The Buddha on God, Part 1

Jesus, Buddha, Bieber: The Holy Trinity? (photo by Justin Whitaker, Rangoon, Burma, 2011)

Today’s post will follow up from one last week: Would a Buddhist Affirm that belief in God is a Delusion? It also relates to a great post last year by a University of the West student at a blog set up for a course on Buddhism in America: I STILL DON’T KNOW: BUDDHISM AND GOD.

My sense is that a scholarly study of God/gods in the Pali Canon will find a sort of ambivalence on the part of the Buddha. Call it skillful means. The Buddha doesn’t reject God outright as far as I know(I’m using the term generically, but as we will see, in particular cases ‘God’ will need to be clearly defined), but clearly the idea of a creator God is abandoned and replaced with various notions of ‘lawfulness.’

Unfortunately the issue of definition is at the forefront here. Barbara O’Brien blogged about Buddhism and God last fall and one early, helpful comment comes from Sean Robsville, stating, “The Abrahamists themselves have different understandings of God. For example, the Quaker idea of the ‘Inner Light’, which has more resemblance to ‘Buddha Nature’ than to the violent tribal warlord of the Old Testament and Koran.” While it’s certainly unfair to call the God of the OT or Koran a “violent tribal warlord” in such sweeping terms, the point is good.

Barbara responds, “The Christian theologian Paul Tillich described God as the ground of being, which makes God out to be something like the Trikaya” [or, perhaps the Dharmakaya]. So there you go. Christians who are happy with Tillich’s theology and Buddhists who embrace the Trikaya doctrine clearly have some common ground for discussion and mutual appreciation.

Too often the discussion is dominated by those saying “Buddhism has no place for a creator God” vs those finding similarities like the one above between Quakers and the Buddha Nature doctrine. These are extremes. Both can be helpful starting points, but only if one is urged to look beyond them toward the other side. Just as Buddhist thought on the nature of ‘higher beings’ (such as apparent ‘savior bodhisattvas‘) evolved, so have Western monotheistic understandings of God.

We’ll look at the Pali Canon in the next post. But before we do, let’s recap. First, there is no simple yes/no answer regarding the Buddha (or Buddhism) and God. Starting with one is okay, as long as we then show the problems in it. For example:

“The Buddha didn’t endorse a creator God such as that found in general definitions of Western monotheism. However, in the Pali Canon there is found a complex pantheon of Brahmanic gods (and yakkhas) interacting with humans, including the Buddha. Furthermore, there are Western conceptions of God that do not include all of the connotations found in traditional definitions. Finally, as Buddhism evolved, certain traditions came to understand the Buddha himself and other supernormal beings (namely Bodhisattvas) in ways that further facilitate comparison with Western understandings of God.”

While my interest keeps me in the Pali Canon and comparing only certain Western understandings of God, I encourage people with Tibetan or East Asian interests to conduct or search out their own comparisons. For those with access to the Journal of Buddhist-Christian Studies, thumb through their table of contents for many useful studies. For everyone, try the (free online) Journal of Interreligious Dialogue. If you do write something, please feel free to leave me a link in the comments below.

For now, much metta, and may God be with you. (links to future parts as they are written)

Actor Bill Murray’s Dharma talk: “What’s it like to be you?” [Audio]
100 Arrested in India in pro-Tibet Rally
“Why am I here?” – an interview with Zen priest and interfaith dialogue participant, Rev. Dr. David Zuniga
Actor Bill Murray’s Dharma talk: “What’s it like to be you?” [Audio]
  • http://http// Seth Segall


    Here is my own take on this complex issue, which is very much in accord with yours:

    • Justin Whitaker

      Wonderful, Seth. It’s a bit uncanny just how similar we are on this. :) Great stuff, and I’m sure my readers will enjoy your post (along with the discussion in the comments).

      I also just read James Ford’s take on this, from a couple years back and also well worth reading:

      I especially enjoyed the “physiology of faith” part and the jokes. James also preserves the complexity of the issue while clarifying some of the threads of thought that help shape discussions of Buddhism and God today.

  • Will Yaryan

    Buddhists in Thailand embrace all sorts of gods, ghosts and spirits in their universe and are certain The Buddha and the Dhamma approve. The discussion about God in the Buddha’s teaching is mostly intellectual, without reference to how the Dhamma is enculturated. This is textbook Buddhism and Westerners are more comfortable with this than Buddhists in the East who make of their faith a way of life. I try to respect their beliefs rather than dismiss them as superstition or mistakes.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Yes, Will, I get the feeling that Thais today inhabit a thought-world / Lebenswelt much more like that of the Buddha and his contemporaries than any of the rest of us. It is precisely that enculturation (of the Buddha found in the Pali canon) that I hope to dive in to in the next post.

