Buddhism is not compatible with belief in a personal God that is distinct from His creation, has a sovereign will and plan for mankind, or whose grace can deliver one from guilt and suffering. In this most crucial sense, Buddhists do not believe in "God" as Christians would define and use that word. Of course, one can find individuals in the modern West who try to harmonize just about any two contradictory beliefs, but one cannot be meaningfully and consistently Buddhist and believe in anything like a theistic God.
Buddhism and Monotheism
While there is a more recent, modern trend to portray Buddhism as simply agnostic on the question of God, this is not the case if we are defining God as Christians (or even as Jews and Muslims) would use the word. First of all, Buddhism teaches that "nothing can be by itself alone, everything must inter-be with everything else."1 Indeed, on Buddhism, to obtain the end of suffering, one must come to realize this "indivisible union" of all things, that there is no personal self and there are no external objects.2 The Buddhist, therefore, cannot conceive of "God" as an actual, personal being that is truly unique and distinct from this interconnected oneness that encompasses all things.3
Secondly, outside of the idea of Nirvana itself, the Buddhist cannot conceive of anything, much less anyone, as permanent or unchanging.4 Some have even contended that Buddha allowed for the possibility that Nirvana itself might not be permanent.5 The idea that everything is constantly changing and that nothing is truly permanent from one moment to the next permeates throughout virtually all Buddhist literature. The impermanence of all things is, in fact, understood (along with suffering and the absence of a real personal self) to be one of the three marks of all existence.6 An unchanging, eternal God contradicts such a cosmos.
While some might try to equate Nirvana with God, this is a profound misunderstanding. Nirvana is not personal, is not in any sense a creator, and is not capable of action.7 As one scholar notes, "If absence of a personal creator God is atheism, Buddhism is atheistic."8 The Dalai Lama elaborates further:
"The entire Buddhist worldview is based on a philosophical standpoint in which the central thought is the principle of interdependence, how all things and events come into being purely as a result of interactions between causes and conditions. Within that philosophical worldview, it is almost impossible to have any room for an atemporal, eternal, absolute truth. Nor is it possible to accommodate the concept of a divine Creation" 9
Buddhism and Polytheism
There is a second sense, however, in which we can ask the question: Do Buddhists believe in "gods." In Buddhist thinking, are there supernatural beings or entities beyond humanity? Are there conscious things besides merely men and animals? Are there spirits or gods in a sense more like those of the old pagan religions or even those in which the Hindus of Buddha's own culture believed? Does Buddhism deny these entities? In one sense, yes, in the same way that Buddhism denies all individual things or persons really exist as truly distinct things with real, individual identities. But do Buddhists believe that the gods exist at least in the same sense that you or I or cows or rocks exist? The answer to that is generally yes.
The earliest legends of Buddha's life have the gods rejoicing at Buddha's enlightenment.10 Some versions even have them involved in making sure Buddha was exposed to events of suffering so that he would come to enlightenment.11 Many accounts also have an evil spirit present at Buddha's moment of enlightenment trying to tempt and distract him away from the truth, to no avail.12 Travel to any majority Buddhist country in Asia, and one will find no shortage of idols, altars, and spirit houses attesting to a worldview that includes the existence of such temporal deities. In early Buddhist cosmology, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth included heavenly lives as gods and demi-gods above humanity as well as torturous ghostly births on earth, considered lower than the animals.13
It is vital, however, to note here that these were still lives caught in the cycle of death and rebirth. The gods are merely a part of the fleeting and ever-changing temporal world. They are in the same ultimate suffering as all else, and in the same need of Buddhist enlightenment to attain freedom in the state of Nirvana and the recognition of the absence of self and distinction. The gods may "exist" in the same tentative and qualified sense that anything can be said to exist in the Buddhist worldview, but the gods cannot help you. On strict Buddhist teaching, it is counterproductive to appeal to them in prayer and offerings or to seek anything from them. They may be there, but that fact ought to be irrelevant to religious practice.
Today, of course, one can find many western Buddhists who deny that these entities exist in any sense, and this view does not conflict with the practice of Buddhism since the Buddhist is not to appeal to such entities for guidance or help anyway. One might say, then, that most Buddhists acknowledge "gods" but are not instructed to "believe in" them in the sense of any sort of faith or religious devotion (though in practice this kind of religious devotion is common in many Buddhist countries).
