Monthly Archives: September 2012

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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About This Blog

Beyond the Ivory Tower

This blog begins as a discussion space for a graduate-level course about Buddhism in the U.S.  However, we hope it will become a public space for discussing the past, present, and possible future of Buddhist history and practice in the United States.  This course is being taught by Dr. Jane Iwamura at University of the West in Rosemead, California.  Dr. Iwamura and her students will be posting here regularly about topics being raised in the class.  Comments are welcome and encouraged both from enrolled students and the general public.  Please, tell us what you think!  What does Buddhism in the U.S. look like to you?

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Reading Along

If you would like to have some background about the topics being discussed here on the blog, feel free to follow the reading outline for the class, which is found below.  This is only a draft and other reading materials will be mentioned as appropriate to the topics raised in the class.  In some cases, we may only read specific sections, chapters, or excerpts from the books mentioned below.  These will be noted as they are announced.  However, please don’t feel like you have to follow along exactly before voicing your opinion or sharing your experience.

Books (in the order of reading)


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