Saturday, December 09, 2006

Buddhism and God

Buddhism is generally viewed as a religion without a Supreme Being or Creator God. This is especially the case in connection with the Pali scriptures. Yet some Mahayana sutras envision the Buddha as the "god above the gods", as a primal, eternal, sustaining essence within all beings and phenomena, while some tantras paint a portrait of the Buddha on a cosmological scale and in cosmogonic terms as the emanator of all universes. To the extent that the Buddha is seen in this way as the indestructible Ground of all, even as the progenitor of all persons and phenomena, he can be equated to a mystical notion of Godhead.
Gautama Buddha (as portrayed in the Pali scriptures/ the agamas) set an important trend in nontheism in Buddhism in the sense of denying the existence of an omnipotent Creator God[1]. Nevertheless, in many passages in the Tripitaka Gautama Buddha spoke about gods and gave specific examples of individuals who were reborn as a god, or gods who were reborn as humans. Buddhist cosmology recognizes various levels and types of gods, but none of these gods is considered the creator of the world or of the human race[2].
In Mahayana Buddhism there is far less reticence on the part of the Buddha to speak of metaphysical matters (including the all-pervasiveness of Buddha's "body" throughout the universe - see trikaya). A distinction therefore needs to be drawn between the teachings ascribed to the Buddha in the Pāli Canon or the Āgamas, which do not speak affirmatively of an omnipotent Creator God, and the more explicitly mystical ideas attributed to the Buddha in some Mahayana sutras and Tantras, where expression is given to an apparent Ultimate Ground of all things - the immanent, omniscient, and transcendent Reality of the Awakened Mind or the boundless sphere of the "Buddha Nature" (buddha-dhatu or Tathagatagarbha; see, for example, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and the Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra).
In both the Pali suttas and the Mahayana sutras, the Buddha does teach the existence of "gods" (devas). These are not, however, "God" but merely heavenly beings who temporarily dwell in celestial worlds of great happiness. Such beings are not eternal in that incarnational form and are subject to death and eventual rebirth into lower realms of existence[3].
While Buddhism does not deny the existence of supernatural beings (e.g., the devas, of which many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe power for creation, salvation or judgment to them. Like humans, they are regarded as having the power to affect worldly events and so some Buddhist schools associate with them via ritual. All supernatural beings, as living entities, are a part of the six-part reincarnation cycle.
Certain Buddhists (particularly in the modern West) hold to an interpretation of Buddhism that admits nothing of either the supernatural or divinity. In non-theistic views, realms and gods are viewed with a liberal dose of metaphor, as tools to understand aspects of Mind, and indeed this is supported by some sutras such as the Lankavatara Sutra.
1 First Cause in Buddhism - Ignorance
2 The God idea in early Buddhism
3 Mahayana and tantric mystical doctrines
3.1 God as Manifestation of Mind
4 Brahman in Earliest Buddhism
5 See also
6 Literature
7 References
8 External links

[edit] First Cause in Buddhism - Ignorance
What is deemed as "Creation of the world" by an all-powerful God in many other religions is not accepted by any school of Buddhism.
Avidya or ignorance is the closest thing to a "first cause" or principle of creation and not any God or Buddha. By removal of this ignorance with wisdom or prajna, we understand things as they really are and thus attain to Buddhahood.

[edit] The God idea in early Buddhism
The Buddha of the Pāli suttas (scriptures) dismisses as “foolish talk”, as “ridiculous, mere words, a vain and empty thing” (Digha-Nikaya No. 13, Tevijja Sutta) the notion that Brahmins (the priestly caste), who according to the Buddha have not in fact seen Brahma face to face, can teach others how to achieve union with what they themselves have never beheld. This is not a denial of the existence of Brahma, however, but merely intended (by the Buddha) to indicate the folly of those religious teachers who would lead others to what they themselves do not personally know.
Yet Brahma himself (see Brahmajala Sutta), for example, while not denied by the Buddha, is in no way viewed by him as a sovereign, all-knowing, all-powerful Creator God. Brahma (in common with all other devas) is subject to change, final decline and death, just as are all other sentient beings in samsara (the plane of continual reincarnation and suffering). Instead of belief in such a would-be Creator God as Brahma (a benign heavenly being who is in reality not yet free from self-delusion and the processes of rebirth), the wise are encouraged to practise the Dharma (spiritual truth) of the Buddha, in which right vision, right thinking, right speaking, right acting, right living, right effort, right attentive awareness, and right meditative absorption are paramount and are said to bring spiritual Liberation. The “God idea” forms no part of Theravada Buddhism's doctrine of release from suffering - although some see in the “deathless realm of Nirvana” a hint of an impersonal, transcendental Absolute.
Sir Charles Elliot in his Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch correctly describes God in early Buddhism as:
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.”
Even more curiously ironic is the account given of the origin of Brahma. 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.
He who dared to represent Brahma (for which name we might substitute Allah or Jehovah) as a pompous deluded individual worried by the difficulty of keeping up his position had more than the usual share of scepticism and irony. The compilers of such discourses regarded the gods as mere embellishments, as gargoyles and quaint figures in the cathedral porch, not as saints above the altar. [1]

