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The Buddhist Attitude to God

The Buddhist Attitude to God
By Dr V. A. Gunasekara
{Statement made to a
Multi-religious Seminar}


The standpoint adopted here is primarily that of Theravada Buddhism. But most of what is said will be applicable to most other Buddhist traditions. The Theravada tradition, also called the Southern school of Buddhism, is based on texts maintained in the Pali language, which are the oldest of the existing Canons of Buddhism and reputed to be the closest to the teaching of the Buddha himself.

There is no place for God in the Mahayana traditions of Buddhism as well, and indeed some of the early Indian Mahayana philosophers have denounced god-worship in terms which are even stronger than those expressed in the Theravada literature. Some later Mahayana schools, which flourished outside India, ascribed some degree of divinity to a transcendent Buddha, considering living Buddhas to be a manifestation of this âdhi-buddha. But even here it cannot be said that the Buddha was converted into a Divinity comparable to the God of the monotheistic religions.

Buddhism as a Non-Theistic Religion

Buddhism is unique amongst the religions of the world because it does not have any place for God in its soteriology. Indeed most Asian religions (with the possible exception of some extremely devotional forms of Hinduism) are essentially non-theistic, in that God does not occupy the central place that is accorded to him in monotheistic religious traditions. But Buddhism goes beyond most of these other religions in that it is positively anti-theistic because the very notion of God conflicts with some principles which are fundamental to the Buddhist view of the world and the role of humans in it (see section "The God-Concept and Buddhist Principles" below).

However Buddhism is not atheistic in the sense that modern secularism, rationalism, humanism, etc. could be regarded to be atheistic (although it has much in common with them). Buddhism is not concerned primarily with refuting the notion of God (as some atheistic writers have done). It is principally concerned with developing a method of escape from the worldly ills. This involves undertaking a method of mental discipline and a code of conduct, which is sufficient to satisfy the most demanding of spiritual requirements. Indeed only very little of the Buddha's voluminous discourses deal directly with the question of God. He was more interested in expounding a way to personal salvation, and to improve the weal of mankind both in this world and in the worlds to come. It is this task that informs most of the discourses of the Buddha which later came to be compiled into the various Canons of Buddhism.

The Buddha did not take an ambiguous or agnostic position on the question of God as he is sometimes represented as having taken by theistically inclined writers. The Buddha has stated his position on God in clear and unequivocal terms.

The Notion of God

It is first of all necessary to establish what is meant by the term "God". This term is used to designate a Supreme Being endowed with the qualities of omnipotence and omniscience, who is the creator of the universe with all its contents, and the chief law-giver for humans. God is generally considered as being concerned with the welfare of his human creatures, and the ultimate salvation of those who follow his dictates. God is therefore a person of some kind, and the question whether such an entity exists or not is fundamental to all theistic systems.

In contrast to this notion of a personal God some modern theologians have interpreted the term "God" as representing some kind of abstract principle of good (or "ground of being"). This view was first developed in the ancient Indian Upanishads where God is equated with an abstract principle (Brahman). The ancient Indian philosophers could entertain such a view because they also had a theory of karma, which really does away with the need for a personal God. Buddhists too have a theory of karma, which is different from that of the Hindus, and which even more unequivocally dispenses with the need for a Deity. The use of the term "God' to denote an abstract reality by monotheistic theologians who have no theory of karma is difficult to justify; one suspects that this is merely a device to explain away the contradictions that arise from the notion of a personal God. In fact the actual practice of theistic religion proceeds as if God is a real person of some kind or other.

Just as Buddhism rejects the notion of a Supreme God it also rejects the notion of an abstract God-principle operating in the universe. The notion of Brahman (in the neuter) is not discussed at all in the Buddhist texts, and even in India it may well be a post-Buddhist development resulting from the attempt to reconcile the belief in God(s) with the powerful critique of the Buddha. It is therefore the attitude of Buddhism to the notion of a supreme personal God animating the Universe that we must consider.

Buddhism speaks of the existence of category of beings called devas. This term is generally translated as "gods" (with a simple `g' and in the plural). The term deva literally means a shining or radiant being, and describes their physical appearance rather than their supernatural powers (as the translation "gods" seems to imply). To prevent confusion with the notion of a supreme personal God we shall refer to these beings of Buddhist cosmology as devas. Many other religions also postulate the existence of non-human beings who are referred to as `gods' or `angels' if they are considered to be in a better position than humans (with respect to their material conditions of existence). Buddhist cosmology recognizes thirty-two planes of existence some of the higher planes being either states of meditative abstraction or actual domains for the devas. Generally we have direct experience of only two of these 32 planes (those of humans and animals). Planes of existence below these two realms are also said to exist and are characterized by greater degrees of suffering and discomfort. The actual physical location of these planes need not concern us here because the dimensions of the Buddhist universe are even greater than those envisaged by modern astronomy and will contain enough places to accommodate all these planes of existence.

We can easily dispose of the devas in the context of the Buddhist attitude to God because the devas are essentially irrelevant to the human situation. Beings are born in the deva-worlds because of particular karmic factors they have accumulated, and after these karmic factors are exhausted they could revert to any of the other planes of existence depending on their unexpended karma. The devas are not particularly endowed with special powers to influence others, and far from saving anyone else they themselves are not "saved". Salvation in Buddhism comes only from full enlightenment, which could be best accomplished from the human plane of existence.

