Do Buddhists Meditate to “Reach God Through Silence”?

This morning started off as Tuesdays do for me since 2009 September.  My Dharma brother Cheng Soon and I would meet at the Buddhist Library and we would do translation of the Buddhist teachings, from Chinese to English.  Today was no different.  Except when I read the sms from Sister Theresa Seow about the Straits Times article “Quiet contemplation on common ground” by review editor Chua Mui Hoong.

Over the last weekend (7th & 8th January 2012), representatives from various faiths came together for a seminar on “The Contemplative Dimension of Faith”.  The theme and title was “common ground”, representing the contemplative practice (meditation) that is common in many religions.

As I read the article before lunch today, a line grabbed my attention.

“… they are all engaged in a practice both unique to their tradition, and common to all faiths: reaching God through silence.”

I reread the article and line a few times but did not seem to figure out how that came about.  I’ve posted the picture below on my facebook wall to highlight that it is either a misrepresentation or misinterpretation of Buddhist meditation shared during the seminar.

In my article in the handout given during the seminar, I explicitly highlighted that “Buddhists have no belief in a creator God”.  This almost did not survive the final edition due to … a space constraint … but made it to print after the organising team managed to resolve it.  I’m glad I insisted because even with that clear assertion and my session where I pointed out the clear path, fruits and goal of Buddhist meditation, Ms Chua unfortunately went away from the seminar with the wrong understanding.

Buddhists do not meditate to reach God through silence.

Simply put, Buddhists meditate to cultivate Samadhi (Concentration) and Prajna (Wisdom).  This wisdom culminates in Nirvana, i.e. complete Cessation of Suffering, attaining the fruit of Arahanthood or Buddhahood.  This is not communion with god/God(s).

There are some Buddhists and moderate theistic persons who may wonder why this monk need to highlight this.  After all, isn’t a
common ground more meaningful for peace and harmony than picking on the details?  As they say, the devil is in the details.

By highlighting this in the handout, talk, on fb and here, I’m clarifying what is and is not Buddhism.  If this remains unmentioned, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike may start to think that Buddhists also pray to God, just using different names, when in fact we do not.

Further, by highlighting this here, and especially during Geylang Serai Inter-Racial And Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC) and other dialogues in Singapore, I am trying to promote understanding and not mere ‘feel good, we are the world, hands together’ homogenised world religion type of understanding.

Common ground is a very noble and beautiful effort by the Christian community towards interfaith harmony and understanding.  Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) and its members supported this seminar precisely because of that.  But common ground was not meant to and should not lead to homogenisation.  Homogenisation can and I believe has led to the exact opposite: Fundamentalism.

As I mention in numerous talks, Buddhists do not have a belief in God (boys and girls, how many times have I mentioned this?   Sunk in yet?), but this does not make theistic believers our enemy nor Buddhists yours.  And that is very important moving forward, both in peace and harmony, but also nurturing in-depth understanding amongst faiths.

In parting, I believe that as Sister Theresa communicated to me through sms, Ms Chua was sharing her personal experience in good faith.  But I believe it would serve the readers and public better if her sharing reflect what is reality.

EDIT: Updated for formatting and typos.

Update: 10 Jan 2012 3+pm, I sent Ms Chua a fb message pointing to this blog and the fb page.  Hope to hear from her.

Update: 10 Jan 2012 9:22pm. Have not heard from Ms Chua as yet.  I am sending Sister Theresa and Ms Chua an email (sent around 10:03pm) to help Ms Chua have a better understanding of Buddhist meditation and also to request her to post a correction to the article so that Buddhism do not get unwittingly misrepresented.

Update: 10 Jan 2012 10:07pm Here’s the letter to Sr Theresa Seow and Ms Chua.

  • I see a reaction here.

    I agree with Mui Hoong.
    It all boils down to what is our defination of “God”.
    Perhaps even as Buddhists, we are attached to “God”. Is our faith is shaped by our aversion to “God”?

    • Dear Eileena,

      It’s true. It all boils down to what our definition of “God” is. In which case, we have to talk about definition and we cannot later say that we are attached to this definition and nullify the argument.

