God in Buddhism

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Gautama Buddha rejected the existence of a creator deity,[1][2] refused to endorse many views on creation,[3] and stated that questions on the origin of the world are not ultimately useful for ending suffering.[4][5] Buddhism instead emphasizes the system of causal relationships underlying the universe (pratītyasamutpāda or Dependent Origination) which constitute the natural order (dharma) and source of enlightenment. No dependence of phenomena on a supernatural reality is asserted in order to explain the behaviour of matter. According to the doctrine of the Buddha, a human being must study nature (dhamma vicaya) in order to attain prajñā "wisdom" regarding the nature of things (dharma). In Buddhism, the sole aim of spiritual practice is the complete alleviation of dukkha ("suffering") in saṃsāra,[6][7] which is called nirvana.

Some teachers tell students beginning Buddhist meditation that the notion of divinity is not incompatible with Buddhism,[8] and at least one Buddhist scholar has indicated that describing Buddhism as nontheistic may be overly simplistic;[9] but many traditional theist beliefs are considered to pose a hindrance to the attainment of nirvana,[10] the highest goal of Buddhist practice.[11]

Buddhists consider veneration of arhats and the Three Jewels[12] very important,[13] although the two main traditions of Buddhism differ mildly in their reverential attitudes. While Theravada Buddhists view the Buddha as a human being who attained Buddhahood through human efforts,[14] some Mahayana Buddhists consider him an embodiment of the cosmic dharmakāya, born for the benefit of others.[15] In addition, some Mahayana Buddhists worship Avalokiteśvara[16] and hope to embody him.[17]

Some Buddhists accept the existence of beings in higher realms (see Buddhist cosmology), known as devas, but they, like humans, are said to be suffering in saṃsāra[18] and are not necessarily wiser than us. In fact, the Buddha is often portrayed as a teacher of the gods,[19] and superior to them.[20] Despite this there are believed to be enlightened devas.[21]

Some variations of Buddhism express a philosophical belief in an eternal Buddha: a representation of omnipresent enlightenment and a symbol of the true nature of the universe. The primordial aspect that interconnects every part of the universe is the clear light of the eternal Buddha, where everything timelessly arises and dissolves.[22][23][24]

Early Buddhism

As scholar Surian Yee describes, "the attitude of the Buddha as portrayed in the Nikayas is more anti-speculative than specifically atheistic", although Gautama did regard the belief in a creator deity to be unhealthy.[25] However, the Samaññaphala Sutta placed materialism and amoralism together with sassatavada (eternalism) as forms of wrong view.[25]

As Hayes describes it:

In the Nikaya literature, the question of the existence of God is treated primarily from either an epistemological point of view or a moral point of view. As a problem of epistemology, the question of God's existence amounts to a discussion of whether or not a religious seeker can be certain that there is a greatest good and that therefore his efforts to realize a greatest good will not be a pointless struggle towards an unrealistic goal. And as a problem in morality, the question amounts to a discussion of whether man himself is ultimately responsible for all the displeasure that he feels or whether there exists a superior being who inflicts displeasure upon man whether he deserves it or not... the Buddha Gotama is portrayed not as an atheist who claims to be able to prove God's nonexistence, but rather as a skeptic with respect to other teachers' claims to be able to lead their disciples to the highest good.[26]

Citing the Devadaha Sutta ('Majjhima Nikaya 101), Hayes remarks, "while the reader is left to conclude that it is attachment rather than God, actions in past lives, fate, type of birth or efforts in this life that is responsible for our experiences of sorrow, no systematic argument is given in an attempt to disprove the existence of God."[27]

In the Pāli Canon, the Buddha tells Vasettha that the Tathāgata (the Buddha) was Dharmakāya, the "Truth-body" or the "Embodiment of Truth", as well as Dharmabhūta, "Truth-become", "One who has become Truth."[28][29]

The Buddha is equated with the Dhamma: "[A]nd the Buddha comforts him, "Enough, Vakkali. Why do you want to see this filthy body? Whoever sees the Dhamma sees me; whoever sees me sees the Dhamma."[30]

Pūtikāya, the "decomposing body", is distinguished from the eternal Dhamma body of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva body.

Supernatural beings in the Pali Canon

Bamhā (Brahma) is among the common gods found in the Pāli Canon. Bamhā, as with all devas, is subject to change, final decline and death like all other sentient beings in saṃsāra. There are several different Brahma worlds and several kinds of Brahmas in Buddhism, all of which however are just beings stuck in samsara for a long while. Sir Charles Eliot describes attitudes towards Brahma in early Buddhism as follows:

There comes a time when this world system passes away and then certain beings are reborn in the "World of Radiance" and remain there a long time. Sooner or later, the world system begins to evolve again and the palace of Brahma appears, but it is empty. Then some being whose time is up falls from the "World of Radiance" and comes to life in the palace and remains there alone. At last he wishes for company, and it so happens that other beings whose time is up fall from the "World of Radiance" and join him. And the first being thinks that he is Great Brahma, the Creator, because when he felt lonely and wished for companions other beings appeared. And the other beings accept this view. And at last one of Brahma’s retinue falls from that state and is born in the human world and, if he can remember his previous birth, he reflects that he is transitory but that Brahma still remains and from this he draws the erroneous conclusion that Brahma is eternal.[31]