The Vedic and Brahmanical religion of the Buddha's day postulated a large number of gods, many of them personifications of natural forces. However Brahmanical theology had advanced to the point that one of these gods was considered to be superior to all others, and was even considered to be the creator-god (Ishvara). This supreme god could then be considered as the equivalent to the single God of the monotheistic religions which emerged in the Middle East.

Different names have been given to the supreme god in the Brahmanical and later Hindu literature, but in Buddhist texts the supreme god is referred to as Mahâ-Brahmâ (or simply Brahmâ) who was the chief of a class of gods called the Brahmâs. Brahmâ of the Buddhist texts may be considered to be the equivalent of the God of the three monotheistic religions that was to emerge in the Middle East. The first of these was Judaism, which promoted one its gods Yahweh as the one God sometime about the 6th century BCE. Next Christianity adopted the same god under the name of Jehovah who is represented as the "Father" of Jesus. Finally Islam adopted the name of Allah for their only God. To get the Buddha's views on God we must therefore consider his views on Brahmâ.

One popular misconception of Buddhism must be dismissed at this point. This is view that the Buddha is some kind of God figure. In the Theravada tradition the Buddha is regarded as a supremely enlightened human teacher who has come to his last birth in samsára (the Buddhist cycle of existence). Even Mahayana traditions, which tend to think in terms of transcendental Buddhas, do not directly make a claim for Buddha as God. Thus the Buddha cannot be considered as playing a God-like role in Buddhism.

The Buddhist View of God

In the Buddhist texts Mahâ Brahmâ is represented as claiming the following attributes for himself:

"I am Brahmâ, the Great Brahmâ, the Supreme One, the Mighty, the All-seeing, the Ruler, the Lord of all, the Maker, the Creator, the Chief of all appointing to each his place, the Ancient of days, the Father of all that is and will be." (Dîgha Nikáya, II, 263).

The Buddha dismisses all these claims of Mahâ Brahmâ as being due to his own delusions brought about by ignorance. He argues that Mahâ-Brahmâ is simply another deva, perhaps with greater karmic force than the other gods, but nonetheless a deva and therefore unenlightened and subject to the samsâric process as determined by his karma. In such Suttas as the Brahmajâla sutta and the Agga¤¤a Sutta the Buddha refutes the claims of Maha Brahmâ and shows him to be subject to karmic law (i.e. cosmic law). Even though long-lived Mahâ Brahmâ will be eliminated in each cycle of inevitable world dissolution and re-evolution. In the Khevadda Sutta Mahâ Brahmâ is forced to admit to an inquiring monk that he is unable to answer a question that is posed to him, and advises the monk to consult the Buddha. This clearly shows the Brahmâ acknowledges the superiority of the Buddha.

The Buddhist view is that gods may lead more comfortable lives and be addicted to all the sense pleasures, but in terms of wisdom might be inferior to humans. They are even represented as coming to receive instruction from monks and even lay persons. Later on with the Hindu revival and proliferation of God-cults the Buddhists were increasingly vocal against the pretensions of God and his retinue of lesser gods. Nargarjuna the Indian Buddhist philosopher of the 2nd century CE expressed a commonly shared Buddhist view when he wrote:

The gods are all eternal scoundrels
Incapable of dissolving the suffering of impermanence.
Those who serve them and venerate them
May even in this world sink into a sea of sorrow.
We know the gods are false and have no concrete being;
Therefore the wise man believes them not
The fate of the world depends on causes and conditions
Therefore the wise man many not rely on gods.

Mahâpajâpâramitâshâstra [Lamotte trans. I, p.141]

In the West a number of "arguments" have been adduced to prove or disprove the existence of God. Some of these were anticipated by the Buddha. One of the most popular is the "first cause" argument according to which everything must have a cause, and God is considered the first cause of the Universe. The Buddhist theory of causation says that every thing must have preconditions for its existence, and this law must also extend to "God" should such an entity exist. But while the "first cause" claims that God creates everything, it exempts God from the ambit of this law. However if exemptions are made with respect to God such exemptions could be made with respect to other things also hereby contradicting the principle of the first cause.

But the argument which the Buddha most frequently uses is what is now called the "argument from evil" which in the Buddhist sense could be stated as the argument from dukkha (suffering or un-satisfactoriness). This states that the empirical fact of the existence of dukkha cannot be reconciled with the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient being who is also all good. The following verses from the Bhûridatta Jataka bring this out clearly:

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why does he order such misfortune
And not create concord?
sace hi so issaro sabbaloke
Brahmâ bahûbhûtapati pajâna.m
ki.m sabbaloke vidah alakkhi.m
ki.m sabbaloka.m na sukhi.m akâsi

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why prevail deceit, lies and ignorance
And he such inequity and injustice create?
sace hi so issaro sabbaloke
Brahmâ bahûbhûtapati pajâna.m
mâyâmusâvajjamadena c'api
loka.m adhammena kimatthakâsi

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Then an evil master is he, (O Aritta)
Knowing what's right did let wrong prevail!
sace hi so issaro sabbaloke
Brahmâ bahûbhûtapati pajâna.m
adhammiyo bhûtapat Ari.t.tha
dhamme sat yo vidahi adhamma.m

(Translated by the Author)

The Buddha argues that the three most commonly given attributes of God, viz. omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence towards humanity cannot all be mutually compatible with the existential fact of dukkha.

From the Buddhist standpoint the classic theistic statement that "God created man in his (i.e. God's) image" has actually to be reversed. It is man who has created God in his (i.e. man's) image! And as man's own image changes so does that of his God. Thus in the present time with the rise of feminism there is an attempt to change the gender of God from a man to a woman (or perhaps even to a neuter). To liberate himself mankind has to shed his delusions, and one of these is the existence of God.

