Revisioning God and the Self: Lessons from Buddhism

by Glen McDonald

Glenn McDonald is pastor of Zionsville Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis.

This essay originally appeared as chapter 15, pp. 228-257 in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The relevance of a dialogue with other religions — in this instance a dialogue with Zen Buddhism — to a deepening of Christian ecological consciousness. Buddhism can stimulate us to imagine that the world is our body and that, even more directly, it is God’s.

In 1983 the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Vancouver invited all churches to engage in a process of mutual commitment to justice, peace, and respect for the integrity of creation. Though the phrase integrity of creation was clearly intended to encourage ecological responsibility and a concern for the well-being of life, its exact definition remained unclear. Subsequent consultations sponsored by the World Council were charged with working out more precise definitions. McDaniel, a member of the Working Area of the Church and Society Sub-unit of WCC, wrote two papers for WCC consultations, one of which was on the conceptual foundations of a life-centered ethic, and the other on a life-centered understanding of God. Both now appear in his Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life. This essay builds upon those papers by showing the relevance of a dialogue with other religions -- in this instance a dialogue with Zen Buddhism -- to a deepening of Christian ecological consciousness.

As Christians take the next step in liberation thinking, recognizing that the very theme of liberation needs to be extended to the whole of life, two shifts in thought and action are needed. First, we need to develop an ethic that attunes us to the value and moral considerability of all life, not human life alone. We need to adopt a life-centered ethic. Second, we need to develop a way of understanding God that shows God to be concerned with and intimately connected to the whole of life, not human life alone. We need to place our trust in a life-centered God.

In an age in which we have became increasingly aware of other faiths and religious traditions in our own backyards and in other parts of the world, we cannot develop our life-centered ethics and our life-centered understandings of God in isolation. Rather we must do so in dialogue with other faiths, for many of those faiths have something quite important to add to our own perceptions. The next step in liberation thinking involves a move, not only beyond anthropocentrism, but also beyond religious exclusivism.

In this essay I have two distinct but related aims. The first is to outline the life-centered ethic and life-centered understanding of God that I believe most appropriate for the next step of liberation thinking. The second is to show how Buddhism, particularly the Zen school of Mahayana Buddhism, can contribute to an understanding of that ethic and that way of thinking about God.

To achieve these aims the essay is divided into three sections. In the first I discuss what it can mean for Christians truly to respect the integrity of creation. Here I adumbrate aspects of a life-centered ethic. In the second and third sections I explain two proposals for Christian self-understanding that originate from a dialogue with Buddhism and that have direct relevance for the adoption of life-centered ethic and belief in a life-centered God. Put simply, the ideas are: (1) that the world of "rocks and trees, hills and rivers" -- to use a Zen phrase -- is immanent within, though not exhausted by, each and every human self, and (2) that this world, and indeed the universe in its entirety, is also immanent within, though not exhausted by, God.

Respect for the Integrity of Creation

What does it mean to respect the integrity of creation? Recall the question the lawyer asked Jesus: "And who is my neighbor?" (Lk. 10:29).

Our neighbors are those with whose destinies we identify, recognizing that their well-being is inseparable from our own. Influenced by liberation theologies, we rightly recognize that all humans, particularly the poor, are our neighbors. Of course, we ought not impose our respective cultures on others, nor should we impose our religious orientations. Indeed, we ought to often let others alone and thus respect their integrity. But we ought to do so out of care rather than indifference. This means that we ought to perceive all other humans as our sisters and brothers. Corporately and individually our failures to approximate this ideal are widespread and obvious.

Even if we did better approximate this ideal, however, we might not be attending to all our neighbors. The lyrics in a popular Christian hymn from Malawi remind us that our neighbors are not only other people "black and white, rich and poor," but also "animals and trees, mountains and grass, and all creatures on earth."1 Many of us who live in urban, industrial settings forget that we are members of a larger community of life, that we share with other creatures a common evolutionary heritage, that we depend on them for our sustenance, and that the earth is their home as well as our own. Unless we feel the effects of environmental damage directly, as do so many of the poor, or unless we are enriched by cultural perspectives that are explicitly biocentric rather than anthropocentric, as are many influenced by African, Asian, and Native American traditions, we tend to disregard nature in our social analyses and in our concept of full community. We forget that the vast majority of our neighbors are plants and fellow animals.

Such disregard, which is by no means the monopoly of Christians, has its consequences. As contemporary societies plunder the earth’s forests, contaminate its air, pollute its waterways, overuse its soil, deplete its mineral resources, empty its ozone layer, and overpopulate its habitats, we are undermining the very foundations upon which we depend. From such degradation future human generations will undoubtedly suffer, as are present generations. Furthermore, at the same time that we undermine our own future, we are threatening or destroying the habitats of other species at rates unparalleled in natural history. Conservationist Norman Meyers estimates that the earth is now losing one species a day through habitat destruction, which is about four hundred times the natural rate of evolution, and that by the turn of the century we may be driving 130 species into extinction daily (Meyers, 155). To the five to ten million species of plants and animals on our planet, most humans are by no means good neighbors.

Nor are we good neighbors to the hundreds of millions of individual animals we subject to direct manipulation. Animal welfare activists remind us that hundreds of millions of animals are used each year as idols for questionable research in science and as victims of inhumane treatment in industry, including food industries that rear and slaughter animals for meat. Many of these animals suffer severe pain and debilitating bondage, yet they share with us the very qualities -- the will to live and the capacity to suffer -- that, as possessed by fellow humans, rightly elicit our moral regard (Regan). If humans deserve our moral regard by virtue of their possession of these qualities, would not other animals deserve similar consideration? Animal welfare advocates answer in the affirmative. Here, too, we are quite brutal neighbors.

Of course, many humans cannot afford to be good neighbors. Over two billion people rely on wood for household fuel, for example, and the supply for seventy percent of them is insecure. Their hope is that they can get three to four sticks a day in order to have minimum fuel for cooking or heating. When they cut trees faster than the timber stock can replenish itself, they do so "out of tragic compulsion" (Meyers, 114). Others, I among them, have greater choice in the matter. As members of dominant social classes we have the luxury to change our behavior patterns and to work toward more just social orders so that others, too, can live more lightly on the earth. We also have the responsibility to relinquish much of our power and privilege. Christians need to work for social orders that enable all humans to live in what the World Council calls justice, peace, and respect for the integrity of creation.

In its thematization at the 1983 Vancouver Assembly, the phrase integrity of creation was clear in general implication but lacking in exact definition.2 In meetings of the Church and Society Working Committee, the phrase has come to name the intrinsic value that each and every living being has in and for itself as a creature loved by God, and the instrumental value that living beings can have for one another and for God as instances of an evolutionary and web-like creation. In its theological context the phrase "integrity of creation" refers to both kinds of value simultaneously. It is "the intrinsic and instrumental value of every living organism in its relation to its environment and to God" (Birch 1988, 192).

Respect for the integrity of creation requires ecological sensitivity and life-centeredness. To be ecologically sensitive is to be knowledgeable about, and respectful of, the beauty and dynamic equilibria of ecosystems, particularly those upon which one has an impact and of which one is a part. It is also to recognize that all entities -- from protons through living cells to animals and galaxies -- are formed by their relations to their environments. To be life-centered is to be especially attuned to the value of living beings amid one’s ecological sensitivity, cognizant of their value in and for themselves, for one another, and for God. To recognize the value of living beings in and for themselves, their intrinsic value, is not to deny their relationality; rather it is to recognize that, amid their dependence on their environments, they are concerned with their own survival and well-being. Their lives are of value to themselves, and ought concomitantly to be of value to us. Respect for the integrity of creation entails the recognition that all living beings, humans and nonhumans alike, are neighbors.

To be sure, the very process of living inevitably involves the taking of life and the violation of other creatures’ interests. As Whitehead put it, life is robbery. Hence the practice of a life-centered ethic requires judgment concerning whom to rob, when to rob, and how to rob, complemented by a desire to minimize our robbery. This in turn requires the recognition of gradations of intrinsic value and the weighing up of intrinsic value with instrumental value. In distinguishing gradations of intrinsic value, I recommend the following guideline: The greater a living organism’s capacity for sentience, exemplified in part by the complexity of its nervous system, the greater its intrinsic value, and hence the greater the seriousness with which we must respect its individual interests.

