In any religion there is the exoteric side — the tradition and forms, scriptures, ceremonies and disciplines—and the esoteric, which is the essential nature of that. So, in much of what we call religion, the emphasis is really on the external form. And of course this can be variable. There is no one external form that is totally right, making all the others inferior to it. The aim of a religion is to point to the truth or the deathless reality, immortality, or in Christianity to God. But what is God? If God is a being, then that’s a condition. If God is something that comes and goes, arises and ceases, then God is not an ultimate reality. So God must also mean ultimate, that which religion points to, that which is immortal and ultimately real and truth. God in Christianity is personified in the Trinitarian structure in which there is God the Father (the patriarchal form) and the Logos or the Word of God, where God’s Word was expressed through Jesus Christ. These are the traditional beliefs and the exoteric form of, say, Christianity.
Buddhism was established around the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha — the teachings and the vinaya (the discipline for monks and nuns). In Islam I believe the emphasis is on the Koran, the Holy Book. Each religion has its unique emphasis. But these are the exoteric forms pointing at ultimate reality. You can have many pointers to the same thing, can’t you? We can all point to this bell. It’s not a matter of saying that my pointing to the bell is more right than yours; it doesn’t apply; it makes no sense. But yet we can become attached to the idea that you have to sit here and point like I do in order to see the bell. We can get very attached to the form or, in other words, to the conditioned realm.
We need a form, too. If you’re coming from just idealism alone, it doesn’t work. There are people now in England who talk about dhamma [the truth or teaching] who have thrown out Buddha and Sangha. They’re starting from the top where dhamma is. And they talk about dhamma almost as though it were God. They don’t see that a traditional form has a power and logic behind it, and they more or less take what they like out of it, maybe from idealism, and disregard the rest. This is somehow like trying to start your journey from the top of the ladder. But you have to start from the bottom.
God without a scripture or without a presence of, say, a Saviour remains too remote, too high, too far away from us. It’s like being at the top of the ladder where there are no rungs so that all you can do is just look up and admire, with no possibility of climbing. The actual forms are like rungs on a ladder — you actually learn how to put forth the effort to climb up onto the first rung and the second and so forth until you get to the top, eventually. This is just an analogy, but it can be used for contemplating on how to use a religious tradition.
Now is a time when religions are tending to say: We’re right. Our form is the best. One has more confidence within one’s own tradition because that’s what one has used. I teach Buddha-dhamma because this is the way I’ve done it. I can’t very well teach Christianity or Islam or Hinduism. If you’ve learned to play the violin, you can’t really teach somebody how to play the piano — not because you think pianos are somehow lesser or you despise them, but you just haven’t learnt how to play them. The point is that if you learn to play the one instrument well, then you can play in harmony with the others. A good pianist and a good violinist would have no problem making beautiful music together. But if you’ve got a lousy violinist and a terrible pianist — cacophony! So, if there are people of different religions who don’t know how to play their instruments, then you get a cacophony — it comes out all horrible and confused, and you just want to run away. You might think, `If that’s religion, I want nothing to do with it.’ But, then, if you hear people who have developed skill in their religion, it’s like a beautiful orchestra. It’s lovely to listen to; you want to draw near; you’re inspired; you’re pleased; it’s something that uplifts you.
In modern times, when we have to learn how to live with other religions, other ways of doing things, it’s really important to try to understand our own and to practise it, which doesn’t mean that we are in any way making critical comments about anyone else’s. Even if we do feel we like ours the best, that’s all right. After all, if we liked some other religion better we’d be doing that. It’s just that faith has been awakened in us through this way. And where we have faith, where we have confidence, that it something to trust.
What I see about Buddhism — especially in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths in the Pali scriptures — is that it’s very much like a perennial philosophy. It points to the way things are, the ultimate, the metaphysical pattern, the relationship of the conditioned to the unconditioned. All the metaphors, similes, and parables, and all the particular ethnical and cultural additions and qualities of a religion are taken away. What you end up with is the conditioned and the unconditioned. The path is always to realise and to let go of anything that blinds you to that ultimate perfection — to be able to see the path clearly and to practise that path.