Many other supernatural beings appear in the Pāli Canon. They share a common mythological origin to their cognates in the historical Vedic religion. Some common gods and goddesses are Indra, Āpo, Vayo, Tejo, Surya, Pajapati, Soma, Yasa, Venhu, Mahadeva, Vijja, Usha, Paṭhavi, , Kuvera, the yakkhas, the gandhabbas, the nāgas, Garuḷa, and the sons of Bali (all of who are named Veroca).[32]

Abhidharma and Yogacara analysis

The Theravada Abhidhamma tradition did not tend to elaborate argumentation against the existence of God, but in the Abhidharmakośa of the Sarvastivada, Vasubandhu does actively argue against the existence of a creator, stating that the universe has no beginning.[33]

The Chinese monk Xuanzang studied Buddhism in India during the seventh century, staying at Nalanda. There, he studied the Yogacara teachings passed down from Asanga and Vasubandhu and taught to him by the abbot Śīlabhadra. In his comprehensive work Cheng Weishi Lun (Skt. Vijñāptimātratāsiddhi śāstra), Xuanzang refutes the Indian philosophical doctrine of a "Great Lord" (Īśvara) or a Great Brahmā, a self-existent and omnipotent creator deity who is ruler of all existence.[34]

According to one doctrine, there is a great, self-existent deity whose substance is real and who is all-pervading, eternal, and the producer of all phenomena. This doctrine is unreasonable. If something produces something, it is not eternal, the non-eternal is not all-pervading, and what is not all-pervading is not real. If the deity's substance is all-pervading and eternal, it must contain all powers and be able to produce all phenomena everywhere, at all times, and simultaneously. If he produces phenomena when a desire arises, or according to conditions, this contradicts the doctrine of a single cause. Or else, desires and conditions would arise spontaneously since the cause is eternal. Other doctrines claim that there is a great Brahma, a Time, a Space, a Starting Point, a Nature, an Ether, a Self, etc., that is eternal and really exists, is endowed with all powers, and is able to produce all phenomena. We refute all these in the same way we did the concept of the Great Lord.[35]

Mahayana and Vajrayana doctrines

In the pramāṇa tradition, Dharmakīrti advances a number of arguments against the existence of a creator god in his Pramāṇavārika, following in the footsteps of Vasubandhu.[36] Later Mahayana scholars such as Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla continued this tradition.[37] Some Mahayana and Dzogchen traditions of Buddhism, however, do assert an underlying monistic "ground of being" or Buddha-nature (sometimes called the tathāgatagarbha), which is stated to be indestructibly present in all beings and phenomena. The Tathāgatagarbha sūtras, in particular, enunciate this view.

Tathāgatagarbha, Dharmakāya and God

Mahayana Buddhism, unlike Theravada Buddhism, talks of the mind using terms such as tathāgatagarbha (womb of the Thus-come) or Buddha-nature. The affirmation of emptiness by positive terminology is radically different from the early Buddhist doctrines of anatman and refusal to personify or objectify any Supreme Reality.

In the tathāgatagarbha tradition, the Buddha is on occasion identified with the dharmakāya, which possesses the god-like qualities of eternality, inscrutability and immutability. In his monograph on the tathāgatagarbha doctrine as formulated in the only ancient Indian commentarial analysis of the doctrine extant - the Uttaratantra - Professor C. D. Sebastian writes of how the 'divinised' Buddha is accorded worship and is characterised by a compassionate love, which becomes manifest in the world in the form of salvific activity to liberate beings from suffering. Sebastian stresses, however, that the Buddha thus conceived, although deemed worthy of worship, was never viewed as synonymous to a Creator God:

Mahayana Buddhism is not only intellectual, but it is also devotional... in Mahayana, Buddha was taken as God, as Supreme Reality itself that descended on the earth in human form for the good of mankind. The concept of Buddha (as equal to God in theistic systems) was never as a creator but as Divine Love that out of compassion (karuna) embodied itself in human form to uplift suffering humanity. He was worshipped with fervent devotion... He represents the Absolute (paramartha satya), devoid of all plurality (sarva-prapancanta-vinirmukta) and has no beginning, middle and end... Buddha... is eternal, immutable... As such He represents Dharmakaya.

— Professor C. D. Sebastian[38]

According to the tathāgatagarbha sūtras, the Buddha taught the existence of this spiritual essence called the tathāgatagarbha or Buddha-nature, which is present in all beings and phenomena. B. Alan Wallace writes of this doctrine:

The essential nature of the whole of samsara and nirvana is the absolute space (dhatu) of the tathagatagarbha, but this space is not to be confused with a mere absence of matter. Rather, this absolute space is imbued with all the infinite knowledge, compassion, power, and enlightened activities of the Buddha. Moreover, this luminous space is that which causes the phenomenal world to appear, and it is none other than the nature of one's own mind, which by nature is clear light.

