There Is No God and He Is Always with You: A Search for God in Odd Placesby Brad Warner
Can you be an atheist and still believe in God? Can you be a true believer and still doubt? Can Zen give us a way past our constant fighting about God? Brad Warner was initially interested in Buddhism because he wanted to find God, but Buddhism is usually thought of as godless. In the three decades since Warner began studying Zen, he has grappled with paradoxical questions about God and managed to come up with some answers. In this fascinating search for a way beyond the usual arguments between fundamentalists and skeptics, Warner offers a profoundly engaging and idiosyncratic take on the ineffable power of the “ground of all being.”
— Moby, musician and recording artist
“Insightful, refreshing, serious, humorous, and enjoyable, There Is No God and He Is Always with You takes a deep dive into the actual meaning of the word God and how it can be as useful for Zen Buddhists and atheists as for monotheists.”
— David Chadwick, author of Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki
“Brad Warner frames Buddhism with something that touches my soul on the very deepest level — humor!”
— Vicky Jenson, director of Shrek and Shark Tale
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There is no God and He is Always with You
A Search for God in Odd Places
By Brad Warner
New World LibraryCopyright © 2013 Brad Warner
All rights reserved.
DEATH IN THE HOLY CITY
Lance Wolf died on the streets of Jerusalem, beaten to death under the very eyes, some would say, of God himself in God's Holy City. Although he was not killed for explicitly religious reasons, Lance was murdered by people who probably thought their version of God was better than his.
I didn't know Lance well. He was a strange guy. I first met him on the third floor of Ibrahim's House of Peace on the Mount of Olives in one of the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. He was smoking a cigarette while lying on a pile of blankets on the tiled floor of a bare, dark concrete room.
Ibrahim had taken me upstairs to introduce me and another new lodger at his house to Lance, probably in the hopes that as fellow Americans we could draw Lance out of his shell and maybe get him to come downstairs and eat. Lance was not unfriendly. He sat up on his bedding and chatted enthusiastically. But he wasn't interested in coming downstairs or eating. I couldn't really see his face except when he puffed on his cigarette and the red glow illuminated his gaunt features.
Lance came out of his room a few times later that week, always talking about politics or religion. Nobody I spoke with knew when he'd arrived in Israel or why. A Jew, maybe he was one of those guys who come to Israel hoping for an audience with God. Maybe he was running away from something back home.
Ibrahim's House of Peace is a hostel in a Palestinian village called At-Tur. At-Tur is the kind of place tourists don't usually visit unless they end up there by accident while visiting the nearby scenic overlook from which you can see all of Jerusalem. Or else they wind up there while stopping by the world's oldest Jewish cemetery, where pious folks get buried in the hopes that when the Messiah descends on the Mount of Olives they'll be the first to greet him. You can see the Garden of Gethsemane from there. Some of the olive trees in the garden are more than two thousand years old and were there when the Romans took Jesus away to be crucified. But if they saw what really happened that night they're not telling.
Ibrahim is a short Palestinian man, around seventy years old, with close-cropped white hair and a stubbly white beard. He's a friendly, generous character who for the past thirty years has opened up his home to travelers from all over the world. Anyone can stay at his house for however long she likes — no questions asked. Payment is however much you can afford. There's a collection box next to the kitchen. Nobody asks you to pay, and nobody checks how much you've put in, or even if you've contributed at all.
Ibrahim carries no passport and claims no allegiance to any nation. Yet he travels around the world promoting peace. He has a few favorite travel stories that he repeats over and over to whoever comes around. I think he said he was a Sufi, though someone else at the house told me he wasn't. In any case, he is Muslim, but he believes that all religions are equally valid.
"People who have never been here think there is a wall between the Arabs and the Jews and that we are both dangerous people," Ibrahim says. "We are both really good people." He doesn't see the situation in his homeland as hopeless. "We have a lot of love, which we have learned from our religion, love and peace. A lot of goodness has happened in the land between Jewish and Palestinian brothers, the seeds of Abraham."
His house is like something out of an M. C. Escher painting. Stairways appear out of nowhere and lead to odd places. One led to a window, which you could walk through if you ducked down. A fire escape outside the window got you to the flat roof. In the house, and all over Jerusalem, people have drilled into walls built long before the advent of electricity and modern plumbing to insert plastic ducts through which electrical wiring or water pipes can pass. They look like tentacled alien robots that got frozen while trying to break through the buildings.
The heat was the first thing I noticed about Israel. It slams you hard as soon as you step out of the air-conditioned confines of Ben Gurion Airport. I took a tiny cramped shuttle bus from the airport in Tel Aviv to meet a friend who had the necessary connections to get me into Ibrahim's House of Peace, about which the only thing I knew was that it was cheap. The radio on the bus played Israeli pop songs.
