A conversation about God: Can a Buddhist use the word ‘God’?

A student writes:

I have been reading your book Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories, which I have enjoyed. Something you wrote really struck me – your sense of ‘God’. This was a shock as I have been a Buddhist for 20 years and rejected God a long time ago, but the word ‘God’ has continued to open the heart, causing an immediate sensing of the whole of reality as both Emptiness and love.

I have tried hard to substitute the word with Bodhicitta, or the visualising of different Buddhist deities but while this has some effect, after all these years it is still relatively superficial compared to the power within the heart of the word and sense of God. What you wrote in your book spoke a little to this, which I haven’t really come across before.

The impact of the sense of God, is having a deep affect on me, but with much conflict. As, my life connections are within the Dharma and I have made commitments to practising Buddhism. Sensing this reality as God, automatically brings the sense in the heart that it never goes anywhere, how could it? Perhaps just framing it as ‘Awareness’, can give it a psychological connotation that is less far reaching and fundamental than God. It’s interesting how different words and their associations resonate differently. 

Lama Shenpen replies:

I resonate very strongly with what you say about the impact of ‘God’ and God language.  Even after fifty five years I still find, like you, my word for that awe-inspiring, all-pervasive sense of benevolent presence is ‘God’, yet like you all my spiritual connections are Buddhist and the Buddha’s teachings are what I live by. 

I think this shows us something about Mandala Principle and the power of words, language and culture.  At some point I would like to hold an event for those who find themselves in the same boat as us – perhaps both on the Christian side and the Buddhist side. When the Awakened Heart Sangha first started someone ran a group that tried to bridge that gap – there is something very interesting there that some of us would really enjoy exploring with fellow practitioners. 

The majority of western Buddhists are not from that camp I think – their experiences with God and God language are not positive and often never were. It is a very interesting area isn’t it? 


I appreciated your response very much. It’s just reassuring to know that I am not the only one! Sometimes I wonder (somewhat ironically,) that Buddhist practice may well be one of the most effective ways to access a direct experience of ‘God’! For me the value of God language seemed to emerge once experience of ‘not-self’ or emptiness started to arise. Something about how it hints at what lies beyond the more reactive separate self. 

I agree with what you say about this not being all that common among western Buddhists. The Dharma has at times almost defined itself against our cultural backdrop of Christianity. Like you I do find it fascinating. I would be very interested in being involved in any future discussion or event. 

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