If Not God, Then What?
If Buddhists do not believe in "God" in the Christian or monotheistic sense and are not to devote themselves to any "god" in the pagan or polytheistic sense, then is there anything in Buddhist doctrine and practice that might be called the Buddhist god? Yes, in a sense, but we have to be careful how we define it. It is what Buddha spoke of when he said:
"There is, O Monks, an unborn, neither become nor created nor formed. Were there not, there would be no deliverance from the formed, the made, the compounded" 14
While the various sects and schools of Buddhism would flesh out and apply this reality quite differently, Buddhists do speak of a pure reality of some sort that is the truth of all that is. The "limitless, vast, mysterious unconditioned" which is not a distinct thing, but rather a description of reality itself as an "inexplicable union."15 Behind our illusion of distinct objects, personal identities, and unchanging realities, there is what really is. There is the interconnected essence of the universe which one cannot properly put into words. It simply "is" and that is all that can be said about it.16 It is not personal, and it is not distinct or separate from you or anything else. It is not a specific being with a will or plan or purpose. You cannot pray to it or relate to it as if you were one thing and it was another thing. It is not at all like what a Christian would call "God" or even what an ancient polytheist would call a "god," but it is the central focus of the Buddhist religion and their hope for deliverance from the suffering of life.
For many traditional Buddhists, if described directly at all, it is spoken of simply in terms of Nirvana. The idea is that there is not any distinct person that is "you." Nothing exists that is separate from everything else or that persists over time. There is nothing substantially the same from the collection of materials and perceptions you call "yourself" as a child and the differing set of materials and perceptions you call "yourself" as an adult other than a causal chain of events between them.17 This is true not only of yourself but every other supposed person and thing.
Once you strip away all these false perceptions of yourself and the world, and there is nothing left to desire and no one left to desire it, there is only what simply "is," and this is Nirvana. The end of suffering, the ceasing of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, pure and proper being. A transcendent "bliss" without self or other. Buddhism is the religion of Nirvana. It is about this state of being, this understanding of reality. This is its only aim and object. In this sense, Nirvana is Buddhism's "god."18
Some Buddhist traditions would additionally assert that these eternal truths of the unconditioned, unchanging reality of the interconnected universe as it truly is are an eternal guiding principle of enlightenment which they call "Buddha." The man Siddhartha Gautama who is historically called "the Buddha" was merely a conveyor of the eternal "Buddha" reality of enlightenment and Nirvana.19
"Buddha is not a physical body, but is enlightenment. A body may be thought of as a receptacle; then, if the receptacle is filled with enlightenment, it may be called Buddha."20
These ideas are highly controversial among the Buddhist schools that do not hold to them. Even here, however, this must be understood as an impersonal expression of reality as it is, operating not by a distinct will but only through the causal relations of impermanent things and transient states of being.21 It is not a supreme being, but rather an indescribable truth that "cannot be made clear by words, it can only be hinted at in parables."22 Thus, the Buddhist "God" (if we are to speak of such a thing at all) is not a "being" but rather an indescribable reality which represents all that truly is and which is free from all suffering. The hope of the Buddhist is to abandon any desire and indeed to lose his very self and for this reality to simply be.
- 1. Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" (Broadway Books, 1998) 6
- 2. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 6
- 3. ibid, 4
- 4. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 183
- 5. Stephen Asma, "Buddha for Beginners" (For Beginners LLC, 2008) 110
- 6. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 56-57
- 7. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 183
- 8. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 53
- 9. The Dalai Lama, "The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teaching of Jesus" (Wisdom Publications, 1996) 82 (referenced in "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" by Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, 183-184)
- 10. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 4
- 11. ibid, 6
- 12. ibid, 9-12
- 13. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 21
- 14. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 54
- 15. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 25
- 16. ibid, 25
- 17. Stephen Asma, "Buddha for Beginners" (For Beginners LLC, 2008) 60
- 18. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 53-54
- 19. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 13-14, 22-23
- 20. ibid, 31
- 21. ibid, 31
- 22. ibid, 33