The God-Concept and Buddhist Principles

Quite apart from explicit statements refuting the God-idea there is a fundamental incompatibility between the notion of God and basic Buddhist principles. We have already mentioned that God cannot be reconciled with the Buddhist notion of causality, which is contained in the theory of "dependent origination" which is one of the discoveries of the Buddha during his enlightenment. Certainly nothing like this theory has been propounded prior to the Buddha.

A fundamental Buddhist belief is that all phenomena without exemption (including all animate beings) have three essential characteristics. These are dukkha (explained above), anicca (impermanence), and anattá (insubstantiality, "no-soul"). The attributes of God are not consistent with these universal marks of existence. Thus God must be free from dukkha; he must be eternal (and hence not subject to anicca); finally he must have a distinct unchanging identity (and therefore lack the characteristic of anattá).

Another concomitant of the God-idea that is fundamentally incompatible with Buddhism is the belief that God acts as the final judge and could determine if individuals go to heaven or hell. According to Buddhism the destination of individuals is determined by the karmic law, which cannot be interfered by any external process. Only individuals can effect their karmic destinies; even a Buddha cannot "pardon" or otherwise interfere with the karmic process. In Buddhism there is simply no place for a God even if one were to exist.

There is also no place for the notion of vicarious salvation, or atonement for human sins by a "suffering" God. The Buddha affirms that "by oneself is kamma done and by oneself is kamma undone". According to Buddhism no one (and this includes gods or God) can save another. This is a cardinal principle of the Buddha, which cannot be reconciled with the declared attributes and actions of God.

The Buddhist path to salvation is based on deeds (including mental culture through "meditation") not prayer. God appears to Buddhists to be a vain being expecting all others to pray to him and worship him. Indeed such prayer seems to be the most decisive factor in a person's salvation, not necessarily any good or bad deeds by him. But as mentioned above in Buddhism it is volitional action with determines the karma of an individual.

There is no doubt some similarities in the moral codes of Buddhism and some theistic religions. Things like compassion are inculcated in all religions. But in Buddhism this does not arise from a heavenly dictate and there is no limitation in the exercise of these virtues as occurs in some theistic religion.

The Persistence of the God-Idea

The Buddha's refutation of the God-concept was formulated some 2500 years ago, perhaps at the very time that the idea of a single supreme God was mooted in India and in the Middle East. With the rise of modern science, and the discovery of natural causes for phenomena, which were formerly ascribed to the action of God, some philosophers have restated the basic fallacies of the God-hypothesis using modern science and logic (and not the Buddha's Dhamma) as their point of departure. Yet many people in the world formally subscribe to the notion of God. What is the Buddhist explanation for this phenomenon?

There are many causes for the persistence of the God-idea. Some of these are induced by social and other factors. These include the institutionalization of theistic religion, the use of vast economic resources to propagate it including the mass media, and the legal right given to parents to impose their religions on their children. There is also the attractiveness of vicarious salvation, or salvation through prayer or forgiveness which permits the committing of many moral crimes for which the doer does not "pay". We shall not consider these here. From the Buddhist point of view the root causes are ignorance and fear, with fear itself ultimately the product of ignorance. Atheistic materialism has failed to dislodge the God-idea not because of any deficiency of its arguments when compared to those put forward by the theists, but because it too has not been able to eliminate ignorance.

The ignorance (avijjâ) that is meant here cannot be eliminated by formal education and the propagation of scientific knowledge. After all some leading scientists are themselves completely deluded by theistic suppositions. The progress of science has resulted only in a minor diminution in the power of theistic religion, and in any case theologians have become adept at "reinterpreting" dogma while the general followers continue to do what they have always done.

The Buddha himself grasped the over-pervading nature of ignorance because of his titanic struggle to liberate himself. He even initially displayed some reluctance to propagate his knowledge because of the formidable nature of the task. Nonetheless he proclaimed his knowledge out of compassion for the world because he felt that at least a few "with little dust in their eyes" would be able to benefit fully from his ideas. From the Buddhist point of view the persistence of theism, with all its evil consequences seen in history, is a necessary consequence of the persistence of ignorance.

While intellectual and scientific knowledge is not the sole (or even essential) constituent of wisdom it could in the modern world with high levels of educational attainment be a good basis for it. But what is really required is the cultivation of the mind (bhâvanâ, samâdhi). This is usually referred to as "meditation" even though this term is quite inadequate to convey the full implications of what is meant. Many modern-day "meditation teachers" do not give instruction in Buddhist mental culture, and even some of those who claim to do so may take a literal view of a few classic Buddhist texts on the subject. The Buddhist path requires a correct balance between three components: wisdom, morality and mental culture. Progress in all these three areas must be made simultaneously, and exclusive concentration on any one these, especially "meditation" of a highly stylized form, is not the balanced path. The Buddha has asked all his disciples to go to the Dhamma as their guide rather than to specific teachers. The Buddha's final instruction to his followers was to "work out your own salvation with diligence" with the Buddha's teaching (the Dhamma) as the only guide.

The path of the Buddha cannot be followed if a person is deluded by the notion of God. This is why a correct understanding of all the ramifications of the God-idea is essential for anyone seeking to progress along the Buddhist path to total liberation.


  • buddhafootbuddhafoot Veteran
    edited November 2005

    Great post. I think this would also do well in the some of the other forums regarding Buddhism and other religions (Wicca, Islam, etc.).