[edit] Mahayana and tantric mystical doctrines
The situation takes on a different complexion in Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism. Here one encounters the notion of the Buddhas as kinds of cosmic wizards or magicians, as the creators of, and rulers over, “Buddha fields” (Buddha Paradises – whole world systems of spiritual exaltation and instruction). Although there are countless Buddhas, their essence is one - that of "Tathata" ("suchness" or "that-ness") - , and it is in this sense that the Buddha proclaims himself as "Tathagata" and exalts himself in theistic terms beyond all other "gods" when he declares:
"I am the god above the gods, superior to all the gods; no god is like me - how could there be a higher?" (Lalitavistara Sutra).
There are also many examples in the Pāli Canon, where the Buddha shows his magical superiority over the Brahma class of gods. So this was already present in the Pāli scriptures/ agamas.
His realm (“dhatu”), of which he is the "Holy King" (Nirvana Sutra), is further said to be inherent in all beings. This indwelling, indestructible, incomprehensible, divine sphere or essence is called the “Buddha-dhatu” (Buddha-sphere, Buddha-nature, Buddha-realm) or “Tathagatagarbha” in such sutras as the “Mahaparinirvana Sutra” and the “Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa”. Further, the idea of an eternal, all-pervading, all-knowing, immaculate, uncreated and deathless Ground of Being (the dharmadhatu, inherently linked to the sattvadhatu, the realm of beings), which is the Awakened Mind (bodhicitta) or Dharmakaya (“body of Truth”) of the Buddha himself, is promulgated in such texts. In the Mahavairocana Sutra, this essence of the one ultimate Buddha, named Vairocana, is symbolised by the letter “A”, which is said to reside in the hearts of all beings and of which Buddha Vairocana declares:
“[the mystic letter ‘A’] is placed in the heart location: it is Lord and Master of all, and it pervades entirely all the animate and inanimate. ‘A’ is the highest life-energy …” (The Maha-Vairocana-Abhisambodhi Tantra, p. 331).
This great Vairocana Buddha is called: “the Bhagavat [= Blessed One - a term traditionally linked in Indian discourse with "the Divine"], Master of the Dharma, the Sage who is completely perfect, who is all-pervasive, who encompasses all world systems, who is All-Knowing, the Lord Vairocana” (p. 355).
The Tantric text, The Sarva-Tathagata-Tattva-Samgraha, eulogises the supreme Buddha Vairocana in the following theistic paeons:
“He is universal Goodness, beneficial, destroyer [of suffering], the great Lord of Happiness, sky womb, Great Luminosity … the great All-perceiving Lord … He is without beginning or end … [He is] Vishnu [God] … Protector of the world, the sky, the earth … The elements, the good benefactor of beings, All things … the Blessed Rest, Eternal … The Self of all the Buddhas … Pre-eminent over all, and master of the world.”
Similar God-like descriptions are encountered in the All-Creating King Tantra (Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra), where the universal Mind of Awakening (personified as “Samantabhadra Buddha” - the “All-Good”) declares of himself:
“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.” (The Supreme Source, p. 157).
Thus Buddhism spans a grand arch from evident non-theism to mystically hued mentalist pantheism. There is also in Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of an Ādibuddha (Adi-Buddha). This being is the primordial, self-existent, self-created Buddha who some believe that the whole of creation stems from. However, all these so called God-like figures, i.e Samantabhadra, Vairochana, Vajradhara etc. are traditionally understood to be personifications of emptiness, the true nature of all phenomena. Some modern Buddhists see the above Samantabhadra Buddha quote as radically subjective psychology, while still others will insist that the words mean what they say and do communicate the sense of an actual sustaining Buddhic force or spiritual essence behind and within all phenomena.

