Buddhism and God

Stephen Hawking says that it’s not necessary to invoke God in order to explain the creation of the universe. I feel the same way about God and Buddhism. It is not necessary to invoke God to explain dharma.

But for some reason that baffles me, a lot of people think it is.

Now, you will hear some individuals say that the Buddha neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a supreme creator being. This agnostic interpretation is not quite correct.

First, we have to consider what is meant by the word “God.” If one is referring to the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the truth is that the subject never came up. There is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that this God, Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Allah, was known in India during the Buddha’s time. It’s possible, but there are no references to this particular God in any traditional Buddhist literature. Consequently, the Buddha could hardly speculate on something he had never heard of.

While it appears that Buddha was tolerant of native Indian deities, this does not mean that he took them seriously. At the same time, there is little ambiguity about his attitude to some other notions.

One of these was the concept of Brahman, a term that originally referred to magical power harnessed through the Vedic mantras. At some point, Brahman became associated with the power of creation. Another view of Brahman was that of an impersonal “word-soul” fused with the individual self (atman). Later, Brahman, then identified with Prajapati, an earlier creator deity, became Brahma and was transformed into a personal deity, the god of creation.

In the Brahmajala-sutta, the Buddha criticizes ideas such as the externalism of the world and the self, and world creation by a supreme being or force. David Kalupahana, in Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, says “In fact the Buddha did not consider the content of this knowledge to be identical with any Ultimate Reality. Nor did he consider such knowledge as constituting salvation.”

But the most important clue we have to the Buddha’s thinking on this subject is found in his own doctrine of causality, pratti-samppada or interdependency, in which things arise continually owing to causes and conditions. In this view, there is no beginning, only, if we must, a beginningless beginning. This basic Buddhist doctrine has often been represented as the Wheel of Existence, and in Buddhaghaosa’s Visuddhi-Magga, as presented by Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, it reads, “No God, no Brahma can be found, no matter of this wheel of life, just bare phenomena roll, depend on conditions all.”

Also ruled out is the possibility of a First Cause and a creator as such, ideas that Nagarjuna later thoroughly destroyed with his Madhyamaka dialectic: “Why would an efficacious creator be dependent? He would of course produce things all at once. A creator who depends on something else is neither eternal nor efficacious. If he were an entity he would not be permanent, for things are perpetually instantaneous . . .” [Bodhicittavivarana]

Approaching the subject from every angle, Nagarjuna demonstrated how a First Cause and/or creator deities such as Isvara are not logical and therefore, not tenable.

The plain truth is that no matter how you present it, twist it, shape or shade it, creators and supreme beings do not fit in with Buddha-dharma.

Nyanaponika Thera writes, “From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings.”

In some cases today, the word “God” is used as a reference to “being” or “ultimate reality.” However, this too must be rejected, as Nyanaponika Thera goes on to say: “On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality.”

I don’t feel that there is any need for Buddhists to rely on this word. The vast majority of people in the world when they hear “God” cannot help but hold an image in their mind associated with the common usage of the word, that of a supreme creator being. God just has too much baggage to be useful. From a Buddhist point of view, as a term, label, concept, name, being – however it is posited, it is nothing.

Some well-known and respected Buddhist teachers, from Shunryu Suzuki to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, have attempted to either use God as a tool to facilitate dharma understanding or to show links and parallels between Buddhism and other religions. While well intentioned, it’s misguided.

Just because God as a concept is familiar to Westerners, does not mean that it is at all helpful in explaining Buddha-dharma. I think this usage is actually counter-productive as it only reinforces the notion of a supreme-being on the subconscious level. Many Westerners want to cling to the concept of God, even though they are in denial about it. That’s one reason why using God as synonym for bodhicitta, dharmakaya or any other Buddhist concept, in my opinion, is misleading.

Buddhism is not in competition with other faiths. We can debate whether or not Buddhism deserves to be called a religion, but what is incontrovertible is the fact that Buddhism stands unique in the realm of religious or spiritual philosophy. The only “religion” that comes close to approaching Buddhism is Taoism, so then linkage with other religions, especially the three Western monotheistic religions, is tenuous at best.

I must admit that I have a problem with those who want to be both Christians and Buddhists, along with similar hybrids. It seems like spiritual schizophrenia to me. It’s like being pulled in two directions. Ultimately, regardless of how “God” is conceived, it becomes outer-directed. Buddhism is inner-directed. I just don’t see how they can be compatible. However, that is a discussion involving tariki, other power, and jiriki, inner power, which must be left for another day.

