Sunday, January 17, 2010

What is my Higher Power?

I may have said before in this blog that I was raised a Christian. My father grew up non-denom Protestant, and my mother is Episcopalian. I was raised an Episcopalian, and was very active in that church for the first 28 or so years of my life.

It would be very complex to explain exactly what brought me away from the church. It's fair to say that it wasn't any one event in particular, and this seems to be true of most people that I have spoken to who left the churches in which they were brought up. My drift began in my early 20s, when certain dissonances between the teachings of the church and what I believed intrinsically became too loud to ignore any further. There were certainly times in my church-going years that I was hurt by "The Church", mostly by attitudes held by those in authority that I thought directly contradicted the church's teachings. I understood that the church is composed of people, and that anytime groups of people gather, difficult politics are inevitable. But over time I came to believe that the main concept underlying all church teachings (and I'm not talking about Episcopalian ones specifically, but Christianity in general) was judgement. People were implicitly, sometimes explicitly, encouraged to judge others, and mistreatment follows. After a time I could no longer participate in something I felt so conflicted about.

It was a few more years before I was able to admit to myself that I didn't actually believe in the God of my childhood. I felt tremendous guilt over my lack of "faith". It wasn't until I finally realized that the only thing keeping me from embracing what I truly did believe was the guilt I felt over abandoning the faith of my parents that I was able to understand what I really believed in. What I really believed in was this: This life is what we have, and when we die that is it. It is up to us to be good to one another, to make life better for all people. We have a moral responsibility to do our part to minimize or eliminate suffering of others whenever we had the ability to do so. Hell is not a place, but rather it is something we create ourselves on earth. Same with heaven. There is a basic goodness to the universe, and we are all born with it.

When I first came to 12 Step recovery last year, I learned that it was a "spiritual program." I was going to have to have a Higher Power in order to work the steps. This filled me with fear and anger. I had only recently come to realize that I was an ignostic: basically, not one who believes there is no God, but one who thinks it's the wrong question to ask. (This is also known as theological noncognitivism.) At the time, I thought I would have to abandon this deeply rooted belief of mine if I was to go any further in 12 step recovery.

Fortunately, I was reading a book by Kevin Griffin called One Breath At A Time, about Buddhism and the 12 steps. It helped me to understand that "God" truly is a concept that is left to the individual, and that my concept of a Higher Power did not need to be Judeo-Christian. The book is specifically about how to incorporate one's Buddhist beliefs into 12 step recovery (wonderfully written and highly recommended for this), but I think even a non-Buddhist in this situation could gain a lot of understanding just about the concept of Higher Power.

There are those people who use the group as their Higher Power, or the doorknob of the room they meet in. I think the doorknob is a cop-out personally, but that isn't for me to define for someone else. The idea, according to the program literature, is simply that you yourself are not your own Higher Power, that you believe in some power greater than yourself, whatever it may be. I can see how the group can be this for someone resistant to any other idea of a HP.

Ultimately, here is what I have come to understand as my Higher Power. I think there is a Power of goodness that is the Universe. I think all beings are interconnected by this basic goodness. It is not a personal God for me: I don't think there is a celestial, mystical or supernatural being who intercedes on my behalf and has a consciousness. Buddha isn't my HP, as he isn't a God. But the Buddhas that have existed, as well as the Bodhisattavas, point the way to the basic goodness and order of the universe. Can an impersonal HP "restore me to sanity"? Yes. Understanding this goodness of the universe, and freeing myself from delusion that separates me from that awakening, is certainly a restoration to sanity. Understanding the dharma, learning the origins of suffering, and discerning the Right Path, all lead to a Higher Power. And it certainly is not me.

Here is what Rev. Tanaka has to say about Buddhists and God. He seems to feel that Buddhists hold an ignostic view of God:
Do Buddhists believe in God?

Before I can answer that question, I must ask, what is meant by “God”? People have many ideas about who or what God is. Until I understand this, it is hard for me to answer. If God is defined primarily as cosmic compassion and wisdom, then some Buddhists (particularly Mahayana Buddhists—see page 47) may be inclined to say they believe in “God.” But that will be personal decision of a modern Buddhist. As for me, I would exercise a great deal of caution, making sure that “God” is clearly defined and acceptable to me as a Buddhist. On the other hand, if God is a supreme personal being who created the universe, lives in heaven, watches over me, and knows my thoughts and actions, then Buddhists clearly do not believe in God.

Then, Buddhists do not believe in anything supernatural?

No, that is not exactly what I meant to say. Instead of a personal divine creator, Buddhists have always spoken of an enlightened reality called “Dharma.”

This Dharma as “reality” is the source for the Dharma as the “teaching” we talked about before (see page 9). The English translation of this Dharma (dharmakaya, dharmata, dharmadhatu, etc.) includes Law, Logos, Suchness, Truth, and Reality. In modern everyday language, this Dharma can be described as Life, Universe, Cosmic Compassion, Life-giving Force, or Energy. I like the word “Oneness” because it reminds us that the enlightened reality (Dharma) is not separate from us. We are actually one with Dharma. It’s right under our feet, but we don’t know it.

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