Thank you, dear friends, for your practice. Every time we practice
together and by ourselves a home, we always have the opportunity to
get in touch with the supportive energy field of wisdom and compassion
that is already always right here and right now.
As we practice, we can even deeply be receptive to the energy field of
wisdom and compassion already generated by enlightened beings in the
universe so that as we practice, we know that we do not practice
alone. Others have gone before us, and their support is available to
And as we practice, we also add our own enlightened energy to that
field. We ourselves radiate a field of energy, a field of wisdom and
compassion, as we continue to awaken. And as we practice as a
community, then all of our individual fields of energy come together
into a collective field of energy that radiates much larger than we
realize, touching many beings, more than we realize.
So we have our individual field of energy. We have our collective
energy field as a community here, a local community, and we connect
that energy with all the local communities around the world who
practice mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion--a great energy field of
merit and of positive energy and wisdom and compassion. And that also
is connected to the vast Buddha fields, Pure Lands, if you will, the
energy fields of wisdom and compassion of the enlightened ones in the
So everything is connected, and as we practice and radiate this
beautiful energy field or Buddha field of Pure Land, this is not any
different from what Jesus taught when he talked about the kingdom of
heaven is at hand.
Unfortunately, people don't realize that to really receive a deep,
enlightened teaching requires one to cultivate a mind that is
receptive to an enlightened teaching, because when unenlightened minds
listen to an enlightened teaching, they do not necessarily hear an
enlightened teaching. It is kind of like the saying, when a pickpocket
encounters a saint, all the pickpocket sees are the saint's
pockets. They do not even realize that they are encountering a saint.
So, unfortunately, as it is so many times in the history of humanity,
including the history of religion, there have been many who have tried
to understand these enlightened teachings from perhaps a
less-than-enlightened mind, creating interpretations that are not
necessarily helpful for the rest of humanity.
You know, when Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand,"
well, if you don't hear that teaching from the point of view of
awakening, you could even say that, "Well, Jesus says it is kind of
at hand over there. It is far away. It is still coming. It is not here
yet." You know? I mean, this is the hand, and we are interpreting
it to be over there, over there, pointing away from the here and
now. And actually the idiom is to say when you say something is at
hand, it is actually mean it is right here, as close as your
hand. Right here. So, the kingdom of heaven is right here and now.
And the Pure Land of the Buddha is right here and now. So what did the
Buddha actually teach about God? This is very controversial. Different
Buddhists give different answers. But whatever answers you may have
heard, don't necessarily believe it fully, because actually the
teachings on God are what I consider to be in the category of skillful
So it depends on the audience, and it depends on the level of
spiritual evolution of a person how one teaches about God. The reason
why I appreciate the Buddha's teachings is because I believe the
reason why there does not seem to be a black and white, cut and dry
answer on what did the Buddha really teach about God is because there
is an answer different according to each person's level of awakening,
their level on the journey of spiritual awakening, which is why I love
it so much, because that means that the teaching can be applied on all
different levels, and so it is a flexible teaching.
Now I am going to present my understanding, and it does not mean that
it is the understanding, but I hope it is somewhat helpful for you,
because the Buddha did teach in different ways, and it might sound
like the Buddha in one kind of way might have taught, yes, there is
God or no, there is not God, or some other variation. But, again, if
you didn't hear it as skillful means and just different ways of
helping people at different levels, then you might be able to
appreciate the teachings more.
For example, some of us may have started off in a childhood
understanding of religion. Perhaps we took our religion very
literally. That is what a lot of children do. When we hear a story, it
is literal. It is hard to try to explain symbolic, metaphorical,
mystical, symbolic, deeper meanings to a child. Usually a literal
meaning is as much as they can understand for now, and they will grow
into deeper understanding later.
But when it comes to religion, okay, so perhaps our understanding of
God began with a nice grandfatherly figure, white beard, white robes
on a cloud, and depending on your particular sect, it might have been
a very friendly grandfather figure or a very angry grandfather
figure. But we might have taken that very literally.
I remember when I was a child, I would draw pictures of Santa Claus,
and then I thought, oh, this looks just like God. Maybe Santa Claus is
actually God in disguise. Again, children take things very literally,
and it is not like it is wrong. It is just where they are at, and
where we may have been at.
