A third alternative to theism and atheism

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  • Stephanie

    A third alternative to theism and atheism

    Earlier today, I was thinking about deity and bodhisattva images in Tibetan art (inspired in part by a visit I took a couple of weeks ago to the Rubin Museum, an awesome place I highly recommend to anyone living in or near or visiting NYC), and it got me thinking about the discussion going on here about theism vs. atheism. And I wondered how I would exactly explain these deities and the belief system they represented to someone wanting to know whether Tibetans are "theists" or "atheists." And I found that neither of those labels would suffice to characterize the way these deities are explained and taught about to scholars and "ordinary folk" alike.

    The Tibetans have a very complex and refined understanding of mind and reality that offers the most satisfying response I've encountered yet to the questions of "What is reality?" and "What is truth?" (Not that I'm fully satisfied yet, mind you :lol Their basic teaching can be summed up in a classic Buddhist phrase John Daido Loori often uses: "The three worlds are nothing but mind." No matter where you look for reality, you always find your own mind. You can't get away from your own mind. You might be able to base a pretty reasonable opinion or theory on aspects of "reality" that appear to others more or less in the same way as they do to you, but nonetheless there is no way to directly access this knowledge of another person's subjective viewpoint.

    The Tibetan understanding of deity acknowledges and incorporates this understanding about the radically subjective nature of our experience of "reality." To the Tibetans, these deities are understood to be, as are all other things, "projections" of the mind. That doesn't mean they're dismissed as "not real" or "figments of the imagination." 'Cause by this view, everything in one's experience is a projection of the mind, including the rock one just stubbed one's toe upon. These deities are perceived to have some sort of "reality," something that can be contacted and communicated with, just not in a necessarily concrete way. To say, for example, "Tara doesn't exist," would be like saying "Love doesn't exist," or "Imagination doesn't exist." One knows that love and imagination exist in some way, yet one cannot point to them in the same way one can point to a "dog" or a "tree."

    This also points to the issue of language, and how it shapes our understanding of the world. We don't get in as much trouble with more concrete terms with an obvious referent, because most people who speak the same language can agree as to what is a "dog" or a "car" or a "wheelbarrow." It's when we get into layers of abstraction that we get into trouble. Because we have a word for it, we think we know what we're talking about, but we don't necessarily know that. We may think we know what is meant by the phrase "I believe in God" or the phrase "I don't believe in God," but not only do we by default not know what someone else who utters one of these phrases means by it, we generally don't even know what the hell we mean by it when we say such a thing.
  • Kelly M.
    • Sep 2007
    • 225

    Steph, I nearly always cringe when I see your posts due to their intimidating length. Yet once I ‘buckle-down’ and actually read them... well, I have yet to be disappointed. :wink:

    I'm not sure I buy your argument that the Tibetan tradition is something other than atheistic or theistic; in a league of its own. But at the end of the day, it probably only comes down to how you define those two terms anyways. Either way, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Your last paragraph could maybe be applied to your whole argument.

    Do we build our world around our language or our language around our world?

    Live in joy and love, even among those who hate
    Live in joy and health, even among the afflicted
    Live in joy and peace, even among the troubled
    Look within and be still; free from fear and grasping
    Know the sweet joy of living in the way.


    • Jundo
      Treeleaf Founder and Priest
      • Apr 2006
      • 39075

      Today I was asked about the image of '1000 Arm Kannon' thst appeared with the netcast. I think everyone knows, but just in case: The Bodhisattva Kannon stands for Compassion and Mercy, as central to our Buddhist Practice as Wisdom. With her 1000 arms, she is said to reach out to alleviate suffering wherever found.

      Do I really believe that '1000 Arm Kannon' exists? Well, wherever in the world there is an act of mercy, and wherever each of us reaches out with our two arms to someone to lend a hand, I believe that Compassion exists right there. When we bring our human hearts of Compassion into the universe, the universe contains Compassion. In that way, I believe that Kannon is real (at least, as a symbol) when we make Compassion real by what we do.

      But I also believe that Santa Claus exists in much the same way, as the spirit of giving (I mean, I REALLY DO believe that Santa exists in that way).

      Now, whether that is a "projection of mind" or something "external" to us in the universe. That may be kind of a 'chicken or the egg' argument. Dogen was of the view that mind/body/universe were not divisible that way, and "inside" "outside" are matters of perspective.

      And if there is literally a Kannon with 1000 arms, I will fetch wood and chop water, and if not, fetch chop and wood water.

      Gassho, J


      • Fuken
        • Sep 2006
        • 435

        I don’t really believe in the 1000 armed Kannon, I think this is a kind of myth. I do however accept that there is a 13568710338 armed Kannon.

        But Like Jundo said; weather or not there is or is not a 13568710338 Kannon dose not affect my daily life.

        Yours in practice,
        Jordan ("Fu Ken" translates to "Wind Sword", Dharma name givin to me by Jundo, I am so glad he did not name me Wind bag.)