This means that trivial human pleasures and comforts must indeed be sacrificed for the sake of another animal’s well-being, or for that of a group of animals. For example, if the safety of a vaccine to combat hepatitis B virus, which is rarely fatal, must be tested on chimps, whose numbers are dwindling, and if in so doing many of the fifty thousand chimps who remain in the wild may be killed or captured for vaccine makers’ colonies, it is best that humans "find some other way of solving its problem that is not to the detriment of the threatened population" (Birch and Cobb, 161). The costs to the animals are not worth the benefits to humans.

Any concern for individual animals under human domestication must itself be complemented by a concern for animals in the wild and for plants, particularly since plants play such important roles in supporting life on earth. Cognizant of the value both of human life and of wildlife, those who adopt a life-centered ethic will act so as to maximize the quality, not the quantity, of human life, making a preferential option for the poor and attempting to exercise this option with minimum abuse of individual animals under human domestication and with minimum impact on wildlife and habitats (Birch and Cobb, 173). Our aim will be to allow as many forms of life as possible to flourish in their intrinsic and instrumental value.

The adoption of a life-centered ethic can itself be energizing. Conversion beyond anthropocentrism need not be experienced as the addition of another series of issues to an already burdened stockpile of concerns, or as a dispersal of already limited moral energies (Moran). Rather it can be enjoyed as an enrichment of the Christian life and a way of drawing closer to God. Often the very practices that serve human life can complement, if not also serve, other living beings (Birch and Cobb, 174-75, 234-331; Callicott 1988). Moreover, our moral energies can themselves be nourished by sharing in that reverence for life which, so I have argued elsewhere, is characteristic of God’s own consciousness (McDaniel 1989a, 1989b).

It helps, of course, if we have theologies that encourage reverence for life. As we seek to adopt life-centered perspectives, we are often disappointed when we turn to classical theologies for help. Many ignore flora and fauna altogether, focusing instead on the relations of humans to one another and to God, or they treat animals and plants primarily as tools to be managed in a stewardly way for the sake of human well-being. The latter approach is certainly preferable to the former. With its emphasis on stewardship it allows us to affirm that the nonhuman world ought to be used in an ecologically responsible manner for the benefit of all humans. But it does not go far enough. It fails to recognize that other living beings have value apart from their usefulness to human beings and that they are loved by God for their own sakes. To view the earth and its creatures only as resources for human use is to be decidedly anthropocentric.

It is for this reason that the World Council of Church’s emphasis on respect for the integrity of creation is so important. With this emphasis the World Council explicitly invites Christians throughout the world to begin developing nonanthropocentric, life-centered forms of Christian understanding. The need is not for a single theology of life to which all Christians subscribe, but rather for many different theologies of life, each of which encourages a reverence for life relevant to the perspectives of member churches.

There are at least three fruitful approaches to the development of such theologies, all of which are being taken today, and all of which are advocated by the World Council. One way is to explore underemphasized traditions from the Bible and from the Western and Orthodox theological heritages. With this in mind Christians rightly turn to biblical authors who go beyond stewardship to stress a just treatment of animals; to Orthodox traditions with their emphases on a sacramental understanding of nature; and to classical, Western writers such as Irenacus, the later Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and the Rhineland mystics who stress the value of creation as a whole. In the latter regard, H. Paul Santmire whose study of the history of Western attitudes toward nature is one of the best available, provides perspective when he writes: "The theological tradition of the West is neither ecologically bankrupt, as some of its popular and scholarly critics have maintained and as numbers of its own theologians have assumed, nor replete with immediately accessible, albeit long-forgotten ecological riches hidden everywhere in its deeper vaults, as some contemporary Christians, who are profoundly troubled by the environmental crises and other related concerns, might wistfully hope to find" (Santmire, 5). Rather, the Western tradition is ambiguous, with elements both promising and unpromising. The task is to extract those elements that are promising and acknowledge those elements that are unpromising.

A second way is to learn from contemporary theological perspectives that are explicitly life-centered and that represent emerging directions of Christian thought. These perspectives include feminist theologies, African theologies, Native American theologies, Asian theologies, and process theologies. Some of these draw from non-Western cultural and religious traditions that are abundant with ecological insights; others, such as feminist theologies, draw from experiential sources that heretofore have been neglected in the dominant male-controlled theological traditions; and still others, such as process theology, draw from contemporary philosophical points of view that are explicitly ecological and cosmological in orientation. Inasmuch as Christianity itself is an ongoing historical movement, developmental and pluralistic at the outset, these new perspectives can be welcomed as possible advances in Christian self-understanding.

A third way is to internalize new insights gained from a dialogue with other faiths and ideologies. My aim in the following sections is to illustrate this third approach by discussing two proposals for Christian self-understanding that emerge from a dialogue with Buddhism. I speak of the ideas to be discussed as proposals rather than truths because in my view ideas that emerge out of a dialogue with other faiths and ideologies appropriately function, not as absolute truths to which all thinking Christians have an obligation to assent, but rather as experimental suggestions -- lures for thought and feeling -- that are fittingly evaluated by different Christian communities relative to needs and contexts. A buddhized Christianity may indeed be relevant to some Christians, given their situations, but not to others. My view is that the ideas that follow are relevant at least to privileged and powerful Christians, precisely as an antidote to their privilege and power.

But why Buddhism? At least two reasons. First, because it is has important resources for helping advance ecological awareness among Christians, particularly with its stress on the relational character of all existence. Second, because Buddhists are found throughout the world as potential dialogue partners for Christians. With over six percent of the world’s population, the world’s Buddhist population now includes approximately fourteen thousand people in Africa, five hundred thousand in Latin America, seventeen thousand in Oceania, three hundred fifty thousand in the Soviet Union, two hundred thousand in Europe, and two hundred thousand in North America, as well as several hundred million in South and East Asia (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1987).3

Heretofore, of course, Buddhists have been most visible to Christian theologians from Asia. Asian theologians such as Wesley Ariarajah, Tissa Balasuriya, Kosuke Koyama, Lynn de Silva, and Aloysius Pieris have found a dialogue with Buddhism both necessary and valuable for their own reflections on Christian faith. Pieris speaks for many Asian theologians when he says that Christian theology must be "baptized by immersion" in the waters of Asian spirituality for its own renewal (quoted in Ariarajah, 4). Today, however, many non-Asian theologians, too, are in dialogue with Buddhists. Small but growing numbers of Christian theologians in Europe and North America have begun to meet regularly with Buddhists to foster mutual understanding and growth, one result of which is the recently established international Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies.4 In addition, following the lead of the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, many Roman Catholic monastics have begun to use meditative practices as an adjunct to their own spiritual disciplines (Walker).

However, despite the presence of Buddhism throughout the world and the influences of Buddhism on Christian theologians and monastics, few Christian theologians interested in developing ecological theologies have drawn from Buddhist sources. This is particularly strange since it has so often been assumed, both by advocates of Eastern (South and East Asian) perspectives and by environmentalists and philosophers in the West, that Eastern religions are much more resourceful for ecological sensitivity than are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Huston Smith, who is former professor of philosophy at MIT and noted interpreter of Eastern religions in the United States, speaks for many when he says that while "the West oppositioned herself to nature," Asia "retained a deep, unquestioning confidence in nature, appreciative of it, receptive to it" (quoted in Callicott 1987a, 122).

Still, Smith’s generalization is questionable, and this for two reasons. First, generalizations concerning Eastern religions are themselves problematic. There are considerable differences among the Eastern religions themselves, particularly between those originating in India (Hinduism and Jainism) and those originating in the Far East (Taoism, Confucianism, and Shintoism). Buddhism is unique in this regard inasmuch as it has been influenced both by Indian and by Far Eastern ways of thinking. In any case, some Western environmentalist philosophers have found the religions shaped by Chinese and Japanese cultures to be more ecologically helpful than the varieties of metaphysical monism, such as Advaita Vedanta, which have emerged in Indian cultures.5

Second, like Christianity, individual Eastern religions are often ambiguous. They contain strands of thinking that are resourceful for a life-centered ethic and strands that are not. Sometimes a single idea can cut in both directions. For example, the idea of reincarnation as found in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism can both encourage and discourage the protection of an individual animal from victimization in scientific experimentation. It can encourage such protection inasmuch as the animal is seen as having perhaps been a close and dear relative, and yet it can also discourage such protection inasmuch as the animal can be seen as sacrificing itself for the sake of a better birth in the future, leading ultimately to an escape from rebirth altogether (Bowker, 6). Given the ambiguities within individual Eastern religions and the differences between them, it is very difficult to judge whether, collectively, they are or are not better than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at respecting the integrity of creation. Nor is it clear why this judgment is needed.

