Was Buddha God or Human?

Was Buddha God or Human? March 30, 2018

THE QUESTION above is a headline at the Web site of Tricycle, a U.S. Buddhist magazine.


Tricycle magazine is “unaffiliated with any particular teacher, sect, or lineage” and spans all forms of Buddhism with authority and style. The question above that it poses is quite pertinent since the online buddhanet, among others, states that Buddhists do not believe in any god because the Buddha “did not believe in a god” and he himself “was not, nor did he claim to be,” a god.

This agnostic or atheistic version of Buddhism is popular among seekers in western countries. But is it authentic?

Tricycle turned to two noted authors to jointly address this important question: Professors Robert E. Buswell Jr., director of UCLA’s Center for Buddhist Studies, and Donald S. Lopez Jr. at the University of Michigan. The article was part of their online series about the top 10 “misconceptions about Buddhism.” What follows is largely based on their explanations.

Without question, Buddhism does not believe in the capital-G God, that is, the one unique and all-powerful Creator of the universe who is worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

However, the two scholars assert that it’s wrong to say “Buddhism has no gods” because “it has not one but many.” The religion believes in an elaborate pantheon of celestial beings designated by the same root word as the English “divinities.” Also, hosts of advanced spiritual beings called “bodhisattvas” and “buddhas” exist in the 27 sectors within the realm of rebirth.

Buddhist divinities lack the attributes of those other three religions’ one God, and are not regarded as eternal. But, importantly, they exercise powers beyond those of mere humans, are beseeched for favors, and “respond to the prayers of the devout.”

Turning to the Buddha himself, he was a human being named Siddhartha Gautama. Modern historians think he most likely died (or in faith terms entered the blissful state of Nirvana) around 486 B.C.E., or by some religious reckonings either 544 or 368 B.C.E. The biographies of Gautama originated centuries afterward.

The traditional narrative says he was a pampered prince who changed to undergo great effort and reunciation and become “the Buddha” (note the definite article), meaning “the awakened” or “the enlightened” one. After hesitation, he was directed by Brahma, the most powerful of the gods, to teach the enlightened path that can achieve freedom from the cycle of countless rebirths into other beings.

Eventually the Buddha’s followers were recognized not as a new movement within Hinduism but a religion of its own, which evolved into the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana branches, or on an ethnic basis into the Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan traditions.

Mainstream Buddhism teaches that the Buddha was unlike all other human beings. As a god from beyond, he chose the location and circumstances of his own earthly birth. He is called “god above all gods,” has a distinct body with superman markings, and a unique mind that knows the past lives of all the beings in the universe.

The two scholars summarize the answer to our question: “His lifespan is immeasurable. He can go anywhere in the universe. He can perform all manner of miracles. Did he create the universe? No. Is he omniscient? Yes. Is he omnipotent? It depends on what you mean. Is he eternal? Sort of. Is he God? You decide.”

Otherwise, here are condensed versions of the authors’ 10 common “misconceptions about Buddhism.” For more, see https://tricycle.org/magazine/10-misconceptions-about-buddhism.

— That the Buddha was not a god but only a human being, and his religion has no place for gods. Wrong (see above).

— That Buddhism and other religions are different paths to the same destination. No. Buddhism believes that enlightenment and liberation from suffering and the vast cycle of rebirths are only accessible to those who follow the Buddhist path.

— That Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy. It may not worship the one God but it is certainly a religion, with gods and a focus on achieving good rebirth in the next lifetime, for oneself, relatives, or all beings.

— That the “four noble truths” (suffering, origin, cessation, right path) are what’s considered noble. Instead, those believers are noble who embrace these four truths in the process of achieving freedom from rebirth.

— That all Buddhists are pacifists. Not necessrily. Through history there’ve been numerous Buddhist wars against non-Buddhists and some monasteries even had standing armies. During World War Two, many Japanese priests favored their nation’s imperialist combat.

— That all Buddhists meditate. Traditionally this was the practice only of certain monks. In the 20th Century, lay Buddhists began joining in the practice.

— That “mindfulness” is the primary form of meditation. There are many types. Mindfulness as taught in America only originated in 20th Century Burma (Myanmar).

— That all Buddhists are vegetarians. Buddhist monks and nuns traditionally begged for daily food (some still do) and took whatever was offered, including meat. Tibet’s monks and nuns, for instance, are not vegetarians.

— That Zen, so popular in the West, rejects conventional Buddhism. True only to some extent. Zen masters may burn Buddha statues, scorn religious writings, or even frequent bars and brothels. But generally the teachers observe the monastic disciplines that originated in India and undertake extensive study of the Buddhist scriptures.

— That Zen inculcates an experience of sudden enlightenment. Actually, monks expect to devote decades of full-time practice before they gradually achieve any spiritual progress.

Thus the Buddhist big 10. Note The Religion Guy previously analyzed Buddhism’s appeal for Americans: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2014/12/what-is-buddhisms-appeal-for-americans.


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