There was a Feb. 19, 2020 CNN article about a man who was awarded over $150,000 for being denied a license plate. The judge ruled that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet was at fault for not granting Bernie Hart’s request for special plates that read, “IM GOD.” Mr. Hart claimed that he had driven a car with “IM GOD” on his plate for well over a decade while he was in Ohio. He then moved to Kenton County, Kentucky, in 2016. That is when he requested new plates that would again read, “IM GOD.”

However, when he put in the request, the officials of the Kentucky DMV sent him a letter denying his request. The denial letter said that his request was, “not in good taste and would create the potential of distraction to other drivers and possibly confrontations.” Let us break this down. I assume that “not in good taste,” suggests that Mr. Hart would be challenging the position and dignity of a supreme being, and disrespecting God. Certainly, equating oneself with God is haughty and blasphemous from the standpoint of one who believes in God. From this, one can easily foresee how it might lead to “confrontations” with staunch believers of God.

Mr. Hart, however, has declared that he is an atheist. Two organizations, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, stood on Mr. Hart’s side and filed a lawsuit on his behalf. In November of 2019, the judge ruled in Mr. Hart’s favor, saying, “To allow such plates as ‘IM4GOD’ and ‘LUVGOD’ but reject ‘IM GOD’ belies viewpoint neutrality. Regardless, the court concludes that in this case, (the statute governing such license plates) is an unreasonable and therefore impermissible restriction on Mr. Hart’s First Amendment rights.” In other words, the judge could not see a distinction between the statement “IM GOD” from a statement such as, “IM4GOD” which is allowed. Ultimately, the judge ruled in favor of Mr. Hart, rightly so because, from an administrative stance, a plate that reads, “IM GOD” is in parity with any other statement that includes the word, ‘God.’

Perhaps, the bureaucrats at the Kentucky DMV overstepped themselves in adjudicating on what Mr. Hart’s 1st Amendment rights should be. But, I do sympathize with their underlying concerns. The Kentucky DMV meant to say that it would be sacrilegious to assume that any mortal is equivalent to or is God himself. This is translucent for any devout believer of God. By the same token, it is equally incomprehensible for someone such as Mr. Hart who is an atheist.

What about the Buddha? Even in Buddhism, placing oneself on the same tier as the Buddha will open them to criticism that they are brazenly pretentious. Theoretically, each one of us has the potential to someday become a Buddha. In this case, the Buddha represents the epitome to what one should aspire. The Buddha himself studied and practiced for innumerable years and rebirths, and undertook many extraordinary challenges enduring the limits of physical pain and mental adversity, all to attain an undeniably advanced level of wisdom and compassion to save people. For the uninitiated to nonchalantly assume that s/he is a Buddha becomes inconceivable.

If one is convinced of the persona of the Buddha to be so perfect in his wisdom and compassion, it is difficult to believe that one can consider him or herself to be on the same level as the Buddha. That is, how passionate do we believe in the Buddha’s teachings? The more we delve into his teachings, the more convinced we are of its truth. In Buddhism, no one is exhorted to embrace the Buddha just because it is the accepted thing to do or because he has been admired throughout history. We come to revere the Buddha in the process of realizing the truth of his teaching, confirmed through its application in our daily practice.

A statement, such as, “I am God,” or “I am the Buddha,” represents a full argument consisting of a subject and a predicate, but without sentiment. It is merely an assertion without responsibility or dedication. Its significance only becomes relevant when someone attaches his or her strong sensibilities to God or the Buddha. This, I believe, is where faith comes in. I would like to touch upon two things about faith here.

In Buddhism, the more we practice the teachings of the Buddha, its truth value is reinforced within us. And, as a result, one begins to understand how thankful we are to the Buddha for his teachings. Through the process of studying and living his teachings over a long period of time, one begins to feel that s/he cannot exist without the Buddha. By this time, it becomes a very personal connection, that we need to be near the Buddha always. Although each persons objectives and experiences will vary, ones faith is an affirmation of how thankful it is to have made a connection with a great teacher. As such, it becomes incomprehensible to postulate that we are on the same level as the Buddha.

The second point is that faith is an extremely intimate matter. For example, no one person can compel one’s own notion of faith upon another. Rather, faith is something that blossoms from within an individual. It is assumed that we must motomu, or “seek” the Buddha’s wisdom. It is impossible to force another to seek Buddhism or faith, for that matter. It must arrive from ones own motivation and eagerness to rediscover the Buddha’s wisdom. Please think about what the Buddha means to you.

(Eisei Ikenaga)