God and Buddhism

What is the place of God within Buddhism? Many people believe that Buddhism is atheistic, but the true picture is more complex. In his early teachings (the Pali Canon) the Buddha refuses to be drawn on metaphysical questions such as the origin of the cosmos, the relationship between body and soul, what happens to a Buddha after death and, implicitly, the existence of God. The reason for this is pragmatic considerations concerning the effort involved in exploring such questions. The Buddha is of the firm opinion that our effort would be better spent realizing the Four Noble Truths. He offers the parable of the poisoned arrow:

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him. In the same way, if anyone were to say, ‘I won’t live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’… or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata.” http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html

The important point is that, in refusing to be drawn on such questions, the Buddha is not taking any particular position on them. He is not denying, therefore, that God exists. What he does explicitly deny, however, is a God who determines all of our actions, and who abrogates free will. In other words the Buddha strongly argues against a fatalistic notion of God. In the Tittha Sutta (AN 3.61) the Buddha recounts:

“Having approached the priests & contemplatives who hold that…’Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation,’ I said to them: ‘Is it true that you hold that… “Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation?”‘ Thus asked by me, they admitted, ‘Yes.’ Then I said to them, ‘Then in that case, a person is a killer of living beings because of a supreme being’s act of creation. A person is a thief… unchaste… a liar… a divisive speaker… a harsh speaker… an idle chatterer… greedy… malicious… a holder of wrong views because of a supreme being’s act of creation.’ When one falls back on creation by a supreme being as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], ‘This should be done. This shouldn’t be done.’ When one can’t pin down as a truth or reality what should & shouldn’t be done, one dwells bewildered & unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative. This was my second righteous refutation of those priests & contemplative who hold to such teachings, such views.”

Instead the Buddha places the emphasis on our own minds and mental actions as the key determinants of our existence. In the Dhammapada (1.1-3) he famously says:

“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.”

It is when we deeply consider the nature of mind that metaphysical questions come to the fore, such as how does the mind create the world, and what is its relationship to God? These questions arise in relation to the later Buddhist traditions of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, which introduce a multi-tiered concept of mind, with the world said to be produced from the deepest ‘root’ mind known as the Consciousness-Basis-of-All or the Continually Residing Mind.

For ordinary beings trapped in samsara our root minds carry impure karmic seeds which produce an impure world, but through practicing the Buddhist path we can purify our root mind until it becomes the Dharmakaya, the mind of a Buddha. When we achieve the Dharmakaya we will inhabit a Buddha’s Pure Land. Maitreya said that when our mind becomes pure our world becomes pure. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has said it is valid to use the name God to refer to the Dharmakaya. Other Buddhist teachers have said similar things. For example, the Zen master, Sokei-An, says:

“… Dharmakaya [is] the equivalent of God … The Buddha also speaks of no time and no space, where if I make a sound there is in that single moment a million years. It is spaceless like radio waves, like electric space – intrinsic. The Buddha said that there is a mirror that reflects consciousness. In this electric space a million miles and a pinpoint – a million years and a moment – are exactly the same. It is pure essence … We call it ‘original consciousness’ – ‘original akasha’ – perhaps God in the Christian sense. I am afraid of speaking about anything that is not familiar to me. No one can know what IT is …” (Zen Pivots, Weatherhill, NY, 1998, pp. 142, 146)

Elsewhere Sokei-An comments:

“The creative power of the universe is not a human being; it is Buddha. The one who sees, and the one who hears, is not this eye or ear, but the one who is this consciousness. This One is Buddha. This One appears in every mind. This One is common to all sentient beings, and is God.” (The Zen Eye, Weatherhill, New York, 1994, p. 41)

Also the Rinzai Zen Buddhist teacher, Soyen Shaku (of whom D.T. Suzuki was a pupil) said:

“At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience … To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, ‘panentheism’, according to which God is … all and one and more than the totality of existence …. As I mentioned before, Buddhists do not make use of the term God, which characteristically belongs to Christian terminology. An equivalent most commonly used is Dharmakaya … When the Dharmakaya is most concretely conceived it becomes the Buddha, or Tathagata ..”
(Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, by Soyen Shaku, Samuel Weiser Inc, New York, 1971, pp.25-26, 32)