    Very informative and thoughtful.

  • edited November 2005
    I'm glad you appreciated it Buddhafoot. As you are no doubt aware, especially bearing in mind your sig, there's often a lot of misunderstanding about Buddhism and it's attitude towards such things as belief in God, the soul and so forth. Whilst Buddhist practice can be undertaken by those of any faith, or none, to actually be a Buddhist means at some point understanding that belief itself is a hindrance. If one believes, they do not know. If they know, there is no need to believe and Buddhism is primarily about knowing.
  • edited November 2005
    Hey all,
    Actually my understanding was that Buddha never denied the existance of God, he was after all the teacher of both Gods and humanity. The gods are even mentioned in the Brahma/Brahman...
    Its also my understanding that the Buddha was/is considered an impersonalist because he refused to give God any form thus avioding conflicting issuses with those who worship some form or other.....

    Om and Tao....yes I know the last one's chinese....well you have to give me points for trying????
  • edited November 2005
    Esau wrote:
    Hey all,
    Actually my understanding was that Buddha never denied the existance of God, he was after all the teacher of both Gods and humanity. The gods are even mentioned in the Brahma/Brahman...
    Its also my understanding that the Buddha was/is considered an impersonalist because he refused to give God any form thus avioding conflicting issuses with those who worship some form or other.....

    It's important here to distinguish between 'gods' and God. The word gods is really a mistranslation, but there's no accurate single word in English that conveys the true meaning of the original terms. Buddhism certainly does acknowledge other orders of being, but sees these 'gods' as objects of pity, not worship.

    As to God - the idea of an omnipotent creator deity is specifically denied by the Buddha more than once. One of the best Suttas to help understand the Buddha's attitude toward the idea of a creator deity is the Brahamaja Sutta, which sets out the incorrect teachings and views current at the time, which the Buddha specified as being hindrances to awakening - such as belief in an omnipotent deity or a soul of some sort. This link may be of use:
  • edited November 2005
    I guess in this case I personally think of the devine like the Tao or like the Moslems. No form, no image, no concept. How can that which is created fathom the creator?? I ask my Hindu friends this, they go back to their Veda for answers.
    I tell em I just don't know so therefore won't comment.

    P.S. My familys' Catholic!!!!! Trying explaining Buddhism and the monkhood to them!!!!
  • edited November 2005
    Esau wrote:

    P.S. My familys' Catholic!!!!! Trying explaining Buddhism and the monkhood to them!!!!

    In which case they are perhaps better able to understand a faith with a strong monastic tradition, which the Pope acknowledged is a perfectly valid path. Many of the great mystics, most of them Catholic after all, agreed with much that Buddhism has to say. Add to that that there are several Catholic priests and nuns that are also Zen teachers and a flourishing Christian Zen movement, and it might not be that difficult for them to understand at all.
  • edited August 2006
    be a Buddhist means at some point understanding that belief itself is a hindrance. If one believes, they do not know. If they know, there is no need to believe and Buddhism is primarily about knowing.
    This point comes only when one gets enlightened, not before that. Belief (sraddha) is universally listed in the various matrikas of Dharmasamgraha as instrumental to getting Enlightenment, along with the other traditional yoga-balani, or indriyani (here indriya is used in its primary meaning as power, not specifically as jnanedriya, sense organ, or karmendriya).

    To emphasize the importance of faith, lack of faith (asraddhya) is specifically pinpointed as one of the 24 secondary defilements (caturvimsati upaklesa). See DS 69.

    Best Regards,
  • BrigidBrigid Veteran
    edited August 2006
    What a fantastic post, Genryu! It clarified many things for me and I've copied it for future reference. Thanks so much for posting it. I'm going to be referring to it a lot. Very, very helpful!
  • edited August 2006
    Some religions posit a god that weighs, judges, rewards and punishes. Buddhism gives us karma-- cause and effect-- which says that all thoughts and actions have consequenses and those consequences are, essentially, unavoidable.

    That is what religions do. What people tend to do is personify things. God as a being, as I see it, may well be an ancient device which was developed to help ancient people understand the workings of karma through personification. We learn to fear the consequences of unwholesome behavior in adulthood in the same manner we feared the consequences of unwholesome behavior as children-- through the consideration of a parental-type presence looming, and ever present, in our lives.

    I don't actually see much functional difference between that "presence" and the "presence" of a belief in karma. They seem to me to be strikingly similar in what they evoke from us.

    My beef with the stance represented in the article would be that, if such a way of representing the workings of karma leads some people to function in a way that effectively improves their karma, then what is the actual problem with it? This seems particularly important to consider if these are people who would otherwise reject a more clinical approach to the issue.

    It could also be argued that not everyone is in that particular camp. There are people for whom the idea of a personified God-Parent just doesn't work, or creates rebellion. Well, that's okay too. For them, the way that cause and effect is presented in Buddhism is perhaps a more effective model.

    I guess I don't understand why we have to take sides here, when the goal (I have always thought) is to help bring people-- all people-- closer to a proper understanding by helping them change their karmic lot in life. A person who is doing things which will improve his or her karma is eventually going to find a way to drop the symbols and see beyond the need for a personified "god' figure-- because that is where purifying one's karma will inevitably lead. But how does one get to this point? You can't help someone get there by presenting things that people aren't going to relate to or embrace. People don't go from A to Z without hitting many points in between.