— B. Alan Wallace[39]

Wallace further writes on how the primal Buddha, Samantabhadra, who in some scriptures is viewed as one with the tathāgatagarbha, forms the very radiating foundation of both samsara and nirvana. Noting a progression within Buddhism from doctrines of a mind-stream (bhavanga) to that of the absolutised tathāgatagarbha, Wallace comments that it may be too simple in the light of such doctrinal elements to define Buddhism unconditionally as "non-theistic":

Samantabhadra, the primordial Buddha whose nature is identical with the tathagatagarbha within each sentient being, is the ultimate ground of samsara and nirvana; and the entire universe consists of nothing other than displays of this infinite, radiant, empty awareness. Thus, in light of the theoretical progression from the bhavanga to the tathagatagarbha to the primordial wisdom of the absolute space of reality, Buddhism is not so simply non-theistic as it may appear at first glance.

— B. Alan Wallace[40]

Vajrayana views

In some Mahayana traditions, the Buddha is indeed worshipped as a virtual divinity who is possessed of supernatural qualities and powers. Guang Xing writes: "The Buddha worshiped by Mahayanist followers is an omnipotent divinity endowed with numerous supernatural attributes and qualities ...[He] is described almost as an omnipotent and almighty godhead."[41]

The Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace has also indicated (as shown above) that saying that Buddhism as a whole is "non-theistic" may be an over-simplification. Wallace discerns similarities between some forms of Vajrayana Buddhism and notions of a divine "ground of being" and creation. He writes: "a careful analysis of Vajrayana Buddhist cosmogony, specifically as presented in the Atiyoga tradition of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, which presents itself as the culmination of all Buddhist teachings, reveals a theory of a transcendent ground of being and a process of creation that bear remarkable similarities with views presented in Vedanta and Neoplatonic Western Christian theories of creation."[42] He further comments that the three views "have so much in common that they could almost be regarded as varying interpretations of a single theory."[43]

The Tibetan monk-scholar Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen of the Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism speaks of a universal spiritual essence or noumenon (the Buddha as dharmakāya) which contains all sentient beings in their totality, and quotes from the Sutra on the Inconceivable Mysteries of the One-Gone-Thus:

[S]pace dwells in all appearances of forms .. similarly, the body of the one-gone-thus [i.e. Buddha] also thoroughly dwells in all appearances of sentient beings ... For example, all appearances of forms are included inside space. Similarly, all appearances of sentient beings are included inside the body of the one-gone-thus [i.e. Buddha as Dharmakaya].[44]

Dolpopa further quotes Buddhist scripture when he writes of this unified spiritual essence or noumenon as the 'supreme Over-Self of all continuums'[45] and as "Self always residing in all, as the selfhood of all."[46]

Yogacara and the Absolute

Another scholar sees a Buddhist Absolute in Consciousness. Writing on the Yogacara school of Buddhism, A. K. Chatterjee remarks: "The Absolute is a non-dual consciousness. The duality of the subject and object does not pertain to it. It is said to be void (sunya), devoid of duality; in itself it is perfectly real, in fact the only reality ...There is no consciousness of the Absolute; Consciousness is the Absolute."[47]

While this is a traditional Tibetan interpretation of Yogacara views, it has been rejected by modern Western scholarship, namely by Kochumuttom, Anacker, Kalupahana, Dunne, Lusthaus, Powers, and Wayman.[48][49][50] Scholar Dan Lusthaus writes: "They [Yogacarins] did not focus on consciousness to assert it as ultimately real (Yogācāra claims consciousness is only conventionally real since it arises from moment to moment due to fluctuating causes and conditions), but rather because it is the cause of the karmic problem they are seeking to eliminate."[49]

Zen and the Absolute

A further name for the irreducible, time-and-space-transcending mysterious Truth or Essence of Buddhic Reality spoken of in some Mahayana and tantric texts is the dharmakāya. Of this, the Zen master Sokei-an says:

[D]harmakaya [is] the equivalent of God ... The Buddha also speaks of no time and no space, where if I make a sound there is in that single moment a million years. It is spaceless like radio waves, like electric space - intrinsic. The Buddha said that there is a mirror that reflects consciousness. In this electric space a million miles and a pinpoint - a million years and a moment - are exactly the same. It is pure essence ... We call it 'original consciousness' - 'original akasha - perhaps God in the Christian sense. I am afraid of speaking about anything that is not familiar to me. No one can know what IT is ...[51]

The same Zen adept, Sokei-an, further comments:

The creative power of the universe is not a human being; it is Buddha. The one who sees, and the one who hears, is not this eye or ear, but the one who is this consciousness. This One is Buddha. This One appears in every mind. This One is common to all sentient beings, and is God.[52]

The Rinzai Zen Buddhist master, Soyen Shaku, speaking to Americans at the beginning of the 20th century, discusses how in essence the idea of God is not absent from Buddhism, when understood as ultimate, true Reality:

At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience ... To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, 'panentheism', according to which God is ... all and one and more than the totality of existence .... As I mentioned before, Buddhists do not make use of the term God, which characteristically belongs to Christian terminology. An equivalent most commonly used is Dharmakaya ... When the Dharmakaya is most concretely conceived it becomes the Buddha, or Tathagata ...[53]

On the other hand, Kōshō Uchiyama explicitly stated in From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment that Buddhism has no god.