What is clear is that Christians have something to learn from Eastern religions. In an age that is ecologically endangered, but that is also rich in possibilities for interreligious dialogue, there is no need to assume that all divine guidance has been limited to historical Christianity. We appropriately celebrate rather than deny the presence of potentially helpful ideas in other religions, whether those ideas are confirmations of truths already contained in Christianity, or whether they offer something new and heretofore unrecognized by Christianity. As a recent report from the World Council puts it, other traditions "can enrich our understanding and, at times, help us to reformulate our views" (Niles, 12). Illustrative of this fact is the way a study of Buddhism can enrich our understanding of the human self and God.

Resources from Buddhism for Thinking about the Self

An adage from the Panchatantra, a fifth-century collection of tales from India, reads: "For the sake of one’s self, the world may be sacrificed." There is much truth in the saying, at least if we think of the self as a self-enclosed substance isolated within the body and cut off from the world by the boundaries of the skin. Given this perspective, the interests of the world outside the body and the self inside the body are quite distinct. When we act egotistically, it would follow that we are choosing the interests of our inner, self-enclosed selves over those of the outer world. We are sacrificing the world for the sake of the self.

But how accurate is this way of thinking about the self? Are our selves really enclosed within our bodies and isolated from the world by the boundaries of our skin? For almost two and a half centuries, Buddhists have insisted not. With their doctrine of anatta, or no-self, they have proposed that the self-encapsulated ego is a fiction, one that induces suffering and greed. Recently many environmental philosophers in the West have come to agree.6 One of the most influential among them is J. Baird Callicott, professor of philosophy and natural resources at the University of Wisconsin, author of numerous influential works on environmental ethics and foremost interpreter of the pioneer of Western environmental philosophy, Aldo Leopold. We do well to see the relevance of the denial of an atomized self for an environmentalist like Callicott and then see how Buddhism supports and enriches his claim.

From the Atomized Self to the Ecological Self

To think of the self as a self-enclosed substance cut off from the world by the skin is to think atomistically. In such thinking the self is conceived as an independent, invisible atom residing within the body: a ghost within a machine. Callicott argues that atomistic conceptualities of the self are ontologically inaccurate, and that they lead us wrongly to suppose the central problem of moral philosophy is whether we should manage or overcome the inclinations of isolated egos. In fact, suggests Callicott, we have no isolated egos to be managed or overcome (Callicott 1986).

This is not to say that we do not act egotistically. It is obvious to most of us, including Callicott, that we do. Moreover, as feminist theologians point out, the disparagement of egotism in male-controlled Christian theology, and in Western philosophy as well, can itself be problematic. If the word egotism includes positive self-regard and creative self-determination, and if -- being female, or poor, or a person of color -- we have been denied opportunities for such self-regard and self-determination, we may act egotistically for good reasons. But feminist theologians point out that such egotism does not stem from an isolated ego. Rather it issues from a creative, relational self. If we think of the self relationally, so feminists propose, we can be both self-affirming and world-affirming (Keller, 155-215). It is the relationality of the self that Callicott wants to affirm.

To think of the self relationally is to think of its very existence as affected or constituted by the world external to the body, that is, by other humans, by plants and other animals, by the earth, and by the sky. If we adopt a relational view of the self, so Callicott avers, our aggression toward nature can be reduced, not through management or overcoming, but rather through insight. Understanding that ourselves and the rest of nature cannot be sharply separated, we recognize that the interests of our selves and those of the biotic communities of which we are a part are often inseparable. In cooperating with nature, we serve our selves.

Callicott illustrates what he means by a "relational self" in two ways. First, he shows that our bodies, which are the physical part of who we are as psychophysical organisms, have their existence and identity in dependence on, and relation to, our environments. Our bodies are not external to the world; they are the world itself, coagulations of natural substances and processes. Because environing gases and other materials flow in and out of our bodies all the time, we are ever-changing concretions of the earth’s materials (Callicott 1986, 314). We are not cut off from the natural world, we are manifestations of that world.

Second, he argues that our states of awareness, which are the psychic part of who we are as psychophysical organisms, have their existence and identity in dependence on, and relation to, our environments. Making the point in evolutionary terms Callicott reminds us that "the very structure of one’s psyche and rational faculties are formed through adaptive interaction with the ecological organization of nature." The "more primitive elements of animal consciousness -- palpable hunger and thirst, fear and rage, pleasure and pain -- are as clearly evolutionary adaptations to an ever more elaborate ecosystem as fur and feathers, toes and digits, eyes and ears." He then suggests, following Paul Shepard, that conceptual thought itself, which we might be tempted to treat as separate from nature, "evolved as the taxonomical array of animals and plants was mapped by the emergent consciousness of primate hunter-gatherers" (Callicott 1986, 31415).

It is with an affirmation of relational selfhood of the sort Callicott proposes that Christians have much to learn from Buddhism. Of course, most biblical understandings of human life suggest a relational understanding of human life. From the perspective of most biblical authors, a person has his or her identity in relation to, not independent from, other people, the earth, fellow creatures, and God. Nevertheless, influenced by more atomistic modes of thinking inherited from the Greeks, many Christians came to think of the self as a soul isolated from the body and cut off from the world by the boundaries of the skin, an immortal substance in a perishable body. It is this way of thinking that Buddhism helps us to overcome. Of particular relevance is the Buddhist doctrine of no-self and its corresponding affirmation in Zen, the doctrine of the true self.


The doctrine of anatta, or no-self, is one of the earliest and most pervasive of Buddhist ideas. Put simply, the doctrine says that we have no permanent or independent selves. When we wrongly believe that we possess such selves, so Buddhists say, we generally cling to these fictions at the expense of our own well-being and that of others. Living our lives in terms of an illusion, we cause ourselves and others to suffer.

This is not to say that we are ourselves an illusion. Buddhists recognize that we exist, though not in the way we imagine if we think in terms of permanent substances. They say that our lives are a series of experiences extending from birth (and perhaps before) to death (and perhaps after). Be it an instance of waking, sleeping, eating, crying, loving, hating, or dying, each experience is itself "a little birth and a little death." At any given moment we are the "little birth and little death" that we are doing or undergoing, including as it does conscious and subconscious memories of the past and future.7 There is no separate person locked within the body to whom the experience belongs, no separate owner or possessor of the flow of experience. There is only the flow itself.8

Considered in itself, of course, there is nothing particularly ecological about the view that humans are sequences of experiences. After all, each experience in a life-stream could be conceived atomistically as a self-enclosed monad. But this is not the case in Buddhism. Most schools of Buddhist thought envision experiences themselves as relational: that is, as originating in dependence on other realities. They call this relationality pratitya-samutpada, or dependent origination. Thus the Buddhist doctrine of no-self implies not simply that that there is no enduring substance underlying or overriding the flow of life-experiences, but also that each life-experience is intimately connected to, and dependent on, other realities. It is with this emphasis on relationality or connectedness that the Buddhist analysis of experience points in a direction similar to Callicott and other environmental philosophers.

But relationality itself can be conceived in at least two ways. In the first place, it can be conceived as causal dependence: that is, the dependence of one entity on preceding entities or states of affairs. Billiard balls in motion can be conceived as connected in this sense, as when one billiard ball strikes another, and the latter’s motion is thereby dependent on the former’s impact. So can psychic states, as when one feeling is said to exist because it has been conditioned by preceding states of awareness. Many early Buddhist texts are detailed catalogues of the latter kind of conditioning. Connectedness as causal dependence also seems to be what Callicott has in mind when he says that our states of consciousness are formed through adaptive interaction with the ecological organization of nature (Callicott 1986). It is not that nature is immanent within our awareness, but rather that natural realities have conditioned the content and existence of our awareness. As evolutionary adaptations to ecological circumstances, our states of awareness are causally dependent on those circumstances.

The second way of conceiving connectedness is more radical and can be found in the Zen school of Mahayana Buddhism. Here connectedness is conceived not only as the causal dependence of one entity or state of affairs on others, but as the actual immanence of those other entities in the very constitution of the entity at issue. An example here would be the way in which organelles are part of the very constitution of a living cell. Not only is the cell as a whole causally dependent on those organelles, the organelles are part of what the cell is. Similarly, according to various interpreters of Zen Buddhism, other realities are part of the very constitution of a living person. Indeed, for many Buddhists each entity is part of the very constitution of every other entity. In this sense, reality is profoundly and radically ecological. Zen finds this ecological principle instantiated in the very nature of the true self.