    Okay, with all that said, I'll stick my neck out here even further and suggest that there are many Christians who have a very different "idea" of their god than is traditionally thought. Mysticism is alive and well within some Christian traditions, and the functional motivation gained through contemplation of this god has helped move many toward a greater understanding. I think it's very tempting to oversimplify the Christian view of God, particularly for those of us who came from athiestic or fundamentalist-literalist backgrounds. In truth, the question of what God is within the Christian traditions is a very complex one.

    The article above seems to present the most simplistic view, the view most of us were taught in Sunday School. I'd venture to guess that some people in some churches within some traditions who remain in the Church long enough to sit in the pews with the adults may eventually gain a different, and far more nuanced perspective.
  • ajani_mgoajani_mgo Veteran
    edited August 2006
    Of course, the problem occurs when people, because of God, start to do things not very nice to their karma I guess..
  • edited August 2006
    Of course, the problem occurs when people, because of God, start to do things not very nice to their karma I guess..

    Yes, absolutely, but I'd contend that this is a danger inherent in any human endeavor, and people are especially vulnerable to things which are placed in a spiritual context. It's not exclusive to Christianity or Islam or the so-called "abrahamic" religions. Dogma exists in every religion, and some of it is dangerous.

    What frightens me is the notion that one group or its followers might be somehow above or outside the temptation to misinterpret or misrepresent sacred teachings, either through misunderstanding (benignly) or as a means to selfish ends (malignantly).

    I think, as spiritual beings, we need to be careful not to fall into a "<insert religion here> alone isn't vulnerable to misrepresentation" way of seeing this matter. Otherwise we risk becoming complacent enough to stop scrutinizing what we are representing, ourselves.

    _/\_ with a bow
  • edited August 2006
    Ideas concerning karma or kamma appear to vary within and between various Buddhists traditions, just as ideas concerning God seem to vary within and between various religions.

    Nevertheless, I intuit in Buddhism the ideal state of realization is non-subjugation to karma. Yes? One seeks to realize from their center that cannot be defiled. Therefore, ideas of good karma and/or bad karma are gaining and losing ideas associated with a concrete and continuous self or being. But perhaps my intuition reveals my zen proclivities?

    The realization of dependent origination is wonderful, and I again intuit that it points more to mystery and common sense than a desire to dissolve all notions of a God or Brahma. And indeed, as was pointed out in the article, such concepts as God or Brahma were merely seen from another reference point - a reference frame that acknowledged dependent origination, as well as a universe as dharma when experienced in a non-biased and open sense.

    Also, the Buddha warned against following him blindly. So, when we look at any ideas associated with his teaching, if we direct our gaze outward to him alone as resolution or wisdom, we have fallen into the same trap that he was trying to emancipate people from.

    We all want things to hold onto. Maybe they are concepts of karma or God or Brahma or
    merit or forgiveness or heaven or even the devil but such concepts do not make us spiritual or good in any conclusive or evolving sense. Indeed, they have historically proven to create vast unnecessary suffering.

    Dropping our ideas, we move from our selfless center. When this happens and we convey ideas, these ideas are presented to liberate, not to etch a concrete dharma or teaching in stone.
  • not1not2not1not2 Veteran
    edited August 2006
    Here's a good article from Access to Insight:
    Buddhism and the God-idea
    Nyanaponika Thera

    Quite contradictory views have been expressed in Western literature on the attitude of Buddhism toward the concept of God and gods. 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. 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.

    In Buddhist literature, the belief in a creator god (issara-nimmana-vada) is frequently mentioned and rejected, along with other causes wrongly adduced to explain the origin of the world; as, for instance, world-soul, time, nature, etc. God-belief, however, is placed in the same category as those morally destructive wrong views which deny the kammic results of action, assume a fortuitous origin of man and nature, or teach absolute determinism. These views are said to be altogether pernicious, having definite bad results due to their effect on ethical conduct.

    Theism, however, is regarded as a kind of kamma-teaching in so far as it upholds the moral efficacy of actions. Hence a theist who leads a moral life may, like anyone else doing so, expect a favorable rebirth. He may possibly even be reborn in a heavenly world that resembles his own conception of it, though it will not be of eternal duration as he may have expected. If, however, fanaticism induces him to persecute those who do not share his beliefs, this will have grave consequences for his future destiny. For fanatical attitudes, intolerance, and violence against others create unwholesome kamma leading to moral degeneration and to an unhappy rebirth.

    Although belief in God does not exclude a favorable rebirth, it is a variety of eternalism, a false affirmation of permanence rooted in the craving for existence, and as such an obstacle to final deliverance.

    Among the fetters (samyojana) that bind to existence, theism is particularly subject to those of personality-belief, attachment to rites and rituals, and desire for fine-material existence or for a "heaven of the sense sphere," as the case may be.

    As an attempt at explaining the universe, its origin, and man's situation in his world, the God-idea was found entirely unconvincing by the Buddhist thinkers of old. Through the centuries, Buddhist philosophers have formulated detailed arguments refuting the doctrine of a creator god. It should be of interest to compare these with the ways in which Western philosophers have refuted the theological proofs of the existence of God.

