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Buddhism in the News


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Buddhism and God Reposted

Bhikku Ajahn Punnadhammo's blog is a great jewel in Indra's net of the Blanga. Yesterday he posted a very precise and comprehensive essay about Buddhism and the idea of a separate, Supreme "God." I thought it was well done and decided to repost it here (by the way, if you haven't been over to his blog you really need to):

There were some great comments discussing my post on Buddhism and the charge of negativity. In the post, I said I might later say something about Buddhism and the idea of God. Here goes a first attempt.

People who don't know much about Buddhism are often surprised to learn that Buddhism is a religion without a God. Sometimes you hear that Buddhism is actually agnostic on the question and that the existence or otherwise of God is irrelevant to Buddhism. I do not think this is really true. For one thing, the Buddha actually listed belief in a supreme creator as one of the wrong views in the Brahmajala Sutta, Digha 1.

But more essentially, there are several ways the whole concept of a creator God is antethical to Buddhist thought.

1. It would contradict the anatta doctrine. (no-self) God is a kind of supreme being, a big self. One quite logical extension of the monotheist idea is found in the Upanishads where it is taught that Brahma equals Atman. That means, not only is God a self, but he is the one and only self. Buddhism taught that even this universal self is empty; all is sunya, void and nothing exists from it's own side. This Buddhism idea of voidness cannot be sustained if one postulates a God who is an essential reality.

2. It would contradict the anicca doctrine (impermanence) Just as God is a big self, he is also neccessarily conceived as everlasting (in most versions, in both directions "before Abraham was I am") If anything or anyone can exist eternally, then impermanence is false.

3. It contradicts the core axiom of the dependent origination; everything arises according to causes and conditions and not otherwise. In other words, no arbitrariness in the universe. God, as the First Cause and the Prime Mover is essentially arbitrary. There is no cause for God, nor does he have antecedents, nor need there be reasons for his actions.

The whole philosophical reason for wanting a God is to explain origins, but it is not really an explanation at all. The child's question, "Well then where did God come from?" cannot be answered. It is true that Buddhism has no explanation for ultimate origination. In fact, the Buddha said this was an "unanswerable" or meaningless question. While I don't think that the Buddha himself ever said so explicitly, later Buddhist thought has generally assumed that the universe is beginingless.

This is not such an impossible concept. Why must there have been a beginning? It is only to satisfy the limits of human imagination, and has nothing to do with the real world "out there." If we imagine any moment, arbitrarily far back into the past, can we not imagine a preceding moment? Indeed, musn't we?

Nor is Buddhist, strictly speaking, polytheistic. There are gods aplenty in Buddhist cosmology, but they are always explained as beings like us, impermanent forms in a shifting samsaric existence. They are not "gods" in the sense of ultimate beings at all.

However, Buddhism is not really atheistic either, if by that we assume as is usual, the implication of a materialist world-view. Buddhism does have a concept of the Transcendental (Lokuttara) or Supramundane. An absolute, if you will. That is the Nibbana-Dhatu (nirvana element) which is outside time and space, has nothing to do with being or non-being, causation or conditionality and is quite incomprehensible by the ordinary rational mind.

The idea of Nibbana separates Buddhism from materialist philosophies of all kinds, but it would hardly satisfy a theist looking for some equivalent to a personal, intervening God. There may be some approaches to this idea of the absolute in some versions of theistic thinking. I am thinking of the apophatic theology of Eastern Orthodoxy or the Veils of the Unmanifest in Qabbalah. But one thing that has always attracted me to Buddhism, and to Theravada in particular, is the purity and rigour of it's conception of the ultimate.

~Peace to all beings~

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Sheelagh said...

Hi, can you direct new readers to the post you are referring to (below) by putting a link somewhere in your comment? I can't find the post you refer to. Thanks.
(There were some great comments discussing my post on Buddhism and the charge of negativity. In the post, I said I might later say something about Buddhism and the idea of God. Here goes a first attempt.)

"James" said...


I embedded a link into the words. Just click on the words, "Yesterday he posted a very precise and comprehensive essay..." Mainly "precise and comprehensive essay..."

I'll embed the link to the post on Buddhism and the charge of negativity into those exact words. "Buddhism and the charge of negativity." Click on those words in the post and it should take you there. :)

I hope this helps...

(bows) _/I\_

Sheelagh said...

James, that's kind of you. Thank you.

Raymond said...

What is great about this is that we are able to dispel many mistaken views about Buddhism. Buddha is not God, Buddhists do not believe in God. We revere Buddha as the Supreme Physician and look upon him as a teacher, not as the Messiah or as a eschatological prophet respectively.

Sometimes philosophy can lead assuming people to uncomfortable conclusions.

"James" said...


Yes, exactly. There are so many misunderstandings about Buddhism here in the west especially. So the more we can do to educate people the better.

In bowing I don't worship Buddha. I thank him for turning the wheel of the Dharma and I bow to the Buddhanature within myself.

Anonymous said...

WIZZBANG- you like that guy? Dont subscribe to any conecpt! He just fed you and you KNEW he did his concepts about what HE thinks (does not really tho) what BUDDHA or whatever his name was SAID ( ANOTHER IDEA) are you bound in this RELIGIOUS division. THERE your real question and insight? NO SELF- no big or small including GOD. since self and GOD and no self and NIRVANA and empty and and and . are just ideas, just all GOD. SO GOD is just the totaity of nonexistent objects. AHHHHHH Says WHO? Got ya.

Leo Nikoladze said...

This is a very well thought of article and excellently articulated. I applaud the author's wisdom on these matters.
Leo Nikoladze

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