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Review: There Is No God and He Is Always With You

Brad Warner and the G-Word

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In There Is No God and He Is Always With You: A Search for God in Odd Places, Brad Warner -- a Soto Zen lineage holder -- describes his way-seeking journey as a search for God. The description is engaging and inspiring and funny. It also challenges us to step beyond the meanings of words, including the G-word, and engage directly with what Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called "things-as-it-is." This may be the best book Brad Warner has written.

However -- and call me a pessimist -- I believe many who might benefit from Brad Warner's perspective will not be able to read this book. Oh, they might open the book, turn the pages, and even gaze upon the printed type. But their reading comprehension skills will short-circuit at the word God.

I've seen this before, and it's true of both uncompromising God-believers and militant God-deniers. No communication can reach them. They are encased in rigid mental barriers that even the most elegantly reasoned discourse cannot penetrate. And I expect the secular/atheist Buddhist crowd will recoil in horror that Brad Warner, the Bad Boy of Zen, writes movingly and even passionately about God.

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, and not so much the old guy who parted the Red Sea and ordered Abraham to slay Isaac. And this begs the question, why use the G-word at all? Warner explains that he has seen the standard Buddhist vocabulary, including words like emptiness and nirvana, become just so much intellectual head clutter. Then he writes (pp. 175-176):

"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."

There Is No God and He Is Always With You was written partly in response to the materialist-spiritual dichotomy that dominates most of our arguments about God and religion. "Western philosophy is divided into two competing ideologies," Warner writes in the Introduction. "We are told that we must side either with the materialists, who insist that we are just this body, or with spiritual people, whom some would file under the category of idealists, who say that we are just a mind, or a soul, that resides within the body." Drawing on Buddhist teaching and his own practice experience, Warner explains why both views are incomplete.

This brings me back to the closed minds of many God-believers and God-deniers. As a child of the Bible Belt I'm pretty well inoculated against the former. The latter frustrate me, however, especially since they see themselves as open-minded when they are anything but.

For example, I once was challenged by a militant atheist to declare whether Buddhism is theistic or atheistic. I have come to see that grafting western notions of theism, whether affirmative or negative, onto the Buddha dharma results in something unnatural, like a squirrel with fish scales. (Note that I have no quarrel with self-identified Buddhists who also call themselves atheists, any more than if they also call themselves philatelists.) But when I tried to explain this to the militant atheist, he was not having it. If I wouldn't say yes or no, he said, I was just weaseling out of answering his question.

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.

So it would be great if some of the rigid God-dogmatists would read Brad Warner's book and at least get a clue that all their beloved arguments are lame. I'm not holding my breath, though.

The usefulness of the G-word as upaya may depend on where you're from. I grew up in a church-going family in the Bible Belt; I think the word God is way too loaded for me. But I can see how it could be useful for others. At the very least, the G-word is nothing to be afraid of. Don't let it put you off reading the book.

I do have a few quibbles, such as the author's assertion (page 56) that "some kind of intelligence is at work in the universe." But maybe I'm being rigid. I very much appreciated his discussion of "enlightenment porn," and the section on karma (chapter 13) made me want to cheer. (Yes, understanding karma does not require belief in reincarnation. Karma can be observed in your life, once you understand what it is. And judging that someone else must have done something wrong to deserve bad fortune is useless and stupid. What I keep saying here. Thank you.)

There Is No God and He Is Always With You may not be to everyone's taste. If you are looking for a "beginner" book on Buddhism, this probably won't be it. On the other hand, if you have some practice experience behind you, I think you'll find this book an enjoyable read. And if you are open to a fresh perspective on God -- well, here it is.

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