The fundamental difference between Buddhism and other religions is that Buddhism has no God or gods before whom people bow down in return for some peace of mind. The spirit enmeshed in the Buddha's teachings refuses to offer a god in exchange for freedom from anxiety. Instead, freedom from anxiety can only be found at that point where the Self settles naturally upon itself.[54]

Primordial Buddhas

Theories regarding a self-existent immutable substantial "ground of being" or substrate were common in India prior to the Buddha, and were rejected by him:

The Buddha, however, refusing to admit any metaphysical principle as a common thread holding the moments of encountered phenomena together, rejects the Upanishadic notion of an immutable substance or principle underlying the world and the person and producing phenomena out of its inherent power, be it 'being', atman, brahman, or 'god.'"[55]

In later Mahayana literature, however, the idea of an eternal, all-pervading, all-knowing, immaculate, uncreated and deathless Ground of Being (the dharmadhātu, inherently linked to the sattvadhātu, the realm of beings), which is the bodhicitta (awakened mind) or Dharmakaya ("body of Truth") of the Buddha himself, is attributed to the Buddha in a number of Mahayana sutras, and is found in various tantras as well. In some Mahayana texts, such a principle is occasionally presented as manifesting in a more personalised form as a primordial buddha, such as Samantabhadra, Vajradhara, Vairocana, and Adi-Buddha, among others.

In Buddhist tantric and Dzogchen scriptures, too, this immanent and transcendent Dharmakaya (the ultimate essence of the Buddha’s being) is portrayed as the primordial Buddha, Samantabhadra, worshipped as the primordial lord. In a study of Dzogchen, Sam van Schaik mentions how Samantabhadra is seen as "the heart essence of all buddhas, the Primordial Lord, the noble Victorious One, Samantabhadra".[56] Schaik indicates that Samantabhadra is not to be viewed as some kind of separate mindstream, apart from the mindstreams of sentient beings, but should be known as a universal nirvanic principle termed bodhicitta and present in all.[57] Schaik quotes from the tantric texts, Experiencing the Enlightened Mind of Samantabhadra and The Subsequent Tantra of Great Perfection Instruction to portray Samantabhadra as an uncreated, reflexive, radiant, pure and vital Knowing (gnosis) which is present in all things:

The essence of all phenomena is the awakened mind;
the mind of all Buddhas is the awakened mind;
and the life-force of all sentient beings is the awakened mind, too …
This unfabricated gnosis of the present moment is the reflexive luminosity, naked and stainless, the Primordial Lord himself.[58]

The Shingon Buddhist monk, Dohan, regarded the two great Buddhas, Amitābha and Vairocana, as one and the same dharmakaya buddha and as the true nature at the core of all beings and phenomena. There are several realisations that can accrue to the Shingon practitioner of which Dohan speaks in this connection, as James Sanford points out: there is the realisation that Amitābha is the Dharmakaya Buddha, Vairocana; then there is the realisation that Amida as Vairocana is eternally manifest within this universe of time and space; and finally there is the innermost realisation that Amitābha is the true nature, material and spiritual, of all beings, that he is "the omnivalent wisdom-body, that he is the unborn, unmanifest, unchanging reality that rests quietly at the core of all phenomena".[59]

Similar God-like descriptions are encountered in the Kulayarāja Tantra, where the universal Mind of Awakening (in its mode as "Samantabhadra Buddha") declares of itself:

I am the core of all that exists. I am the seed of all that exists. I am the cause of all that exists. I am the trunk of all that exists. I am the foundation of all that exists. I am the root of existence. I am "the core" because I contain all phenomena. I am "the seed" because I give birth to everything. I am "the cause" because all comes from me. I am "the trunk" because the ramifications of every event sprout from me. I am "the foundation" because all abides in me. I am called "the root" because I am everything.[60]

The Kāraṇḍavyūhasūtra presents the great bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, as a kind of supreme lord of the cosmos. A striking feature of Avalokitesvara in this sutra is his creative power, as he is said to be the progenitor of various heavenly bodies and divinities. Alexander Studholme, in his monograph on the sutra, writes:

The sun and moon are said to be born from the bodhisattva's eyes, Mahesvara [Siva] from his brow, Brahma from his shoulders, Narayana [Vishnu] from his heart, Sarasvati from his teeth, the winds from his mouth, the earth from his feet and the sky from his stomach.'[61]

Avalokiteśvara himself is linked in the versified version of the sutra to the first Buddha, the Adi Buddha, who is svayambhu (self-existent, not born from anything or anyone). Studholme comments: "Avalokitesvara himself, the verse sutra adds, is an emanation of the Adibuddha, or 'primordial Buddha', a term that is explicitly said to be synoymous with Svayambhu and Adinatha, 'primordial lord'."[62]

The Primordial Buddha is ultimately both the individual mind and the immanent ominpresent enlightenment of the macrocosmical reality. The individual and external phenomena being seen as interdependent.