And speaking of another day . . . As I write this, it looks like Southern California is in for another day of brutal temperatures. Monday was a record-breaking 113. I don’t think I have ever experienced such truly blazing heat in my life. Now I know what Avichi, the Hell of Incessant Suffering, must be like. It is at times like this that I kind of wish there was a God to invoke, to implore . . . Please God, make it cooler, make the heat go away . . . send some more clouds, send some rain, a marine layer, anything . . . please? If you could just do this one thing, I promise I’ll be good . . . just help relieve my suffering this last time and I’ll change, I swear . . . I’ll do whatever you want me to . . . Pretty please . . . God?


8 thoughts on “Buddhism and God

    1. Thanks.

      Something happened, but I’m having second thoughts about how this was all arranged. See below.

      Unapologetic? What could you possibly have to apologize for and to whom?

  1. For weather-amelioration, I’d lay better odds on Daoists rectifying the qi, than on God by whatever name intervening– what with the rep for vengefulness and all.

    I’m glad that at least SOME Buddhists are not jumping on the ‘Buddhianity’ bandwagon to try to soften the distinctions for the Western spiritual consumer. I always thought of myself as an agnostic, rather than an atheist. I was almost persuaded that this was cowardly on my part– until I heard a brilliant Alan Watts bit about how ‘agnosticism’ originally meant ‘gnosis’ via ‘the cloud of un-knowing’. It was considered heretical because it didn’t depend on Church authority or doctrine. It was of the nature of ‘seeing directly with naked awareness.’

    I find this more sympathetic and consonant with my own practice and experience than the current spate of scientific materialist aggressive atheists– who seem like the ‘tails’ side, to the religious-fundamentalist ‘heads’ of the same doctrinal coin. Between the two, I can’t decide which is the lesser, which the greater, weevil.

    1. Now that you mention the vengeance thing, it occurs to me that the heat may have been punishment. Oh woe. Or perhaps it’s just Mother Nature. You know it’s not polite to fool Mother Nature and we’ve been doing that for a long time now. Plus, I knew I shouldn’t have switched to margarine . . .

      I can certainly relate to the Watts bit on agnosticism, in general. Can’t say much about scientific materialist aggressive atheists, except that it’s a mouthful. I’m more of the I-think-it’s-silly kind of atheist. Although, I really hate to call myself an atheist because I don’t feel that I really need to take a stand or even have a view about something that doesn’t exist. I can be agnostic about nearly everything else.

      1. Oh! I certainly didn’t mean YOU– I meant the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. The folks that had some cred in the Buddhist magazines for awhile because they were less exercised about Buddhism than Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Right about then I discovered a wonderful little book called “A Little Book of Atheist Spirituality”. Among other gems, there was a story about an old rabbi who ceases to ‘believe’; when his friend finds him making his prayers as usual, he asks him why he’s doing it if he no longer believes in God. The rabbi answers– ‘God? What does God have to do with it?’
        The gist of the book was that one doesn’t have to dispense with the holy, the awe-inspiring, the numinous just because it is too silly to cling to ‘the God of our [or anyone else’s] fathers.’

        1. I agree. When some Western scholars first encountered Buddhism they said it couldn’t be a religion because there was no god. Later Durkheim came along and said a religion is anything that has a sense of the sacred. After that, Buddhism was considered a religion. Some will question however, in the absence of a supreme being what could be sacred or holy. All they have to do is look around and see that everything is sacred. Life itself is sacred. It’s hard to some to get because they think it has to come from some place or that by knowing where it comes this will somehow relieve their suffering. A friend of mine said to me recently that the hardest thing to do is let that kind of thinking go.

          The rabbi story reminds me of the one about WC Fields, who was a well-known atheist. He was in the hospital and a drinking buddy of his, a newspaperman named Gene Fowler, came by to visit and found Fields reading the Bible. “What are you doing, Bill? I thought you didn’t believe.” Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

  2. I agree emphatically. It does ill service to the Dharma when we Western converts insist on dragging our God-baggage with us. I wrote a similar article some years ago. Hope you don’t mind I appended it in the URI box.

    1. No, I don’t mind. I am however a bit uncomfortable with the statement in your article “regardless of whether buddhas existed in the world, or whether they did not, there would still be Dharma, purely in and of itself.”
      The Dharma is not the same as the Tao, some eternal mystical force that flows through all things. It may be uncreated but it is not uncaused or unconditioned, and certainly not eternal because rightly speaking in Buddhism nothing is eternal. Dharma may be truth, but even truth is man-made, and dependent on other things. Nothing stands alone, “in and of itself,” from its own side.

      I’m also not too sure about laying the idea of an “end-time” or Age of Counterfeit Dharma at the feet of the Buddha. Although he did speak of counterfeit dharma (in the Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta), he did so in rather mundane terms, as I read it. I don’t believe there is any mention in the early suttas of periods of dharma or any age in which the “true” dharma will become lost. That is a Mahayana concept and a rather dubious one, in my opinion.

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