      For theists, it refers to either a singular or plural divinity who created the whole world, including us, and it is to this entity that they pray and worship, and are answerable towards. Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) and Hinduism seeks to reach a state of union with this God.

      Buddhists do not subscribe to such a world view. There are six realms in this world, and heavenly realm is one of them. Human beings can take rebirth as Gods but such rebirths while pleasant and last a very long time, is still impermanent. Buddhists do not subscribe to the notion of a creator God, nor a eternal heaven or hell.

      It is not aversion to “God” that you are seeing. It is setting right what the Buddha taught.

      Eileena, I represented Buddhism during the seminar and in no way presented Buddhist meditation as a means to “reach God through silence”. I can understand how Mui Hoong and others such as yourself may have interpreted the common ground to mean a common destination with different names, but that would be a misrepresentation. Would the other religions be ok if we say that we were all meditating to attain Buddhahood?

      I believe that Mui Hoong unintentionally misrepresented Buddhist meditation and by writing to her, I am urging her to do the right thing so that this beautiful and noble step by the Catholic community do not become marred and tainted with distrust and confusion.

  • Pingback: Letter to Sr Theresa Seow and Ms Chua, and her reply « Ramblings of a Monk()

  • Dear Ven. Shi,

    I was present for the Common Ground and sent you a short note after the meditation you led. I saw your blog post over on Facebook and thought I would further a conversation – mostly to unpack a very personally rich experience and identify for myself where to go from there. I’m also very personally interested in learning through dialogues, especially within an Interfaith setting with many socio-cultural factors acting on this dialogue process.
    A few things in your post struck me.

    First you mentioned that “homogenization… had led to… fundamentalism”. It is an interesting claim, but I think it does have some partial support. Mathew Mathew’s (2008) research into Protestant Clergymen’s attitudes towards inter-religious exchanges highlighted how many of these clerics would not have anything to do with these dialogues because they part of a practice of a ‘liberal’ form of Christianity. A relativistic all-faiths-are-the-same belief is assumed to characterize these dialogues and it pushes some protestant clerics into a closed ‘fundamentalist’ position, in a way that is consistent with their beliefs. On the other hand, some Christians – myself included – define ourselves against such a closed position and we can easily fall into the opposite position of erasing all differences, thus further pushing away other dialogue participants for whom such a closed system is defining element of their religious identity. It is hard work but I think it is necessary to move towards a common ground of ‘conversation’ from the opposite ends.

    Next, you mention that Mui Hoong mis-represented Buddhist meditation in supposing that the goal common to all faith is to “reach God in silence”. Introspecting on my own thought processes, I find myself easily falling into a similar conceptual misunderstanding. For some Christians, we are aware that any God-talk are ideas and languaged concepts that both structure ideas about God and at the same time constrain what we can know about God. The rules of our religious knowledge demands us to place God as beyond language and ideas. Thus we are aware we are can only speaking in metaphors and symbols. (Perhaps Buddhist don’t have this baggage of supposing a super-real beyond what is there?). Unpacking my own thoughts, I realize I also project on ‘how Buddhist knows’ a concept of ‘language and signs pointing towards a greater reality’, and treating words like ‘God’, ‘ultimate reality’, ‘Buddha nature’ as of equivalent value – forgetting that Buddha-nature is not that-reality but this.

    ‘The Common Ground’ seminar allowed many interior dialogues within each participant as she listened to different presentations, and followed on with a meditative practice. I believe this approach is important and much needed for us to open up our own minds and hearts. But this has a cost that limited opportunities for different presenters to dialogue among themselves in such a way that our understanding is deepened at a conceptual level, beyond just organizing bits and pieces of ‘your’ beliefs into ‘my’ framework. There are some bits of ‘dialogues’ that happened – when you talked about how Buddhist meditation is different from Fr Laurence’s and when Fr Laurence reflected slightly on how Christian meditation often ignores the place of the body in meditative practice, learning from the Taoist presenters.