Eternal Buddha of Shin Buddhism

In Shin Buddhism, Amida (Amitābha) is viewed as the eternal buddha who manifested as Shakyamuni and who is the personification of Nirvana itself. The Shin Buddhist priest, John Paraskevopoulos, in his monograph on Shin Buddhism, writes:

'In Shin Buddhism, Nirvana or Ultimate Reality (also known as the "Dharma-Body" or Dharmakaya in the original Sanskrit) has assumed a more concrete form as (a) the Buddha of Infinite Light (Amitabha) and Infinite Life (Amitayus)and (b) the "pure land" or "Land of Utmost Bliss" (Sukhavati), the realm over which this Buddha is said to preside ... Amida is the Eternal Buddha who is said to have taken form as Shakyamuni and his teachings in order to become known to us in ways we can readily comprehend.'[63]

John Paraskevopoulos elucidates the notion of Nirvana, of which Amida is an embodiment, in the following terms:

[Nirvana's] more positive connotation is that of a higher state of being, the dispelling of illusion and the corresponding joy of liberation. An early Buddhist scripture describes Nirvana as: ... the far shore, the subtle, the very difficult to see, the undisintegrating, the unmanifest, the peaceful, the deathless, the sublime, the auspicious, the secure, the destruction of craving, the wonderful, the amazing, the unailing, the unafflicted, dispassion, purity, freedom, the island, the shelter, the asylum, the refuge ... (Samyutta Nikaya)[64]

This Nirvana is seen as eternal and of one nature, indeed as the essence of all things. Paraskevopoulos tells of how the Mahaparinirvana Sutra speaks of Nirvana as eternal, pure, blissful and true self:

In Mahayana Buddhism it is taught that there is fundamentally one reality which, in its highest and purest dimension, is experienced as Nirvana. It is also known, as we have seen, as the Dharma-Body (considered the ultimate form of Being) or "Suchness" (Tathata in Sanskrit) when viewed as the essence of all things ... "The Dharma-Body is eternity, bliss, true self and purity. It is forever free of all birth, ageing, sickness and death" (Nirvana Sutra)[65]

To attain this Self, however, it is needful to transcend the 'small self' and its pettiness with the help of an 'external' agency, Amida Buddha. This is the view promulgated by the Jōdo Shinshū founding Buddhist master, Shinran. John Paraskevopoulos comments on this:

Shinran's great insight was that we cannot conquer the self by the self. Some kind of external agency is required: (a) to help us to shed light on our ego as it really is in all its petty and baneful guises; and (b) to enable us to subdue the small 'self' with a view to realising the Great Self by awakening to Amida's light.[66]

When that Great Self of Amida's light is realised, Shin Buddhism is able to see the Infinite which transcends the care-worn mundane. John Paraskevopoulos concludes his monograph on Shin Buddhism thus:

It is time we discarded the tired view of Buddhism as a dry and forensic rationalism , lacking in warmth and devotion ... By hearing the call of Amida Buddha we become awakened to true reality and its unfathomable working ... to live a life that dances jubilantly in the resplendent light of the Infinite.[67]

Devas and the supernatural in Buddhism

While Buddhist traditions do not deny the existence of supernatural beings (e.g., the devas, of which many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe powers, in the typical Western sense, for creation, salvation or judgement, to the "gods". They are regarded as having the power to affect worldly events in much the same way as humans and animals have the power to do so. Just as humans can affect the world more than animals, devas can affect the world more than humans. While gods may be more powerful than humans, Buddhists believe none of them are absolute, and like humans, are also suffering in samsara, the ongoing cycle of death and subsequent rebirth. Buddhists see gods as not having attained nirvana, and still subject to emotions, including jealousy, anger, delusion, sorrow, etc. Thus, since a Buddha is believed to show the way to nirvana, a Buddha is called "the teacher of the gods and humans" (Skrt: śāsta deva-manuṣyāṇaṃ). According to the Pali Canon the gods have powers to affect only so far as their realm of influence or control allows them. In this sense therefore, they are no closer to nirvana than humans and no wiser in the ultimate sense. A dialogue between the king Pasenadi Kosala, his general Vidudabha and the historical Buddha reveals a lot about the relatively weaker position of gods in Buddhism.[68]

Though not believing in a creator God, Buddhists inherited the Indian cosmology of the time which includes various types of 'god' realms such as the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, the Four Great Kings, and so on. Deva-realms are part of the various possible types of existence in the Buddhist cosmology. Rebirth as a deva is attributed to virtuous actions performed in previous lives. Beings that had meditated are thought to be reborn in more and more subtle realms with increasingly vast life spans, in accord with their meditative ability. In particular, the highest deva realms are pointed out as false paths in meditation that the meditator should be aware of. Like any existence within the cycle of rebirth (samsara), a life as a deva is only temporary. At the time of death, a large part of the former deva's good karma has been expended, leaving mostly negative karma and a likely rebirth in one of the three lower realms. Therefore, Buddhists make a special effort not to be reborn in deva realms.

It is also noteworthy that devas in Buddhism have no role to play in liberation. Sir Charles Eliot describes God in early Buddhism as follows:

The attitude of early Buddhism to the spirit world — the hosts of deities and demons who people this and other spheres. Their existence is assumed, but the truths of religion are not dependent on them, and attempts to use their influence by sacrifices and oracles are deprecated as vulgar practices similar to juggling.

The systems of philosophy then in vogue were mostly not theistic, and, strange as the words may sound, religion had little to do with the gods. If this be thought to rest on a mistranslation, it is certainly true that the dhamma had very little to do with devas.

