I Still Don’t Know: Buddhism and God

Buddha, Krishna, and Jesus

As far as I can tell, there are Western Buddhists out there who believe God doesn’t exist. Period. Some even go so far as to say that the Buddha said so, too. My challenge is: how do you know? I mean, do you really know what the Buddha said on the matter? I have to say, after doing some research on this topic, I don’t have any idea, and I’m surprised that so many American Buddhists are completely certain.

Did the Buddha say “There is no God,” directly? Let’s ask the experts. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Theravadan monk, suggests it might not be wise to even guess about the existence of God, pointing out that in the Acintita Sutta “…conjecture about the origin of the world…is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” Other scholars on Buddhism, such as Nyanaponika Thera, echo the fruitlessness of the search for God, saying that, anyway, Buddhism denies the existence of God – and most especially a godhead who is a creator or who is omnipotent. But, where do they get their proof that the Buddha said this?

I’m sure there is a scholastic answer to this question, and I tried to do a little scholarly research on the topic. Most of what I found were quotes from sutras that discussed what the Buddha did not believe about the nature of existence, etc. For instance, from the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta:

“So, Malunkyaputta, remember what is undeclared by me as undeclared, and what is declared by me as declared. And what is undeclared by me? ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ is undeclared by me. ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ is undeclared by me. ‘The cosmos is finite’… ‘The cosmos is infinite’… ‘The soul & the body are the same’… ‘The soul is one thing and the body another’… ‘After death a Tathagata exists’… ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist’… ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist’… ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ is undeclared by me.

And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.”

So, I hope that’s clear.

In case it isn’t, I think the gist is that the Buddha did not say anything about a creator deity existing or not. He did mention what he does and doesn’t declare about the nature of existence, but he does not mention the existence or non-existence of a God. This is pretty much consistent in my findings – although I will confess that I am not an excellent Buddhist scholar. There may be something written somewhere…but why is it so hard to find? For the average layperson of American Buddhism, this information is even more difficult to find and perhaps even more difficult to understand than the entry I mentioned above.

So, what’s the average American Buddhist to do? I suppose they do what the Christians and other God-believers do: they have to have faith. They have faith in the teacher who is telling them that the Buddha said there is no God. They have faith in the mainstream books telling us it is more important for us to focus on changing our karma. Meanwhile, what the Buddha actually said on the topic is left for the scholars and the monastics to debate – if they’re even interested which, unless they are Westerners, is unlikely.

So, the rest of us are left with an opportunity to create a world that satisfies our needs. If I’m a Western Buddhists who doesn’t believe God exists, then I can use what others tell me about Buddhism to confirm that. If I want to believe the Buddha said God doesn’t exist, then I’ll just buy into what that book said. As American Buddhists, we are completely certain about this. My only question is: what did the Buddha say about God, exactly?

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19 thoughts on “I Still Don’t Know: Buddhism and God

  1. walid ataya says:

    it’s like the story of who came first the chicken or the egg. And you are trying to portray Buddha the compassionate one (lots of Buddha came before and after) as a god. Or son/ messenger of god. where in fact the existence or non existence of a God is irrelevant. All is an illusion after all.

  2. vanessagobes says:

    i think if the buddha were alive today he’d take the dalai lama’s position, encouraging 21st century thoughts for 21st century buddhists.

    the journey lies within; and since each of us is truly unique, none of us will achieve enlightenment in the same way or through the same definitions. i try not to get caught up in semantics, because each person’s definition of god is so unique. he’s the big guy in the sky, she is nature, god is energy. god is universe.

    even though i’m a buddhist, i still use the word god frequently without any feelings of conflict.

    peace! :-)

  3. [...] practitioner (of 4 years) and studying chaplaincy at U West.”The earliest post deals with the Buddha’s views on God, and while it touches on a sutta or two, it basically expresses the author’s frustration with [...]

  4. “He who has eyes can see the sickening sight, Why does not God set his creatures right?
    If his wide power no limit can restrain, Why is his hand so rarely spread to bless?
    Why are his creatures all condemned to pain? Why does he not to all give happiness?
    Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail? Why triumphs falsehood — truth and justice fail?
    I count your God one among the unjust , who made a world in which to shelter wrong.” ~ Bhuridatta Jataka”

  5. Peter says:

    “… what did the Buddha say about God, exactly?”

