Faced with his own mortality, man has,
For so long, and with so fierce a fortitude,
Would one who thinks he holds a jewel
A concept is not a reality; be careful not to take it for such. Man has clothed the Divine in many forms and names—or rather, has attempted to do so. Ask the believers for some attributes of God, and you will get many responses: Loving, Kind, Compassionate, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient, All-Wise, Tolerant, Forgiving, etc.; never do they say anything negative about God. How strange, therefore, that believers have waged war, hated and killed in the name of their God! We have no need to look back as far as the Crusades—which were termed ‘Holy Wars’, and which remain in history’s records as events of great savagery and bloodshed—or the fiendish torturings and burnings of the Inquisition—which the Catholic Church, claiming infallibility, must forever have upon its conscience—because this strange aberration is still with us. If there is a God, and if It—I am not going to engender or personify It—has such qualities as Its believers claim, would It—could It—approve of the barbaric behavior of Its followers?
Take, for example, the furor in India over the mosque standing on a site which Hindus claim to be the birth place of their God Rama: with Hindu fundamentalism on the rise—as among the adherents of other religions—there is now a demand for the demolition of the mosque in order to build a temple there; they say that the temple which originally stood there was destroyed by the first of the Moghul Emperors, Babur, about 450 years ago. Already, there have been bloody riots about this matter in different parts of India, during which 700 people have been killed and thousands injured.
There are countless temples in India, but, in order to build another one, some people are ready to plunge the country into the horrors of inter-religious conflict—like that which took place upon the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, when millions were massacred and made homeless—between majority Hindus, of whom there are about 800 millions, and minority Muslims, who number about 125 millions; such conflict is always simmering below the surface in India, ready to boil over at any time. The Muslims there will surely not allow their shrine to be destroyed without vigorous protest and opposition! Now, suppose that, after much inevitable violence and bloodshed, the mosque is replaced by a temple: Will that make anyone more religious? Will it bring them any nearer to the God they claim to worship? Surely, leaders of religion have a responsibility to help their followers understand a little better than this, instead of misdirecting them into courses of thinking and acting that are the very antitheses of religion. Fanaticism is a disease that, with proper education, can be overcome and eradicated; of course, this will take a long time, because it is deep-rooted, but we can make a beginning, and carry on from there, can we not?
(Update: Since I first wrote this in 1991, the mosque was indeed demolished by bands of militant Hindus, resulting in widespread communal violence, especially in Bombay, which has a large Muslim population. The Stock Exchange there was bombed, causing the deaths of more than a thousand people in that incident alone. There were burnings, slayings and rapings, as had been predicted. The suffering was immense. And even as I rewrite this in December 1997, there have been several train-bombings in India, with a number of deaths and many injured, and though no-one has yet claimed responsibility for them, it is thought that, being around the anniversary of the demolition of the mosque, they were carried out in reprisal for that; the madness goes on).
St. Augustine wrote that he had said to Nature—the trees, the mountains, the flowers, the birds, and so on—’"Tell me about God’. My gazing upon them was my question; their beauty was their answer". This is extremely flawed reasoning, starting with a preconception, and then seeing just what he wanted and expected to see. In order to perceive a mountain or flower as beautiful, he must have had a standard by which to measure them, but that was his standard, not that of the mountain or the flower. Does the flower or the bird know it is beautiful? We say they are, but that’s just our opinion, our judgment, which depends upon our feelings, which are heavily conditioned. Among humans, there are differing ideas of beauty about the same things: in Western society, for example, although there are lots of overweight people, fat is regarded as ugly, but among islanders of the South Pacific, Samoans consider it beautiful! There will be no grounds for disagreement about this if we realize that measurements of such things as beauty and ugliness are relative and subjective. Most people fear snakes and think they are ugly, but some think they are beautiful. To humans, toads are rather repulsive, but to each other they are probably not, otherwise they would have died out long ago. And from a toad’s eye view, humans may be grotesque monsters! It all depends upon how you look at it!
St. Augustine mentions nothing of ugliness, but, as Lao Tse said: "All can know beauty as beauty only because of ugliness". We can know one only when we know the other; they always go together, inseparably. What Augustine perceived as ‘beauty’ is not proof of the existence of God, as he claimed—and certainly not as he imagined God to be: as a being with human qualities such as jealousy, love, hate, anger, favoritism, and so on. Nature is impartial and impersonal; the rain wets the good person as well as the bad; the house of the believer may be consumed by fire just as may be the house of the non-believer; the flood sweeps away those in its path regardless of their piety or impiety. Anthropomorphism—the attribution of human qualities to the Divine, or the personification of the Absolute—has done more harm in the world than anything else, because people believe that such a God can be bribed, persuaded or lobbied into taking sides, and many wars have been fought with the idea that God is somehow participating, and often with both parties claiming that God is on their side against the other; thus, God is divided against ‘Himself’! This delusion continues until today. Isn’t it amazing?
Theists are divided in their ideas of God. Some believe He/It is eternally transcendent, or separate from the Universe, while others declare Him/It to be imminent, or infused in everything—or, more accurately, that everything is part of God. According to the latter view, everything thereby partakes of Divinity, and this fits in better with the findings, or deductions, of modern science than the former. Many Christians have become stuck with the idea of God as painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, where He—and It definitely is a He—is shown with a long white beard in the act of creating Adam. Though it is a masterpiece of art, and Michelangelo’s devotion and artistry can only be highly admired, it can in no way depict what he had tried to represent, no more than a Buddha image can represent the qualities of the Buddha. This is largely why Muslims and Jews abhor images and portraits, regarding all attempts to depict the Divine as futile and blasphemy. No attempt should be made to limit the Limitless.
These days, because of the rise of Feminism and the reaction against patriarchal religion, some people—mainly women—are thinking and speaking of God as ‘She’, instead of ‘He’. And why not? It is just as logical—and just as much a limitation.
Now, before you set off on a round-the-world search, it is advisable to check what you already have and are, or you may find that, after much wandering and hardship, finally, you must return—to yourself! Why should we think that what we are looking for is there but not here? Truth has no limits and, just as gold is unharmed by fire, so Truth cannot be destroyed; if it can be destroyed, it is not Truth. Therefore, can you—dare you —put your beliefs to the test? An unwillingness to do so would indicate some uncertainty about them, would it not? But it is the only way to check their validity.
Despite the fact that the Buddha never called anyone to believe Him, but to investigate things and find out for themselves if a thing is reasonable or not, Buddhists, no less than people of other religions, are prone to belief. Many of them believe that, by calling for help on Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, they will be delivered from dangers and difficulties of all kinds, as this is what is said in the Lotus Sutra. Well, I will shock many believers here by asking: Is this belief supported by the realities of life, or is it just wishful thinking, like so much belief? We all know of people who prayed for help when they were suffering or in danger, and got no response. Those who get responses to their prayers are fewer in number—far fewer —than those who don’t. This, surely, suggests that such beliefs are not confirmed by our experiences, yet still we believe. Should not our faith grow from our own direct experience of things, instead of beliefs inherited from others? We would have a much firmer foundation if our faith were so founded.
A last hint, before you begin your search: Take care that what you are searching for is not a projection of your hopes, fears and imaginings. It is not within your capacity to find Truth, for Truth—or God, or whatever you prefer to call It—is bigger than you. Truth, rather, must come to you, and it cannot do so if your mind is full of concepts and beliefs, but only when it is open and receptive.