Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Do Buddhists Believe in God?

Recently a friend posed the above question to me in this way:
"I have always had a problem with the Buddhists because I thought they had no 'god'. True they believe in self development and walking the path, but not focused on a single or multiple 'power greater than themselves', and certainly not a 'creator god' like the Christians. Have I got it all wrong? "

I suppose I could give a quick and simple answer, but as frequently is my case, I found there is more to the answer than simplicity.

First of all not all "Buddhists" are the same. There are either two or three major traditions and within each there are sub sets.

However, in the early Buddhist scriptures written in Pali, we could say that Buddhism appears as "non-Theistic". This does not mean the Buddha was an "atheist," -- one who does not believe in "God". Nor, does it mean he was an agnostic -- one who does not believe that God can be known. He taught a way that was non-theistic --- in which the idea of a God does not appear. Why? Because in the India of his time and for years before---debating about God seemed to take up a terrible amount of time. People were lost in trying to define God and had no time for living a wise and compassionate life.
When I think about it --- this problem has been with Christianity for centuries.

In his search for the answer to "suffering" the Buddha came to conclusion reached by his own experience as to the nature of reality and the "antidote" for suffering (not pain). He discovered that ultimately his path led to a state called "nirvana". Nirvana, IMO, may just be another name for the presence of God.

In an earlier blog -- I wrote this:
"The most important thing --- as I see things, is that if you believe in God or Allah or Brahman or Sacred Emptiness ----whatever term you use for the sacred core of things--- you must experience The Sacred. God cannot be described, but this being can be experienced. Knowledge of "God" comes through intuition, through feeling, through sensing this presence---which you know is Reality itself --- but which you cannot encase in a conceptual capsule."

The book "The Good Heart" is based on a conference between Christian (mostly Catholic priests, nuns and lay people) sponsored by the Benedictines and featuring the Dalai Lama as the center of the proceedings. The Dalai Lama had never read The New Testament. He was asked to comment on selected passages each day of the conference which led to interesting and enlightening interchanges.

During these sessions the Dalai Lama said that Buddhists do not believe in a Personal Creator God as Christians do. However, he had no objections to the Christians believing this way since it appeared to provide spiritual growth and the development of compassionate living. In addition, he said that he felt Christians should attempt to plumb the depths and explore the variety within their Christian Faith --- before considering other religions, including Buddhism.

Jim Pym an English layman, who is both a Shin Buddhist and a Quaker, in a book he wrote says that many Western Buddhists believe in God --- simply because it is so much a part of their culture and background. He doesn't believe this hampers their Buddhism. He also points out that many non-Western Buddhists pray. Go to the temples in Thailand and Burma where you will see thousands of lay Buddhists at prayer. From both reading and personal experience, I know that Tibetan Buddhists pray. When I was doing a Tibetan practice there were prayers, e.g. for the long life of the Dalai Lama and other teachers. Then there are prayers to the Medicine Buddha.
Jim also points out that a number of well known Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh and Joshu Sazaki Roshi. The latter, now in his eighties once said that all of his life he had been nursing at the breast of God.

Does "God" have to be a Personal Creator God? The Hindus may have the "highest" thought of God: Brahman. Brahman is impersonal, without identity-- and yet nothing like a "rock" --- but full of all life and energy. Brahman's manifestations appearing as creating; nourishing and redeeming; purifying and destroying. Hence, the Hindus have Brahma (God the Father); Visnu (The Redeemer); and Shiva (The Purifier). IMO, the Absolute by whatever name one bestows upon it --- is not like us. God's identity or personality is something we humans provide -- for our own benefit. We, by nature are anthropocentric -- so our God is seen to be like us. We say that we are created in God's image. It may be more true that we have created God -- in our image.
As to the necessity of a Creator. Again, I look at Hinduism a religion I greatly respect. It stems from the very beginnings of human civilization -- when their great seers lived in a time when the Absolute may have been easier to perceive and to find unity with through meditation. Brahman "created" the "world" from Brahman. The world is the "dream" or the "play" of Brahman. Nothing was really created because there was and is nothing but Brahman.

Leaving what some would call the esoteric beliefs of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) --- I, personally, do not believe the world was created, but that reality in some form or the other has always and will always exist. It is said that every effect must have a cause, ergo, the World needs a cause. That cause is "God". The question springs instantly to mind: "Who or what created God?" The answer given by creationists is --"God is the First Cause."
For me, this response is---unsatisfactory. I am content to live in a world without a creator, and I feel that his belief is perfectly plausible.

Mahayana Buddhism speaks of
"sunyata" --- which might be thought of as sacred emptiness. If you probe deeply enough you will experience this underlying reality. In the very early Pali suttas of Buddhism the Buddha spoke of the necessity for the existence of "the Unborn, the Uncreated, the Unconditioned" -- as far as I know he only did this once.

Shin Buddhists -- and I feel I am part of this tradition -- put their enduring trust in Amida -- the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light. We know that as
bombu or foolish and weak beings -- we cannot achieve enlightenment, liberation or salvation through our personal efforts. So, we step aside -- and rely entirely on the compassionate and loving embrace of Amida. Our simple prayer is short: Namo Amida Butsu --- I take refuge in Amida Buddha -- the spiritual being of wisdom and compassion (who is NOT a Creator God).

One final point---There are those who have this attitude: "If you don't believe in a Personal Creator God you are not open to spiritual or supernatural realities. You are also, in all likelihood, an immoral person.

And, you will end up in Hell. Some of these persons say further than you must believe in the Nicene or Apostles' Creed word for word; or you must believe that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins; or that the Bible is the literal words of God. And, depending on the sect or denomination --- there are more and more criteria.

Swami Satchidananda claimed that if all the scriptures of the world would be destroyed -- including the Hindu ones -- the Absolute could be found in Nature.

If there is a Personal Creator God--then I believe he will condemn no one to Hell ---- his grace will grant salvation to all.

As for Buddhists, they all take "refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (the teaching) and the Sangha (the fellowship). Some also have special devotions and connection to other spiritual beings: Green Tara, Chenrezig, Amida etc. Buddhists, in general, have at least the faith in the spiritual and the sacred that Christians, in general do.

Buddhists believe in another life to come -- and this, in itself, makes this life more special in many ways.