    From those bits of conversation, I learned that we do have a more important ‘Common Ground’ in meditative practice, less of the ‘object’ of what we are hoping to achieve, but the ‘subject’ of ‘we’ in meditative practice. We do share mostly similar bodies, and similar cognitive methods to train the mind. I think we can fruitfully learn from each other with this common ground. I am particularly interested in your presentation on Insight (Vipassana) meditation. Both ‘Centering Prayer’ and ‘Christian Meditation’ often do not emphasize training towards such piercing clarity in seeing. I think we can learn from your tradition some mental practices and let them develop within the belief systems of our own traditions. And then determine whether the technique works well within this system. They will, of course, develop as different practices but the space is there for exchange and learning.

    • Dear Tuck Leong,

      If there is one tendency that this unenlightened monk is still subject to, is the tendency to procrastinate!
      But today, the molecules and karma are aligned, so here are some thoughts. 🙂

      Homogenization leading to fundamentalism.  Thank you for sharing the research by Matthew.  I based my opinion on two main areas.  One, the observation also mentioned by Matthew in his research, that some protestants withdraw from inter-faith dialogues altogether because such dialogues tend to be of the “All religion are the same”, “We are one family” direction.  After a short five to six years in the inter-faith circle within Singapore and the region, this seem to be the trend.

      The next area is an admission that does not portray myself in the best of light … but hey, like I said, I’m unenlightened! ha!

      What I observe in myself is that the more such dialogues asserted that all religions are the same, children and creation under one true God, the more there was this need to assert that Buddhism was not like that.  While I may have the suttas and canon behind me to support such a stand, I cannot help but notice through introspection that such a need to highlight the distinctive feature of Buddhism is an indirect response to the earlier assertion which I and perhaps the Protestant clerics see as a homogenisation process.

      I see this happen amongst Singaporeans as well.  When there are foreigners, then there is a tendency for Singaporeans to rally together, but amongst themselves, they may start to complain about Singapore or each other.  Such a trait is also evident in Chinese history, where the Han Chinese would stand united in the face of adversity and fight to each others’ death when the external threat is absent.  

      Perhaps this is just human nature, to discriminate and draw artificial ‘party lines’ and fight with the ‘others’.  But in the context of religion, then such mechanism seem to manifest along religious sectarian lines or denominations, but perhaps even more so between religions.  When inter-faith movements fly the homogenising “We are the World” banner, there is a fear of a loss of identity.  One possible result is fundamentalism as a means to retain or restore identity.

      But I support the intentions and rational behind the seemingly homogenising slogans.  I believe it is to draw our attention to what is common so that we may have more reasons to care and love one another and less reason to harm or abuse each other.  After all, it is harder to demonise one’s friend than a stranger.

      … to be continued …   

  • The reason many Buddhist or other non-Theist are “GOD-Phobic” are because Abraham religions has more or less hi-jacked the word and its meaning.
    In many dictionary it is described as “THE SUPREME BEING” which is a big no no! Take out BEING and substitute it with REALITY, PRINCIPAL or TRUTH would be more acceptable and more politically correct. So goal common to all religion is to “REACH SUPREME REALITY” in silence and not to scream and shout before that.

    • Interesting Keng Leck, but I’m not sure if you and Eileena are right in saying that many Buddhists are “GOD-Phobic” or “aversed to God”. By stating that “Buddhists have no belief in a Creator God”, we are merely stating a fact, setting straight what is misrepresented. Like if someone spelt your name as Keng Leng, you may or not choose correct that person. And if you do, you may do so with or without aversion. Correcting that person’s incorrect spelling of your name does not mean that you are “Keng Leng-Phobic” nor that you are “aversed to ‘Keng Leng'”, that is just not what your name is.

      That aside, I am just curious how you derive or equate “Supreme reality” with “God” or is it a mere substitution?
      eg, let’s say Keng Leck’s father is Keng Leng and Soon Huat’s father is Soon Chee. Keng Leng tells Soon Huat that they have the same father. Soon Huat disagrees politely.