The passages above show how Buddhists can use the word God to describe ultimate truth. Indeed, it may be necessary to do so when talking to certain audiences. The Croatian academic Snjezana Akpinar says:

“I had learned from my experience in Indonesia, which is an Islamic country, that there was no way that you say to an Islamic audience, “Buddhism doesn’t believe in God.” That would lead to the instant closing of the door. In Indonesia, there is a policy that five [sic] religions are accepted due to their belief in God: Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Buddhism. The Indonesian Buddhists had suggested Buddhism’s belief in God by speaking in terms of Adibuddha. This was from the Kalachakra (Cycle of Time) teachings, which had been spread to Indonesia a little more than a thousand years ago. Adibuddha means, literally, the first or primordial Buddha. The Indonesian Buddhists themselves didn’t have a full understanding of Adibuddha. But without explaining it, they said, “Here we have the equivalent of God.” Naturally, when I came to Indonesia, the Indonesian Buddhists asked me what Adibuddha actually meant. I explained to them that you could speak about it in terms of the clear light mind. In each person, this is the creator of our appearances, what we perceive; so in this sense it’s like a creator. Using this general interpretation of Adibuddha, I was able to enter into dialogue with Islamic scholars in other countries. Islamic scholars have tended to be very open to this because in Islam, Allah is not personified. Likewise, this creative power within each mind -– which might be seen as something like a creator god found in each person –- also is not personified. As presented in the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Adibuddha is beyond words, beyond concepts, unimaginable. Islamic scholars could relate to this very well.” http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/study/islam/general/common_features_islam_buddhism.html

The translation of Adibuddha as ‘primordial Buddha’ provides the sense of being outside time which is essential to certain conceptions of God. The term Adibuddha is also associated with many positive qualities by some Tibetan Buddhist schools.

“Adibuddha is believed to be a primordial, self-existent, self-created Buddha who is the personification of Shunyata or emptiness (freedom from confining substance or conceptual graspability) enshrining the infinitely Knowing Mind of Great Compassion; all phenomena lack true separate existence yet still appear, and their basis is the undifferentiated and inconceivable Mind of Buddha (empty of all defects and ignorance)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_in_Buddhism

For this reason the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism prefers the term Dharmakaya to Adibuddha, because the Gelug school emphasizes the path of negation (via negativa) as taught by Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti where ultimate truth is discerned by deconstructing reality. Christianity, Judaism, islam, Hinduism and Taoism also have their own paths of negation. The via negativa in Islam is described by Snjezana Akpinar:

“I would say that Allah is nothingness, and when you say the basic mantra of Islam “La Ilaha ‘Ila Al-lah” . . . it’s actually inviting you to keep repeating “There is no God except Allah” over and over as you decrease one syllable, or one “lah” at a time . “Lah” means ‘no’, so it’s a negation. And so, Allah is the Great No. Allah is something that you cannot imagine, because it’s beyond everything, and so it is the big “ah” at the end of the word lah that designates the nothingness. When you repeat, “La Ilaha Illa Al-lah”, you are peeling off layers of everything that’s imaginable. You keep repeating it and knocking off syllables until you’re left with that “ah” and that’s the hua or pure breath of God.”


Posted on August 15, 2008, in Buddhism, Religion. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Very helpful article and with useful links. Scholarship applied to practical advice.

  2. You refer to the Pali canon as Buddha’s ‘early teachings’. By implication, the Mahayana and Vajrayana would be his ‘later’ teachings. However, many of these teachings were not given by Buddha at all and show a strong Upanishadic influence. Later, of course, they were influenced by Bon, Taoism etc.

    This, I think, has a bearing on the God question. Buddha’s original teachings were far more agnostic / atheistic than the way that they have been developed and embellished by later schools. Indeed, as the Buddha discouraged the worship of images, no depictions of him were created for the 500 years following his death. The first images were fashioned by the Greek community who had come to India with Alexander the Great and fallen into Buddhism as a means of being validated without entering the caste system; they made images of the Buddha similar in aspect to Apollo, and these later evolved into the deity-image we see today.

    So when we look at the relationship of God and Buddhism, we need to first be clear to what ‘Buddhism’ refers.

  1. Pingback: What Remains Is God « Politics of Soul

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