Now, even though modern atheists, materialists and scientists may condemn religious people for believing in religious doctrines that can’t be proven, these very people believe in their own scientific doctrines or their own philosophical opinions. Like the atheist who says, `There isn’t any God!’ That’s a very conceited thing to say, isn’t it? Who am I to go around announcing that there isn’t any God? How can anyone possibly know that? One believes, perhaps, that very coarse, material things are the only reality, or that one’s experience is the only reality. But just because one can’t verify God as a material object, or whatever, doesn’t mean there is no such thing. One is still believing — in one’s own views! The heart hasn’t been opened to investigate truth. One has merely taken a position against, rather than for.
So, whether you believe in God or whether you believe there isn’t any God, it’s still believing, isn’t it? It’s a human mind that believes. Believing is a condition of the mind that you can observe. Belief is something you can see within yourself. You can believe in anything — in witches and demons and make up all kinds of things. Belief is unlimited; it’s a function of the mind. Whether you believe there is or there isn’t, the Buddha pointed to belief as that which arises and ceases. He didn’t say there is something you should believe in and something you shouldn’t believe in. That’s why the Buddha remained silent about the question: Is there a God or isn’t there? Because this is a realisation. It is something you have to realise for yourself. If I say there is a God, are you going to believe me? Some people will. They might say, `I believe anything Ajahn Sumedho says. If he says there’s God, there’s God.’ And others might say, `I think he’s got it all wrong. There isn’t any God. Buddha never taught anything about God. There’s no God in Buddhism. Buddhists don’t believe in God. We aren’t God-believers.’ I’ve upset people by talking about God. Some Buddhists are what you might call hardliners.
Belief itself is to be witnessed. It’s not a question of saying that you shouldn’t believe in anything. We have to believe in things in order to get them done. We can use belief, but we need to know what it is rather than blindly believing just because we’re told to do so or because the majority of people believe, or believing that there isn’t any God because we can’t see it and haven’t experienced anything that we can say is God. This is where we find that when asked what we believe in, the question doesn’t make sense to us any more. As Buddhist meditators, we don’t know how to answer that question. It isn’t where we are. We’re not in a place of believing. It’s not a position of belief that we’re in.
When religious study teachers come here, it is clear that they find other religions much easier to cope with. They think, `Well, the Muslims believe in Allah and the Koran. And the Christians believe in God and the Bible. The Hindus have Brahma, Krishna and Shiva, the Vedas and Upanishads. And the Zoroastrians have Zarathustra and Ahura Mazda. And then the Buddhists: What do you believe in? Do you believe Buddha is God? These are questions that are difficult to answer. It’s not the way we approach any issue. There’s the doctrinal position: There is God. And a doctrinal position starts with a metaphysical statement: I believe in God. In Buddhism the starting point is: There is suffering. This is an existential truth, not a metaphysical one. That’s why it’s important to consider the different approaches. It’s a different way of looking at it.
The way of the Buddhist, then, is through the understanding of suffering. Then there is the realisation of ultimate reality, or of God if you want to use that word. It’s a realisation. It’s not believing. It’s a knowing. When the psychologist Carl Jung was dying, somebody asked him, `After all your studies and so forth, what do you say about God? Do you believe in God?’ And he said, `No! I know God.’ I don’t know whether he did or not, but he said he did. And that is more the way of knowing rather than of believing. This is what this path is, which is why I talk about knowing truth rather than believing doctrines about the truth. It’s a very direct way. It’s immediate — here and now, outside of time.
If you contemplate time and the perception of time and how much we interpret and believe in time as an ultimate reality, when you analyse it, it isn’t real, is it? The reality of the past and the future falls away.
Click here to read more teachings by Ajahn Sumedho.
First published in the February 2001 Buddhism Now.
The above is taken from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati. Courtesy of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.