    But for an earnest believer, the God-idea is more than a mere device for explaining external facts like the origin of the world. For him it is an object of faith that can bestow a strong feeling of certainty, not only as to God's existence "somewhere out there," but as to God's consoling presence and closeness to himself. This feeling of certainty requires close scrutiny. Such scrutiny will reveal that in most cases the God-idea is only the devotee's projection of his ideal — generally a noble one — and of his fervent wish and deeply felt need to believe. These projections are largely conditioned by external influences, such as childhood impressions, education, tradition and social environment. Charged with a strong emotional emphasis, brought to life by man's powerful capacity for image-formation, visualization and the creation of myth, they then come to be identified with the images and concepts of whatever religion the devotee follows. In the case of many of the most sincere believers, a searching analysis would show that their "God-experience" has no more specific content than this.

    Yet the range and significance of God-belief and God-experience are not fully exhausted by the preceding remarks. The lives and writings of the mystics of all great religions bear witness to religious experiences of great intensity, in which considerable changes are effected in the quality of consciousness. Profound absorption in prayer or meditation can bring about a deepening and widening, a brightening and intensifying of consciousness, accompanied by a transporting feeling of rapture and bliss. The contrast between these states and normal conscious awareness is so great that the mystic believes his experience to be manifestations of the divine; and given the contrast, this assumption is quite understandable. Mystical experiences are also characterized by a marked reduction or temporary exclusion of the multiplicity of sense-perceptions and restless thoughts, and this relative unification of mind is then interpreted as a union or communion with the One God. All these deeply moving impressions and the first spontaneous interpretations the mystic subsequently identifies with his particular theology. It is interesting to note, however, that the attempts of most great Western mystics to relate their mystical experiences to the official dogmas of their respective churches often resulted in teachings which were often looked upon askance by the orthodox, if not considered downright heretical.

    The psychological facts underlying those religious experiences are accepted by the Buddhist and well-known to him; but he carefully distinguishes the experiences themselves from the theological interpretations imposed upon them. After rising from deep meditative absorption (jhana), the Buddhist meditator is advised to view the physical and mental factors constituting his experience in the light of the three characteristics of all conditioned existence: impermanency, liability to suffering, and absence of an abiding ego or eternal substance. This is done primarily in order to utilize the meditative purity and strength of consciousness for the highest purpose: liberating insight. But this procedure also has a very important side-effect which concerns us here: the meditator will not be overwhelmed by any uncontrolled emotions and thoughts evoked by his singular experience, and will thus be able to avoid interpretations of that experience not warranted by the facts.

    Hence a Buddhist meditator, while benefiting by the refinement of consciousness he has achieved, will be able to see these meditative experiences for what they are; and he will further know that they are without any abiding substance that could be attributed to a deity manifesting itself to the mind. Therefore, the Buddhist's conclusion must be that the highest mystic states do not provide evidence for the existence of a personal God or an impersonal godhead.

    Buddhism has sometimes been called an atheistic teaching, either in an approving sense by freethinkers and rationalists, or in a derogatory sense by people of theistic persuasion. Only in one way can Buddhism be described as atheistic, namely, in so far as it denies the existence of an eternal, omnipotent God or godhead who is the creator and ordainer of the world. The word "atheism," however, like the word "godless," frequently carries a number of disparaging overtones or implications, which in no way apply to the Buddha's teaching.

    Those who use the word "atheism" often associate it with a materialistic doctrine that knows nothing higher than this world of the senses and the slight happiness it can bestow. Buddhism is nothing of that sort. In this respect it agrees with the teachings of other religions, that true lasting happiness cannot be found in this world; nor, the Buddha adds, can it be found on any higher plane of existence, conceived as a heavenly or divine world, since all planes of existence are impermanent and thus incapable of giving lasting bliss. The spiritual values advocated by Buddhism are directed, not towards a new life in some higher world, but towards a state utterly transcending the world, namely, Nibbana. In making this statement, however, we must point out that Buddhist spiritual values do not draw an absolute separation between the beyond and the here and now. They have firm roots in the world itself for they aim at the highest realization in this present existence. Along with such spiritual aspirations, Buddhism encourages earnest endeavor to make this world a better place to live in.

    The materialistic philosophy of annihilationism (ucchedavada) is emphatically rejected by the Buddha as a false doctrine. The doctrine of kamma is sufficient to prove that Buddhism does not teach annihilation after death. It accepts survival, not of an eternal soul, but of a mental process subject to renewed becoming; thus it teaches rebirth without transmigration. Again, the Buddha's teaching is not a nihilism that gives suffering humanity no better hope than a final cold nothingness. On the contrary, it is a teaching of salvation (niyyanika-dhamma) or deliverance (vimutti) which attributes to man the faculty to realize by his own efforts the highest goal, Nibbana, the ultimate cessation of suffering and the final eradication of greed, hatred and delusion. Nibbana is far from being the blank zero of annihilation; yet it also cannot be identified with any form of God-idea, as it is neither the origin nor the immanent ground or essence of the world.

    Buddhism is not an enemy of religion as atheism is believed to be. Buddhism, indeed, is the enemy of none. A Buddhist will recognize and appreciate whatever ethical, spiritual and cultural values have been created by God-belief in its long and checkered history. We cannot, however, close our eyes to the fact that the God-concept has served too often as a cloak for man's will to power, and the reckless and cruel use of that power, thus adding considerably to the ample measure of misery in this world supposed to be an all-loving God's creation. For centuries free thought, free research and the expression of dissident views were obstructed and stifled in the name of service to God. And alas, these and other negative consequences are not yet entirely things of the past.