The True Self

Of course, it may seem strange for a religion noted for its rejection of self simultaneously to affirm a true self. Not all schools of Buddhism make this affirmation. In Zen, however, the true self is affirmed as the everyday mind that remains after the reality of no-self has been understood.9 Thomas Kasulis, whose Zen Action/Zen Person is an excellent discussion of Zen approaches to the self, explains that the true self is not something different from immediate experience; rather it is immediate experience itself. It is whatever a person is doing or undergoing in the present, as lived from the inside (Kasulis 1981).

In order to explain the Zen perspective, Kasulis recounts the following story about the ninth century master Lin-chi or (in Japanese) Rinzai. While giving a talk to a group of monks, Rinzai said:

In this clump of raw flesh there is a true person of no status continually entering and exiting your sense organs. Those of you who have not yet authenticated this fact, look! Look! (Kasulis, 51).

At this point a monk came forward and asked, "What sort of thing is this person of no status?" Rinzai came down from his seat, took hold of the monk, and said to him, "Speak! Speak!" The monk hesitated, thinking the matter over, at which point Rinzai released him, saying, "The true person of no status, what a dried-up manure-stick he is," and then returned to his chamber.

One point of this story is that the monk thought his true self was a thing or substance external to his own experience, an entity that could be objectified and then analyzed. Rinzai recognized that the monk’s true self was none other than his immediate experience at that moment, confronted as it was with the challenge of responding to Rinzai’s order to "Speak! Speak!" Rinzai’s hope was that the monk would directly and immediately express his experience, in its depth and breadth, by uttering a creative word or performing a creative act. Obviously, the monk failed.

The fact that Rinzai hoped for a creative response is itself exemplary of the fact that, in Zen, the true self includes volition as well as awareness. In its volitional aspect, immediate experience is an act of decision, an act of cutting off certain possibilities for response to an immediate situation in the process of actualizing others. The agent of this decision is not different from the decision itself; the decider is the deciding. In Zen, as Kasulis explains, there "is something more than mere determinacy from the past, there is also the present moment working in its own creative way" (p. 139). An immediate experience actually "structures itself" from within its own prereflective depths (p. 140). In our essence, so Zen suggests, we are this act of self-structuring.

But we are also, and simultaneously, an act of pratitya-samutpada, or dependent origination, and this in the radical sense identified above. For our self-structuring is itself always a response to the very objects we experience, whatever they are. It is a way of integrating their influence. Moreover, the objects we experience are within our experience, and hence within us. This means that, inasmuch as we are consciously or subconsciously aware of earth and its creatures, they actually enter into our very constitution, forming its objective content. As was said of one Zen master, "the rocks, the river, everything he could see, all this was his true self" (Bancroft, 29).

In Callicott’s discussion of the human body noted earlier, he too points toward this more radical sense of connectedness. He indicates that our bodies are actually composed of the earth’s materials and of environmental gases, and that in this sense the earth is part of us. Zen extends the point in a direction with which Callicott would be sympathetic. Notice that the true self includes mental states as well as bodily sensations. Mental states involve processes of perceptual awareness, such as seeing, hearing, and smelling. For the Zen Buddhist, such perceptual processes actually include the world within themselves. When we see trees, the trees are actually immanent within, though not exhausted by, the act of seeing; when we hear flowing water, the water is actually immanent within, though not exhausted by, the act of hearing; when we smell a flower, the flower is actually immanent within, though not exhausted by, the act of smelling. Not only are our bodies made of the earth, our subjective perceptions, too, are composed of the earth. It is as if our true selves extend outward beyond our bodies to include rocks and rivers within themselves. As Kasulis puts it in alluding to the objects of his own experience: "These are not merely things in my experience; they are my experience. My self does not relate to these things; my self is these things" (Kasulis, 90).

If appropriated by Christians, this understanding of the true self has important implications for a Christian understanding of neighborly love. It suggests that neighborly love is an expression of, rather than an exception to, the very structure of our experience. Just as what happens in our bodies is part of us, so what happens in the world is part of us. We love our neighbors as ourselves because we realize that, even as they retain their own autonomy, our neighbors are ourselves. This does not mean that our neighbors are reduced to our awareness of them. Zen Buddhists generally reject such forms of idealism, insisting instead that the world forms the self, not vice versa (Nishitani, 139; Kasulis, 89-91). But it does mean that, as we feel the presence of our neighbors, they are actually present within us as constituents of our own lives. As the Church and Society sub-unit of the World Council would emphasize, our immanent neighbors are both human and nonhuman. They are other people, particularly the poor, and they are also other animals and plants, rocks and trees, hills and rivers. They are whoever and whatever we experience and are affected by in any way: consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, vividly or vaguely.

Even if we do not perceive them as neighbors and identify with their destinies, they are our neighbors, because, in experiencing them, our destinies are connected to theirs.

Relevance to Christianity

In order to see how Buddhist notions of no-self and the true self can enter into Christian self-understanding, the proposals of John B. Cobb, Jr., are noteworthy (Cobb 1975, 203-20; cf. Cobb 1982). As a process theologian Cobb argues that the appropriation of insights from other religions can be authentically Christian, inasmuch as Christianity is itself an ongoing process capable of creative transformation through openness to other Ways. He finds Buddhism particularly helpful as a stimulus for Western Christians, because it can help us to overcome that isolated individualism by which so many have become trapped, and thus better to approximate that perfection of love toward which all are called. As Cobb puts it, those of us in the West can benefit from trying to understand and internalize the truth of the doctrine of anatta, thereby freeing ourselves from "attachment to individualized personal existence as a final good" (Cobb 1975, 220).

By "personal existence" Cobb means a certain way of experiencing. In the life of a given individual, a way of experiencing is a result of both habit, itself conditioned by social and historical circumstances, and choice. It is a way in which an immediate experience in a given life-stream "structures itself," to use Kasulis’s phrase, in response to its experiential data. Personal existence is not the only way immediate experience can structure itself; rather it is one among many possible ways. Amid the way of personal existence, we identify with and cling to past and future experiences in our own life-stream, accentuating our own continuity over time, but often at the expense of also identifying with other people and the rest of the world. We think of ourselves as "who I have been" and "who I might be," and we think of everything else as "not-I," though not necessarily without its own value. If we are shaped by a theistic heritage, our aim is to live out this way of experiencing in faithfulness to God and with respect for others.

From Cobb’s perspective personal existence has value. Historically it has yielded a rich sense of individuality and ethical responsibility. But he believes that it has also had its costs in personal misery and aggression, and that it is in some tension with biblical emphases on the self as constituted by relations to a community. This is because, amid personal existence, other-interest and self-interest are dichotomized. The call to love others is therefore experienced "either as a remote and hardly relevant ideal, a burdensome and guilt-producing law, or as a supernatural gift" (Cobb 1975, 108). To better realize our own Christian ideals for love of neighbor, says Cobb, a new "postpersonal" way of experiencing is needed, encouraged by an encounter with Buddhism. Postpersonal experiencing is not a return to prepersonal modes of existence, nor is it a sheer annihilation of personal existence. Rather it is a passing beyond personal existence while retaining its achievement. It is an extension to others, both human and nonhuman, of that empathetic identification we normally feel toward our own personal pasts and futures. In so doing, we learn to feel the presence of others, nonhuman and human, as part of who and what we are. Cobb believes that Buddhism can help move Christians in this postpersonal direction. In his words: "Perhaps the encounter with the transpersonal existence of the Buddhist, the recognition of the serenity and strength it embodies, the experience of Buddhist meditation, and the study of Buddhist philosophy will give us the courage to venture into that kind of radical love which can carry us into a postpersonal form of Christian existence" (Cobb 1975, 220).

Foretastes of Postpersonal Experiencing

If proposals such as Cobb’s are to be effective, it is helpful if we can find in our own lives certain foretastes of postpersonal experiencing. Many of us already know something of postpersonal experiencing, particularly in relation to loved ones. Intuitively we feel the presence of family members and friends as part of us even though they are external to our bodies. What happens to them happens to us. Indeed, many of us feel this sense of solidarity with other people beyond the sphere of family members and friends, sometimes in demonic ways and sometimes constructive ways. Something of this broadened sense of connectedness must have been part of Paul’s sense that he and other Christians were "members of one another" as united in "one body" of Christ (Rom 12:5).