Often as the Devas figure in early Buddhist stories, the significance of their appearance nearly always lies in their relations with the Buddha or his disciples. Of mere mythology, such as the dealings of Brahma and Indra with other gods, there is little. In fact the gods, though freely invoked as accessories, are not taken seriously, and there are some extremely curious passages in which Gotama seems to laugh at them, much as the sceptics of the 18th century laughed at Jehovah. Thus in the [Pali Canon] Kevaddha Sutta he relates how a monk who was puzzled by a metaphysical problem applied to various gods and finally accosted Brahma himself in the presence of all his retinue. After hearing the question, which was "Where do the elements cease and leave no trace behind?" Brahma replies, "I am the Great Brahma, the Supreme, the Mighty, the All-seeing, the Ruler, the Lord of all, the Controller, the Creator, the Chief of all, appointing to each his place, the Ancient of days, the Father of all that are and are to be." "But," said the monk, "I did not ask you, friend, whether you were indeed all you now say, but I ask you where the four elements cease and leave no trace." Then the Great Brahma took him by the arm and led him aside and said, "These gods think I know and understand everything. Therefore I gave no answer in their presence. But I do not know the answer to your question and you had better go and ask the Buddha."[31]

The Pali Canon also attributes supernatural powers to enlightened beings (Buddhas), that even gods may not have. In a dialogue between king Ajatasattu and the Buddha, enlightened beings are ascribed supranormal powers (like human flight, walking on water etc.), clairaudience, mind reading, recollection of past lives of oneself and others.[69]

Attitudes towards theories of creation

Reflecting a common understanding of the Buddha's earliest teachings, Nyanaponika Thera asserts:

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.[70]

In addition, nowhere in the Pali Canon are Buddhas ascribed powers of creation, salvation and judgement. In fact, Buddhism is critical of all theories on the origin of the universe[71] and holds the belief in creation as a fetter binding one to samsara. However, the Aggañña Sutta does contain a detailed account of the Buddha describing the origin of human life on earth. In this text, the Buddha provides an explanation of the caste system alternate to the one contained in the Vedas, and shows why one caste is not really any better than the other.[72] According to scholar Richard Gombrich, the sutta gives strong evidence that it was conceived entirely as a satire of pre-existing beliefs,[73] and he and scholar David Kalupahana have asserted that the primary intent of this text is to satirize and debunk the brahminical claims regarding the divine nature of the caste system, showing that it is nothing but a human convention.[74][75] Strictly speaking, the sutta is not a cosmogony, as in Buddhism, an absolute beginning is inconceivable. Since the earliest times Buddhists have, however, taken it seriously as an account of the origins of society and kingship.[73] Gombrich, however, finds it to be a parody of brahminical cosmogony as presented in the Rig Vedic "Hymn of Creation" (RV X, 129) and BAU 1, 2.[76] He states: "The Buddha never intended to propound a cosmogony. If we take a close look at the Aggañña Sutta, there are considerable incoherencies if it is taken seriously as an explanatory account - though once it is perceived to be a parody these inconsistencies are of no account." In particular, Gombrich finds that to view the Aggañña Sutta as a truthful account violates the basic Buddhist theory of how the law of karma operates, as Gombrich argues that beings cannot possibly be born in a realm (Streaming Radiance) higher than the Maha Brahma realm only to fall back to such a low realm of existence on Earth, and eventually succumb to sense craving as the first beings in a re-evolved human realm.[77] However, scholars Rupert Gethin and Brahmana Metteyya strongly disagree with Gombrich's complete dismissal as satire of the Aggañña Sutta.[78][79] Gethin states:

While certain of the details of the Agganna-sutta's account of the evolution of human society may be, as Gombrich has persuasively argued, satirical in intent, there is nothing in the Nikayas to suggest that these basic cosmological principles that I have identified should be so understood; there is nothing to suggest that the Agganna-sutta's introductory formula describing the expansion and contraction of the world is merely a joke. We should surely expect early Buddhism and indeed the Buddha to have some specific ideas about the nature of the round of rebirth, and essentially this is what the cosmological details presented in the Agganna-sutta and elsewhere in Nikayas constitute ... far from being out of key with what we can understand of Buddhist thought from the rest of the Nikayas, the cosmogonic views offered by the Aggañña Sutta in fact harmonize very well with it . .I would go further and say that something along the lines of the Aggañña myth is actually required by it.[79]

In the Aggañña Sutta the Buddha advises Vasettha that whoever has strong, deep rooted, and established belief in the Tathagatha, he can declare that he is the child of Bhagavan, born from the mouth of Dhamma, created from Dhamma, and the heir of Dhamma. Because the titles of the Tathagatha are: The Body of Dhamma, The Body of Brahma, the Manifestation of Dhamma, and the Manifestation of Brahma. That resonates well with the later Mahayana doctrine, though preceding it.

In Buddhism, the focus is primarily on the effect the belief in theories of creation and a creator have on the human mind. The Buddhist attitude towards every view is one of critical examination from the perspective of what effect the belief has on the mind and whether the belief binds one to samsara or not.