[edit] God as Manifestation of Mind
One of the more important Mahayana Sutras, the Lankavatara Sutra, states that the notions of a sovereign God, Atman are figments of the imagination or manifestations of the mind and can also be an impediment to perfection as this leads to attachment to the concept of "God":
All such notions as causation, succession, atoms, primary elements, that make up personality, personal soul, Supreme Spirit, Sovereign God, Creator, are all figments of the imagination and manifestations of mind.
No, Mahamati, the Tathágata’s doctrine of the Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the philosopher’s Atman.[2]
However, the same sutra also sees the Buddha reveal that he is the One who is actually being addressed when beings project from their unawakened minds notions of Divinity and address themselves to "God". The many names for such ultimate Being or Truth are in fact said by the Buddha to be unwitting appellations of the Buddha himself. He states:
The same can be said of myself as I appear in this world of patience before ignorant people and where I am known by uncounted trillions of names.
They address me by different names not realizing that they are all names of the one Tathagata.
Some recognize me as Sun, as Moon; some as a reincarnation of the ancient sages; some as one of "ten powers"; some as Rama, some as Indra, and some as Varuna. Still there are others who speak of me as The Un-born, as Emptiness, as "Suchness," as Truth, as Reality, as Ultimate Principle; still there are others who see me as Dharmakaya, as Nirvana, as the Eternal; some speak of me as sameness, as non-duality, as un-dying, as formless; some think of me as the doctrine of Buddha-causation, or of Emancipation, or of the Noble Path; and some think of me as Divine Mind and Noble Wisdom.
Thus in this world and in other worlds am I known by these uncounted names, but they all see me as the moon is seen in the water.
Though they all honor, praise and esteem me, they do not fully understand the meaning and significance of the words they use; not having their own self-realization of Truth they cling to the words of their canonical books, or to what has been told to them, or to what they have imagined, and fail to see that the name they are using is only one of the many names of the Tathagata.
In their studies they follow the mere words of the text vainly trying to gain the true meaning, instead of having confidence in the one "text" where self-confirming Truth is revealed, that is, having confidence in the self-realization of noble Wisdom.[3]
In the "Sagathakam" section of the sutra, one also reads of the reality of the pure Self (atman), which (while not identical to the atman of the Hindus) is equated with the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-Essence):
"The atma [Self] characterised with purity is the state of self-realisation; this is the Tathagatagarbha, which does not belong to the realm of the theorisers." [4].
This Tathagatagarbha is in the Lankavatara Sutra identified with the root or all-containing Consciousness of all beings, the Alaya-vijnana. This Tathagatagarbha-Alayavijnana is stated not to belong to the realm of speculation, but can be understood directly by
"those Bodhisatva-Mahasattvas [great Bodhisattvas] who like you [Mahamati] are endowed with subtle, fine, penetrative thought-power and whose understanding is in accordance with the meaning ..." [5].

[edit] Brahman in Earliest Buddhism
It has been asserted by current secular Buddhism, that Buddhism knows only of the gods (Brahma) and nothing of the Godhead/Absolute/Agathon Brahman. In actuality there can be doubt that in the grammatically ambiguous _expression Brahmabhu’to (attano) which describes the condition of those who are wholly liberated, that it is Brahman (the Absolute) and not Brahma (deva, or mere god) that is in the text and must be read; for it is by Brahman that one who is “wholly awake” has ”become.”
The highest appellation in Buddhist Nikayan sutra is “Brahambhutena attano” [MN 1.341] “The Soul is having become Brahman”; absolutely equivalent to ‘Tat tvam asi’ (That/Brahman, thou art). For the Buddha himself is = Brahmabhu’to (Become That, Brahman). For (1) the comparatively limited knowledge of a Brahma is repeatedly emphasized, and (2) Brahmas are accordingly the Buddhas pupils, not he theirs [S 1.141-145; Mil 75-76], (3) The Buddha had already been in previous births a Brahma (god) and a Mahabrahma [AN 4.88] hence it is meaningless and absurd in the equation to say Brahmabhu’to=Buddho [AN 5.22; DN 3.84; It 57 etc.], to assume that Brahman= Brahma (god) and that (4) the Buddha is explicitly “much more than a Mahabrahma" [DhA 2.60].
[DN 3.84] "The Tathagata means 'the body of Brahman', 'become Brahman'." (this passage also proves [from earlier context] that Brahma (god/s) is utterly diffferent than the word Brahman).
[DN 1.249] “ I teach the way to the union with Brahman, I know the way to the supreme union with Brahman, and the path and means leading to Brahman, whereby the world of Brahman may be gained.”
[DN 1.248] ”all the peoples say that Gotama is the supreme teacher of the way leading to the Union with Brahman!”
[3.646 Pat-Att.] “To have become Brahman [is the meaning of] Brahmabhuto.”
[Atthakanipata-Att. 5.72] “To become Brahman is to become highest Svabhava (Self-nature).”
[It 57] “Become-Brahman is the meaning of Tathagata.”
[SN 3.83] “Without taints, it meant ‘Become-Brahman’.”
[SN 5.5] “The Aryan Eightfold Path is the designation for Brahmayana (path to Brahman).”
[MN 1.341] “The Soul is having become Brahman.”
[SN 4.117] "Found the ancient path leading to Brahman."

[edit] See also
Brahmajala Sutta
Buddha as an Avatara of Vishnu
Faith in Buddhism
Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra
Mahaparinirvana Sutra
Nontheism in Buddhism

[edit] Literature
The Supreme Source, C. Norbu, A. Clemente (Snow Lion Publications, New York 1999)
The Maha-Vairocana-Abhisambodhi Tantra, tr. by Stephen Hodge (Routledge Curzon, London 2003)
The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, ed. and revised by Dr. Tony Page (Nirvana Publications, London 1999-2000)

[edit] References
^ Sir Charles Elliot. "Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch" (English).
^ Lankaavatar Sutra, Chapter VI
^ Lankavatar Sutra, Chapter XII Tathagatahood Which Is Noble Wisdom, translated by Suzuki and Goddard
^ (see Suzuki, op. cit. p. 282)
^ (op. cit. p. 193)

[edit] External links
Christian FAQs by Ryuei
Emptiness & God - A Buddhist Perspective by E-Sangha
Buddha Teachings
A Study of Buddhism in Contrast to Christianity
Gandhi and Lord Buddha
Retrieved from ""
Categories: Buddhist philosophical concepts Comparative Buddhism

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