What is important about Zen for Christians interested in respecting the integrity of creation is that it suggests that we can feel this solidarity with the earth as well, with rocks and trees, hills and rivers. Even this may not be foreign to our experience. Consider the following personal account from Callicott. Having grown up roaming the banks of the Mississippi River, he returned to its banks.

As I gazed at the brown silt-choked waters absorbing a black plume of industrial and municipal sewage from Memphis and followed bits of some unknown beige froth floating continually down from Cincinnati, Louisville, or St. Louis, I experienced a palpable pain. It was not distinctly located in any of my extremities, nor was it like a headache or nausea. Still, it was very real. I had no plans to swim in the river, no need to drink from it, no intention of buying real estate on its shores. My narrowly personal interests were not affected, and yet somehow I was personally injured. It occurred to me then, in a flash of self-discovery, that the river was part of me (Callicott 1986, 315-16; emphasis mine).

The Zen analysis of the true self would suggest that Callicott’s feeling was indeed a flash of self-discovery, that the river was in fact part of his true self. No doubt many of us have these sorts of feelings with various aspects of the natural world by which we are shaped. Our feelings of solidarity with the earth may be joyful or, as Callicott’s example makes clear, painful. For Christians this sharing of the earth’s degradation can be understood as a sharing of Christ’s suffering. As Freda Rajotte puts it, "for some of us it is exactly in the desolation of the Murora atoll, the toxic and choking gasses of Cubatao, the dead river Rhine, the devastation of Kyshtym, the cloud of Bhopal, the death of Hiroshima, that the suffering and crucifixion of Christ confront us, convict us and challenge us to commitment" (Rajotte 1987, 186). From Zen we learn that if Christ’s suffering is indeed to be found in the despoliation of the earth, then his suffering, too, is part of our true selves. Not only are we part of his body, his body, or at least his suffering, is part of us.

Even if we do have foretastes of postpersonal experiencing, however, such feelings are oftentimes fleeting. All too easily we slip back into a way of experiencing that is disconnected from the world. Here Zen encourages us to consider three further proposals. The first is that a knowledge of the world as part of the self is continually at work in us at a prereflective level, even if we are not consciously aware of this fact. The second is that through the practice of meditation, or zazen we can experientially uncover, or be released into, this prereflective awareness. And the third is that this prereflective knowledge can then become a quality of our everyday experience such that, even when interacting in ordinary ways with the world, we can continually be aware of our "non-dual" relation to the world. The Rinzai tradition of Zen stresses that the third stage comes only after a sudden awakening in the satori experience, whereas the Soto tradition says that no such experience is necessary. In any case, both emphasize that our feelings of deep connectedness with the world need not come and go. They can be part of our everyday mind.

The contemporary Zen philosopher Keiji Nishitani describes this prereflective awareness in discussing a saying of the Japanese poet, Basho. In describing how he composed his poetry, Basho wrote:

From the pine tree

Learn of the pine tree,

And from the bamboo

of the bamboo.

Nishitani notes that Basho is not here speaking of detached observation or scientific study. Rather Basho "means for us to enter into the mode of being where the pine tree is the pine tree itself, and the bamboo is the bamboo itself, and from there to look at the pine tree and bamboo" (Nishitani, 128). Indeed, says Nishitani, the Japanese word for "learn" (narau) carries with it "the sense of ‘taking after’ something, of making an effort to stand essentially in the same mode of beings as the thing one wishes to learn about" (p. 128). To learn from the pine tree or from the bamboo in a conscious way is to make effective a kind of "nonobjective knowing" that has been implicit in our experience throughout, and that is central to our true identity (p. 163).

Kasulis adds that this prereflective knowledge is itself a form of compassion. "For Zen," he writes, "compassion and intuitive wisdom are the same" (Kasulis, 98). In his view, not only do we already know the world as part of our self, we already care for it. In the depths of our prereflective experience, he believes, there is already at work a kind of sympathy for the world that is clouded over and neglected, but never entirely lost. A similar view is found in various forms of Christian mysticism and also in process theology. If valid, this view rightly gives Christians and others hope that respect for the integrity of creation is less alien to human life, and more attainable, than circumstances have often led us to believe.

But is the view valid? Zen Buddhists would insist that its validity must be tested through meditation. To discover the depths of our true self and its capacities for wisdom and compassion, they say, it is important that on a regular basis we intentionally release ourselves from the vicissitudes of reflective awareness, descending into that domain of pure alertness which characterizes zazen. Of course the purposeful cultivation of psychic states has often been viewed with suspicion by Protestants. It is no accident that most of the Christians experimenting with various forms of Buddhist meditation have been Roman Catholic and Orthodox, not Protestant.

Indeed, Protestants have sometimes had good reasons for being suspicious of meditation. Such cultivation easily becomes an end in itself, an absolutization of psychic states at the expense of social action and at the expense of the risk and insecurity that accompany authentic faith in God. For different reasons, most Zen Buddhists are also leery of such absolutization. They believe that it obstructs a full realization of the Zen life. That life, they say, is an everyday life, centered in the here and now, capable of experiencing the entire range of human emotions, all the while devoid of a spectator self, and all the while connected to the world as part of the true self. The practice of zazen must be understood in this broader context. Meditation is an expression of, and a contribution to, the art of living in the world.

Perhaps Protestants, too, can experiment with Zen meditation in this broader context. After all, most Protestants realize that we cannot simply think our way into respect for the integrity of creation. Reflection must be complemented by worship and prayer, action and service. Zen suggests that we add zazen to this list of complements to reflection. If zazen can enrich our own capacities to respect rocks and trees, hills and rivers, and to see that they are part of our true selves, the suggestion seems well worth a try.

Resources from Buddhism for Thinking about God

There is still another reason why zazen or a study of Zen philosophy might be helpful. If, as Zennists claim, such endeavors lead us to learn something about the fundamental nature of our own experience, they might also lead us to learn something about the fundamental nature of God’s experience. At least this is the case if we assume that God too "experiences," and that the structure of God’s experience is something like our own.

While arguable, these assumptions are reasonable for Christians to make. Following biblical metaphors, God is imaged by most Christians as a cosmic Self who responds to worldly happenings in various ways, and who, in so doing, takes those happenings into account, or experiences them in some way. If we are among the Christians who think this way, we necessarily imagine divine experiences as structurally similar to, though perhaps much more wise and compassionate than, our own experiences; otherwise there is no meaning to our idea that God experiences. Thus, we must presuppose some kind of ontological continuity between the structure of our experience and that of God’s. This is not to say that we fully understand the mystery of God. We do not. Still, as soon as we address "God" in prayer or use the word God in thought, we inevitably image God in one way or another. For this reason it is important that we choose our images carefully, albeit with tentativeness and humility. The idea of God as an experiencing Self is one such image. And here Zen can help. It can stimulate us to imagine the divine Self in new, more ecological ways. At least this is the line of thought I develop in the remainder of this chapter.

Though stimulated by an encounter with Zen, the speculations that follow go well beyond the perspective of Zen, though not necessarily beyond those of other, more theistic schools of Buddhism such as the Pure Land traditions. For at least two reasons Zennists, along with other nontheistic Buddhists, do not speak of God. The first concerns the nature of the "ultimate," to which Zen and other schools of Buddhism point, and from which Zen experience originates. Zennists rightly recognize that when Christians and other theists speak of God, more often than not we mean a cosmic Self, a personal Being, by whom the world is loved and lured toward wholeness. By contrast, the ultimate to which Zen and other schools of Buddhism point is not a Self among selves, not even a cosmic Self. Rather it is the immediacy of experience itself, understood as the ultimate reality of each and every self. Keiji Nishitani and other members of the Kyoto School of Japanese Zen philosophy speak of this ultimate as Emptiness. By Emptiness they do not mean an underlying One into which selves are absorbed; nor do they mean a sheer privation of being. Rather they mean the very root, what Nishitani calls the very "home-ground," of a self’s existence (Nishitani, 151-52). This home-ground is named Emptiness because it is empty of static being even as it is full of becoming, empty of self-existence even as it is full of relationality, empty of an external creator even as it is full of creativity. Emptiness is the immediacy of whatever we are doing or undergoing. One cannot worship this immediacy, or love it, or be guided by it, or pray to it. One can only realize one’s identity with it, and then, as Rinzai insisted of the monk, express it in novel and creative ways. Zennists do not speak of God, in part because they sense that the word God does not name this immediacy.

