My Journey: From God to Zen

I was raised Roman Catholic, because my mom was Catholic.

But she never forced me to blindly accept her religion. In fact, she encouraged me to keep questioning things, to come to my own conclusions. To, putting it in a cliche way, follow my heart.

I was a good Catholic. I was even an altar boy for awhile and toyed with the idea of becoming a priest. I’ve always felt called to serve in that kind of capacity in some way.

I used to sit and meditate (though didn’t know that’s what I was doing) after Communion. I loved how the church felt during those moments—everyone together but silent, each talking to God in their own way.

Then I started asking questions that Father D. just couldn’t answer to my satisfaction.

“Do animals have souls?” “No.” “So, when we die, we go to heaven or hell, but when animals die they just don’t exist anymore?” “Yes.” That didn’t sit well with me, because I’ve always loved animals more than I love most people.

When I was 15, I smoked pot for the first time and started listening to the Beatles. Psychedelics are the enemies of all institutions. They alter our perception, and this naturally makes us start to question our own views and beliefs.

After the animals-don’t-have-souls incident, I started questioning hell. How could an all-knowing, loving father send any of his children to suffer for an eternity in a flaming pit? Good fathers forgive the sins of their children, even when their kids aren’t sorry. And God’s supposed to be the Dad of all Dads. Something didn’t add up.

Doubting hell, I started doubting the devil. As I looked at myself, I didn’t see any paranormal demon playing a part in my bad decisions. It was just me and my untamed impulses.

From there, it was a short trip to questioning God Himself. I didn’t question God’s existence at first, but the nature of God. As the days went on, the God of the Bible seemed less and less likely to me—and more and more unlikable. A God of wrath, jealousy, prejudice, and apathy.

And Jesus’ sacrifice started to seem illogical. Why did one of the best humans in existence have to be sacrificed so that our sins could be forgiven? It just doesn’t make sense. “He endured the pain so that we don’t have to.” But we do endure the pain, don’t we? We all have our own crosses to carry, our own hells to face.

The Beatles pointed to another face of God, one from the Hindu Upanishads. I picked up a copy of the 13 Principle Upanishads, and I was totally blown away.

Here was a God who wasn’t a being unto itself living in some far off kingdom. Our souls weren’t divided, just confused by thoughts and form. By turning from form, we could look deep within and see this spark of the divine that’s the same in us all.

Nurturing it, and seeing it at work in the world, we don’t have to take God on faith, but can see God’s face directly. Unlike the God of Abraham, this God was the God of Love. Never judging, never jealous or aloof, just this experience of being alive.

That’s when I intentionally started to meditate, using OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

But I’m a hungry ghost, I always have been. Once something loses its shine and wonder, I start to doubt it and cast a skeptical glance in its general direction. Setting the Upanishads aside, a friend and I got into Wicca for awhile.

Then I traveled to Gnostic Christianity, which seemed like a compromise between Catholicism and Hinduism. The Gnostic texts gave a totally different take on God. The God of the Old Testament was called the Demiurge, a being who wrongfully considered itself the creator and ruler of the universe.

The God of the New Testament was the true God, actualized by Jesus but present in us all. The Gnostic Jesus preached the unity of God and life, and heaven on earth.

After that, I dropped religion altogether and ventured into philosophy. I’d started doubting God’s existence in general, so I sought transcendence in the realm of human wisdom. I combed through and practiced all the philosophical schools I could get my hands on, from ancient Greece to the modern West.

I turned my attention lightly to the East as well, toward Taoism, mostly. Alan Watts’ On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are introduced me to Buddhism in my early 20’s, but it just didn’t vibe with me then. I was looking for something to trip on, so terms like, “Life is suffering,” and, “Emptiness,” didn’t seem too welcoming to me.

Abandoning it all, I started mixing and matching bits from all the religions and philosophies I’d come across. “Take the best, leave the rest.” By my late 20’s, I was a bitter, fanatical atheistic empiricist. I not only disbelieved all religions, but despised their gods.

I’ve softened a lot since then, but I’m still not a fan of the Abrahamic God. If the Bible and Koran are right, then you can cart my happy ass off to hell because I don’t wanna have anything to do with that God. As it’s laid out in the Good Book, God is too cruel and too judgmental for me to ever worship.

Then, in the thick of that existential crisis, I watched the show Life, which was about a homicide detective who practiced Zen. He had a book in the show called, “The Way of Zen.” It turns out, it’s fake, but there is a book called, Taking the Path of Zen. After reading that, I was hooked. This hungry ghost hasn’t strayed from Buddhism for six years.

That’s a remarkably short time to be practicing Buddhism, but it might as well be an eternity for the guy who used to change religions as often as he changed his underwear.

