Questions about God are common in the public question-and-answer sessions during Plum Village retreats, and often show up in comments on our online channels, too.
Here, we have put together the transcripts of four questions about God answered by Thay during Plum Village retreats in May and June 2014.
[These transcripts have been edited for readability.]
What is God?
Difficult question, but I will try.
I think that God is everything. God is not an idea or a notion. God is very real and you can get in touch with God if you are mindful, concentrated, and insightful.
When you come to Plum Village as a practitioner of meditation, you cultivate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you have these three energies, surely you can get in touch with God right here in Plum Village. When you go home you can continue to get in touch with God.
When you stop thinking, when you breathe in mindfully and enjoy breathing in, you can get in touch with God. As I breathe in, I know that I’m alive, and to be alive is a wonderful thing. And as I breathe in, I become very alive. I see my body and my mind are wonderful, and I can get in touch with the sunshine, with the hills, with the sunflowers, with the water running from the tap.
There are so many wonders of life in me and around me; when I do walking meditation, I recognize that the path leading uphill through the woods is filled with wonders: the grass, the tiny flowers, the insects, the sunshine. Everything is a wonder. A pebble, a leaf, a flower, a butterfly. Everything is a wonder and I can see God in everything.
You can see God in a pebble, in a piece of dust, in a butterfly, in a sunflower. You can see God in others, and if you see God like that you are a happy person; you do not want to do any harm to yourself and you do not want to do any harm to other people, even if they are violent, even if they suffer.
They suffer because they have not been able to be in touch with God – but if they practice mindfulness, concentration, and insight they have a chance to realize that they are in the kingdom of God. If you do walking meditation correctly you see that you are walking in the kingdom of God, and if the kingdom is there, God is there also – so you can get in touch with God and the kingdom of God with every breath and every step. That is what I do during walking meditation. There are monks, nuns, and lay practitioners who are able to do so, and so enjoy the kingdom of God.
So, to me, God is not an abstract idea, but something very real that you can encounter in every moment of your daily life. Your body belongs to the kingdom of God, your mind also. That flower, that stream of water, that tree: they all belong to the kingdom of God, and it’s too bad if we are caught in our anger, in our fear, in our jealousy, and cannot get in touch with the kingdom of God. And if we don’t know how to get in touch with the kingdom of God and with God, we will waste our life.
So, in Plum Village you’ll learn to walk in such a way, to sit in such a way, to eat in such a way, to take a shower in such a way that we can get in touch with the wonders of life that belong to the kingdom of God. Everything belongs to the kingdom of God, including this lotus flower, including this little boy. And we should continue to learn, in order to understand this more deeply.
What does God look like to you?
God expresses himself or herself in many ways. If you learn how to look with attention, mindfulness, you can see God as a flower, a tiny flower on your path of walking meditation. You can see God as the sunshine. You can see God as a river. You can see God as a little boy or girl. So, with the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, you can recognize God.
God is not confined in a particular form. God expresses herself in a multitude of forms. God is always present in the here and the now. And if you are so busy, you cannot get in touch with God.
How can we let the self die in order to overcome suffering? If everything is a blessing from God, is everything God sends us good then?
The self is just a view, a wrong view, a notion. It is not reality. So there is no need for something that is not there to die. We should not try to kill the self. But you can remove the illusion by having a deep vision of reality, by practicing the meditation on impermanence. Because everything changes so quickly, and naturally the notion of the self is no longer there, because the self is something that is everlasting, remaining the same.
We may ask whether God is a self or not. It is certain that God is not a self. If God is a self, then all of us are selves. A big self or small selves. If there is a me, a self, there should be a non-me existing at the same time. We can accept the self as a reality.
On the conventional level of truth, we can speak of ‘me’, ‘I’ and ‘you’, ‘he’ and ‘she’, because that designation is useful. It is called conventional designation. If we don’t have these conventional designations, we cannot talk, we cannot do business.
The problem is that we have to be aware that it is only a conventional designation, and that we are free from them. We can make good use of them, but we are free from them. And as I said, even the Buddha, he had to be free from the Buddha.