So, it is okay at a certain level to take things a certain, literal
way if that is the best we can do; it is helpful. Because I did find
the belief in God as a child helpful thinking that, well, if my
parents were not always wise, at least God was wise. If my parents did
not exactly always know how to parent, at least God was my true
parent. And my earthly parents just adopted me somehow, you know?
So it was comforting and helpful to me and helped me to cope with just
normal human life, growing up like all of us with parents who did not
have a degree in parenting, right? I mean, how many of your parents
had a PhD degree in parenting growing up? Any of us? So we are all
struggling to just deal with life without a manual, including our
So, now, on this literal level of our path, many times people, I
think, continue to grow into the teenage years perhaps, for
example--and of course this is not just the teenage years, but a lot
of teenagers that I know--I know I did. I started questioning what I
was taught in Sunday school. I started to see things a little bit
differently, and I started the question, "Why this? Why that? How do
you know?" Things like that. And then some of us may go into a phase
in our spiritual journey either of deep skepticism or reliance on more
scientific point of view, or maybe even outright atheism.
Now, I'm in enlightened point of view, this also has its place in our
spiritual growth. In fact, atheism can actually can be an expression
of a healthy development in one's spiritual journey especially if the
atheism is the result of rejecting a kind of understanding of God that
is very psychologically warped and harmful, right? So then in that
case, someone's atheism is actually progress in their understanding,
leaving behind an old outdated understanding of God.
And then of course if someone does go through that phase, eventually
if their atheism is the kind of atheism that is about no spiritual
reality, materialistic reality only, then there starts to be a deep
hunger inside that is not met by this kind of understanding of the
world, a universe that is completely empty of spiritual reality, where
only material reality matters, and that is it. There is a deep
stirring and hunger, so usually one goes to develop into the next
stage of their journey, perhaps now coming back to some sort of faith,
some sort of spirituality, but no longer the naive kind, the literal
kind, but something more open.
So maybe someone would go into a seeking stage in their journey, so
they are starting to seek and they open to new ideas and new
understandings, and they are just trying to find out all that is
available out there. And they may be somewhat agnostic. They are not
going to say, "This is it," because they are too smart to just go back
to a fundamentalist point of view, so they are kind of open. And this
is good. Many of us may have gone through that, and some of us in the
room could still be in the stage of exploring, seeking. I call it the
butterfly syndrome, flitting from one spiritual practice or thing to
another, just trying to see where they belong, what works for them.
But this is a progress, too. You know, those of us who may be on a
more mature level of the path should never downplay anyone where they
are at, because where they are at may actually be an expression of
progress for them. So we never can judge another's journey. But let's
not stay stuck in this seeking mode. Usually after a while, somebody
will then find a path that is solid and transformative, and instead of
just dabbling, now they can do some practice that is regular and over
a long period of time, many months and years of practice, and this
will then bear much, much fruit spiritually.
You see, I know a lot of people in my life that I encounter who say
that they are spiritual but not religious, but then when I ask them
what that means to them, "You're spiritual, but not religious?" Well
they believe in some higher power of some sort. They don't know what
it is exactly, and it is not like they are complete materialists. They
do believe in some spiritual reality. So then I ask them, "What are
you doing about this belief?" Usually I find they their heart is open,
but they do not have a practice yet. So it is important, I think, for
them to eventually get to this stage where they find a practice and a
path that they can really devote themselves to and the then find
spiritual transformation. Otherwise, it is just words. It is a belief
and not a reality, experientially.
I believe that most of us in the room are maybe in some form or
another in that stage of you have dedicated yourself to spirituality
and to a path and to practice, and you are continuing to encourage
yourself to keep on keeping on, and this is why you're here today. And
your understanding of God is not necessarily literal, naive childlike
understanding, nor is it necessarily a complete materialistic atheism
that is the kind that is devoid of spiritual reality, but it has more
of a quality of openness, because now, as you practice, you start
having experiences of the ultimate reality and then your understanding
of "God" is now informed by your actual experience of this ultimate
And some of us may like to call that God, as a sort of a shorthand
catchall word, because I mean, who can really define that word anyway?
Or some of us may not really like that word and may use other words
that seem more descriptive of this ultimate reality, even though of
course we know that words cannot truly capture this reality. But some
people might like to call it ultimate reality or the nature or
something else, but even those are just words.
