God is Kwan-yin

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This Dharma talk was given in October 2000.
In many ways, it is a continuation of my FAQ for Christians.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,

Kuan Yin is God

During this week I have been following the spectacle of violence in the Middle East as Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, battle for control of their sacred sites. They hate each other for many reasons, and I am not even going to attempt to say who is in the right or who has been more grievously wronged. But it has struck me that one of the things that drive them into a frenzy of hatred is their differing ideas about who God is and what God expects from us. So this sparked the following reflections that I would like to share with you today.

Who is God? What is He like? And what does He want from us? These are the questions that people in our culture often wonder about. These are the questions that strike at the heart of our hopes and our fears. I, at least, grew up wondering about these questions, and now that I have embraced the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, I have found a very different perspective from those I had growing up.

Who is God? Those who grew up in a Judeo-Christian or Islamic environment understand that this is a question about the Creator, the one who brought all of this into existence and who, to one extent or another, directs our lives in fulfillment of His divine plan. I say “He” deliberately by the way, because our culture is still very patriarchal and of course masculinity is considered the privileged, powerful, normative and authoritative sex and these are the qualities that Western theology attributes to God. God, in Judeo-Christian and Islamic cultures is the powerful creator and ruler of the universe, the father of us all. He is the dignified and stern gentleman with the gray beard of wisdom and the spotless toga of the Roman emperors as portrayed on the Sistine Chapel. Now, I will point out here that this is not the God of Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, or Averrhoes, the greatest theologians of Christianity, Judaeism, and Islam respectively. But it is the image that most people have because it is the image they grew up with since childhood and the one that is reinforced by the arts, TV and the movies. Isn’t this the God whose deep voice bellows at Charleton Heston in the Ten Commandments and whose fiery fingers inscribed the laws of Western civilization in stone?

Now, again, I am not concerned with what the Bible or the theologians actually teach. What I am concerned about here is the God that most people seem to believe in and the God that I grew up believing. This God was a person like my father or grandfather. But unlike my own father, God seemed to be much more stern and aloof. God demanded and expected perfection and the best behavior at all times -- no excuses. He was always ready to forgive, but only providing we were very sorry and would agree to play by the rules and accept the deal that He offered for our salvation. No questions asked and no reading the fine print! To question or have doubts is to show a lack of respect and acceptance of that deal. So this was a God who demanded perfection knowing we could not live up to it, and who expected our unthinking obedience and belief in His religion if we were to be saved. On top of that, this was a God who would only save those who were fortunate enough to be able to believe in the religion that He revealed. Consequently, I spent a good part of my life trying to figure out exactly what God wanted me to believe so that I could get on His good side.

But this image of God is one that I have long since abandoned. It took me a little longer to grow out of this Hollywood and Sunday School image of God, but eventually this God joined Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and other childhood ideas and fantasies. In the meantime, I had embraced the Buddha Dharma -- the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha who had awakened from delusion to the ultimate truth about our lives.

What does Buddhism tell us about God then? What did it tell me about God? Did becoming a Buddhist leave me in a universe without a God? In a way, yes, but in another way not at all. I say yes, because if God is the Creator, then there can not be a God in Buddhism because there is no such thing as a one-time creation or a final apocalyptic end. The universe is an open-ended and interdependent process, and so are our lives. The idea that there are definitive beginnings and endings or absolute boundaries between things or beings is viewed by Buddhism as part of the delusion that reinforces our selfishness and sense of alienation from all that exists. So we can not talk of a supreme creator in Buddhism because there is no creation -- there is only reality just as it is, beyond words or concepts. This reality we must see for ourselves and deal with directly and not through a fog of creation myths or metaphysical speculations.

So is this reality an impersonal absolute? Is it a mystic void? Or perhaps it is like the Force in Star Wars? But these are also speculations and cold abstractions. None of them can describe the living reality which Buddhism helps us to awaken to. I think, however, that the best way of putting it is that while Buddhism does not view the ultimate reality as a person, it nevertheless views it as very personal. In other words, the ultimate reality is not a cosmic grandfather with a flowing beard, a toga and the proper genitalia, but is something that defies any category while still being the source of loving-kindness, compassion, joy and the peace that surpasses understanding. One who awakens to this reality (which is what the word Buddha means: “Awakened One”) awakens to that which is the pure, blissful, eternal and true nature of all life.

This reality becomes known, or makes itself known, through the lives and teachings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. In other words, those who awaken to this reality realize that they are this reality and they are the ones who embody this reality in a way that allows others to awaken to it. Ultimate reality may be the source of compassion and wisdom, but it only becomes actual compassion and wisdom in the lives of those who awaken to it. Buddhas are the ones who are fully enlightened to this and they invite us to come and learn from them. The bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are the more active aspect of this awakening. Motivated by compassion, the bodhisattvas remain involved in the world over innumerable lifetimes to help lead people to the buddhas and to their own buddhahood.

One of these you have all seen many times -- Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, whose name means Regarder of the Cries of the World. She is the graceful figure I am sure many of you have seen decorating some restaurants or being sold in tourist shops in Chinatown. She is the one who is dressed in simple robes and is either holding a vase or sometimes a child. She almost seems to be the Asian equivalent of the Virgin Mary and in some ways she is. But she is actually more than that. In the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, she is shown to be one of the most exalted of all the bodhisattvas, whose compassion reaches throughout the universe and whose assists all those who call on her name. The 25th chapter also tells us that she is not really a “she” at all, or a “he” either. Kuan Yin is formless but able to take on any form that will best help others. Of the 33 forms that chapter 25 lists, one of those is Isvara, the Indian name for the personal God who is the creator and savior of humankind. The Lotus Sutra is actually saying that God is our perception of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, the Regarder of the Cries of the World.

Now let’s be sure we understand what the sutra is really trying to tell us. It is not saying that God is actually a Chinese goddess or a Buddhist bodhisattva. It is saying that our image or concept of God rests upon a deeper reality, and that deeper reality is compassion and wisdom which is formless but which can take on any form to inspire and assist us. In order to teach us this, the sutra describes Kuan Yin Bodhisattva who personifies the true nature of reality and embodies the compassion which springs from it. This universal and compassionate activity is perceived as the presence of God. In other words, according to Buddhism, what we call the presence of God is actually the universally compassionate activity of the true nature of reality.

The most important thing about the chapter on Kuan Yin Bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra is that when the other bodhisattvas try to give her offerings she refuses. When she does finally accept, after the Buddha asks her to, she splits the offering between Shakyamuni Buddha and the stupa of Many Treasures Tathagata. This is important because it unequivocally shows that the bodhisattvas, those who embody the compassion of the ultimate reality, do not want us to worship them. The point of their compassion is not to win our praise, but to direct us to the source of compassion and wisdom represented by the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha and the stupa of Many Treasures Tathagata.

So who is God? What is He like? And what does He want? According to my understanding of the Lotus Sutra, God is one way of perceiving the compassionate activity that flows out of the ultimate reality which transcends our images and concepts. This ultimate reality is not a person, but is the very personal source of compassion and wisdom. The whole purpose of our lives is to discover this ultimate reality as the true nature of our lives so that we can join the buddhas and bodhisattvas in embodying its wisdom and compassion for others.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2000, 2002.

FAQ for Christians

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