THE BUDDHA ON GOD
Monks, that sphere should be realized where the eye (vision) stops and the perception (mental noting) of form fades. That sphere is to be realized where the ear stops and the perception of sound fades... where the nose stops and the perception of aroma fades... where the tongue stops and the perception of flavor fades... where the body stops and the perception of tactile sensation fades... where the intellect stops and the perception of idea/phenomenon fades: That sphere should be realized. — Samyutta Nikaya XXXV.116
Buddhism and belief in God
neither God nor soul in a theistic sense. It is basically a religion of the mind, which advocates present moment awareness, inner purity, ethical conduct, freedom from the problem of change, impermanence and suffering and reliance upon one's own experience as the sole teacher, rather than an external authority, on the Eightfold path.
Unlike other major religions of the world, Buddhism is not centered around the concept of God or an universal supreme being, who is responsible for the creation and dissolution of the world and the existence of sentinel beings.
Buddhism does not even support the existence of an eternal and unchanging soul. According to Buddhism the whole existence is in a state of flux and there is nothing that is either permanent or unchanging.
The Buddhist scriptures, however do confirm the existence of devas or celestial beings, bodhisattvas or pure beings, both heavens and hells and other planes of existence.
But none of these are permanent entities. They all are subject to change and evolution. It is said that the Buddha either maintained silence or discouraged questions when he was asked to confirm the existence of a Supreme Being.
Buddha's views on God
The Buddha did so with a purpose. He wanted his followers to remain focused upon Nirvana without distractions. Therefore, he did his best to keep them focused upon that single and virtuous goal, without getting distracted by theological speculation or intellectual disputation, which was the common preoccupation for many scholars and religious teachers of his time.
However, this does not mean that he favored the notion of God as the ruler and creator of the worlds and beings. The Buddha did not believe in hidden causes but apparent causes that made sense to the mind and the intellect. Karma was a hidden process, but its effects could be felt and experienced by one and all. Hence no supernatural testimony was required to establish its universality or working.
Once in a while, he expressed his opinions about creation and the role of God. When Ananthapindika, a wealthy young man met the Buddha at the bamboo groove at Rajagriha, the Buddha made a few statements about the existence of God and the real cause behind the creation of beings in this world. These views are summarized as below:
1. If God is indeed the creator of all living things, then all things here should submit to His power unquestioningly. Like the vessels produced by a potter, they should remain without any individuality of their own. If that is so, how can there be an opportunity for any one to practice virtue?
2. If this world is indeed created by God, then there should be no sorrow or calamity or evil in this world, for all deeds, both pure and impure, must come from Him.
3. If it is not so, then there must be some other cause besides God which is behind Him, in which case He would not be self-existent.
4. It is not convincing that the Absolute has created us, because that which is absolute cannot be a cause. All things here arise from different causes. Then can we can say that the Absolute is the cause of all things alike? If the Absolute is pervading them, then certainly It is not their creator.
5. If we consider the Self as the maker, why did it not make things pleasant? Why and how should it create so much sorrow and suffering for itself?
6. It is neither God nor the self nor some causeless chance which creates us. It is our deeds which produce both good and bad results according to the law of causation.
7. We should therefore "abandon the heresy of worshipping God and of praying to him. We should stops all speculation and vain talk about such matters and practice good so that good may result from our good deeds.
The Buddha did not encourage speculation on the existence of Isvara, (God) among his disciples. He wanted them to confine themselves to what was within their field of awareness, that is, to understand the causes of suffering and work for its mitigation.
He preached that initially each being was a product of ignorance and illusion and subject to suffering, karma and transmigration. He therefore urged his disciples to contemplate upon the Four Noble Truths, practice the Eightfold path, lead a virtuous life by performing good deeds and works towards their final liberation from all becoming and changing.