You can walk to the Old City of Jerusalem from Ibrahim's place via a steep, narrow road that winds its way down the Mount of Olives past the Garden of Gethsemane. Lance Wolf probably walked to the Old City the evening he was killed there. Very late that night he was beaten bloody and senseless by a couple of young men when he refused to give them cigarettes. Lance was not the most prudent person. He liked arguing with people. Chances are he was confrontational with those kids and they didn't like it very much. Chances are they were drunk, though the God they most likely believed in forbids drinking.
The streets of the Old City are mostly too narrow for vehicles, and a lot of them are roofed over, so it feels like you're not so much walking through a city as walking through a kind of ancient shopping mall. In fact, I didn't even realize I was walking around the stations of the cross until the second time I went inside the Old City. I'd wanted to see the locations where the key events of Christ's life took place. But you can easily walk by the trinket shops without even knowing that some of the most important places in Western history are right behind them.
I visited the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre, where they say Jesus was crucified and buried. And I visited the Garden Tomb, where they also say Jesus was crucified and buried. The Garden Tomb is an altogether more pleasant place. That's probably because its claim to being the holy site is far more dubious, so fewer people go there. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is dark and depressing, while the Garden Tomb is located in a cool green park. I like my crucifixion sites pleasant, so I vote for the Garden Tomb as the authentic one.
During my visit to the Garden Tomb I met a couple of Filipino guys who were attempting to make a documentary video that I'm sure was about God. One guy had a little digital camera, and he was using it to film another guy, who would stand in front of the cave in which Jesus was allegedly buried, hold up a red velvet cloth with a cross on it, and get very emotional about it. As I stood and watched, one of the little matronly English ladies who run the place stomped up to him and shouted, "I told you to stop!" He promised her he would. Then as soon as she was out of sight they started filming again. Everyone is crazy for God in Jerusalem. That's what the guy I sat next to on the plane told me. He was an Israeli musician who lived in Tel Aviv. He never went to Jerusalem. The place was too much, he said.
At four each morning I was awoken by prayer calls emanating from the speakers on top of a nearby mosque. "Allah akbar," the call begins, "God is great." The voice was tinny and hoarse and very, very loud. The prayer call comes five times every day. The one in the morning includes the line "It's better to pray than to sleep." Is it? I sure didn't think so. The wheezy old voice reminded me of the recordings I used to hear on autumn nights when I lived in Japan, blaring from pushcarts selling roasted sweet potatoes. Except the sweet potato guys have the decency not to wake you up at four in the morning.
For all the prayer calls I heard when I was in Jerusalem, I never saw anyone actually praying. Sometimes you'd see Orthodox Jews walking around with their noses buried in books of scripture, reciting things and paying no attention to the world that God created. I wondered how many of these guys got picked off by cabs every year while walking across the streets peering into their holy books.
The Palestinians I saw in Israel didn't appear to be particularly religious. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians doesn't seem to be religiously motivated except in a very superficial way. I can't say I'm any kind of an expert. But even just a week in Jerusalem will make at least that much clear.
Many Palestinians who live in Israel, like Ibrahim, are stateless. This is why Ibrahim carries no passport. Yet somehow he manages to travel around the world. It's a big hassle for him to cross borders as an Arab without the proper documents. But he is dedicated to the cause of peace, and he is willing to put up with the hassle.
He says, "As a Palestinian living in Israel I cannot have Israeli citizenship, and as I live in East Jerusalem in Israel I am not legally a Palestinian. I need a visa if I want to make the hajj to Mecca, and it is forbidden for me to go, for example, to Syria or Iraq, because I live in Israel. It is easier for me to travel to Europe or the US than to most Arab countries." If Ibrahim, or any other Palestinian living in Israel, were to leave Israel for more than one year, he would not be allowed to return home. "We don't want the Israeli government to feed us honey and cake," he says. "But we need the freedom and right to live on our land. We ask the government to treat us as people who want to live here and give us rights, for example, for our children to go out to study and come back when they want."
After Lance was beaten up, Ibrahim stayed by his side in the hospital until he died from his injuries. Lance wasn't a big guy, and he wasn't very healthy to begin with. Ibrahim had long been worried that Lance would die in his house.
The British paper The Daily Mail described Lance's attackers as "Arab boys between 13 and 15." The boys were later caught and charged with manslaughter. It's safe to assume they were Muslim, at least nominally. But what happened had very little to do with religion in terms of the way most people conceive of it, except in the way that all religions divide humanity and equip individuals to view others as enemies. So, to my way of thinking, this means the attack had everything to do with religion.
Lots of people go to Jerusalem to find God. It's a weird idea that the Creator and Master of the Whole Universe could be found more in one city than another, let alone on planet Earth rather than, say, on Ceti Alpha VI or Tatooine. But, then again, if you believe certain ancient books, God did seem to have a preference for sending his messengers to the area. In my lifelong quest for God, it was only natural that I'd come to Jerusalem.