    Strange. Buddhists getting caught up in the “God question”. Although, reading the author’s bio, I’m not sure if he is Buddhist or merely studying Buddhism? In any case, I think the question is the wrong one. Strictly speaking, we don’t really know what the Buddha said about anything. If scholars and historians are right, Buddhist teaching was passed down orally for the first 200-years or so after the Buddha’s death before being put into writing. All the more reason to take to heart the Buddhas admonition* to be a lamp unto oneself and (ultimately) not rely on the written (or spoken) word of others. If one is looking for a personal savior maybe the God question is relevant. But what that has to do with Buddhism is beyond me. Buddhist teaching as generally understood has never revolved around God (or gods – cosmological constructs not withstanding), but rather, looking into one’s own nature. There is certainly no God, no Buddha, to worship or pray to in Buddhism as I have understood it, at least. Why get stuck on a concept when we have the means to direct experience available to us? That is what our mind offers us I think it’s fair to say.

    * with the obvious caveat assuming that’s what the Buddha actually said, but good advice nonetheless.

  6. Atheistic/materialistic Buddhism is primarily a Western Phenomenon. I am guessing because Buddhism was first introduced to us by non-practicing University Professors and alcoholic and drug crazed Beats. ;^)

  7. The only “proof” we have of a Creator God is a being saying “I am the Lord your God” and the masses of people who came after this being confirming that statement. The Buddha addressed this in the Brahmajala Sutta, specifically the views on Partial Eternalism (ekaccasassatavāda), beginning with paragragh 38.

    Coupled with the Agañña Sutta: On Knowledge of Beginnings in the Dīgha Nikāya**, one could infer that the Buddha proclaimed that there is no Creator God.

    This is one of those issues, that even if we had a definitive answer either way, would not lead to the alleviation of dukkha in the moment. But clearly, having a right view is important enough that the Buddha thought it necessary to address this.

    ** A Google search turned up a couple of pdf’s that might be translations of this Sutta, but I didn’t download to confirm. Wikipedia has a decent summary of the Sutta with a link at the bottom to a translation that loaded too slowly on this machine, timing out.

  8. I addressed this question in more detail on my own blog, but here is the executive summary:

    One, it is possible that the historical Buddha had no inkling of the God of Abrahamic monotheism. The Abrahamic creator God as we “know” him today was still in development during the time of the life of the Buddha, in another part of the world. (For example, some theological scholars believe the familiar creation story in Genesis was not written until the 6th century BCE.)

    So no, he never flat-out said that God does or does not exist. God (as we conceptualize God today) probably was not on his radar. If you had asked the Buddha straight out if God exists, he might have just said, “Who?”

    It’s important to understand that gods in the religious traditions in the Buddha’s day and place were very different sorts of critters from what westerners today think of as “gods.” We westerners tend to impose western cultural ideas, about gods and other things, onto the ancient texts as we read them, and it’s important to not do that if we’re going to understand what he meant by anything. I go into more detail on this point in my blog post.

    The most important point is that, in the Buddha’s teaching, a creator God has nothing to do. The Buddha clearly taught that all phenomena are “created” by means of cause and effect determined by what might be called natural law, not by a supernatural being. Further, the course of our lives is determined by karma, which we create. According to the Buddha, karma is not directed by a supernatural intelligence but functions as its own natural law. In Buddhism, God has no function, no role to play, either as an original source or as an instigator of current events.

    So, it can correctly be said that the Buddha’s teaching does not support God-belief. And shoe-horning western God-concepts into Buddhism makes a mess of it, frankly.

    For the entire argument, go here:

    http://buddhism.about.com/b/2012/10/15/what-buddha-didnt-say-about-god.htm

  9. Monica says:

    @Lee Love

    The question of God aside, the notion that Buddhism was introduced to the United States by the Beats (alcoholic or otherwise) is a common misconception. Buddhists were already present in the U.S. as early as the 19th Century, both in the form of Chinese and Japanese immigrants (highly persecuted minorities in both cases) and as Asian scholars and teachers invited to participate in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Buddhist publishing and dissemination in the U.S. continued until WWII and then picked up again afterward. This is when it was co-opted by the Beats and gained its current notorious and inaccurate reputation as hippy-dippy new age philosophy – irregardless of the fact that most practicing Buddhists in the U.S. today (and then) are actually Asian immigrants who flocked to America in droves following the 1965 immigration reform act.

    Maybe atheistic/materialistic Buddhism is a Western phenomenon propagated by university professors are Beat poets. But have you ever seen Asian(/American) Buddhism? Many of the rituals and associated “merit making” activities often strike me (a “Westerner”) as very materialistic, although I’m not sure this is how they are viewed by the participants. It’s true that Buddhism as presented to Western audiences has taken on a certain flavor, but I wouldn’t be too quick to attribute that to a single easily defined source.