To this point some Christians might respond that when Christians speak of God, we are not really speaking of a Self among selves, but rather the ultimate reality of each and every self. God, these Christians might say, is actually Emptiness, the sheer immediacy of experience, and Emptiness is God. While this response to Zen might appeal to some of a mystical orientation, it would miss what is most important to the vast majority of Christians past and present. For most Christians God is indeed a Self among selves, a supreme Consciousness to whom one prays, by whom one is loved, and through whom individuals and communities find the courage, often despite odds to the contrary, to seek the fullness of life. For Christians who address God as a Thou, it would be false to suggest that Emptiness is just another name for God, or vice versa. A better approach is to agree that the word God has more often than not pointed to a cosmic Self by whom the world is guided and loved, and to explore the possibility that God as thus understood is an instance of the very Emptiness to which Buddhism points. If we look for parallels in Buddhism, God would not be the Emptiness of which all sentient beings are instances; rather God would be a cosmic Bodhisattva -- like "Amida" of whom Pure Land Buddhists speak -- who "vows to save all sentient beings," and who is himself a supremely sentient Being.

However, even if Zen Buddhists recognized the existence of a cosmic Bodhisattva, as do their Pure Land fellow travelers, there is a second reason why Zennists might not speak of God. The word God is a Christian word, and often when Christians use it, we refer, not to a relational Bodhisattva who adapts to each situation, but rather to a changeless and independent Consciousness who saves only Christians and who is cut off from the world by the boundaries of divine transcendence. In the latter respect God is the very kind of self -- in this instance a cosmic Self -- that the doctrine of anatta denies. The Zen enlightenment experience is a revelation of the full relationality of all that exists, and hence of the nonexistence of any such selves, human or divine. If theism implies belief in a self-encapsulated divine Being, many Buddhists, even Pure Land Buddhists, are atheists.

By this definition, however, many contemporary Christian theologians too are atheists. For different reasons and in different contexts Christians throughout the world have been rejecting atomistic ways of thinking about God. For the most part, they have not been responding to challenges from Buddhism. In the North American context they have been responding to the inadequacies of the atomistic theologies for what Sallie McFague calls our "ecological, nuclear age." As McFague points out, an atomized God is a "monarchical" deity who is imaged as a divine King separate from, and standing over, his earthly realm. In our time, argues McFague, it will not do to think of God as a sovereign power to be "worshiped and glorified as the sole power in the universe," even if divine power is conceived as providential and loving (McFague, 16). The monarchical model "encourages attitudes of militarism, dualism, and escapism; it condones control through violence and oppression; it has nothing to say about the nonhuman world" (p. 78). What is needed, she says, is a way of thinking about God that enables Christians to accept responsibility for protecting life, and that provides us with images of shared power, not dominating power. What is needed, she seems to say, is a God who is less like a benevolent dictator and more like a cosmic Bodhisattva.

In search of alternatives McFague offers imagery that well serves the World Council’s interests in peace, justice, and respect for the integrity of creation. She suggests that we try envisioning God as Mother, Lover, and Friend, and that we try imagining God’s relationship to the world as analogous to that of a self to its body. It is with the latter suggestion that I think Zen Buddhism has something to offer McFague and, accordingly, all Christians who find it helpful to imagine the world as God’s body. First, let us look briefly at how, given the discussion of the self in the previous Section, it would be true to say "the world is my body," and then show how the Zen way of thinking might help us imagine the world as God’s body, too.

The World is my Body

One whose perspective is inspired by Zen can rightly say "the world is my body." Here the word world refers to that which is external to a person’s body: rocks, trees, hills, rivers, plants, people, other animals, stars, galaxies. To say that the world is my body is to say that I, as identical with my immediate experience, am related to my body and to the world in a similar way. The world is external to my body, but immanent within my self.

At the outset, however, it is very important to recognize two kinds of relation between self and world that would not obtain in a Zen context or in a buddhized Christian context. The first is that of control. If the metaphor that "the world is my body" suggests that we have, or ought to have, the same control over the world that we have over our bodies, then the metaphor is misleading. From a Zen perspective and from a Christian perspective we do not and ought not control the world in the same way that we control our bodies. Amid our self-structuring dependent origination, which in Zen is the very nature of the true self, we ought to respect as much as possible the capacities of others, both nonhuman and human, to originate dependently in their own self-structuring ways. Rinzai did not force the monk to express his true self; he enticed him to do so and to do so creatively.

The second kind of relation that would not obtain is that of self-expression. If the metaphor that "the world is my body" suggests that we have, or ought to have, the world as a medium for personal self-expression in the same way that we have our bodies as such media, then the metaphor itself is again misleading. We do not, and ought not, treat the world as a theater for personal self-expression. Rather we ought to respect the intrinsic value of living beings in and for themselves. The 14th Dalai Lama, exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism, captures the spirit of such respect in explaining the Buddhist approach to life. Suggesting that we ought to extend our care to all living creatures, he points to the fact that animals ought to matter to us because they matter to themselves.

Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to a man. Even the lowliest insect strives for protection against dangers that threaten its life. Just as each one of us wants happiness and fears pain, just as each one of us wants to live and not to die, so do all other creatures (quoted in Chapple, 226).

Note that the Dalai Lama does not say that we ought to respect animals because they are useful to us, or because they are concoctions of our egos, or because they are extensions of our bodies. Rather, we appreciate them because they have needs and interests of their own, as do we. If the metaphor "the world is my body" prevents respect for creatures on their own terms, for their own sakes, then again it is dangerous.

What kind of relation would carry the metaphor? It is that of subjective composition.

To say that "the world is my body" is to say that the world forms me in the same way that my body forms part of the content of my immediate subjective experience. As a true self identical with my lived experience, I am composed of the world in the same sense that, when I have a stomach-ache, my immediate experience is formed by the ache in my stomach. Just as I feel the presence of an ache in my stomach, and the ache thereby becomes part of me, so when I feel the presence of rocks, trees, hills, and rivers, they too become part of me. Subjectively, the rocks and rivers that I experience are no less part of me than an ache in my abdomen or a pleasure to my palate. In this sense, and not in the sense of control or self-expression, the world is my body.

The World is God’s Body

I suggest that it is also in this sense, and not in the others, that it can be appropriate to speak of the world as God’s body. Let us note first why the other two senses are inappropriate.

First, consider control. If in saying that the world is God’s body, we mean that God controls the world in the same way that we control our bodies, then we have the same moral problems with God that we have with humans who rely on coercive power. A God who acts coercively would lack moral respect for human freedom. More importantly, the image of divine control presents insuperable problems for theodicy, and this not only in relation to human history but also in relation to the history of nature. Much of the history of biological life is built on opportunism; and, as evidenced in predator-prey relations, this opportunism is cruel, at least from the point of view of the victims. If the history of nature is a result of unilateral, divine control, then God’s love must be questioned, for the history of life on earth does not readily attest to the existence of an all-controlling and all-loving God. If God is all-controlling, God is not all-loving.

In order to avoid this implication, one theological option is to suppose that God is indeed all-loving, but that God is not all-controlling, at least if the latter implies the power to unilaterally control worldly events. Elsewhere I have explained this alternative as "relational panentheism" (McDaniel 1989a, 26-27). It might also be called ecological panentheism, for it emphasizes that God and worldly creatures structure themselves in relation to, and the mutual formation of, one another. From the perspective of an ecological or relational panentheism, God is by no means powerless. Indeed, God is the most enlivening and ubiquitous power in the universe. In faith, we can live by God’s presence. Yet, as the cross of Jesus can suggest, the presence of God is, and always has been, invitational rather than coercive, a pull from ahead to which creatures may or may not respond, rather than a push from behind by which they are inevitably compelled. Just as the cells in our bodies have creative powers that can contravene our own aims, so, from a relational perspective, the cells in God’s body, including us, have powers that can contravene divine aims. If the metaphor "the world is God’s body" suggests the contrary, it highlights divine power at the expense of divine love.10

Second, consider the implications of conceiving the world as God’s personal self-expression. Whether or not this position is objectionable depends on what is meant by self-expression. Often such language is understood substantially and monistically. It conveys the image of a divine One, from whose very substance the world emerges as a manifestation, appearance, or emanation. In contrast to relational panentheism, it expresses what I have called "emanationist panentheism" (McDaniel 1989a, 26-27). Not only does a perspective of this sort raise questions for theodicy, it also cuts against a recognition of the intrinsic value of individual organisms. For when monistic thinking of this sort prevails, individual organisms are not really appreciated for their own sakes and on their own terms. Rather they are appreciated only in reference to their origin and emanator, God. The individual animal being taken to slaughter may be defended because it is an expression of God, and this attitude is beneficial to the animal. But the attitude does not go far enough. As the Dalai Lama suggests, truly to appreciate an organism in its intrinsic value is to recognize that it is important on its own terms and for its own sake, regardless of what metaphysical substances it may or may not express, and regardless of its ultimate origins, divine or otherwise.

