Zen and the Doctrine of Cause and Effect

Don: If religion is to fulfill one thing only, it is to answer questions about the divine. Yet, as we have discussed, the Divinities—the God of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New—are reluctant to answer questions about themselves. Scripture is a book of questions, not a catechism of answers.

In particular, what some consider to be the oldest book in the Bible—the Book of Job—is a book of questions. It is centered around the big question of why there is suffering in the world, why a good God allows good people to suffer. It seems on the face of it that God must be either indifferent or powerless. The story’s dramatis personae, besides God, are Satan, Job, Mrs. Job, and four of Job’s friends. All of them believe in a God of cause-and-effect.

The Book begins with a question asked of God by Satan:

“Does Job fear God for nothing? (Job 1:9)

What Satan was really saying was that Job fears God because Job thinks that his own goodness results in God’s blessing. Job himself believed in a God of cause-and-effect, but his God was trustworthy and benevolent. The problem Job had with God was that he thought the calamities that struck his family were the effect of God’s being misinformed about his righteousness:

“Behold, my eye has seen all this,
My ear has heard and understood it.

“What you know I also know;
I am not inferior to you.

“But I would speak to the Almighty,
And I desire to argue with God.

“But you smear with lies;
You are all worthless physicians.

“O that you would be completely silent,
And that it would become your wisdom!

“Please hear my argument
And listen to the contentions of my lips.

“Will you speak what is unjust for God,
And speak what is deceitful for Him?

“Will you show partiality for Him?
Will you contend for God?

“Will it be well when He examines you?
Or will you deceive Him as one deceives a man?

“He will surely reprove you
If you secretly show partiality.

“Will not His majesty terrify you,
And the dread of Him fall on you?

“Your memorable sayings are proverbs of ashes,
Your defenses are defenses of clay.

“Be silent before me so that I may speak;
Then let come on me what may.
“Why should I take my flesh in my teeth
And put my life in my hands?
“Though He slay me,
I will hope in Him.
Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him.
“This also will be my salvation,
For a godless man may not come before His presence.
“Listen carefully to my speech,
And let my declaration fill your ears.
“Behold now, I have prepared my case;
I know that I will be vindicated.
“Who will contend with me?
For then I would be silent and die. (Job 13:1-19)

Mrs. Job also saw a God of cause-and-effect, but one who was vindictive and malevolent. She saw no mercy or grace in God, and thought death preferable to the miserable life they were suffering:

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9)

The cause-and-effect God of Job’s friends was also merciful and gracious, provided that Job would confess his sins. It reminds one of John 9, where Jesus was asked, concerning a blind man, the cause-and-effect question: “Who sinned? The man or his parents?” The presumption is that if the effect is human suffering, then the cause must be human sinfulness.

The core message in the Book of Job is that God is not a God of cause-and-effect. He illustrated that with a series of 77 questions to Job. The questions boil down to three:

  1. Can you create the universe?
  2. Can you control the universe?
  3. Can you sustain the universe?

These in turn establish four key points:

  • That Job’s view of God was far too limited. The notion that God would contest Job in court was just wishful thinking. God has executive privilege and cannot be compelled to answer an indictment.
  • That Job’s view of himself, his importance, and his understanding is inflated. God demonstrates this with a series of withering questions:

“Have you ever in your life commanded the morning,
And caused the dawn to know its place,

 That it might take hold of the ends of the earth,
And the wicked be shaken out of it?

 “It is changed like clay under the seal;
And they stand forth like a garment.

 “From the wicked their light is withheld,
And the uplifted arm is broken.


 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea
Or walked in the recesses of the deep?

 “Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?

 “Have you understood the expanse of the earth?
Tell Me, if you know all this. (Job 38:12-18)

  • That God does not need or intend to answer Job’s questions, which to God are utterly irrelevant—in the context of the Creation, they are a drop in the ocean.
  • That God is omniscient, all-knowing, all-wise, and cannot be comprehended by the senses.

Job finally got it, and said:

 “I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.

 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

 ‘Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.’

