The level where I can find and confirm the simple truth of Buddhists not believing in God is when the question comes as “Do you believe that Buddha is God?” No, of course not. The historical Buddha Shakyamuni was human, through and through. Another accurate response to question of God in Buddhism is that it
is non-theistic, so by its nature there is no god you are required to believe in. However, this easily turned about into a statement that Buddhists don’t believe in God, or more often that they reject God. From my experience of Zen practice, I must say that is simply not true, and I’ll delve into this more below. First I’ll steal some insight from Stephen Batchelor and emphasize that Buddhism is non-theistic, not anti-theistic, and recommend his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist for a beautiful articulation of that in more detail.
A slight sidetrack here to say that I don’t consider myself to be Buddhist - I practice Zen. Part of this non-categorization of myself stems from Zen not having a belief system to adopt and not requiring one to be anything other than what you are, embracing what it is to be human, beyond the realms of what can be put forth by any “ism.” But even more so, it is because what I have discovered when talking with groups of people in various forums, finding that what they think I am based on what they have read or heard about Buddhism is often far from the mark – something we get to discover together as our conversation unfolds. Now back to the question of and curiosity about God.
A point I find myself emphasizing about Zen practice is that it is not about taking on a belief system, importing something or trying to become something other than what you are, but rather showing up just as you are and noticing what that is like. God is welcome. Whatever beliefs you have are welcome. Your rejection of God and beliefs are welcome, too. Come as you are, sit down, be still, be quiet and pay attention. How do these beliefs or rejection thereof serve and support you? How might they hinder you, become obstacles? What is it like to hold any and all of this provisionally, to set nothing down in stone, allowing things to come and go, to stay, to leave? And don’t take these questions as catalyst for theorizing - look directly and see for yourself.
This gives a bit of the open, inclusive flavor of Zen practice, and to a certain extent speaks to the question of God in Buddhism, i.e. if you find God within your practice, okay; if not, okay. Yet this all seems to be more or less on or in the vicinity of the surface level of experience and practice. I sense a deeper current to that question of God in Buddhism or Zen, which might be put forth as “Do you encounter something God-like (eternal, divine) in this practice, or do you encounter nothing at all?” (This question could be prompted in part by the often misinterpreted and misunderstood term “emptiness” associated with Buddhism…a topic for perhaps another time.) In fact, I hold this question for myself as I make my way along, finding it especially of interest when I am sitting on a panel with people of various faith traditions, each of us sharing our views and experiences, listening for a common thread, a common ground. And what I’ve come to at this point is yes, I experience that which others call God, Allah, The Divine, The Goddess, The Great Spirit, more… . So why might one not hear of these things spoken of in Zen?
In the Tao Te Ching it says, “The tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal
tao.” A few koans from the Zen tradition come to mind, in which someone might
speak of rivers expounding the Dharma and mountains being the body of Buddha, or two friends walking together when one points to the ground and
essentially says, “This right here is heaven itself,” and their companions reply, “Yes, that’s true…but what a pity to say so.”
I think we all experience and touch into something mysterious, wondrous, beyond comprehension, larger than what we feel we are. As with any experience, when you try to capture and convey it to someone else you simply never seem to be able to do it justice. Having taken pictures of a beautiful sunset then showing them to a friend, you find yourself saying, “These are nice, but it was so much more so in person.” Telling people about a meaningful experience you had but feeling that you’re not quite imparting what you’d hoped, you say, “I guess you had to be there.” I’d say in Zen there’s a tendency to stay close to the mystery and wonder, minimal attempts being made to capture and convey an experience, and leaning toward encouraging and allowing others to have their own direct encounter.
In "saying so" a separation from the experience is created. Recognizing this, we may try to clarify, expound further, find a better way to express it, in hopes of
bridging the gap we created, but to no avail. For me, to give something a name
such as God, to personify it through images or by assigning it qualities and
characteristics, to define it leads me further from it. Even when the words
become more detailed, intricate, precise and we feel we are getting closer, the
gap remains. It’s like learning in math that if there are two points and you
bisect them, bringing them closer together each time you do so, though you pursue this for eternity the two points will never meet. Still, despite not assigning words to it or giving a description, the separation and distance from the experience still happens, because by their nature things change and move on - simply recognizing you are experiencing something is to remove yourself from it to some degree. Even so, the world is full of beautiful, powerful expressions from people throughout time, from various walks of life, speaking in languages or terminology that may be foreign from what we know, yet we feel intimately connected with what is flowing beneath, throughout and beyond their words for ourselves. In those moments we discover not that the gap has been bridged at long last, but that there was indeed no separation after all.
True, perhaps, and what a pity to say so.