    The word "atheism" also carries the innuendo of an attitude countenancing moral laxity, or a belief that man-made ethics, having no divine sanction, rest on shaky foundations. For Buddhism, however, the basic moral law is inherent in life itself. It is a special case of the law of cause and effect, needing neither a divine law-giver nor depending upon the fluctuating human conceptions of socially conditioned minor moralities and conventions. For an increasing section of humanity, the belief in God is breaking down rapidly, as well as the accustomed motivations for moral conduct. This shows the risk of basing moral postulates on divine commandments, when their alleged source rapidly loses credence and authority. There is a need for an autonomous foundation for ethics, one that has deeper roots than a social contract and is capable of protecting the security of the individual and of human institutions. Buddhism offers such a foundation for ethics.

    Buddhism does not deny that there are in the universe planes of existence and levels of consciousness which in some ways may be superior to our terrestrial world and to average human consciousness. To deny this would indeed be provincial in this age of space travel. Bertrand Russell rightly says: "It is improbable that the universe contains nothing better than ourselves."

    Yet, according to Buddhist teachings, such higher planes of existence, like our familiar world, are subject to the law of impermanence and change. The inhabitants of such worlds may well be, in different degrees, more powerful than human beings, happier and longer-lived. Whether we call those superior beings gods, deities, devas or angels is of little importance, since it is improbable that they call themselves by any of those names. They are inhabitants of this universe, fellow-wanderers in this round of existence; and though more powerful, they need not be wiser than man. Further, it need not be denied that such worlds and such beings may have their lord and ruler. In all probability they do. But like any human ruler, a divine ruler too might be inclined to misjudge his own status and power, until a greater one comes along and points out to him his error, as our texts report of the Buddha.

    These, however, are largely matters beyond the range and concern of average human experience. They have been mentioned here chiefly for the purpose of defining the Buddhist position, and not to serve as a topic of speculation and argument. Such involvement can only divert attention and effort from what ought to be our principal object: the overcoming of greed, hatred and delusion where they are found in the here and now.

    An ancient verse ascribed to the Buddha in the Questions of King Milinda says:

    Not far from here do you need to look!
    Highest existence — what can it avail?
    Here in this present aggregate,
    In your own body overcome the world!

  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited August 2006
    Thank you, SomeWeirdWoman, for bringing some nuance to the discussion on "God" in the Abrahamic traditions.

    It is a pity that so much of the debate focuses on omnipotence, but it is understandable in a society where the vast majority of people are condemned to the impotence of poverty in mind and body consequent upon poor education and limited possibilities. If all you can look forward to is an inadequate pension and an old age in some 'sink' facility, the idea that there is some sort of "Loving Father" 'up there' who is going to reward us is useful to pacify the general populace. A moidern equivalent of panem et circences.

    Within Christianity, Judaism and Islam are many threads of mysticism, as you say, which point to a very different notion of God. Saint Paul speaks of kenosis, the self-emptying of God. So, what do we do with an empty God?
  • BrigidBrigid Veteran
    edited August 2006
    Some Weird Woman,

    I loved your post. It gave me much food for thought and I find myself in agreement with everything you put forth. I appreciate the balance you brought to this discussion as well as the reminders. Thank you so much for contributing. I don't want to put any pressure on you but I'd love to hear more from you on any topic. I hope you stick around and post more of your thoughts because they've been very helpful to me.

    Thank you so much for starting this thread. I love it! It's been amazingly helpful to me at just the right time. Funny how that happens around here. Especially with you, you mind reader.

    Welcome Tulach Ard! So glad you joined us. We could always use another Zen perspective around here. Make yourself at home and please join in whenever you feel like it.
  • MagwangMagwang Veteran
    edited August 2006
    Tulach Ard wrote:
    Ideas concerning karma ... these ideas are presented to liberate, not to etch a concrete dharma or teaching in stone.


    Welcome, Tulach! Thanks for pointing at the moon with us!

  • ajani_mgoajani_mgo Veteran
    edited August 2006
    Mysticism unfortunately, in modern days seem to be dying out as "conventional" means of being Saved turn norm. Only in New Age will you find them much now, and it is the "convention" that I fear will cause more trouble for us in its extreme forms. Of course, across every faith and non-faith, we complain of a general lack of morals today. The cause? Not lack of religion, but in fact excess of it.
  • ajani_mgoajani_mgo Veteran
    edited August 2006
    And yea, HELLOO Tulach... Exotic name... Where'd you get it from? Sounds cool. :) hey, isn't there a superstition among Chinese that pointing your fingers to a crescent moon'll get your ears cut? Haha.. I believed in it as a child, after once really there was a cut at my ear... Still dunno where it came from though.. So perhaps the Moon is not happy with me! :p
  • edited August 2006
    I think we still have Christian mystics. I even know a few people who practice centering prayer as well as other forms of meditative prayer, such as walking the labyrinth.

    To me it seems the issue is that these sorts of Christians tend to keep a modestly low profile, particularly when it comes to these kinds of activities. It's the fire and brimstone crowd that garners all the press, while these quiet, meditative types don't get much attention-- as they don't seek it. Thus, they aren't really known.
  • edited August 2006
    Simon and Brigid, thanks for your nice words. I'm just a deluded seeker, like everyone else, but it's nice to think that something I said resonates with someone :)
  • ajani_mgoajani_mgo Veteran
    edited August 2006
    Well said! I guess we need to broaden our perspectives at times.. :rockon:
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited August 2006
    I think that you are quite right, SWW: the spread of mystic and anchoretic prayer is quiet - obviously! We do not stand on street corners or, even, hold 'services' because we are 'still'. One of the most interesting things is the growth in what tends to be called 'spiritual direction': one-to-one spiritual journey work, combined with regular retreats. Our local, diocesan Spiritual Direction courses are over-subscribed each year and the demand for 'directors' increases.
  • ajani_mgoajani_mgo Veteran
    edited August 2006
    Hmmm... If I may not be wrong, I suppose the mystics are nothing like the Bible-Beaters we hear of huh?
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited August 2006
    ajani_mgo wrote:
    Hmmm... If I may not be wrong, I suppose the mystics are nothing like the Bible-Beaters we hear of huh?

