Maya and the Dream of God

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Tony (my tenant and friend) and I have gone through several rounds of discussion about the “dream of God.” In the 90s, I wrote The Zen Teachings of Jesus, where I reconciled Jesus’s teachings with Zen teachings. Today, I am ready to expand my scope. I find that there is also a common thread between Jewish theology and Vedic teachings.

I love the Hindu notion of Lila, which means divine play. In order for God/Brahman to play, He has to forget Himself. This is no different from an ordinary drama. In order to have a play, the actors and actresses have to forget about their original identities and live their roles in the play. The ten thousand things and the history of the world are not possible without this self-induced amnesia. Each creature and each sentient being is a representation of the self-forgetting God, just like each moon reflected on every dew drop, every puddle, every pond, lake or ocean is the same moon. This is how God/Brahman has fun and entertain Himself. Poetically speaking, God pretends that He is one of us. In the apparent diversity, there is also unity.

The phenomenal world is a result of God’s dream. This is consistent with the creation narrative in Genesis. How did God create heaven and earth? He willed them. Whatever God wills, it becomes reality. Thus, there is no clear line between “reality,” dream or illusion. Whatever we consider as “reality” is part of God’s dream. After all, God/Brahman/Tao is the only Reality. To ask where God came from is an absurd question. Something cannot come from nothing. There is nothing but God. The Buddha did not talk about God. But he talked about Nirvana, which is the Unborn, Uncaused and Unconditioned. We are all living in God’s dream. Or we may call it God’s simulation.

In the book of Genesis, it is said that God put Adam into a deep sleep in order to create Eve. But it is never mentioned that Adam ever woke up. Thus, Adam’s dream continues and we have human history, which is part of God’s dream, drama and play. There is a subtle connection between the Torah and the Vedas.

Tony, who is a Christian, finds it difficult to accept my notion of God’s dream. His main issue is with justice or fairness. If everything is just God’s dream, does it mean that the evil people are not punished and the good people are not rewarded? It does not seem fair to him. But he forgets two things. First, God’s dream is not like our ordinary dreams. Second, even in ordinary dreams, we don’t realize that we are in a dream while we are in it. If we drink and drive, then get ourselves into an accident, we can get seriously hurt. We may even die from such accident. That too is part of God’s dream. It is not something we can dismiss. Similarly, if we commit a crime and then get caught, we may be sent to prison for it. Our days in prison are part of God’s dream. Even in God’s dream, there are no consequences.

There is a Hindu term for God’s dream — Maya, which is commonly translated as “illusion.” It is important to note that we should not take Maya lightly. For all practical purposes, all our ordinary experiences and reality are Maya. That it is called “Maya” does not mean that it is insignificant or not “real.” It just means that things are not what they may seem, that there is a deeper reality.

In God’s dream (Maya), there are both joy and suffering, both tears and laughter, both anxiety and bliss. All polarities are contained in it. To say that we live in God’s dream does not mean that there are no consequences or no karma. We cannot get out of a bad dream at will. As a self-forgetting God, we are quite powerless. We don’t know our real identity. This is the spiritual insight of the story of the Prodigal Son in the Lotus Sutra. The son’s mind becomes so demented that he forgets who his father is! He does not know that he is the heir to great wealth.

Related to this is the Problem of Evil. Tony asked, “What about the Jews who were persecuted by Hitler?” Why do innocent people have to suffer? And why didn’t God intervene? This is a question that our Jewish brothers and sisters have asked a million times. In our minds, it is difficult to understand why bad things happen to good people. But this is to forget that all the players in God’s drama are really God-in-disguise. Both Hitler and his victims are just God wearing different masks.

In the book of Job, it is said that Job was a righteous man. Yet, all kinds of calamities came to Job and his household. This is because the doings of Satan. Here, we should note that in Jewish theology, Satan is not considered as a cosmic principal, having a spiritual war with God as envisioned in Christian theology. The Webster dictionary defines Satan as “the angel who in Jewish belief is commanded by God to tempt humans to sin, to accuse the sinners, and to carry out God’s punishment.” Even though Satan is often understood as God’s adversary, in the final analysis, Satan works for God. In his discussion of the Garden of Eden scene, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has commented that the snake in the Genesis story works for God and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden is part of God’s plan. Nothing happens unless it is God’s will, although it is often difficult for us to understand why innocent people have to suffer. Christianity, due to its absorption of the dualistic elements of Manicheism, has a tendency to steer away from monotheism and approach duotheism. Satan becomes almost God’s equal in such Christian theology. Let us remember that “God is One” is perhaps the most fundamental teaching of the Abrahamic religions.

Monotheism means that “God is one” and He has no equal. There is no “Problem of Evil” because it is all part of Lila, divine play. Can there be goodness without evil, or vice versa? To question why God created evil is to forget the fact that goodness and evil are intrinsically linked. There cannot be goodness without evil and vice versa. It is just like there cannot be light without darkness. The polarities arise together. Goodness and evil are the different masks God wears. In his book, “God was in this place and I, i did not know,” Rabbi Kushner elaborates on what the oneness of God means:

“… God is somehow part of the evil, present even in its depths. This is the meaning of our assertion that ‘God is One.’ A Oneness at the core of all being in whom everything — yes, even evil — ultimately converges. The source of all reality.”

In this way, the Jewish theology of the oneness of God is perfectly consistent with Vedic wisdom. The Jewish philosopher, Aryeh Kaplan, made the following comments about the Hasidic master, Baal Shem Tov:

“The Baal Shem Tov taught that God is actually hidden within all evil and suffering, but that God only hides when people do not realize that God is there… Ultimately, there is no barrier between God and people except that of our own making, and if one succeeds in removing this barrier, then all evil is revealed to be an illusion.”

This is the Jewish mystic’s way of talking about Maya. Here, I see the grand unification of three systems — Judaism, Vedanta and Zen Buddhism. Not only is God one, but the deep spiritual teachings of the world religions are also one. The different religious traditions have their own languages to express Lila, divine play. This is amazing in itself.

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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