The Buddha declared that "it is not possible to know or determine the first beginning of the cycle of existence of beings who wander therein deluded by ignorance and obsessed by craving."[80] Speculation about the origin and extent of the universe is generally discouraged in early Buddhism.[81]


Huston Smith describes early Buddhism as psychological rather than metaphysical.[82] Unlike theistic religions, which are founded on notions of God and related creation myths, Buddhism begins with the human condition as enumerated in the Four Noble Truths. Thus while most other religions attempt to pass a blanket judgement on the goodness of a pre-fallen world (e.g. 'He then looked at the world and saw that it was good.' Book of Genesis, Old Testament, Christian Bible) and therefore derive the greatness of its Creator, Early Buddhism denies that the question is even worth asking to begin with.[83] Instead it places emphasis on the human condition of clinging and the insubstantial nature of the world. This approach is often even in contrast with many of the Mahayana forms of Buddhism. No being, whether a god or an enlightened being (including the historical Buddha), is ascribed powers of creation, granting salvation and judgement. According to the Pali Canon, omnipotence cannot be ascribed to any being. Further, in Theravada Buddhism, there are no lands or heavens where a being is guaranteed nibbana (Skt. "nirvana") except in the Anāgāmi realms in the Pure Abodes (Pali: Sudhavasasa), which according to the historical Buddha require removal of the first five fetters (belief in permanent self, skeptical doubt about the Dhamma, clinging to rites and rituals, sensual lust, and hatred). In Early Buddhism there is no equivalent to the Mahayana "Pure Land" or magical abode of Buddhas where one is guaranteed to be enlightened by simply reciting the Amitabha mantra before death without removing any of the 10 fetters that bind us to saṃsāra. In fact, the very idea of a "Buddha" living in any heaven abode is not possible in Early Buddhism, as a "Buddha", by definition, is a being that is no longer clinging to any material or immaterial existence upon the death of the body (parinibbana).[84] The late Theravada philosophy states the principle of Bhavanga as the ground of being for all karmas. There are multiple Bhavanga streams which are manifested and responsible for the individual minds and continuous karmic streams.


Tibetan schools of Buddhism speak of two truths, absolute and relative. Relative truth is regarded as the chain of ongoing causes and conditions that define experience within samsara, and ultimate truth is synonymous with emptiness. There are many philosophical viewpoints, but unique to the Vajrayana perspective is the expression (by meditators) of emptiness in experiential language, as opposed to the language of negation used by scholars to undo any conceptual fixation that would stand in the way of a correct understanding of emptiness. For example, one teacher from the Tibetan Kagyu school of Buddhism, Kalu Rinpoche, elucidates: "...pure mind cannot be located, but it is omnipresent and all-penetrating; it embraces and pervades all things. Moreover, it is beyond change, and its open nature is indestructible and atemporal."[85]

Veneration of the Buddha

In Buddhism, one venerates Buddhas and sages for their virtues, sacrifices, and struggles for perfect enlightenment, and as teachers who are embodiments of the Dhamma.[86]

In Buddhism, this supreme victory of the human ability for perfect gnosis is celebrated in the concept of human saints known as Arahants which literally means "worthy of offerings" or "worthy of worship" because this sage overcomes all defilements and obtains perfect gnosis to obtain Nirvana.

Professor Perry Schmidt-Leukel comments on how some portrayals of the Buddha within Western understanding deprive him of certain 'divine' features, which are in fact found in the earlier scriptures and in certain Eastern contexts. Schmidt-Leukel writes:

What a difference between the presentation of the Buddha within the genuine context of religious veneration, as in [the Doi Suthep Thai] temple, and the image of the Buddha - currently so widespread in the West - according to which the Buddha was simply a human being, free from all divine features! Indeed this modern view does not at all correspond to the description of the Buddha in the classical Buddhist scriptures.[87]

However, the 14th Dalai Lama has said

Nowhere in either the Pāli or Sanskrit sūtras is the Buddha seen as either omnipotent or a creator. He does not seek our worship and we do not have to propitiate him to gain boons.[88]