    About as far from that as it is possible to get, Ajani.
  • edited August 2006
    Thank you for the nice welcome. It is greatly appreciated.

    Regarding the “name” Tulach Ard – it is an ancient family war cry.

    There are mystics toady within all the Semitic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). They are also in other religions. They are beautiful people.

    Some people I know made a movie a while back in which some modern mystics were interviewed:

    The movie is called One. I was on a panel of people that critiqued the interviews of various people and also the movie process - the interviews were ultimately made into an art film with the help of a NYC firm.

    It is natural for all things to regress towards the mean. Thus, what is demanded by the society is the mundane, not the exceptional. Mystics, being exceptional in their spiritual depth of being, are not in demand, and thus excluded from our culture of commercial viability.
  • buddhafootbuddhafoot Veteran
    edited August 2006
    Welcome Tulach Ard

    I bet you're glad your family war cry wasn't "Tullochgorum"...
    COME, gi’es sang, Montgom’rie cried,
    And lay your disputes a’ aside;
    What signifies for folks to chide
    For what was done before them?
    Let Whig and Tory a’ agree, 5
    Whig and Tory, Whig and Tory,
    Whig and Tory a’ agree
    To drop their whigmigmorum;
    Let Whig and Tory a’ agree
    To spend this night in mirth and glee, 10
    And cheerfu’ sing, alang wi’ me,
    The reel o’ Tullochgorum.

    O Tullochgorum’s my delight;
    It gars us a’ in ane unite;
    And ony sumph that keeps up spite, 15
    In conscience I abhor him.
    Blithe and merry we’ll be a’,
    Blithe and merry, blithe and merry,
    Blithe and merry we’ll be a’
    And mak’ a cheerfu’ quorum. 20
    For blithe and merry we’ll be a’
    As lang as we ha’e breath to draw,
    And dance, till we be like to fa’,
    The reel o’ Tullochgorum.

    What needs there be sae great a fraise 25
    Wi’ dringin’, dull Italian lays?
    I wadna gi’e our ain strathspeys
    For half a hunder score o’ them.
    They’re dowf and dowie at the best,
    Dowf and dowie, dowf and dowie, 30
    Dowf and dowie at the best,
    Wi’ a’ their variorum.
    They’re dowf and dowie at the best,
    Their allegros and a’ the rest;
    They canna please a Scottish taste 35
    Compared wi’ Tullochgorum.

    Let worldly worms their minds oppress
    Wi’ fears o’ want and double cess,
    And sullen sots themsel’s distress
    Wi’ keeping up decorum. 40
    Shall we sae sour and sulky sit?
    Sour and sulky, sour and sulky,
    Sour and sulky shall we sit,
    Like auld philosophorum?
    Shall we sae sour and sulky sit, 45
    Wi’ neither sense, nor mirth, nor wit,
    Nor ever rise to shake a fit
    To the reel o’ Tullochgorum?

    May choicest blessings aye attend
    Each honest, open-hearted friend, 50
    And calm and quiet be his end,
    And a’ that’s gude watch o’er him!
    May peace and plenty be his lot,
    Peace and plenty, peace and plenty,
    Peace and plenty be his lot, 55
    And dainties a great store o’ them!
    May peace and plenty be his lot,
    Unstained by ony vicious spot,
    And may he never want a groat,
    That’s fond o’ Tullochgorum! 60

    But for the discontented fool,
    Wha wants to be oppression’s tool,
    May envy gnaw his rotten soul,
    And discontent devour him!
    May dule and sorrow be his chance, 65
    Dule and sorrow, dule and sorrow,
    Dule and sorrow be his chance,
    And nane say ’Wae’s me for him!’
    May dule and sorrow be his chance,
    And a’ the ills that come frae France, 70
    Whae’er he be that winna dance
    The reel o’ Tullochgorum!

    Welcome :)

  • ajani_mgoajani_mgo Veteran
    edited August 2006
    I bet bf's cry was "MUMMY!!!" :p

    Hmmm... I wish I'd know some mystics myself... It'd be good to hear views of God from another discipline...
  • buddhafootbuddhafoot Veteran
    edited August 2006
    ajani_mgo wrote:
    I bet bf's cry was "MUMMY!!!" :p

    I'd bet you are right :)

  • edited August 2006
    All days be gone.
    What fantasy can we play?
    Gone are the ancient days.
    The new has stepped in,
    And the good has turned to ashes.
  • edited August 2006
    Then you must be part of...the MacKenzie Clan? Welcome aboard.

    'An Seo Buchan!'
    Tulach Ard wrote:
    Thank you for the nice welcome. It is greatly appreciated.

    Regarding the “name” Tulach Ard – it is an ancient family war cry.
  • edited August 2006
  • BrigidBrigid Veteran
    edited August 2006
    harlan wrote:
    Then you must be part of...the MacKenzie Clan? Welcome aboard.

    'An Seo Buchan!'

    Part of my family, too! You'd think there'd be more MacDonalds here than Mackenzies, though, wouldn't you? lol!!
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