 “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees You;

 Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)

The “hearing of the ear” in this passage stands for the senses; the “eye” stands for insight, which was received through questions alone. The truth is that God’s ways are not Man’s ways (Isaiah 55), but that He does have a plan for us:

For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’ (Jeremiah 29:11)

When we seek to provide answers for God—when we speak on His behalf, based on cause-and-effect doctrines we develop based on our human viewpoint and ways—we contribute to the plight of suffering humanity, we compound evil, and we kindle God’s wrath.

It came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has. (Job 42:7)

The Book concludes:

The Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends, and the Lord increased all that Job had twofold. Then all his brothers and all his sisters and all who had known him before came to him, and they ate bread with him in his house; and they consoled him and comforted him for all the adversities that the Lord had brought on him. And each one gave him one piece of money, and each a ring of gold. The Lord blessed the latter days of Job… [etc.] (Job 42:10-12)

It is noteworthy that Job’s relatives continued to think that his adversities had been brought on him by God. The whole point of the story is that it is not for us to analyze and explain God’s activities, because we simply cannot. Our job is to console, to comfort, and to forgive.

In the end, none of Job’s questions were answered, yet he was enlightened. How might we be so enlightened?

David: Don has often asked us whether it is possible to build a doctrine based purely on questions. There are, in fact, at least two related “faiths” that hold such doctrines: Daoism and Zen Buddhism. Then, the question is: What sort of questions do they ask?

Job helps us to understand the type of questions to ask. God blew Job out of the water with a barrage of detailed questions that Job could not possibly answer. God’s message, it seems to me, is that we should not ask detailed questions that can cover but a tiny fraction of God; rather, we should consider God only as a whole. When we do, enlightenment begins.

Plato, in the Republic, also held that the “Forms” we see as if they were shadows flickering on the wall of a cave are just that: Mere shadows of an unseeable whole. Eastern philosophies and religions accept that whole, that One, as something fundamentally “other.” It is not some glorified version of us, but something so utterly different as to be totally incomprehensible to us. Yet the eastern belief is that (1) the whole, the One, the Way, can be “grasped” in some undefinable way through enlightenment, (2) that enlightenment can be acquired through asking questions, and (3) that the right questions to ask can be found through meditation, which empties the mind of all detail, leaving only the vast, empty, unity to contemplate and its power and enormity to grasp.

Donald: We attribute authority to that which claims to be in possession of answers. Faith-based institutions present themselves as knowing the answers, in great detail. Knowledge and authority, however, do not necessarily amount to wisdom. God wants to show us wisdom, to grasp the Big Idea rather than the minutiae.

KB: What was it that made Job satisfied at the end of his dialogue with God? Can I be satisfied by having the same dialogue with God? How can we apply these questions in daily life?

Robin: God was so detailed in talking about the universe and its contents, to make the point that people should not doubt His ability to control what happens to them. He wanted to see Job’s faith when times were bad, not only when times were good. He does not want fair-weather friends.

Dr. Singh: God the Father uses questions to teach within the context of relationships. He is a teacher who uses questions to make his pupils think in the direction of truth. When He asks a question, it is not because He doesn’t know the answer. I also question God, and He answers me. His gracious answers led me to worship Him all my life.

Donald: Time is an important element. Our attitudes toward a problem may change with the passage of time.

Ms. Singh: The Book of Job was hard to understand, at first. The takeaway for me was that unaccountable things are going to happen in life. Job knew the character of God. He had the right theology. God told Job’s friends He was angry with them because…

“…you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has.” (Job 42:7)

They had the wrong theology, as had Mrs. Job. The right theology helped Job to retain his faith in God despite his trials and tribulations.

Mikiko: God does not cause suffering; Satan does:

So listen to me, you men of understanding: It is unthinkable for the true God to act wickedly. For the Almighty to do wrong! (Job 34:10, New World Translation)

For a certainty, God does not act wickedly; The Almighty does not pervert justice. (Job 34:12, New World Translation)

We know that we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one. (1 John 5:19, New World Translation)

David: To me, the key message in Job is in the final passage of the dialogue, where Job expresses his enlightenment by saying that his head had been stuffed with detailed verbiage (“the hearing of the ear”) but now he could “see” the whole picture. Confusing detail is absent from what might loosely be termed Zen and Daoist “Scripture”—as indeed was the western Platonic perspective on shadowy Forms lacking in detail.