Here, too, relational panentheism is helpful. Rather than saying that God loves the world because it expresses the divine essence, the relational panentheist can say that God, like a divine Lover or Friend, loves the world because the world is lovable (McFague, 130-36). This need not contravene the idea that God in some way creates the world, though it will suggest that God creates "out of chaos" from a beginningless past rather than creating "out of nothing" from a finite past (McDaniel 1989a, 36-37). Nor need it contravene the self-body analogy. Just as the cells in our body have lives of their own even as they contribute to, and are part of, our lives, so, from this perspective, the cells in God’s body can have lives of their own, even as they contribute to, and are part of, God’s life. God loves, and is enriched by, each cell on its own terms and for its own sake. No less than the Dalai Lama, the divine Self is attuned to the intrinsic value of living beings.

To expand this more relational way of saying the world is God’s body, Zen can be helpful. Recall that from a Zen perspective the idea that the world is my body does not mean that the world emerges from my subjective ego; rather it means that the world composes my own immediate experience, my own true self. This does not reduce "rocks and trees, hills and rivers to mere projections of my subjectivity, nor does it mean that I am incapable of a creative response to the world. But it does mean that my subjective awareness is constituted by worldly realities in the same way that it is constituted by sensations in my body. Analogously, the idea that the world is God’s body need not suggest that the world is an expression of the divine essence. Rather, it can mean that the world, in its creativity and intrinsic value, composes God’s immediate experience, God’s own true self. This would not imply that the earth and its living creatures are mere projections of God, or that God lacks creativity in God’s own right. But it would mean that God’s subjectivity is constituted by the earth and its creatures in a way similar to that in which our lives are constituted by sensations in our bodies. Just as aches in our stomachs are part of who and what we are, even though they are not emanations of our intentions, so aches in the world are part of who and what God is, even though they are not emanations of divine essence. As the body of God, the world is part of God, but it is not reduced to God.

Interestingly, the metaphor that the earth and its creatures are God’s body might even be more true for God than it is for us. Our subjective experience is very much mediated by our physical bodies. When we say "the world is my body," we are being metaphorical. We mean that the world is like our bodies in some respects, even as it is unlike our bodies in others. By contrast, the cosmic Self, which presumably is everywhere at once, would not have a physical body. As all-inclusive, the closest thing God would have to a body would be the world itself. The earth and its creatures, plus the heavens and their celestial bodies, would be present to God more directly than they are present to us. Almost literally, the world would be God’s body.

Understood in this Zen-influenced way, the metaphor of the world as God’s body can contribute considerably to Christian efforts to respect the integrity of creation. It suggests that the whole of nature is part of the divine self; it shows how the exploitation of nature impoverishes the very richness of divine experience; it encourages a respect for the intrinsic value of individual organisms; and, in saying that God loves the world as a self loves a body, it suggests that embodiedness itself is a good to be cherished rather than an evil to be avoided (McFague, 74). And yet, because it is relational rather than emanationist, it accomplishes these ends without reducing God to the world or the world to God.

Still, there are two possible objections to this way of thinking. The first is that it denies divine transcendence, and the second is that it violates traditional intuitions that God is personal. In closing let me respond to each objection, and in so doing further elaborate the way in which a Christian encounter with Buddhism can stimulate thought concerning a theology of creation.

Traditionally, language concerning divine transcendence has often meant at least two things. First, it has meant that God has something like thoughts, feelings, and intentions of God’s own, which are distinguishable from worldly thoughts, feelings, and intentions. If we take our self-body analogy from Buddhism, there is nothing in what has been said above that contradicts this idea. Even though the monks to whom Rinzai was speaking were part of Rinzai’s very body, the Zen master nevertheless had thoughts, feelings, and intentions of his own, which were distinguishable from those of his audience. Rinzai hoped that the individual monk he enjoined to "speak!" would respond creatively, and he was frustrated when the one monk did not. Hope and frustration were themselves coalescences of thought, feeling, and intention. They were aspects of Rinzai’s experience, and only indirectly of the monk’s.

Analogously, even though the world might be understood as the body of God, God might nevertheless have thoughts, feelings, and intentions that are distinguishable from those of worldly creatures. Of course, we do not really know what divine thoughts, feelings, and intentions are like. Perhaps, as process theologians suggest, they are instances of "prehending" or "taking into account" experiential data from a subjective point of view. As such they would be instances of, rather than exceptions to, the very kind of experiential activity that occurs in all living things and, so process thinkers speculate, in all existents, even subatomic events. But this is not the place to present arguments for pan-experientialism (Griffin). My point here is that there is nothing in the self-body metaphor that precludes divine subjectivity. A true self, even if divine, will consist both of the content of experience and the subjective acts of prehending, or taking that content into account. In something of the same way Rinzai took into account the monks with hope and frustration, so God might take into account the world with wisdom and compassion. In that wisdom and compassion would lie God’s transcendence.

If we are influenced by Buddhism, however, we are provoked further to imagine that God, even if embodying a transcendent subjectivity, exemplifies anatta. This would mean at least two things. First, it would mean that God is identical with divine experience. In order to press the point, let us imagine God in personal terms: either as a caring Father or perhaps better in our time, as a strong and compassionate Mother, since father imagery can so often bring with it associations of patriarchal domination. In her transcendence, so the doctrine of anatta would suggest in the first instance, the Mother of the world would not have wisdom and compassion, as if she were one thing and her subjective states another. Rather she would be her wisdom and compassion. She, like us, would have no self apart from her experience. Second, the doctrine would suggest that God’s Subjective transcendence is fluid and adaptive rather than solid and unchanging. As situations in the world change, so would the subjective forms of God change. Her wisdom and compassion would remain constant, but the particular forms they would take would be relative to the requirements of the situation. Sometimes it might be wise for her to be firm, at other times tender; sometimes it might be compassionate for Her to be judgmental, at other times tolerant. In her flexibility she would exemplify what Buddhists call upaya, skillful ways of responding to situations at hand. This means that, as illustrative of anatta, Her transcendence would be a relational transcendence: an ever-changing and ever-adaptive act of freely responding to new situations in the interests of life’s fullness.

Mention of divine responsiveness to the world takes us to a second meaning of divine transcendence. Often biblical language concerning divine transcendence has implied, not simply that God is partially constituted by subjective feelings of her own, but that God has the power to exercise an effective influence in the world, particularly in times of crisis and particularly by offering new and hopeful possibilities for responding to such crises. This is the understanding of divine transcendence that is most meaningful for people in oppressed situations. At issue here is not transcendent subjectivity, it is transcendent power.

I believe that an emphasis on transcendent power is also compatible with a Zen-influenced understanding of the world as God’s body. Just as Rinzai shook the monk, so Christians influenced by Zen can say, God shakes the world. For reasons noted above, however, it is important to emphasize that divine shaking is invitational rather than coercive. The lure of God can be experienced as a prod, a spur, a prompt, and a challenge, but it cannot be experienced as an irresistible force. Though it may be a source of new and unanticipated possibilities for life’s fullness, we must ourselves actualize the possibilities derived from it. As a beckoning toward justice, peace, and respect for the integrity of creation, God requires our response for a fulfillment of her aims.

In an ecological, nuclear age, so McFague reminds us, it is in our interests to align ourselves with the aims of God, for God herself is on the side of life. Furthermore, as the World Council would emphasize, she is on the side of the poor. This means that God’s transcendent power is a lure within the hearts of the poor to seek the fullness of life for themselves and others, and a lure within the hearts of the privileged and powerful to identify with the aspirations of the poor, thereby relinquishing our power and privilege. Just as God’s transcendent subjectivity is adaptive to each situation, from a buddhized Christian perspective, God’s transcendent power is adaptive to each situation. The divine Mother beckons the leper to have hope, and she beckons the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give to the poor.

Of course, such personal imagery raises the second objection mentioned earlier. If we conceive the world as God’s body, can we legitimately speak of God as Mother, Lover, or Friend? If so, do we inevitably adopt an anthropocentrism that cuts against our desire to affirm the integrity of creation? Here as well, an internalization of Buddhist sensibilities can help.