See also


  1. Thera, Nyanaponika. "Buddhism and the God-idea". The Vision of the Dhamma. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Blackburn, Anne M.; Samuels, Jeffrey (2003). "II. Denial of God in Buddhism and the Reasons Behind It". Approaching the Dhamma: Buddhist Texts and Practices in South and Southeast Asia. Pariyatti. pp. 128–146. ISBN 978-1-928706-19-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Bhikku Bodhi (2007). "III.1, III.2, III.5". In Access To Insight (ed.). The All Embracing Net of Views: Brahmajala Sutta. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Thanissaro Bhikku (1997). "Acintita Sutta: Unconjecturable". AN 4.77 (in translated from Pali into English). Access To Insight. Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Thanissaro Bhikku (1998). "Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya" (in translated from Pali into English). Access To Insight. It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him. In the same way, if anyone were to say, 'I won't live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,'... or that 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,' the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Thanissaro Bhikku (2004). "Alagaddupama Sutta: The Water-Snake Simile" (in translated from Pali into English). Access To Insight. Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Thanissaro Bhikku (2004). "Anuradha Sutta: To Anuradha" (in translated from Pali into English). Access To Insight. Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Dorothy Figen (1988). "Is Buddhism a Religion?". Beginning Insight Meditation and other essays. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. pp. Bodhi Leaves. So to these young Christians I can say, "Believe in Christ if you wish, but remember, Jesus never claimed divinity either." Yes, believe in a unitary God, too, if you wish, but cease your imploring, pleading for personal dispensations, health, wealth, relief from suffering. Study the Eightfold Path. Seek the insights and enlightenment that come through meditative learnings. And find out how to achieve for yourself what prayer and solicitation of forces beyond you are unable to accomplish.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Wallace, B. Alan Ph.D. (November 1999). "Is Buddhism Really Non-Theistic?" (PDF). National Conference of the American Academy of Religion lectures. Boston, MA. p. 8. Retrieved 2014-07-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Nyanaponika Thera (1994). Buddhism and the God-idea. The Vision of the Dhamma. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Mahasi Sayadaw,Thoughts on the Dhamma, The Wheel Publication No. 298/300, Kandy BPS, 1983, "...when Buddha-dhamma is being disseminated, there should be only one basis of teaching relating to the Middle Way or the Eightfold Path: the practice of morality, concentration, and acquisition of profound knowledge, and the Four Noble Truths."
  12. Buddhists consider an enlightened person, the Dhamma and the community of monks as noble. See Three Jewels.
  13. Thera, Nyanaponika (1994). Devotion in Buddhism. Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the Buddha disparaged a reverential and devotional attitude of mind when it is the natural outflow of a true understanding and a deep admiration of what is great and noble.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Bhikku, Thanissaro. "The Meaning of the Buddha's Awakening". Access to Insight. Retrieved 2010-06-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Donald K. Swearer (2004). Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-11435-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Hong, Xiong (1997). Hymn to Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Taipei: Vastplain. ISBN 978-957-9460-89-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Lama Thubten Yeshe; Geshe Lhundub Sopa (June 2003). Robina Courtin (ed.). Becoming the Compassion Buddha: Tantric Mahamudra for Everyday Life. Wisdom Publications. pp. 89–110. ISBN 978-0-86171-343-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. John T Bullitt (2005). "The Thirty-one planes of Existence". Access To Insight. Retrieved 2010-05-26. The suttas describe thirty-one distinct "planes" or "realms" of existence into which beings can be reborn during this long wandering through samsara. These range from the extraordinarily dark, grim, and painful hell realms to the most sublime, refined, and exquisitely blissful heaven realms. Existence in every realm is impermanent; in Buddhist cosmology there is no eternal heaven or hell. Beings are born into a particular realm according to both their past kamma and their kamma at the moment of death. When the kammic force that propelled them to that realm is finally exhausted, they pass away, taking rebirth once again elsewhere according to their kamma. And so the wearisome cycle continues.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Susan Elbaum Jootla (1997). "II. The Buddha Teaches Deities". In Access To Insight (ed.). Teacher of the Devas. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. Many people worship Maha Brahma as the supreme and eternal creator God, but for the Buddha he is merely a powerful deity still caught within the cycle of repeated existence. In point of fact, "Maha Brahma" is a role or office filled by different individuals at different periods." "His proof included the fact that "many thousands of deities have gone for refuge for life to the recluse Gotama" (MN 95.9). Devas, like humans, develop faith in the Buddha by practicing his teachings." "A second deva concerned with liberation spoke a verse which is partly praise of the Buddha and partly a request for teaching. Using various similes from the animal world, this god showed his admiration and reverence for the Exalted One.", "A discourse called Sakka's Questions (DN 21) took place after he had been a serious disciple of the Buddha for some time. The sutta records a long audience he had with the Blessed One which culminated in his attainment of stream-entry. Their conversation is an excellent example of the Buddha as "teacher of devas," and shows all beings how to work for Nibbana.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Bhikku, Thanissaro (1997). Kevaddha Sutta. Access To Insight. When this was said, the Great Brahma said to the monk, 'I, monk, am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Sovereign Lord, the Maker, Creator, Chief, Appointer and Ruler, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be... That is why I did not say in their presence that I, too, don't know where the four great elements... cease without remainder. So you have acted wrongly, acted incorrectly, in bypassing the Blessed One in search of an answer to this question elsewhere. Go right back to the Blessed One and, on arrival, ask him this question. However he answers it, you should take it to heart.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. http://www.himalayanart.org/pages/Visual_Dharma/yidams.html
  22. http://hhdl.dharmakara.net/hhdlquotes22.html
  23. Guang Xing, The Concept of the Buddha, RoutledgeCurzon, London, 2005, p. 89
  24. Hattori, Sho-on (2001). A Raft from the Other Shore : Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism. Jodo Shu Press. pp. 25–27. ISBN 4-88363-329-2.
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  26. Hayes, Richard P., "Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition", Journal of Indian Philosophy, 16:1 (1988:Mar) pgs 5-6, 8
  27. Hayes, Richard P., "Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition", Journal of Indian Philosophy, 16:1 (1988:Mar) pgs 9-10
  28. Dīgha Nikāya 27.9
  29. See Walsh, Maurice. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, “Aggañña Sutta: On Knowledge of Beginnings,” p. 409.
  30. Samyutta Nikaya (SN 22.87) See footnote #3
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  32. Mahasamaya Sutta, DN 20
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  34. Cook, Francis, Three Texts on Consciousness Only., Numata Center, Berkeley, 1999, pp. 20-21.
  35. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research (January 1999). Chʿeng Wei Shih Lun. 仏教伝道協会. pp. 20–22. ISBN 978-1-886439-04-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  38. Professor C. D. Sebastian, Metaphysics and Mysticism in Mahayana Buddhism: An Analytical Study of the Ratnagotravibhago-mahayanaottaratantra-sastram, Bibliotheca Indo-Buddhica Series 238, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 2005, pp. 64-66.
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  41. Guang Xing, The Three Bodies of the Buddha: The Origin and Development of the Trikaya Theory, RoutledgeCurzon, Oxford, 2005, pp.1 and 85
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