by Stefano Bettera
Did Gotama believe in God? His answer is silence. Which does not mean he didn’t.
One of the most common clichés is that Buddhism denies the presence or existence of God, the absolute or any form of transcendence. This view is, for the most part, a misunderstanding, if not an error, sometimes due to a superficial knowledge of the texts and teachings, partly justified by the infrequency with which this subject is dealt with, and often justified by the presence of various philosophical and doctrinal substitutes which, over time, have tried to fill this apparent ’absence.’
In reality, the historical Buddha, Gotama, is not properly characterized as either an atheist or agnostic. He does not deny or affirm, but chooses silence, a ’strategic‘ silence that is not really devoid of content. Rather, it is a conscious, deliberate, even severe silence which affirms a precise idea: the Buddha does not reject the absolute dimension, but does not choose to take part in the debate on God in whatever way this can be commonly defined precisely because any discourse on the absolute is inadequate. It is not a question of arguing that this dimension is unthinkable or untreatable. It is about rejecting any attempt by language to establish a definitive truth in one sense or another.
Let us not forget that Gotama comes from a Vedic cultural context, although one that is not completely ‘brahmanized.’ And as much as any innovator can or wants to take a new path, there will always be a relationship, if only functional, with the concepts and forms of expression of the context in which she or he moves. There is no plant that grows without roots and the type of land where it grows determines at least in part its development.
Gotama’s thought, although revolutionary, is no exception. Many times, in ancient texts, we find passages in which he is questioned about what we would call ’the ultimate questions‘ concerning the people of his time: whether there is God, whether there is life after death, what kind of rebirth we will have and according to what criteria and so on. Gotama refuses to answer these questions. In his view, this kind of speculation just leads to ’dead ends,’ that is, a form of laborious reasoning that not only leads us nowhere but tends to divert us from the one thing that his teaching asks us to do: come to terms with existence and follow the path that leads to deep happiness, what is commonly called nirvana.
But Gotama goes further. He does not refuse to take into consideration what the sages agree on. He does not diminish the scope of the question asked of him. He does not deflect it and he does not mock it as a skeptic. But he refrains from entering into the debate, into the dispute. Precisely out of a sense of deep respect for the issues in question and aware that any kind of dialectical confrontation about them ends up only being, in fact, a waste of time.
No question, no answer
He therefore rejects both the question and the answer on the final questions because from his perspective, both can only be formulated inadequately as a result of the intrinsic limits of human language, which tends to force us towards extreme, circumscribed positions. The truth, we could say, cannot be found through any attempt to give a final definition and cannot be reduced to a diatribe, however learned. There is therefore neither truth nor absolute nor God that can be known through the categories of mind, reason, and reasoning.
But this does not mean that this truth does not exist. This is not what Gotama ever said. On the contrary, this is exactly another one of those dead ends that he warns us about. His position of prudent abstention is also reflected in the idea of impermanence, interconnection and emptiness. So, what interests Gotama and what is the pillar on which his perspective rests, which, though not defined as such, is a very sophisticated metaphysics? If one cannot speak of God, one cannot define him; this means that the absolute is out of the picture that we see through the lens of Buddhism. Thus, a Buddhist worldview does not require God. It is not because Gotama denies it, but because the discourse on reality is not based, as in other religions or in certain Greek philosophy, on an ultimate, divine, and perfect truth.
Human beings are alone
If there is no conceptual category we can use to relate to God or the absolute, the need for any relationship with God automatically falls. In this sense, human beings are alone. But this aloneness is not an absence. It is not a lack of connection. On the contrary, it is total interdependence. And silence is not an emptiness of meaning and speech. Silence, and consequently contemplation, are the way to break the limits of thought, the dualism that claims to define what is and what is not. This type of silence puts us in the condition of perceiving the presence of an absolute on a plane that is that of consciousness. This is a consciousness that operates, we could say, with criteria and on levels that reason cannot define except on a conventional level.
That is why there is no need for a discourse on God, but there is still a need for God in an experiential sense. Gotama in no way denies the deeply human afflatus or divine, creative impulse towards the absolute, towards liberation. On the contrary, he makes it the center of his way of salvation. He is neither a nihilist nor a materialist. Quite the contrary. He has a profound appreciation of this experience of a connection with the absolute. So much so that nirvana, awakening, enlightenment, are precisely the attempt to give a name to this experience of connection, so immediate and profound that it cannot be circumscribed, defined, and described. One cannot speak of nirvana; one can only experience it. And the moment this happens, silence imposes itself. Because any verbalization would be not only inadequate but even vulgar.
Like waves of the ocean
The absolute escapes our innate instinct to want to dominate and understand it. It is like the water of the ocean where fish swim in search of the water itself without realising that they are already in it. The same goes for the God of the Buddha. To seek him, to define him, is to lose him. We are already in this process; we are already swimming in the sea. We need silence to listen to the sound of the waves. In this vision the Buddhist idea of salvation, of liberation, finds its place. If we want to save ourselves, if we want to free ourselves from suffering, from what prevents us from grasping the profound interconnection with the world, with the absolute, we need to change perspective, mechanisms, and habitual patterns. We normally need to challenge the tendency to appease what binds us to the running train of everyday life and denies us calm, silence.
In the other path of silence, which is a profound expression, lies the road to salvation. And as a way of salvation there is no doubt that the Buddhist path is totally and profoundly religious in a certain sense. That is why it is inadequate to call Buddhism, as often happens, a religion without God. Because it is not God who is lacking in Buddhism. Instead, it is the recourse to the habit of discourse and the need to box in, by conceptual categories, the process.
This letting go of opinions, said the famous Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, is experiencing emptiness. Like silence, emptiness does not mean absence of expression and experience, but the end of any crystallization, of any attempt to define it. Attempting to define emptiness, nirvana or the absolute, means falling again into the same trap of thought that leads us to a deadlock and certainly far from the absolute.
What Gotama does not feel the need for in order to free human beings from our solitude and our suffering and open us to the dimension of interconnection, is the need for a reason, a truth, a theoretical foundation that justifies this experience of liberation. Instead, he strongly claims, that the experience of interconnection, the absolute, is not only as possible but also experiential and immediate, within the reach of every wise person. Nirvana is immediate, but we cannot see it because we are distracted by our own discourse about it, about God, about the absolute In this way, not only does the need for a divine principle relegated to the perfect world of ideas become less relevant, but also the presence of a person-like God to whom we turn to listen to us.
There is no one listening because the question would be misplaced and the answer incomprehensible anyway. As is illumination. One cannot rationally decide to enlighten oneself following a roadmap decided by reason. It is an experience that happens ’regardless‘ of how existence manifests itself – whether one believes or not, whether one accepts the presence of a God and an absolute or transcendence.
Even the concept of believing or not believing is inadequate because there is no answer to the question of what to believe. How to live this experience, whether to make it meaningful or not, is instead the central theme of Buddhist discourse. Our real and only possibility is whether or not to choose to free ourselves from our habitual patterns and normal ways of being in the world. This is the only possibility of encountering the sacred.
Once Mother Teresa, questioned about her relationship with God, said that she spoke to God every day, but God just listened. Urged by her interlocutor on what she asked, she replied that she just listened. She listened to the silence of God. This silence is the same dignified silence, listening to Gotama. A silence that does not deny and does not affirm because, in the end, it is of no use. A silence that is a relationship. It is salvation.