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?