But if we have experienced something, experienced an awakening,
experienced a glimpse of enlightenment, experienced a oneness with the
allness of the universe, then if we use the word God or some other
word, then those words have real meaning and power now, and they are
not just empty beliefs, but are imbued with real experience. And at
that higher level or deeper level, those of us who are there, we do
not really mind which word people use because we know that it is the
reality that matters, not the words. And so it is like this.
The Buddha taught truth is like an elephant, and our understanding of
the truth is like a few blind men coming up to the elephant and trying
to describe the elephant, so one blind man reaches out and touches the
ear of the elephant and says that the elephant is like a flat pancake,
and the other blind man gets ahold of the leg of the elephant and
says, "No. No. No. An elephant is actually more like the trunk of the
tree." And another blind man gets a hold of the trunk, the nose of the
elephant, and he says, "No. An elephant is more like a long hose." Or
something like that. And then another blind man or woman touches the
tail of the elephant, and he or she says, "No. You are all wrong. An
elephant is like a whip."
Well, this is what it is like when we try to understand ultimate
reality and label it God or Buddha nature or emptiness or the kingdom
of heaven, the Pure Land of the Buddha, whatever. All of these
different ways of pointing to a reality that is always here and now,
but at a higher level, it does not matter so much what you call
it. What matters more is whatever you're calling it, is it based on
your real experience of it, or is it just empty beliefs passed down to
you that don't have any real meaning for you because you have not
experienced it? That is what really matters.
So what I love about the Buddha's way of teaching about God is that at
different levels you can see that you say different things. So, yes,
there is God. No, there is not God. Yes, there is something, and what
that something is is beyond words, and maybe you can use the word God
if you understand that, or maybe you can use another word if you
So, don't get confused by what some people may say out there on what
the Buddha really taught about God. The Buddha actually taught on many
levels and said many things, and some of them may sound contradictory,
but it just depends on upaya, the skillful means, on what level the
person is that is being taught.
So you will start seeing this now in many Buddhist writings, modern Buddhist writings. Before, Buddhists were reluctant to use the word God, but now modern Buddhists are very happy to use the word God, as long as you realize it is not what you think it means. You see? It may be a higher level of understanding, rather than a literal, naive understanding of the word.
So, Thich Nhat Hanh, he teaches that, well, yes, there is God, but what is God? God is love. God is wisdom. God is compassion. God's spiritual energy in all of us. You see? Zen Buddhists in Japan started teaching using the word God, too, but they had to start writing scholarly essays to be clear to the Christians and the Westerners what exactly they were trying to mean by that so that it would not get confused, because in Buddhism, we do not necessarily believe that when we say the word God, we are referring to some personal being, you know, amongst many beings, but rather if you're going to use the word God, what you're really referring to is the ultimate nature of all beings and non-beings. But we won't get into that right now.
And even a modern Tibetan Buddhist author recently wrote a nice book
of questions and answers, and in one chapter talked about, well, what
do Buddhists really teach about God? And I think he gave a really nice
answer. What I don't necessarily think is helpful in Western society
is perhaps teachings like in some older books in English on Buddhism,
and I don't want to say the author's name, because I do not want to
criticize, but it is a very famous book, and he outright just says,
"Buddhists do not believe in God."
But you see, when you say that to an audience that may have a
different understanding of the word than what you are trying to say,
it might be misinterpreted very easily, because what happens is--I
mean, I even heard this in world religions classes at schools, because
I used to teach community college and teach world religions, and I was
just horrified sometimes by what other college professors were trying
to say, trying to explain Buddhism, and some students got completely
turned off by Buddhism thinking it is a godless religion. You know?
They are materialists. They do not believe in spiritual reality. That
is not true. Buddhists definitely believe in spiritual reality. So be
careful when you hear someone saying, well, Buddhists do not believe
in God. What exactly does that mean?
This is a very Zen approach to it, isn't it? In truth, the Zen answer
would be, the truth is there is no God and there is not no God. But
honestly, when a Christian or Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu practices
wisdom and compassion in their lives and they open their hearts in
their own way to ultimate reality, and if they call back God, I am in
complete harmony with them as a Buddhist, because I know that they are
simply using that word as a way of pointing to the same reality I am
pointing to, which is our true nature, which expresses as wisdom and
compassion and is embodied in many, many beings, many Buddhas and
Bodhisattvas, not one ultimate Creator ruling over everything. But
that is another subject. I do not have time for that tonight.