  10. Peter says:

    “Atheistic Buddhism”? Never heard of it. Is there some special meaning to this term? Strictly speaking, though, Buddhism by definition is atheistic – since there is no God concept in Buddhism.

  11. Barbara, the concept of a Creator God is not limited to the Abrahamic religions, three of the four major ones only arising centuries after his demise anyway, and we don’t know if he ever met with an adherent of the then form of Judaism. There may have been other monotheistic religions at that time that have never been recorded and have since disappeared, but Zoroastrianism, which popped up around the 6th century BCE, could have been known to him.

    In any case, having addressed such belief systems means the Buddha either encountered them somewhere but said contact was not recorded, or it confirms his prescience, talking about things to come.

    I don’t see much shoe horning here. Just regular folks asking legitimate questions and the rest of us sharing our take-aways from having thought about it too.

  12. [...] I Still Don’t Know: Buddhism and God by Akasa Skye [...]

  13. TK says:

    The sense I get from reading the Pali canon is that various gods (including Brahma and Indra) make appearances from time to time, but they are all bit players. In several places (sorry, can’t cough up the exact sutta and verse), the Blessed One is called “the teacher of men *and* gods,” which gives me the idea that it’s more auspicious (in terms of achieving final liberation from suffering) to be a mortal sentient being than a supernatural being. In fact, I believe this point is made doctrinally somewhere in the Pali scriptures, although again I can’t cite sutta and verse. Somebody previously mentioned the Brahmajāla Sutta, wherein is described a being who is reborn into the “Ābhassara Brahma-world” alone and mistakenly (due to loss of memory of previous existences) comes to believe that he/she is a universe-creator when other beings show up seemingly at a wish; even the beings who show up later accept the idea that the first being is the Creator God because they can’t recall *their* previous existences, either.

    As a Theravada Buddhist, I do as the Blessed One and the early sangha seemed to do, and cheerfully avoid this entire realm of speculation as not very helpful for the most part, although obviously I’m not succeeding today. ;) On the other hand, I’ve sat with a “Christian Zen” group on a couple of occasions and nobody seemed to be particularly conflicted as to whether Buddhist practice and teaching had room for a Creator God or not.

    For some reason, this joke that a Jewish friend told me many years ago arises in my mind: “If there are three Jews in a room there are four opinions — God has His opinion, too.”

    Perhaps Seung Sa Nim had some good advice: “Only don’t know.”

  14. JL says:

    The gods that the Buddha knew were those he was raised with as a young Hindu prince. They are those who are said to reside in the upper tiers of the “31 abodes of existence.”

    They too are subject to the law of karma and are believed to have not yet reached enlightenment. So then, the Buddha has been thought to have been a teacher of both gods and men, surpassing these “god” realms in order to reach the place of no suffering, Nippan.

    What Buddha was agnostic about was the existence of a permanent, unchanging, Almighty Creator God and King of all creation. Buddha’s focus was on the origination of suffering and its cessation. He found a path through concentration meditation that led him to the four noble truths and the practice of the eight fold path.

    I believe that if Buddha met Jesus, the Savior of the world, he would have believed his message and joined him in awaiting his eternal Kingdom where suffering and injustice will finally cease and the world will once again be as it was originally created by the Almighty to be. Creation’s current state is spoken of in the Bible as “groaning” and “in eager expectation” for liberation.

    That liberation comes when Jesus comes as King and ruler and recreates the heavens and the earth. This is found in Revelation 21 & 22. His messengers are calling all nations and peoples to join him in allegiance and adoration now with the view that this Kingdom is here and is coming soon.

    Peace to all seekers of truth. John 14:6

  15. Brian says:

    I want to point out as a side note that denigrating oral traditions is also a Western slant and factually incorrect. Oral traditions have fidelity on their teachings, just as much and maybe even more so than written traditions. Oral “texts”, ones that were and are chanted as the suttas were, have an error correction method built in. When a monastic sits next to other everyday it becomes apparent instantly that he or she has errors in their memory and those errors are corrected. It also becomes knowable and traceable when deviations are created and disseminated in the wider context from region to region.

