What Buddha Didn't Say About God

Mural in Thai Temple
Rattanapatphoto | Dreamstime.com

I smacked into a couple of blog posts today on the question of what the Buddha said about God. And since the websites seem to think my comments are incoming spam, I am responding to one of the posts here.

"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?

No, he did not, but it's important to understand why that is true.

The concept of God as a unique and supreme transcendent being and creator of the world appears to be the work of Jewish scholars of the mid-1st millennium BCE. For example, the familiar creation story in Genesis probably was written in the 6th century BCE, according to Karen Armstrong's A History of God. Before that, Yahweh was just one tribal deity among many.

This development in Judaism was happening at about the same time as the life of the Buddha but in a different part of the world. The timeline suggests to me that it was unlikely any teachings about the Abrahamic God as is understood today ever reached the Buddha or the Buddha's disciples. If you were to have asked the Buddha if God exists, he might have said, "Who?"

Yes, there is a "complex pantheon of Brahmanic gods" (quoting another blogger) in the Pali texts. But the role they play in what we call "Buddhism" is very different from the role of gods in standard polytheistic religions.

Most of the time, in what we might call "classic" polytheism, gods are beings who have charge of specific things, such as the weather or harvests or war.  If you wanted to have many children (or vice versa) you would make offerings to a fertility deity, for example.

But the Brahmanic gods of the Pali texts aren't in charge of anything connected to humans. It makes no difference whether one believes in them, or not. There is no point in praying to them because they rarely interact with humans and aren't interested in your prayers or offerings. They are characters who live in other realms and who have their own problems.

(Yes, one can find examples of Asian laypeople relating to icons of Buddhism as if they were polytheistic deities. In many parts of Asia, lay people for centuries were taught very little about the dharma except to keep the Precepts and give alms to monks, and people "filled in the blanks" with local folk beliefs and bits of other Vedic traditions. But that's a whole 'other post; let's stick to the teachings of the Buddha for now.)

The tantric deities of Vajrayana are something else again. Of these, Lama Thubten Yeshe wrote,

"Tantric meditational deities should not be confused with what different mythologies and religions might mean when they speak of gods and goddesses. Here, the deity we choose to identify with represents the essential qualities of the fully awakened experience latent within us. To use the language of psychology, such a deity is an archetype of our own deepest nature, our most profound level of consciousness. In tantra we focus our attention on such an archetypal image and identify with it in order to arouse the deepest, most profound aspects of our being and bring them into our present reality." (Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality [1987], p. 42)

So when you speak of God or gods in Buddhism, it's important to not define the word "god" as westerners usually do but to understand the word in the context of Buddhism. And when you wade into Mahayana, asking if God exists is a double non-starter. Never mind what you mean by God; what do you mean by "exist"?

Akasaskye continues,

"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."

The Buddha did not speak of a creator deity, but he did speak of creation. The Buddha clearly taught that all phenomena are "created" by means of cause and effect determined by natural law. Further, the course of our lives is determined by karma, which we create. Karma is not being directed by a supernatural intelligence but is its own natural law. This is what the Buddha taught. For more explanation, see "Dependent Origination," "Buddhism and Karma," and "The Five Niyamas."

So while he did not specifically say there is no creator god, in Buddhism, there is nothing for a creator god to do.  God has no function, no role to play, either as an original source or as an instigator of current events. Every task that God does in the Abrahamic religions was assigned to various systems of natural law by the Buddha.

So, while the Buddha never explicitly said "There is no God," it's not incorrect to say that God-belief is not supported by the Buddha's teaching.

Awhile back I wrote a blog post called "Determining the Dharma," which addressed a line from the Vimalakirti Sutra -- determine the dharma according to the dharma. A commentary on these lines attributed to Sangharakshita said,

"For us in the West it means, not determining, not understanding the Dharma, according to Christian beliefs, whether conscious, unconscious, or semiconscious. It means not determining or understanding the Dharma in accordance with modern secularist, humanist, rationalist, scientific, modes of thought. It means not determining or understanding the Dharma in accordance with the fanciful ideas of the worthy, but woolly-minded people who organize such things the Festival of body, mind and spirit."

In the Abrahamic religions, the existence and nature of God are all-important. In Buddhism, the existence and nature of God (as usually understood in the Abrahamic religions) make no sense, and shoe-horning God-belief into Buddhism just makes a mess.  If you want to understand Buddhism, if you are trying to "determine the dharma," you must put aside Christianity or Judaism, and you must put aside Sam Harris and Deepak Chopra. Make no assumptions about what things "mean" in any other context. Determine the dharma according to the dharma.