    • Gregory Wonderwheel

      Yes, the Tathagata is the teacher of humans and Gods. So if there is a God, Buddha is a teacher of that God.

  • Lana

    ^But devas are different than saying there is a creator who holds the whole universe together.
    I love your blog. I like your point about Tillich. Tillich says you can’t call God personal or impersonal. That’s silly as God must be one or the other. But then, if he is the ground of being, and outside being itself, then I also get that ultimately, according to his philosophy (which I’m not saying he believes this), then one cannot know if God is personal or impersonal. I think that’s Buddhism. Christianity and many other religions see God as the very source of our being. We can know God because he’s our source. But not so with Buddhism.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for this, Lana. I’ll have to rely on others to defend or clarify Tillich. But I will note that there do seem to be Christians for whom the only way to know (or at least describe) God is via negativa; Aquinas being foremost. In fact, some Old Testament books, such as Job and Esther, might suggest the ultimate unknowability of God – though how much a Christian wishes to apply these might vary.

      Meanwhile on the Buddhist side, we can come to know the source of all being through awakening. Buddhists have never called this source ‘God’, but it’s nonetheless the source as you describe.

      Just some thoughts, and thanks again for your comment.

  • David Newberry

    You point out that God can mean many, many things. So the questions “does God exist?” and “is belief in God a delusion?” are meaningless unless we specify what we mean by God. If we do that, lots of these issues go away or clarify themselves. So why keep on using a term that you acknowledge is fraught in a generic way?

    I love inter-religious dialog on issues like these. And while this can be very fertile terrain, as with the Quakers, I feel like we are being purposefully blind if we pretend that “God” (in our Western context) almost always means an eternal being which created the universe.

    I don’t want to be defeatist on this point, but I want to be realistic. I would argue that a term like Godhead might be more appropriate, as it is little-heard enough as to make people wonder if they know what it means.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Interesting suggestion, David. I wonder, though, if the use of “Godhead” would exclude more from the discussion than I would wish, at the moment. A better title might be “Buddha and the Divine” or “Buddha and Supernatural Beings” – as I do want to discuss devas, yakkhas, and the likes. And as we’ve seen, and hopefully will see more, “God” in the Western context, can mean different things, so I’m hoping that people will look beyond that one particular definition in discussing possible areas of dialog.

  • Jim

    I think a more helpful question can come from realizing that in Buddhism belief in you is a delusion.

  • Was Once

    Referring to the above comment….Yes, any belief is based mostly on craving a different reality. Or the rise in American Buddhism is based on aversion of Christianity.

  • Dr Barry Clark

    Somebody has not done enough reading.Leaving aside discussions about samsaric gods,spirits and local deities,Santideva has proven in the ninth (Wisdom) chapter of Bodhisattvavatara that God does not exist.In His parallel compendium the Siksasamuccaya Santideva quotes a huge number of Sutra sources/ Words of the Buddha to substantiate his views
    Most Buddhist teachings clearly preclude all possibility of (a creator) God existing.Even superficial study of the principles of karma/cause & effect and of the Abhidharmakosa teachings on the creation of the universe easily precludes the possibility of God existing.Anybody who really understands Buddhism already knows that God does not exist.Anyone who cares to look deeply into the his/her own heart at the undissipating drops & at his/her own Buddha Nature will find he/she has all he/she needs without needing to cling to a superfluous,non-existent God………

    • Gregory Wonderwheel

      Oh please, Santideva can only prove that what he defines as “God” doesn’t exist, since he is in the God position of defining his terms. If God is defined as Tathagata, would Santideva also “prove” that Tathagata doesn’t exist. Or looked at another way, to say that anything “exists” or “does not exist”, even Buddha, sunyata, enlightenment, Dharmakaya, Tathagata, etc. is to be lost in assertions and denials. So, bottom line, saying that Santideva “proved” something is pretty useless.

  • Yaseen

    There are so many assumptions in this article, I don’t know where to start. I think it would be useful for Buddhists from a theistic background to re-look at the concept and make peace with it. I even think it’s useful for people born Buddhist to learn about theistic thinking and notions of a supreme god. But there is no need for Buddhists to thrash out and debate the concept because it does not concern us (Buddhists). Just because there seems to be superficial similarities between theistic philosophies and the later Mahayana & Vajrayana concepts like tathagathagarbha, buddha nature etc, these concepts are nowhere close to a concept of a being who created the universe, controls the destiny of all human beings and requires regular worship. Buddhist can do interfaith in much more honest ways than to contort their own understanding of reality simply to find common ground (of which there is a lot: ethics, universal compassion etc). No need to shoe horn the concept into Buddhist thought.

  • Agnikan

    The Buddha didn’t speak English; he said nothing about ‘God’.

    • Gregory Wonderwheel

      That comment is a non sequitur at best, and just plain stupid at worst.