So if you hear a Buddhist say, "I do not believe in God," can you
still be in harmony with them spiritually? Can you look at their life?
Can you see what it is that they open their heart to? The infinite
light of wisdom and compassion. And so isn't their heart and practice,
their life going the same direction as yours, even if they use a
different word or have a different way of understanding towards it
than you do?
This is the true path to world peace and interfaith
dialogue. Interfaith dialogue is limited if it's just dialogue with
words and concepts and philosophies. True interfaith dialogue really
only works for world peace when we practice together and open our
hearts to see how our practice is generating the same or similar
wisdom and compassion, and maybe there are different levels of wisdom
and compassion in the different traditions, but at least at the heart
of all of this is that openness of heart for the transformation of
suffering, for caring for all beings, and that is our unity, even in
And Jesus, for those of us who grew up in the Christian tradition,
never said to worship him. Not once in all the Gospels, but many times
he said, "Follow me." So if you want to be a true Christian, don't
just simply worship Jesus. And there's nothing wrong with worshiping
Jesus, if that means that you worship the qualities of Jesus, like
love and compassion and forgiveness and healing, but it is not enough
to worship Jesus. You need to follow Jesus. And what does it mean to
Well, what did Jesus do? Let's see. Jesus went away several days and
nights in solitude in nature to be in mindful communion with the
divine. Jesus meditated. So meditate, if you want to follow Jesus. And
Jesus did not confine himself to narrow, fundamentalist
interpretations of religion. Jesus was a liberal, so if you want to
follow Jesus, be more liberal. And Jesus did not discriminate against
the marginalized in society. Jesus embraced them as friends, the
outcasts, the poor, women who were considered inferior--Jesus embraced
them all. And even those who were religious minorities, Jesus embraced
them. So if you really want to be a true Christian, you need to
embrace those who are different from you, those who are marginalized,
those who are oppressed. That is the true Jesus way.
And isn't it interesting that Jesus, an enlightened teacher in
Palestine 2000 years ago and the Buddha, an enlightened teacher in
India 2500 years ago, there are so many similarities between them, one
of which was they both allowed and supported female in the following,
in discipleship? This was unheard of in both of their cultures, but
this is one of the common thing between them, and there are many
common things, but that is one of them. Jesus had female disciples and
female followers. And Buddha allowed not only men to be ordained into
the ordained community but women, too.
So if you really want to know what an enlightened teacher is like, you
need to see their lives, not just their words, because you might be
misunderstanding their words. I've seen so many people reject Buddhism
because they thought they knew what it was teaching, or they heard
someone say something and they didn't agree with it and they didn't
try it. They didn't try the meditation, mindfulness.
There are so many wonderful things included in them, and they just
completely shut the door because of one little thing they did not
understand or disagreed with. Don't do that. And don't do that to any
of the traditions that you might be encountering just because of one
or two things that you misunderstand or don't agree with. Look at the
life that is being led. Look at the fruits of the practice. Look at
the transformation in the lives of those followers. That's how you can
truly appreciate a tradition and a path. See what the fruit is.
You know, I still remember growing up Southern Baptist and hearing
some people say, "Gandhi is going to hell because he did not
specifically say, 'I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and
Savior.'" That is so ridiculous. I don't need to look at what Gandhi
said. I just look at what Gandhi's life was, what he radiated, the
kind of energy and light that poured through every pore of his body,
mind, and speech, and that's how I know he is living the heavenly
life. He is heaven on earth. He is a manifestation of heaven on
earth. He is the doorway of the Pure Land of the Buddha on earth, a
doorway of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
I guess the bottom line of the message is, spirituality is more about
practice and not so much about faith or words or beliefs. It is less
about belief and more about our life, living the life of wisdom and
compassion and mindfulness and love and empowerment.
So, if this Christmas season, you have to be with your fundamentalist
families like I do, don't argue with them. Just don't talk about
Buddhism. Be a Buddha. Just smile. Just accept. Just be. And radiate
understanding, tolerance, compassion, love. That is all you have to
do. That is what really matters. And then if you do that, you will
start seeing that they too have the same qualities, and they may use
different words, but if they are truly, truly, deeply spiritual
beings, you will be able to be that they, too, have the intention to
go toward the positive direction, just like you. They, too, are
awakening in their own way, just like you are. So, Merry Christmas,
happy Hanukkah, and Namaste. Amitabha.