There is nothing supernatural about the city. But when so many people have, for so many centuries, viewed a certain place as significant, the place itself seems to somehow absorb all that. It's hard not to feel some kind of specialness about Jerusalem. Certainly significant events in human history have occurred there. Whether or not you agree, for example, that the death of Jesus was meaningful in any metaphysical way, you have to admit that it has been given meaning by millions of people. And that's certainly something.
I find the behavior of religious believers to be a special kind of geekiness that leads people to go way overboard, often with tragic consequences. I used to work for a company that made bad Japanese monster movies. Part of my job was to act as a sort of liaison between the company and American and European fans of our films. One thing that always surprised me was that people who are fans of cheap Japanese monster movies will go to monster conventions, and instead of being overjoyed at meeting fellow geeks with whom they have so much in common, they often end up fighting each other over the minutest trivial shit. Godzilla geeks pretty much all hate each other.
Religions work the same way. Christians, Jews, and Muslims — the people who hate one another the most — seem to me like a bunch of geeks who are involved in the same fantasy with only the most negligible of differences, as measured by anyone who doesn't buy into that fantasy. Yet they'll kill each other over these differences. In Jerusalem I had trouble telling Orthodox Jews from Orthodox Muslims from Orthodox Christians. They all cover their bodies in absurd clothing (considering the incredible heat of the place), they all restrict their diets in weird ways, they all obsess over pretty much the same book, they all even say they believe in the same God. And yet they'll turn what look to an outsider such as me like arguments about whether Godzilla has four toes or three into the kinds of things worth killing for.
Although I believe in God, I can't believe in a God who makes certain cities more sacred than others. Only human beings do such stupid things. God is no more present in the Holy Land of Jerusalem than he is in Bodhgaya, where Buddha was enlightened, or in Mecca, where Muhammad (peace be upon him) first received Allah's prophecies, or in Vrindaban, where Krishna played. He's just as present in Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie and Akron, Ohio.
Or does God even exist at all? Does the concept of existence have any relevance when speaking about God? And is this kind of talk just a lot of hot air for philosophers and guys stoned on too much weed to blow around without any real meaning for the rest of us? Let's take a look at that next.CHAPTER 2
THERE IS NO GOD
While people in Jerusalem, and indeed all over the world, fight and die over which version of God is real, others are just as adamant that there is no God at all. But what does it really mean to say that God exists or does not exist?
"We do not know what God is. God himself doesn't know what he is because he is not anything. Literally God is not, because he transcends being." This very Zennish statement was made in 840 CE by Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena at the court of the Frankish king Charles the Bald. I came across the quotation in a book called Dangerous Visions, a collection of science fiction stories that was put together by Harlan Ellison in 1967. These were, at the time, shocking science fiction tales. Philip K. Dick references Eriugena in the afterword to his story "Faith of Our Fathers," itself a striking science fiction look at religion and God influenced by its author's experiences while he was using LSD.
Eriugena was a fan of the works of a fifth-century CE writer we've come to know as Pseudo Dionysus. He's "pseudo" because, although his works are often attributed to Dionysus, we know that he was not, in fact, the historical Dionysus. Pseudo Dionysus said that "the being of all things is the over-being of God." He viewed God not as a gargantuan granddaddy who lives outside the universe and views it from on high but as the very ground of the reality we live in. This view of God is not unprecedented in the Christian Bible. In Acts 17:27–28 Saint Paul says, "[People] should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being."
God does not exist, says Eriugena, because he is beyond existence. To say that he exists is to place him in contradistinction with that which does not exist. But if God is really God, then he cannot be bound by such categories as existence and nonexistence.
This is a nice piece of logic, and I happen to like it quite a bit. But in the end that's all it is. Because in order to agree with the logic, you have to first accept that there is something called God who is infinite and omniscient and transcendent and so on. But what if you don't believe in that in the first place? What if you're coming to this discussion from the standpoint that all matter is essentially dead and that consciousness is just an accident arising from the movement of electricity in the cerebral cells of animals who think far too highly of their own random brain farts?
Pseudo Dionysus has an answer: "Find out for yourself." You cannot answer the question of God's existence or lack thereof through reasoned analysis. So rather than just stopping at a logical explanation of God he goes further. He says, "In the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge." These instructions sound very much like the ones the Japanese monk Dogen gave seven hundred years later and five thousand miles away for sitting zazen meditation. Dogen said, "Do not think of good and bad. Do not care about right and wrong. Stop the driving movement of mind, will, and consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration through images, thoughts, and reflections."
Excerpted from There is no God and He is Always with You by Brad Warner. Copyright © 2013 Brad Warner. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Meet the Author
Brad Warner, a Soto Zen monk and teacher, is also a punk bassist, filmmaker, and popular blogger. He is the author of Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, and Sex, Sin, and Zen. A documentary about him is forthcoming from Pirooz Kalayeh, the director of Shoplifting from American Apparel. Warner lives in Los Angeles.
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