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Heart Sutra in Chinese

Theologian Paul Tillich, author of the seminal book, Systematic Theology, said, “God does not exist. He is being-itself, beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.”

I posted this quote on Facebook three days ago. A friend saw it and asked, “What is the difference between being and existence.” I replied that there is no difference. He then asked, “If there is no difference, then why did Tillich say that God does not exist and yet He is being”? That is a great question.

No, Paul Tillich did not say that God is a being. We have to be very careful with the use of words. Rather, he said that God is being-itself. It means that God is not an object. Most people understand “existence” as existence as an object. Imagine a painting or a movie. God is not any of the objects in a picture. God is not any of the characters projected onto the movie screen. What if God is the background or the screen through which you see the picture? And what if God is the projector? Even more fundamentally, what if God is the Observer? Paul Tillich said that God is the ground of being. Without a background, we cannot see form. We cannot see form without an observer either. One great philosophical question is this: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This is by no means trivial. Quantum physicists are very aware of the link between consciousness and reality. We don’t even have to get into advanced physics. We know that what we see depends on who or what we are. Given the same physical world, a human, a dog and a caterpillar will sense and perceive very different things!

In Mahayana Buddhism, we call the “ground of being” emptiness. This emptiness exists, with or without objects. It is similar to the number zero. Zero is still a number. In mathematics, we have the natural numbers: 1, 2, 3, … Zero is not a natural number because it cannot be observed in nature and cannot be counted. However, in order to recognize that there is one sparrow, two sparrows, etc., we must also have the notion of zero — no sparrow. All the counting numbers make sense only through the background of zero. In the history of mathematics, it took humans a long time to come up with the number zero because it is a concept that is difficult to grasp. It cannot be observed. Zero is the nothing that is. It is the basis for all numbers. I believe that it is the same problem with the atheists. They say that God does not exists because God is nowhere to be found or seen. But they don’t deny the existence of their own consciousness. How can the eye see itself? How can the ear hear itself?

The Heart Sutra says that “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” Form can exist only in relation to emptiness. Conversely, emptiness can exist only in relation to form. That is an application of the Buddhist philosophy of Dependent Origination. Things arise or exist only in relationship with each other. There is no independent existence. Hence, the notion of “self”(an independent object) is an illusion. Form and emptiness are two sides of the same coin. They are one; the same reality. Can you paint a picture without empty space?

Tillich said that God is the ground of being. God is not a thing. Rather, God is the form and the background. Being-itself is not a being. It refers to the totality — the form, the background, the objects, the observer and the perception process. We may call it the totality of being. This is why God cannot be defined or described. Consciousness can only perceive individual objects. Consciousness cannot turn around and see itself and understand the entire structure and process of consciousness.

It is for this reason that God is forever a mystery. Words fail to describe God. Our perception and our mind fail. About God we can say nothing. The Indian sages use the words, “Neti, neti.” The Vedic notion of ultimate reality is Brahman. It cannot be described. The Aitareya Upanishad says that “Brahman is Consciousness.” Apostle Paul used the term “The Unknown God” when he spoke to the Greek people in Athens. He quoted a Greek poet, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.”(Acts 17: 28). Similarly, Lao Tzu said, “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is the the everlasting Name.”

The Chinese word for being-itself is 本體. Literally, it means self-entity. One of my teachers in Buddhism, Professor Li, often used an analogy — we can use flour to mold a toy monkey, a toy man, a toy horse, etc. But we cannot use flour to mold flour itself. Similarly, in the dictionary, we can find definitions of many words. But “being” cannot be defined. What is the definition of “is”? We cannot use words to describe what is most fundamental. We cannot use form to portray space or emptiness.

About God, Tao or Brahman we can say nothing. Any attempt to anthropomorphize God will lead to distortions, if not worse. Emptiness is not empty. It is not nothing. That is a grand paradox.

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