    I would like to add that I think the Korean zen tradition, also I have heard this from Thai ajahns as well, of “not sure” or don’t-know mind is appropriate here. After all the Buddha refused to take sides on these issues in great part because of practical political reasons. It would just create argument to choose sides. It would have fractured the community. Best not to go against someone who has deeply held beliefs when you have the ultimate goal of cessation in mind. And for me personally I find I am speaking from a hot selfish part of my being when trying to argue those kinds of topics, I feel off balance and too attached to just casually chat about these questions.

  16. tvstvs says:

    Well the teaching of Anatta is pretty much rampant throughout the Suttas – in fact, I think at one place the Buddha points out that there are other religions that teach Dukkha and Anicca, but only he teaches all three characteristics. This teaching sets him apart from his contemporaries that he is called “Anatta-vadin” i.e. “he who teaches Anatta”. A famous quote from the Suttas is “Sabbe dhamma anatta” – all phenomena, whether conditioned or unconditioned, lack a self. That is to say, a self, a soul, an agent, or a ‘ghost in the machine’ if you will, is not to be found anywhere in the universe, neither within yourself nor outside, which rules out any type of ‘God’ that is defined as a ‘will’ or an ‘agent’ in the universe. In addition, the Buddha’s doctrine of paticca-samuppada, considered to the a cornerstone of the teaching, flat out rejects a first cause.

  17. akasaskye says:

    Hello to everyone who has responded to this post. I am very sorry for the late reply. To answer the suppositions about my religious affiliation, I began studying Buddhism in 2000 and took Refuge Vows in the Shambhala sangha in 2002, receiving the name Sherap Shonnu, or Youthful Prince of Wisdom. I then took Bodhisattva Vows with my Guru the Kongma Sakyong Mipham Jamgon Rinpoche in 2003. I took samaya vows with the Sakyong in 2007 and received a Rigden name in 2008, completing ngondro and becoming a Sadhaka. At that time I began to practice several sadhanas and became a Chopon (ritual assistant) for both the Werma and Sadhana of Mahamudra Feasts (pujas). I was a member of the Sakyong’s household, leading service teams and being one of his personal escorts and drivers. I also held an officer rank within the Dorje Kasung, leading a squadron and training Court Guards. I was also a meditation instructor, Oryoki Master, and the primary coordinator for the major Shambhala holiday programs at the Boulder Shambhala Meditation Center. I held several management positions at various Shambhala centers across the United States and Canada, including the Head of Education at Dorje Denma Ling. My current teacher is Lama Tsultrim Allione and I practice Dzogchen and Chod under her tutelage. She has also approved my seeking to become a Ngakpa and I hope to become ordained under His Eminence the Venerable Yangthank Tulku Rinpoche when he arrives in San Francisco later this year. I am in the middle of a 3-year pursuit of an MDiv in Buddhist Chaplaincy with the aspiration of becoming a Disaster/First Reponse Chaplain. As well, I am a yoga instructor and member of Yogi Bhajan’s Los Angeles Kundalini Sikh sangat, where I am one of many of Tej’s students. As such, I also believe in God and soul, although perhaps a bit differently than those of the Abrahamic and Hindu faiths. I also grew up Wiccan and am comfortable within a pantheon of deities, which is perhaps why Tibetan Buddhism is so appealing to me.

    The responses that were posted on this blog have all been very interesting to me, in one way or another. I particularly prefer the responses that lend voice to my thoughts on this topic: “Only don’t know.” At the same time, what I feel failed to be addressed adequately by the responses to this blog – and by perhaps myself in the writing of this blog – is the phenomenon of US Buddhists who have said to me over the years, with absolutely certainty, the following sentence: “Buddha said there is no God.” One can see, by the varied responses to this topic on this blog, that a definitive answer on the matter is far from certain. So, it is this certainty of the US Buddhists who have said “Buddha said there is not God” that I hoped to challenge in this blog, and perhaps my way of doing so was too subtle.

  18. akasaskye says:

    Hey everyone ~ Also, in addition to my comment above, I just remembered that I have another post on another blog (Dharma Cowgirl) that might be of interest. It is taken from a paper I wrote for the Buddhist Hermeneutics class I took in Spring 2012. It is about the Dzogchen and Vajrayana teachings on buddhanature, alternatively called the Nature of Mind. Enjoy! :) http://dharmacowgirl.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/wonder-of-wonders-the-truly-enlightened-nature-of-mind/

  19. [...] Today’s post will follow up from one last week: Would a Buddhist Affirm that belief in God is a Delusion? It also relates to a great post last year by a University of the West student at a blog set up for a course on Buddhism in America: I STILL DON’T KNOW: BUDDHISM AND GOD. [...]

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