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No God, No Buddha

June 30, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Over the past month or so while working at the Zen Hospice Project I have come to see, first hand, that each person’s death is as unique as the way they lived their lives. Of course that shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the way that is often expressed has surprised me. During our lives, our intentions and deepest wishes often are camouflaged by the exigencies and delusions of our daily lives. We often lose track of how we really wish to live our lives even though the way in which we do things is at least an indirect expression of them. But during a person’s final days, when the whole of our lives is reduced to a moment by moment struggle, our deepest intentions become vividly clear.

During our last days as we go deeper and deeper into ourselves we often let go of what had been our most cherished beliefs—about ourselves, our family, and often about our religion. Sometimes it is not so much a complete letting go of things but more a subtle refinement. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when I spent some time with a very sweet woman who was nearing the end of her illness. In the hour or so I spent with her before her family arrived, we talked about many things—her family, her life, and her Judaism. She told me that she loved being a Jew and raising Jewish daughters, and she told me that she had been to Israel seven times. But then her expression changed when she said very softly that she didn’t really care for the “religion of it all.”

My friend also wanted to talk about God. She told me that she “really didn’t believe,” but the way she said it was striking. There was none of the anger, and judgment that many contemporary atheists have. If you go into any bookstore you will see more than a few books by scientists and essayists with sarcastic titles such as “God is Not Great” and “The God Delusion,” to name a couple. My friend had no great belief in “No-God” that she felt she had to defend—she was not a true believer in atheism. Instead she seemed to be saying that God was not relevant to her. Her expression was calm and peaceful; another volunteer called it serene. She was not fighting against anything. She was letting go of everything so she could accept the present moment, wholly and completely. Each breath was a universe in itself.

That impression has stayed with me over the past couple of days. I see that what she told me is in keeping with a lot of Zen sayings such as “No Buddha, No Mind” or “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Going over what she said I was reminded of Suzuki Roshi saying that even a good thought or belief can prevent you from living an enlightened life. He said, “Even to have a good thing in your mind is not so good…When you have something in your consciousness you do not have perfect composure. The best way towards perfect composure is to forget everything.”

And so I’ve begun to wonder how much of what I believe or think is irrelevant to each moment of my life. When I see that a belief or a thought is irrelevant, I instinctively let it go, or as Suzuki says, “I forget it.” When I let go of thoughts— all thoughts—when I let go of Buddha, or God, I am free to live the moment exactly as it appears, without any reference or context. This is, I think, complete freedom.


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From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Working with hospice patients is challenging work as each patient asks for a response based on where they are right now. The past blurs and future days, hours, even moments, lose importance. As Zen practitioners our practice is about being present with whatever arises. In order to experience our true self, ambitions, prejudices, afflicted emotions like resentment or hostility need to drop away. With zazen as our foundational practice, we face ourselves and let go of the distractions and pettiness of our lives. It is then, often when off the cushion that the vastness of our lives is experienced.

    Thank you

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