It is difficult to categorize Buddhism as an atheistic, theistic or agnostic tradition. There is enough justification to place Buddhism in any or all these categories. As explained in the concluding part of this article, Buddhism has elements of both theistic and atheistic traditions of ancient India, but none of them provide us with a comforting ground to categorize it in either of them with conviction.
Although founded by the Buddha, Buddhism, like Hinduism, is a complex religion, which underwent profound changes after his death, resulting in the formation of many sects and sub-sects, some of which made a radical departure from the original teachings of the Buddha to the point of standing in their own light as independent religions.
Were he alive, the Buddha would be surprised to hear about many traditions that rely upon his name to promote their teachings but show marked disregard for his original teachings, doctrinal matters and stand points. What binds them to Buddhism and keeps them in its fold is their adherence to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
While scholar may keep arguing about the essential nature of Buddhism, it is the firm opinion of this writer that based upon the teachings of the Buddha, it is difficult to place Buddhism on the same footing as Hinduism or Christianity and consider it a theistic tradition.
The Buddha ascribed no role to God in creation, in human suffering or in the liberation of beings. For the Buddha the world was a godless world in which both good and evil were produced by the actions of individual beings. While many beings had no choice, human beings and those above them had a unique opportunity to exercise their discerning intellect (buddhi) and chose right living to escape from the law of karma and the cycle of births and deaths.
Therefore, to awaken their minds to the idea of righteous living and virtuous actions, he taught the world the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, ascribing no role to God in either of them and putting the entire burden of resolving individual suffering upon the individuals themselves.
In drawing His conclusions and formulating Dharma and the Code of Conduct (Vinaya) for the monks, he assiduously avoided all manners of speculation about the supernatural to the extent possible, keeping his focus firmly fixed upon the causes as well as solutions to the problems of human existence within the realm of the mind and its abilities, and without alluding to anything beyond that.
If he believed in transcendence or eternal realities, he kept them out of the purview of his discussion and deliberation, even when he was pressed for a clear answer, considering that it was a major distraction for his followers in their quest for Nirvana and for himself, in his attempts to show them the right way.
Belief in Gods, Bodhisattvas and Primordial Buddhas
While Buddhism does not believe in the existence of an all pervading eternal God who is the cause of the causes, it does believe in the existence of Noble beings or gods of heaven. The Buddhist texts mention the names of several gods, whose names are similar in many cases to the names of their counterparts in Hinduism.
However, while the deities of Hinduism are eternal, those of Buddhism are not. They live for longer duration of time, but like all beings, they are prone to decay and subject to the cycle of births and deaths.
Some of the gods whose names appear frequently in the Buddhist Canon are Brahma, Indra, Aapo (Varuna), Vayo (Vayu), Tejo (Agni), Surya, Pajapati (Prajapati), Soma, Yasa, Venhu (Vishnu), Mahadeva (Siva), Vijja (Saraswati), Usha, Pathavi (Prithvi) Sri (Lakshmi) Kuvera (Kubera), and Garuda.
The texts also refer to the existence of celestial beings such as yakkhas (Yakshas), gandhabbas (Gandharvas), Nāgas, and demons such as Bali and his sons, Veroca etc. Brahma figures frequently in Pali Canon, which refers to not one but several Brahmans inhabiting different planes. Like other gods, Brahma in all these worlds is subject to change and decay.
Apart from them, Mahyana Buddhism refers to the Bodhisattvas or compassionate beings and primordial Buddhas who inhabit the higher heaven and act as the guardians of the world.
The Bodhisattvas are truth beings, who are fully qualified for Nirvana. However, out of compassion they decide to postpone their liberation and work for alleviating the suffering of the sentient beings upon earth.
The primordial Buddhas are personalized embodiments of different aspects of Buddha Nature, possessing dharmakayas (bodies of truth), such as Samantabhadra, Vajradhara, Vairochana, and Adi-Buddha, among others.
The gods of Buddhism have greater powers than humans, but unlike the gods of Hinduism, they do not enjoy absolute powers. They have the ability to impact our lives, but they cannot change or alter the course of life upon earth beyond a point.
