus’s case, he is called the “son of God” That is because he received more of the love, that is the creator God into himself. It is not just a coincidence that the Buddhahood is described as a brilliant light and the knowing of all things. It is just to “touch God”
I listened to Hay House a conference of mostly psychologists and life coaches. One story I found especially interesting of two people climbing spiritually. As the neared the top they each saw the other and reached around the mountain saying to each other “you have taken the wrong path” At the top they discovered they were both the same place.
Yes, In Love and peace whether you believe in him or not He abides in and with you. Namaste.

June 13, 2013 at 8:34 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

The creator God, The light that no one can tolerate. The light of Moses in the Old testament is the same as nirvana.

Disagree. I really hate the “let’s just toss it all into the soup and see what happens” approach to religion.

June 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm
(9) JonJ says:

Yes, it seems that when words like “God” and “religion” are being tossed around, many people become very nervous and want to insist there is *not*–no sirree, absolutely not–any real disagreement. Everyone ultimately is saying the same thing, they insist, which turns out to be some sort of mush about “love” and “light.”

I don’t know why this point of view keeps getting accorded so much respect, especially since it ought to be obvious that it tremendously distorts all of the worldviews that it is trying to unify.

I like what Brad says about the world “God” in the quote you give, but it’s certainly not what most Americans who say they believe in God (i.e., most Americans, period) would agree with. At this point, I think it would probably be best to abandon the word completely, especially when talking about Buddhism. It’s amazing how many people can’t understand that the “gods” (devas) that Buddhist texts talk about have nothing at all to do with the God of the Abrahamic religions.

June 14, 2013 at 6:52 am
(10) Hein says:

I donít know why this point of view keeps getting accorded so much respect, especially since it ought to be obvious that it tremendously distorts all of the worldviews that it is trying to unify.

I agree. But try to tell that to the people believing in “all is one” (love and light)! I tried and ultimately gave up on it.

On the one hand perhaps the lest said about the “God” and gods the better. On the other hand in the West we are still confronted with the concept of “God” very strongly. I might land up buying Brad’s book, but would feel at the end of the day that I wasted time (no disrespect towards Brad’s efforts intended) I rather could have spend reading about the Dharma. The whole “God” idea and debate concerning it is exhausting and energy sapping.

June 14, 2013 at 3:30 pm
(11) Mila says:

re: “I donít know why this point of view keeps getting accorded so much respect, especially since it ought to be obvious that it tremendously distorts all of the worldviews that it is trying to unify.”

In the spirit of the Two Truths, here’s my take on this issue:

In terms of the relative-world appearance of various religions and spiritual paths (metaphoric “paths to the summit of the mountain”) — it’s best to honor and maintain the distinctions — to preserve the integrity of each authentic path as a skillful means — one of many legitimate paths. Also fair game at this level to be explicit about the strengths and weaknesses of each.

In terms of Absolute Truth — the metaphoric “summit of the mountain” — the view from Enlightenment, from abiding knowingly in Reality — how could there possibly be more than a single view, a shared vision of Reality? And hence, the remarkable similarities in reports of mystics from all variety of traditions …. who have, each in their own way, arrived at the same place-less place.

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