Zen koans succinctly sum up the perspective, as they are intended to do. Here are three well-known examples:

  • A student asked Master Yun-Men “Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?” Master replied, “Mount Sumeru!”
  • A monk asked Dongshan Shouchu, “What is Buddha?” Dongshan said, “Three pounds of flax.”
  • A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” Zhaozhou said, “The cypress tree in front of the hall.”

The point is: Detailed questions designed to uncover the divine, and the answers to such questions, are utterly worthless. But if you sit and empty your mind of its clutter of detail, enlightenment will follow. I think this is what God told Job, in a different cultural context.

Robin: We cannot comprehend the answer while being rebellious. As long as Job was accusing God and making demands of God, his mind could not comprehend the lesson God wanted him to learn.

Mikiko: God permitted Satan to bring calamities down on Job as a lesson in integrity and faith to Satan:

And Jehovah said to Satan: “Have you taken note of my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth. He is an upright man of integrity, fearing God and shunning what is bad.” (Job 1:18, New World Translation)

Anonymous: Suppose the entire debate—what God said, what Job himself said, what his wife said, and what his friends said—took place only in the mind, the imagination, of Job. Isn’t this something like what happens in all of us? We start off being faithful, we experience either pain or joy, and our self-righteousness causes us to question God (in the case of pain) or praise Him (in the case of joy). In questioning God, we are all Job’s wife and friends. But in the end, faith can triumph in our battle within ourselves—as it did for Job. Faith triumphs by accepting that God as an adversary is inconceivably more powerful, then we surrender. Faith leaves us in no doubt that God is good, that He loves us, and has plans for us beyond our understanding. All I can do is to surrender and proclaim His glory.

When we are grounded in faith, everything seems to get better—spiritually, emotionally, socially, relationally. We condemn our own earlier self-righteous view of God.

Robin: In the end, Job did not get the answers he originally sought yet he understood the power of God.

Mikiko: And he lived happily ever after.

Donald: God designed us. When I go to my doctor, I put myself at his mercy. I surrender all. I expect the doctor to prescribe a specific drug or other therapy, not a course in yoga. We don’t want big ideas, we want details. And churches give them to us. The big idea is faith. That’s not a detail.

Ms. Singh: Here’s a quote summarizing Job 42:

Job and his three friends had only heard of God, but Job had now seen God through eyes of spiritual understanding. He can therefore accept God’s plan for his life, which includes suffering. Because even in his rage, even when he challenged God, he was determined to speak honestly before Him. The councillors, on the other hand, mouthed many correct and often beautiful credo statements though without living knowledge of the God they claimed to honor. Job spoke to God; they only spoke about God. Even worse, their spiritual arrogance caused them to claim knowledge they did not possess. They presumed to know why Job was suffering. God does not allow us to suffer for no reason and even though the reason may be hidden in the mystery of His divine purpose, never for us to know in this life, we must trust in Him as God does only what is right.

There’s a verse that says something like: “Should we accept only the good from God and not accept the bad?” Or was it: “God does only what is good and right for us”? I don’t think God causes anything bad but maybe He removes his protection from us, as He did from Job. Satan is waiting like a lion to devour us, but most of the time we don’t recognize that God is protecting us.

Robin: In the end, they did have a better faith and more understanding of God.

Donald: The vast emptiness of the Serengeti and its massive sky is accentuated by the presence of a solitary Maasai. Is it the clutter all around us in our daily lives that makes us obsessed with detail?

David: Zen and Daoism call for one to turn one’s mind into a vast empty space to make room for enlightenment. Anon’s comment about having faith and surrendering is essentially Daoist: Accept the Way, and go along with it. Don’t fight it. But Zen and the (philosophical) Dao are silent on the matter of worshiping and proclaiming the glory of the One, the Way. They ask nothing of human beings. Even the two fundamentals of faith given by Jesus—love God and your neighbor—say nothing about worshiping and praising the glory of God. I realize the rest of the Bible (and the Tanakh and the Qur’an) is big on these things, and it troubles me. Why an inconceivably superior divinity should care a whit about our worship and praise is quite beyond me. If He does, it brings Him down to our level—small-minded people who place great store by glory, yet Isaiah and Job would surely dispute that God is anywhere near our level in any respect.


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