Besides, since the gods are not liberated beings, their actions have consequences and like humans, they are also subject to the laws of karma. Therefore, if gods indulge in wrong actions, it will lead to their downfall. The same is not true in case of primordial Buddhas. They are not subject to decay and they possess immense supernatural powers.
Life in heaven is not a class privilege. The gods are not created by a supreme Being. They reach the world of gods through self-effort and good karma. Ordinary human beings, through their good effort can be reborn in the worlds of gods.
Although it is not encouraged, Buddhism does not rule out the possibility of humans taking birth in the world of gods and gods, having lost their virtue and due to bad karma, taking birth in our world. Since life in heaven is equal conducive to suffering, Buddhists aim for liberation rather than rebirth in the heavens.
Devotion in Buddhism
The origin of Buddhism is rooted in the ascetic and monastic traditions of ancient India. The Buddha did not advise the monks to indulge in ritual worship or venerate him or other beings with devotion.
However, a few centuries after his death, a schism in Buddhism led to the formation of Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which made a radical departure from the traditional teachings of the Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism and projected ritual worship of venerable Buddha in his highest and purest aspect as worthy of worship and devotion.
The Mahayana tradition supports the worship of Buddha to cultivate virtues, practice love and compassion and receive enlightenment. The purpose of worship in Buddhism seems to be to enable the worshippers to form a clear concept of the ideal of Buddhahood and understand the Buddha nature rather than seeking his grace or intervention in their personal lives for the alleviation of their suffering.
Buddhism is primarily a monastic and ascetic religion, with some aspects of theism, borrowed mostly from Hinduism and some aspects of atheism similar to Jainism. Buddhism adapted the theistic practices of Hinduism mostly in the context of its own teachings and for the ultimate purpose of facilitating nirvana through individual effort rather than divine intervention.
While in Hinduism, followers may strive for the four chief aims, namely Dharma, Artha (wealth), Kama (pleasure) and Moksha (liberation), in Buddhism followers aim for only two, namely Dharma (Dhamma) and Moksa (or Nirvana).
In ancient India, the atheists like the Lokayatas, on the other hand, ignored these two and aimed for Artha and Kama. For them, life was a unique opportunity to strive for happiness and death was the Nirvana, the end of all. They found no justification to suffer here and now in the hope of a better life in the next birth or hereafter.
Thus, even in this regard, Buddhism retains its distinct character as a spiritual religion that can be categorized neither as a theistic tradition like Hinduism nor as an atheistic tradition like that of the Carvakas or the Lokayatas. It is a tradition uniquely human, intellectual, practical and rooted in verifiable, perceptual experience.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Buddhism - The Concept of Anatta or No Self
- Anatta or Anatma in Buddhism
- Anicca or Anitya in Buddhism
- The Buddha on God
- The Buddha on Avijja or Ignorance and on the Origin of Life
- The Buddha On the Self And Anatta, the Not-Self
- History Of The Four Buddhist Councils
- Chinese Buddhism
- The Eightfold Path Of Buddhism
- The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
- Four Stages of Progress on the Middle Way in Buddhism
- The Practice of Friendliness, Kalyanamittata, in Buddhism
- Karma or Kamma In Buddhism
- Mahayana Buddhism
- Buddha's Last Days and Final Words
- Buddhism - The Middle Way
- The Buddha's Teaching on Right Mindfulness
- The Meaning and Practice of Mindfulness
- Buddhism - Vinaya or Monastic Discipline
- Right Conduct For Lay Buddhists
- Nirvana or Nibbana in Buddhism
- Buddhism - Objects of Meditation and Subjects for Meditation
- Buddhism - Right Speech and Mind Training
- Buddhism - Right Living On The Eightfold Path
- Handbook for the Relief of Suffering by Ajaan Lee
- Theravada Buddhism
- Meat Eating or Vegetarianism in Buddhism