God is the Supreme I
Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Going Home, Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, touches on the issue of whether God is a personal or a non-personal god. How then do we define a person, as in the word personal? Is it possible to have a meaningful discussion of this issue if we do not agree on what a person is? We all think that, yes, we are a person, but what does this mean?
There are thoughts we have about ourselves that we deem independent from the minds and bodies of others. There are sensations, sights and sounds that we experience as our own or belonging to others or belonging to the world itself. I see my own image in the mirror. This, I think, belongs to me. I hear the bird in the yard and experience the bird as other. I bump my arm and it hurts. I believe this pain belongs to me. However, is there any actual person in these manifestations? In fact, these manifestations are only manifestations. There is no actual person, save the idea of a person created by our minds. Can it be the same with God? Thich Nhat Hanh states, “God is not a person, and God is not a non person. God is not a person, but God is not less than a person. The person contains the non person, and the non person contains the person.”
One of the attributes of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is Right View. In this view there is no line separating person from non person: they are one and the same. In Right View, there is no person other than the one we create with our thoughts. When we are stuck in the thought of a separate self, we have only a limited view. We assume we can separate self from reality. And we conclude we are contained in some idea of self, thus barring our insight and perception from freely operating outside of our imagined container.
Right View in this sense is not an object for studious investigation. Right View is a realization, the realization that the container of self has never existed, that there is no separation between person and non person. If a wave was conscious, it could realize it is one with the ocean and that like other ocean waves, it is made of water. So as human beings our actual substance is the substance of enlightened mind. This substance is obscured when we cloud its clear nature by clinging to our idea of self as an individual.
The Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharshi was once asked, “Is God personal?” His reply was, “Yes, God is the supreme I.” Yet this I is not an entity. If he was asked “Is there a supreme being?” Perhaps he would answer, “Being itself is supreme.” He is saying Being and God are the same reality, the same supreme identity free of all conceptual attributes. This includes what we think of as a person but the mere idea of a person is not what we actually are.
There is a personal aspect to the infinite enlightened mind, and we are it. This does not change the fact that the personality is wholly created by our thoughts, and that a person’s actual substance is totally permeated with infinite mind, infinite spirit. There is no person in the sense that our substance embraces all ideas, yet is beyond all ideas of a person. Our actual substance, enlightened mind, is not limited by, nor can it be grasped by, any ideas of a person. Is this so because there is no separation between our self and our mirror image, our self and the bird song, our self and the pain of the world? So reality is both personal and impersonal. We have a personal relationship with God because we think we are a person. If we thought we were rock we would have a “rocky” relationship with God.
But we are much more than the idea of a person. Because our real substance is the substance of universal consciousness, we embody all manifestations of this consciousness, of the whole world. When we see this deeply, we know without a doubt that we stand on holy ground, and not just the ground under our feet. The holy ground is what we actually are, the ground of being, the source of all manifestation. The true gift of humanness is our ability to convey this message to others through our mutual understanding of Big Self as the manifestation of the ground of being. In Zen we say form is emptiness and emptiness is form. In the ocean wave analogy, we say the wave is the ocean and the ocean is the wave. The ocean is emptiness, but like infinite mind, it is also unlimited fullness, beyond all conception. The ocean contains all things. The wave is form, but is manifested by, and at the same time one with, the infinite fullness of the ocean.
The other side of the saying form is emptiness and emptiness is form, is that form is form and emptiness is emptiness. They are one in their mysterious essence. Emptiness is full of form and form is full of emptiness. But in the relative world we do differentiate between them. After all, in the supreme adventure of our lives, we must work, play, rest and pray and shop at the mall as our selves. In the relative world we are always a person. By deeply penetrating the depths of our being, we cultivate the vision that our personhood is far more than our limited idea of a person.
We are the ocean that contains all things. Our existence is an opportunity to fully express the spirit of the ocean of all being in the form of a person. In this sense we are truly children of God.