The relevance of personal imagery to God partly hinges on our concept of person. The word person here means an individual human being as he or she assumes a role or guise in relation to others. Persons are fathers and mothers, teachers and students, friends and lovers, saints and prophets, and so on. Defined as such, persons may or may not exemplify what earlier we called the "personal" way of experiencing. In any case, as these examples suggest and as Zen and other schools of Buddhism lead us to recognize, we rightly think of persons relationally (Kasulis, 132). Persons do not first exist and then enter into relations with others; rather, they emerge out of relations with others as outcomes of the contextual self-structuring of immediate experience. Inasmuch as the contextual self-structuring of immediate experience is the true self, it is true to say that the person becomes from the self. As selves, we become mothers, lovers, and friends in contexts appropriate to such becoming. As someone needs our care, we become a mother; as someone elicits our passion, we become a lover; as someone shares with us a life, we become a friend. In the beginning was our self -- that is, the immediacy of our experience -- from which emerged, in response to the needs of others, those persons we have become and are becoming.

Analogously, if we think of God in personal terms, an encounter with Buddhism invites us to speculate that God’s personal qualities, too, emerge in relation to, rather than independence from, the needs of creatures. Amid the self-structuring of the divine experience, God, too, might become a mother for those who need divine parenting, a friend for those who need divine friendship, and a lover for those who need divine intimacy. Indeed, God might become different Persons for us at different stages in our lives; or a plurality of Persons. Globally, God may have become many different Persons for many different people. To say that God becomes a Person of one sort or another is to say that the divine True Self feels each of us according to our deepest needs, empathetically bestows affection upon us in accordance with those needs, and lures us as that Person might. It is not as if divine Persons are mere masks of God; they are who and what the divine True Self actually becomes, for us.

Such speculation presupposes, of course, that there is something in the depths of divine self-structuring that is empathetic and that yearns to meet needs. Pure Land Buddhists might call this something the primordial Vow of Amida; feminists and process thinkers might call it the primordial Eros of the universe; and more traditional Christians might call it Grace. In any case, if the presupposition that God is fundamentally empathetic is not itself too anthropocentric, and I think it not, it offers a way of both affirming divine personality and of transcending anthropocentrism. It invites us to imagine that the cosmic Self feels each cell in its body in terms appropriate to that cell, and then responds by luring that cell toward that kind of fulfillment relevant to its needs and its context. Inasmuch as many humans need a personal God, the cosmic Self feels us, and responds to us, in a personal way. But the cosmic Self would also appreciate other creatures on their terms and in ways appropriate to them. God would identify with the subjective sensations and aspirations of diatoms, rattlesnakes, beetles, and "all things counter, original, spare, strange" (Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty"). From this perspective, God would not be a cosmic Person who relates first and foremost to people and who also, in some less important way, also relates to nonhuman organisms. Rather, God would be a cosmic Self who relates to nonhuman organisms on their own terms and for their own sakes, and who also, in relation to people, becomes that Person or those Persons whom we need.

Of course, there is often a drastic difference between what we need and what we want. Oftentimes those of us who are privileged and powerful want a God who sanctions our own complicity in unjust social orders or our exploitation of other forms of life. We want a God who is white and male, or who loves only humans. Yet, like the rich young ruler, we need a God, both for ourselves and for others, who impels us to change our ways. We need a God whose care requires that we share our goods with our sisters and brothers, whose erotic passion invites us to transcend our fear of embodiedness, and whose companionable spirit encourages us to be friends of the earth. Perhaps, as McFague suggests, we need a God who is a mother, lover, and friend. Cognizant of this possibility, we must ourselves evaluate and rank different images of God, as does McFague in criticizing monarchical images and offering alternatives. As a working principle, perhaps the World Council of Churches offers a guideline. We might assume that those images that, to the best of our judgment, serve the interests of justice, peace, and respect for the integrity of creation reveal something of God; and that those images that serve the ideologies of injustice, violence, and ecological degradation distort God. In making these judgments, we must be cognizant of our own finitude, our own inability fully to understand the divine mystery. And we must allow ourselves to be influenced and shaped by the poor and victimized, human and nonhuman, whose cries can unmask our ideologies. Inasmuch as we hear these cries, we may realize that the omni-adaptive God, while not a servant to our wants, is a complement to our needs, particularly our need for full community with those whom we have heretofore victimized. Such, I believe, is a christological norm for evaluating divine images.

But of course speculations concerning divine images, much less the ranking of such images, take us far beyond what many Buddhists would affirm. Such thinking certainly takes us beyond the austere, nonspeculative simplicity of Zen. But perhaps it does not take us far beyond Christianity. As Christians we are part of a dynamic tradition capable of growth and change. We are pilgrims in an historical adventure that is partly propelled by the vitality of our own imaginations. The adventure was partly launched, but not finished, by Jesus, who showed us "the way of radical identification with all others" (McFague, 53). To be Christian today is to follow this way and imagine God according to its spirit. It is to identify with all other people, particularly the poor, such that we feel their destinies as inseparable from our own. It is also to identify with rocks and trees, hills and rivers; with experimental mice and slaughtered cows; with a depleted ozone layer and shrinking forests. In this chapter I have tried to show how an encounter with Buddhism can encourage this kind of identification. It can stimulate us to imagine that the world is our body and that, even more directly, it is God’s.


1. The hymn was taught to me by Harvey Sindima, author of Community of Life: Foundations for Religions and Political Transformation (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). As translated by Sindima, the lyrics are:

Jesu, Jesu

Fill us with your love

Show us how to serve

The neighbors we have from you.

Neighbors are rich people and poor

Neighbors are black people and white

Neighbors are nearby and far away.

This is the way we should love

This is the way we should live

This is the way we should serve the world.

Neighbors are animals and trees

Neighbors are mountains and grass

Neighbors are all creatures on earth.

2. So, for that matter, are the words peace and justice. Here, following Birch and Cobb, I use the word peace to refer to the absence of violence and the absence of the threat of nuclear war. I use the word justice to refer to economic equity (in which basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, health care, and meaningful employment are availed to all), political participation (in which people are allowed to participate in the decisions by which their lives are affected), and personal liberties (such as the freedom to dissent, travel freely, adopt a religious or philosophical orientation of one’s own) (Birch and Cobb).

3. There is a third reason why I focus on Buddhism. I have some experience with it, having studied and taught it to undergraduate students for ten years, and having practiced Buddhist meditation periodically, most meaningfully under the guidance of a Zen Buddhist master from Japan for whom I served as a language instructor for one year. It is largely by virtue of his influence that I have focused on Zen in my own study and teaching, and that I emphasize Zen in this essay.

4. For information write to the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, Graduate Theological Union, 2400 Bridge Road, Berkeley, CA 94709 USA.

5. "In classical Indian thought," so Callicott maintains, "all things are one because all things are phenomenal and ultimately illusory manifestations or expressions of Brahman." The experience of nature’s unity is "homogeneous and oceanic." In contemporary environmental thinking, by contrast, "no undifferentiated Being mysteriously ‘manifests’ itself." Rather nature is viewed as "a structured, differentiated whole" in which all things are intimately connected with one another, and in which "the multiplicity of particles and living organisms" is retained (Callicott 1986, 312).

6. Environmental philosophy is a growing subdiscipline within Western philosophy, characterized by the assumption that traditional Western metaphysics and moral theory are inadequate to the solution of environmental problems and that in our age alternative, ecological world views and axiologies are needed.

7. The sense of continuity over time, which is characteristic of much but not all of my experience, is a function of memory. In that present experience, with which I am identical, past experiences are remembered as "who I was" and future experiences are anticipated as "who I will be." But the one doing the remembering is always in the present. After he remembers, he will himself perish, to become part of the "who I was" for successor experiences.

8. From a Buddhist point of view the flow of experience constituting a lifetime is exemplary of the very nature of reality. Reality itself is more like a verb than a noun -- a process empty of reifiable being yet full of unreifiable becoming.

9. The phrase true self is shorthand for other terms that appear in traditional Zen literature, such as true person of no status and original face.

10. This is a fundamental weakness of Grace Jantzen’s perspective in God’s World, God’s Body. Jantzen’s work is philosophically astute in its exploration of the self-body metaphor for God. Yet she argues that "God has complete control over all parts of his body all the time" (Jantzen, 89). In so doing, as she recognizes, the reality of evil remains a serious problem.

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