When I stumbled on Zen, it was like I was reading my own mind, all the things I thought and felt were laid out in words that I couldn’t speak on my own. I was ready for Buddhism, ready to acknowledge suffering and its cause, and ready to do what I needed to to cure it.

Buddhism starts with pain, with the harsh facts of life. Then it offers a Way to transform it. All without a God or soul involved.

But Buddhism isn’t atheistic or agnostic, this is important. There is no soul, self, person, sentient being, or universal god mind in Buddhism, so that means we don’t die and cease to exist with our bodies because we weren’t created when our bodies were born.

That’s why Buddha called both eternalism (eternal life) and annihilationism (death is the end) Wrong Views.

The entire foundation of Buddhism is to break free from suffering by seeing that there’s no one to suffer, no one who’s ever suffered. There’s no ego to kill, no soul to purify.

Instead of God, Zen talks about the One Mind. This isn’t a Cosmic Consciousness necessarily, it’s just this mind that’s effortlessly reading these words. It’s called “one” because it’s undivided from experience and it perceives an undivided moment. It’s also called one because its nature is the same in all beings.

Instead of being the Big Self of the Upanishads, it’s the Not-Self of Buddhism. They’re basically the same, the only difference is that, in Advaita Vedanta, Mind is the essence of all things; in Zen, Mind is the essenceless essence of all things, the selflessness and otherlessness of all things.

You could call this God if you wanted to; I don’t, though, because “God” is such a loaded and subjective word. Even “Mind” is a rough fit, and Huangbo (one of the early expounders of the One Mind teachings) even acknowledged that.

We can also call it the One Heart, because xin means cognition, awareness, and heart. Before Huangbo, it was usually called the Tao, the Way. That’s probably an even better fit.

By Biblical standards, I’m already on the fast-track to hell regardless of what I do in life. However, the Pope did recently say that even people who don’t believe in God can go to heaven through good works. That right there shows that religion is bonkers. One person can come up and say, “God changed His mind, now it’s this.”

Siddhartha was a man, and he’s been dead for thousands of years. As a man, nothing he said was sacred and he never claimed that it was. That’s why the teachings and methods have been able to change throughout the millennia.

Buddha isn’t a man, just another term for someone who’s one with the Middle Way, the same way that a blade of grass bends in the wind.

A lot of people have asked if they can practice Zen Christianity. I think it’s possible for anyone of any creed (or no creed) to practice meditation, mindfulness, and grok nonduality. However, for Zen to really work its magic, our views on the soul, God, sin, grace, and the afterlife would have totally change.

From a Buddhist perspective, it’s fine to believe in God, even the God of the Bible. It’s fine to believe in heaven and hell, saints and devils. However, there’s a catch: all of them are impermanent and dependently arisen.

Basically, if you’re a Zen Christian, then you’d believe that God is gonna die someday, and that God wasn’t always God. That, at some point, God was karma attached to form just like the rest of us. Through lifetime after lifetime of meritorious actions, that stream of karma came to create God, and the things God does will influence God’s rebirth.

So, if God doesn’t behave Himself, even He might find himself on the sharp end of Satan’s fireplace poker. And, if Satan suffers enough and performs enough meritorious deeds, even he could be reborn as the King of Heaven.

Also, heaven and hell are both temporary. After paying off all of our sins in hell or enjoying all of our blessings in heaven, we’d be reborn in the physical plane again. Not really us, though, but our actions since there’s no soul to die or be reborn.

We also have to toss Original Sin into the bin, and eventually even God and heaven. Our sights are on nirvana, something unconditioned and unchanging, and escape hatch from the perpetual cycle of heaven, hell, and the physical universe.

This kind of Christianity would work in Zen, because it’s not all that different from Pure Land Buddhism, which is often practiced with Zen. If we go the other way though, and try to fit Zen into Christianity, we’re basically just left with the meditation and mindfulness methods.

I don’t practice Zen Christianity, but it’s an option. If you want to mix the two, it’d be a lot easier to go the Advaita Vedanta route: God is everything.

2 thoughts on “My Journey: From God to Zen

  1. “Do animals have souls?” “No.” “So, when we die, we go to heaven or hell, but when animals die they just don’t exist anymore?” “Yes.” That didn’t sit well with me, because I’ve always loved animals more than I love most people….”

    This is precisely why I do not subscribe to organized religion. It doesn’t sit well with me the arrogance that only humans are destined to the next realm of existence, wherever and whatever that may be. I love animals more than most people as well… they have always proven to be less brutal and destructive than most humans.

    Wherever the animals go… that is where I want to be. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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