One of the more difficult phrases for me in the book Alcoholics Anonymous occurs on page fifty-three. The verbiage made me feel as if someone were trying to sell me something. It wasn’t a drastic aversion but more that someone had rubbed my fur the wrong way. The exact phrase is “. . . we had to face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is or He isn’t.” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 53)
Being that I come from a spiritual path that is non-theistic, you may be able to see how this “either – or” proposition could be a bit unsettling. In my path, Buddhism, Enlightenment is moving beyond conceptual thought. A concept of God is therefore outside my practice. (Kyiota p. 263) My path, Buddhism, doesn’t do God. The best example that comes to mind is from a BBC documentary on the Buddha by Bettany Hughes. When a young monk asks the Buddha about God, who created the universe, the Buddha replied, “That’s none of your business (Hughes).” Not atheist not agnostic just “none of my business.”
In my many efforts to come to terms with the proposition on page fifty-three, I did finally find a useful resolution by taking the words just as they are, “… God is either everything or He is nothing.” In my musings the word that stood out was “nothing.” “God is nothing. Now, where have I heard that before?” I finally remembered my days of graduate study in mystical theology, sitting in a room full of monks of the Holy Ghost Order and Carmelite nuns. We were looking at the practices of the contemplatives and their deepest meditation, “God is No Thing.” That’s right God is nothing. This particular path is known as the via negativa, the way of negation (Kesich). God is nothing is a path, too. It worked for Saint John of the Cross and in more modern times, Thomas Merton. To quote someone from my path:
“Darkness within darkness
The gateway to all understanding”
Lou Tsu. (Mitchell p.1)
Another theological term for the negative path is the apothatic path. To let you know how entrenched in this apothatic path I am, you only need to look at my higher power, the “Heart Sutra,” the most frequently used and recited text in the entire Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The Heart Sutra states, “Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form. . . no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. . .” Karl Brunnholtzl calls this “crazy wisdom” and this crazy wisdom has worked for me and millions of other Buddhists throughout the ages (Brunnholtzl, p.3).
I found it fascinating that in the next paragraph on page fifty-three of the book Alcoholics Anonymous the metaphor of “going to the other shore” is used in describing faith. The last line of the Heart Sutra is sometimes translated as, “gone, gone, gone to the other shore.” (Red Pine p. 157) So no thing is my thing.
To quote an AA founder no less famous than the cofounder, Dr. Bob, “Consider the eight-part program laid out in Buddhism: Right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right mindedness and right contemplation. The Buddhist philosophy as exemplified by these eight points, could be literally adopted by AA as a substitute for or addition to the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love and welfare of others rather than considerations of self are basic to Buddhism.” – from the Acron Pamphlet: “Spiritual Milestones in Alcoholics Anonymous” edited by Dr Bob, co-founder of AA (Walker p. 2).
Now, before you think that I’m now trying to sell you something, let’s look at the other side, “God is everything.” This positive path uses the theological adjective cataphatic. To look at how valuable this positive, cataphatic path might be, I think we need only look at one of its most famous practitioners, Saint Francis of Assisi. That particular magnificent spiritual puppy had birds landing on his shoulder. I know, I’ve seen the pictures and the statues and I ask you, “How cool is that!”
The saving grace for me is on page one hundred and sixty-four of Alcoholics Anonymous, “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 164) With our culture being transformed continually from influences from afar, such as “mindfulness practices,” our AA program is big enough, I believe, to accommodate all faith practices and paths. Whether, positive, negative, or both, there is a home for us all in Alcoholics Anonymous.
To be true to my spiritual path, I must say, however, that all of the theology above is actually none of my business.
Alcoholics Anonymous, (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc. 2001)
Brunnholtzl, Karl, 9/29/2017, “The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever”, Lion’s Roar, https://lionsroar.com/the-heart-sutra-will-change-you-forever
Hughes, Bettany, Genius of the Ancient World Buddha Episode 1 of 3, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwRi-vsdBrE
Kesich, Veselin, “Via Negativa”, Encyclopedia.com, 10/30/2019, https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/negativa
Kyiota, Minoru and Jones, Elvin W., Mahāyāna Buddhist Meditation: Theory and Practice, Motilal (Banarsidass Publishers P.V.T L.T.D. Delhi 1991)
Mitchell, Stephen, Tao Te Ching – A New English Version, Harper Perennial – Harper Collins 1991)
Red Pine, The Heart Sutra, The Womb of the Buddhas, (Berkley: Counterpoint Press, 2004)
Walker, Regina, 03/03/2015, “The Buddha and Bill W.”, https://thefix.com/content/buddha-and-bill-w