      Keng Leck suggest the following:

      Since Keng Leng is a father, and Soon Chee is also a father, then Keng Leck’s father is a father, and Soon Huat’s father is a father, father = father, so Soon Huat’s father = Keng Leng’s father?
      It would be right to say that they both love their father, but they are still two different fathers.

      So Keng Leng, what do you think?

      • Tuck Leong Lee

        My own view is that it is not fair to Buddhist thought to ascribe to Buddhists a notion of ‘Supreme Reality’. Even for Christians, although God can be experienced with human-like qualities, God is ultimately more than a ‘being’, or an object. Some refer to God as the ‘Ground of Being’, and I think that is sufficiently similar to God-concepts in the Hindu traditions. If I understand Buddhist ideas rightly, either there are no God-realities, or it doesn’t matter if there are God-realities, or that God-realities are part of our passing worlds and there is nothing transcendent beyond that. Therefore there is no Buddhist equivalent of a transcendent reality?

        What follows are my own thoughts about dialoguing about beliefs in God(s) as a Christian. I speak as one who has lived and participated in Christian faith communities — though I don’t claim to represent the ‘faith’ (as if anyone can honestly ‘represent’ a faith tradition!). So perhaps I have less baggage than a religious monastic ;-P.

        When Christians use god-concepts, we base them on claims of faith that are not possible to prove empirically. But our sustained use of such faith claims come from a deep commitment to a history and a tradition. Within this tradition are some faith claims that are considered ‘right’ belief. ‘Right belief’ is judged by a system of ‘right practice’ that flows from it. Crucial to our tradition, a practice of love determines whether we believe rightly. 

        Part of this right belief is a belief in God. Belief in God is cognitively easier, than believing in no-Gods, which I assume is what some Buddhists hold on to. First, it is easier to see events as cause and effect, rather than an emergence out of many interactions. The first is a simple perception, the latter a complex system thinking. It is easier to think of God as a first cause, than to think  of no causality. Second, it is easier to ‘relate’ to a divine being. We are social beings and our perceptions are always directed towards something, and especially someone who can direct a gaze back on us. So it is easier to direct devotions and prayers to ‘some one’ rather than ‘no one’. These two mechanisms are part and parcel of our human evolution and they are instincts that were suited for our survival. So Christians, in using god-concepts in our religious practice, are using something more cognitively intuitive and ‘natural’. Atheistic thoughts are more cognitively counter-intuitive, and require more cognitive resources. Now I suspect even a Atheistic Buddhist practitioner instinctively use god-concepts in everyday thinking, e.g. in invoking ‘fate’, ‘karma’, and then, when further forms of introspection are used, refine their understanding of these concepts.

        Now, if god-concepts come naturally to us, I wonder if within a Buddhist framework, such concepts can be ‘skillfully’ used (from the notion of ‘Upaya’ from the Great Vehicle tradition) to draw a practitioner to enlightenment. If there are, they may be interesting to Christians, as we think more deeply about our use of ‘God-concepts’ and how they can help in our own formation in developing a mature faith. I suspect this is where a fruitful dialogue can take place from a more abstract start. There are god-concepts that are causes of suffering, excuses for
        doing good, blocks to experiences of freedom. Perhaps at a not too future time, when the conditions are more ripe, we can learn from each other ways to look at each of our own god-concepts and recognize our own ‘idolatry’ or ‘attachments’ as they are. (Incidentally ‘disordered attachment’ is also a traditional concept in Christian spirituality, especially the Ignatian school).