There was a Zen teacher. One day, in his Dharma talk, he said: “I am allergic to the word ‘Buddha’ But sometimes I have to pronounce the word ‘Buddha’. But you know, my friends? Every time that I have to utter the word ‘Buddha’, I have to go to the bathroom and rinse my mouth three times.” That is the way the Zen people talk. They want to speak about freedom. Even freedom from the Buddha.
The Zen teachers have their own way, and their way is sometimes very strong. “I’m allergic to the word ‘Buddha’. Every time I have to pronounce it, I have to rinse my mouth.” It is something not very clean. It is a very strong statement.
Then, in those days, there was a Zen student who stood up and said: “Dear teacher, I am also allergic to the word ‘Buddha’. Every time I hear you pronounce it, I have to go to the river and wash my ears three times!” I think that is a good teacher-student couple. They are free from words and notions. Even from words like “Buddha” or “God”. They are free from the notions, because you may see Buddha and God only as notions and not the truth, the reality. So you have to be very careful.
Remember, we have that example on the clouds. There are many clouds in the sky. These clouds interact with each other. They produce each other. There is the lateral, horizontal relationship, but we all know that all clouds come from the ocean. So there is a vertical relationship. You are a cloud, but you carry the ocean with you. You are a human being, but you carry God inside of you. That is a vertical relationship. So there is the horizontal explanation and there is a vertical one.
But these two should not be distinguished as two separate things. Looking into the horizontal, you see the vertical. And looking deeply into the vertical, you see the horizontal. But you have to remove the notion of horizontal and vertical at the same time. We have learned that notions like being and not-being, good and evil have to be removed. Because that is the way our mind-consciousness perceives things.
If you describe God as the ground of being, we lock Him, we lock Her into a notion: the notion of being. If God is the ground of being, who will be the ground of non-being?
So we cannot think of God in terms of being and non-being. God transcends the terms being and non-being.
As the Buddha said: “The right view is a view that transcends both the notions of being and non-being.” Not only that, but the right view is also the view that transcends the notions of good and evil. If you say that God is in control of the Kingdom of the Goodness, who will be in control of the Kingdom of Evil? So God ultimately transcends both the notion of good and evil.
Until you see that, you cannot see the plan of God, His intention. So that means you are pulled to say that, if God is compassionate, why has He created things like death, tsunamis, and tempests? Why has he allowed these things to happen?
So, delusions are trying to say: “This is for you to learn; that is also good for you.” But our mind is inclined to think that what is good is not causing suffering. Only the bad things are called suffering. So that is our mind of discrimination. We should not use that mind of discrimination to try to understand God. That is why the deepest way, the most wonderful way to touch the ultimate, is to remove notions. Including the notions of being and non-being, good and evil.
We have learned that for ālayavijñāna [foundational consciousness], everything is a wonder. There is no good and evil in it. There is no being and non-being in it. Only mind-consciousness has these notions.
We are caught in these notions. They may be useful – but if you are caught in them, you suffer.
How does Thay understand the process of surrendering to God’s will?
God’s will is that you should be your best. You should be alive. You should enjoy the wonders of life, and you should help other people to suffer less and to enjoy the wonders of life. That is the will of God.
And that is also the will of nature, the will of Mother Earth. Because Mother Earth is doing that. Mother Earth always tries to be as beautiful as she can be, to be as fresh as she can, as forgiving as she should.
Mother Earth is doing God’s will. And we who are children of Mother Earth can learn from her. We should be patient. We should live in such a way that preserves our freshness, our beauty, our compassion.
That kind of good intention, to transform the suffering inside, to help people, living beings, to transform their suffering. The intention to really be there and live deeply the life that is given to you to live. The intention to help people to do the same. With that intention, you surrender to the will of God, to the desire of Father Sun and Mother Earth.
Because vitality, the will to live, the will to live peacefully, happily, with compassion: that is the will of God. And it is also our will, because we have our physical body and we have our cosmic body; we have our God body. The one who surrenders and the one who is surrendered to – they are not two separate entities.