Ultimate Reality and a Nondual God

Where Jesus walks with the Buddha

Zen doesn’t use the word god, but it is certainly concerned with realizing ultimate reality. Zen is not simply the pursuit of relaxation and focus; it is opening to that which is beyond all words and concepts. Because Zen and Buddhism don’t use the word god, many people conclude that they are atheistic, but this is not the case. They do not assert that there is no God, but rather that ultimate reality is beyond dualistic divisions. Ultimate reality is not separate from creation, the universe, or this very earth. Everything is a manifestation of the functioning of ultimate reality. Sometimes the name, the great functioning, is used to indicate ultimate reality that is not separate from all that we see or from life itself. Yet ultimate reality is not limited to creation or the universe.

Sometimes the term panentheistic has been applied to Zen and Buddhism. This term may be useful in that it indicates that ultimate reality manifests in everything and yet is greater than the sum of everything in the universe. However, panentheistic is not completely accurate in that it brings in the idea of theism to categorize a completely different view of reality. The term nontheistic is also used sometimes to describe Zen and Buddhism because it denotes a view of ultimate reality that is not a personal, creator God like the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, the term nontheistic does not mean that Zen and Buddhism are not concerned with ultimate reality. It means ultimate reality transcends all theologies.

What is important in Zen is not philosophical labels or comparisons
with other religious views, but rather the direct experience of ultimate reality encountered through the silence and stillness of meditation. When the mind is not distracted by discursive thought, and our constant labeling and categorizing, ultimate reality beyond thoughts and concepts is revealed. It is already here; we simply awaken to it.

As a person with a deep experience of God in my life prior to beginning Zen practice, the Zen experience of ultimate reality beyond thoughts and concepts opened me to a larger God. It did not require me to stop using the word God; it expanded my experience of God beyond the boundaries of space time, and words of any kind. Most importantly, I experienced that there is no self at all apart from ultimate reality. There are no subjects or objects, just the functioning of ultimate reality.

After the Zen experience of awakening to ultimate reality and the ongoing deepening of this experience, the words of Jesus expressing nonduality became clear and alive for me. Jesus said, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30.) This statement is not true just for Jesus; it is true for each of us. Jesus prayed for his disciples “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” (John 17:22-23) We are already one, but we need to become aware of this oneness. Essential in both Zen and Christianity is the realization of our true identity in oneness with ultimate reality or God.

Jesus was accused of blasphemy for saying that he, as a human being, was one with God. He was not saying that he or other humans, such as the disciples, were the same as or equal to God. He was expressing the fundamental unity or oneness of God and all of God’s creation. God is greater than the total of all creation and at the same time is not other than creation or separate from it.

The principle of distinct but not separate is important in both Buddhism and Christianity. In his book Zen for Americans, Zen Master Soyen Shaku emphasizes that the Buddhist conception of ultimate reality or God includes both the gate of sameness and the gate of difference. The gate of sameness refers to ultimate reality, or God, and the gate of difference refers to ultimate reality of God manifesting in this world. Ultimate reality, or God, is “the One,” and his world of individuals and things is “the Many.” Shaku states, “Things are many and yet one; they are one and yet many. I am not thou, and thou are not I; and yet we are all one in essence.”1

In ancient times Zen Master Dongshan Liangjie was walking through the woods, and when he crossed a mountain stream he saw his reflection in the water and was suddenly awakened. He expressed his insight in verse:

Avoid seeking Him in someone else

Or you will be far apart from the self.

Solitary now am I, and independent,

But I meet Him everywhere.

He now is surely me,

But I am not Him.

Understanding it in this way,

You will directly be one with thusness.2

Dongshan Liangjie experienced his true identity as ultimate reality functioning in this world, but also acknowledged that neither he nor everything else in the world exhausts ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is the underlying oneness of the world and at the same time is greater than the world. The One manifesting in each of us and in each particular thing, just as it is, is expressed using the word thusness rather than the word god.

Although the words used are different, Dongshan Liangjie’s verse clarifies what Jesus meant when he said, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30.) Jesus told the disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9.) Oneness or nonduality is a major emphasis in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus and the Father are one and yet distinct. Oneness is one side of the coin, and differences or distinctions are the other side of the coin. We acknowledge the oneness but also the distinctions. We are distinct from God but not separate.

One of Jesus’ most powerful nondual teachings is when he said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 26:26.) This is a clear expression of Jesus’ oneness with each person, including those considered least fortunate. It is his clear call to awaken to this oneness and respond with love and compassionate action.

Nonduality comes through clearly in the Last Supper, which Christians around the world celebrate to this day. Jesus took a loaf of bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26.) Then he did the same with the wine. In declaring his presence in the bread that we eat and the wine we drink, Jesus proclaimed the oneness of life. Communion is a regular reminder and celebration of the underlying unity and oneness of all of life.

This is similar to the Zen teaching “Pick up the whole earth in your fingers, and it’s as big as a grain of rice.” Ultimate reality, whole and complete, is manifested or expressed in each and every person or thing: a grain of rice, a piece of bread, a sip of wine, or a person considered to be the least in some way. To experience this reality for yourself in your daily life is nonduality.

One evening Ralph, a member of New River Zen Community, gave a Zen talk and told the group how he was an English major back in his college days. He remembered studying the poetry of William Blake. The professor asked the class what Blake meant by his poem that began,

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,

And Eternity in an hour.

Ralph said that he didn’t have any idea what it meant nor did anyone else in the class, including the professor. However, he was happy to report that after many years of Zen practice, the meaning is now clear! ◆

From Embracing the Inconceivable: Interspiritual Practice of Zen and Christianity by Ellen Birx (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2020). Used with permission.

This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2024 issue of Parabola, REALITY. You can find the full issue on our online store.

  1. Shaku, Soen, Zen for Americans. Translated
    by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. New York: Dorset, 1906/1987.

  2. Cook, Francis Dojun, trans. 2003, The Record of Transmitting the Light. Boston: Wisdom. ↩︎