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  • Diego Oliveira

    Namaste, Ven. Shi Chuanguan,

    I do not think I can have a good guess at the frame of mind of the Catholic journalist who made that well-meaning confusion. But as a Brazilian and a former Catholic converted to Buddhism, I know that it’s fairly easy for many Christians to be patronizing at other religions by following the easy road of reducing others’ beliefs into one’s own, instead of the hard road of mystical subtlety. The hard road that modern-age Christianity so often and so hardly blocks by means of its relentless internal polarizing between relativism and fanatical soteriological exclusivism.
    Part of the rhetorical missionary power of religions such as Islam and Christianity is achieved by fusing into the symbol of a Unique personal God the mystical distinction between the Supreme Reality, on one hand, and Its immanent manifestations, on the other hand (among them, Its instantiation as a perfectible Conscience, as people that can transcend their own selves and return to the Supreme Source). Without proper metaphysical training, overconfident followers are prone to confusing the absolute, immutable God with the Divine acts that constitute the world of phenomena, which manifest as causes, effects, creation, destruction. 
    Abrahamic faiths tend to lengthen the pathways between popular belief and genuine mysticism, and its a problem that modernity has made worse. One of the symptoms is the disappearance, except among isolated sophisticated theologians, of the subtle, meta-causal idea of Creation (meta-creation, kept in Buddhism as the origination of phenomena from consciousness as a limited conditioned apprehension of the perfections that are, unlimited and uncondioned, One in the Supreme, Nirvanic Reality, and indeed a necessary corollary of the existence of that very Reality; nirvana->samsara -> nirvana). Ironically, this loss makes their God so distant that He can be brought back only with that kind of despair and blind faith that many churches prey on and tap into various unworthy ends. Such a loss leads one to attribute an intrinsic substancial existence to the material world and thus strugglesto find a way to assert the importance of their
    God in it, by means of a sense of Creation as crass causal intervention that needs, by pressupositions and conscience-denying dogmatism, to dig a whole in the Natural Sciences (by e.g. saying “the Big Bang hypothesis establishes beyond doubt that a transcendent supernatural domain created the material substance that is the essence of the Universe”, something even Father Georges Lemaître, who proposed the Big Bang hypothesis, denied the Pope Pius XII the scientific reason to say). Modern Atheism and Agnosticism, spoiled but less incoherent children from Abrahamic worn-out parents, thrive only as an inevitable result of this modern Abrahamic mystification, which, by idolizing their God, has lost the abitity to find the true intimate, Supreme reason for their faith.
       If “God” can be most legitimately defined as the Supreme Reality, as the Buddhist Dharmakaya,
       if “creation” can be most legitimately defined as “permanent flow, metacreation in which imperfect forms constantly take new imperfect forms (including the forms of conscience) from the perfetion of the Supreme Being”,
       and if “Creator” can be most legitimately defined as “The Ground, Standard, Source and Goal of all creation”,
       then Buddhists are among the few ones that essentially believe in the true “Creator God”;  well, quite sad that recent brands of Abrahamic faiths have insistently given such a poor definition to the term. All that summarizes why I think Buddhism is so needed in the world, East and West.

    Peace in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

    • Thank you Diego Oliveira, for your sharing.
      Rereading your posting reminds me of two separate email conversations I had recently with a French priest and a Muslim lady.  In the first one, the priest was sharing how the Christian God may be closer to the Buddhist teaching on Nirvana than we may think while the Muslim lady is sharing her insight on why the Buddha may be theistic, i.e. believes in a creator God etc.

      In both cases, it seem to parallel what you are suggesting, that if “God” and “Creation” is not limited to the personified divine being, then it seem to share a closer semblance to Nirvana than otherwise.  However, it seems like despite the openness to “God” as a more impersonal Truth, both seem to be unwilling to then discard the earlier ‘interpretations’ as incongruent.  I use interpretations in quotes because to many Abrahamic faith believers, those were not interpretations, but the Truth, that God is a divine being who mete out boons and punishments etc.

      One last observation to share is that when I considered with the priest, the possibility that Christian God == Nirvana, I suggested that it would then be ok for those who support such
      a view to declare that Christians are meditating to attain Buddhahood, Nirvana!  The priest shared that he would be ok only if it was stated as a belief and not fact. This seem to imply to me that deep down inside, he do not not really see that they are the same.

      It makes me wonder why the various Christians I met recently are very eager to convince me that Christian God == Nirvana.  Are they genuinely embracing Nirvana, the Cessation of Suffering, as the common goal, or is this another way to homogenise or … dare I say, convert me?

  • Diego Oliveira

    Sorry for the repeated post. Please delete if possible.

  • Diego Oliveira

    Sorry for the repeated post. Please delete if possible.