GOD IN BUDDHISM By The Rev. Dr Ian Ellis-Jones Member Pastor, Unitarian Ministries, Columbia, South Carolina, United States of AmericaIt is often said, especially by Buddhists, that Buddhism is “atheistic” or “non-theistic”. Often this is said in order to promote Buddhism as a sensible religiousor spiritual alternative to the monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaismand Islam with which many Westerners have become disillusioned.Before addressing the question of whether Buddhism is “atheistic” or “non-theistic” one must bear in mind that there are as many, if not more, differentdenominations, sects and schools of and in Buddhism as there are inChristianity. There are enormous differences between Theravāda Buddhism, ofwhich there are a number of different schools, on the one hand, and MahāyānaBuddhism, of which there are almost countless schools and sects, on the other.In some schools or sects of Buddhism you will find “gods” of various kinds as wellas notions and concepts that, we will see, are very similar to notions andconcepts of God that can be readily found in progressive Christianity includingbut not limited to Unitarian Christianity.We also need to be careful with this word “atheistic”. Atheism simply refers to thelack or absence of theistic belief. Atheism may be strong or weak, philosophicalor practical, and so forth, but atheism does not require actual denial of theexistence of God or the possibility of there being any such existence. Atheism issimply the lack or absence of theistic belief. Please note that, for presentpurposes, the word "God" is used in its fairly traditional monotheistic sense to
2refer to some sort of supernatural personal or superpersonal being who isomnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (everywherepresent) and omnibenevolent (all-loving, notwithstanding the presence of evil andsuffering in the world of which God does not approve but which God allows,whether as part of his active or passive will or otherwise), and with whom we canmake contact by means of prayer and meditation. Now that is a fairlyconservative definition or description of God, and progressive Christianity oftensees or describes God in other ways, such as “Love, “the ground of all being” oreven “Being” itself. The latter is not a new development in theology.True, the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni (Śākyamuni) Buddha, was quiteagnostic as to the existence of God or gods in general. However, in looking atBuddhism as a whole, or any religion for that matter, we must always rememberthe sound advice of Krishnamurti who often said, “The word is not the thing.” Theword “God” is not God, and the question, “Do you believe in God?”, is next tomeaningless unless and until one defines or at least describes what one meansby the word “God”. The fact that a religion, or some school or sect within thatreligion, does not use the word “God” does not necessarily mean that there is noGod or equivalent figure or concept in that religion. For starters, it is not at allhard to find “gods” in Buddhist cosmology even if those gods are, for the mostpart, said to be subject to the same laws that bind most, if not all, other sentientbeings.Buddhism, with its cosmology, is essentially cyclical in nature, with sentientbeings contingent in nature, whereas the cosmology of the traditionalmonotheistic religions is essentially linear, that is, there is a definite beginning toall life and further all life will come to an end at some as yet unknown (or knownonly to God) endpoint in the future. True, it is, that one finds no creator God inBuddhism, at least not in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic sense of “creation”. However,one can easily find in many of the Mahāyāna schools concepts of the Buddha aspre-existing, and existing for the sake of all other sentient beings, as well as theexistence of many semi-divine beings who are very similar to Hindu gods.
3There are many concepts and ideas, and even beings or “Being” itself, inBuddhism that are similar to broad Christian notions of God or the Divine nature.First, there is Dharmakāya, which is the Truth Body of the Buddha, and the truenature of final Buddhahood or the perfected state of our existence. Although nota Divine Being as such, or even some absolutely existent permanent entity, thisbody is said to be “empty”, and I will have more to say about the Buddhistconcept of “emptiness” shortly. The Dharmakāya is Ultimate Truth itself,transcending space, time and form. Dharmakāya is atemporal and infinite. Beingboundless, it is said to be beyond all conceptual elaboration. Dharmakāya is saidto be even beyond existence and non-existence, unknown and unknowable, ifyou like.” In short, Dharmakāya is not at all dissimilar to the “God beyond God” ofPaul Tillich. Thus, in The Heart Sutra we read: Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form; the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. Here, O Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete. Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousnessSecondly, one finds in the oldest texts of Buddhism Lord Buddha himselfreferring to Brahmanic concepts such as Brahmayana (the so-called path toBrahman or the Absolute) and “Brahmanhood” (said to be the Noble EightfoldPath), and speaking of that which is “an unborn, unbecome, unmade world” thatis “incomposite”. Buddha even denied that an Arahant (an enlightened being) “isnot” after death, and it cannot be said that Buddha ever affirmed that “there is noSelf”. The further one goes back, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish earlyBuddhism from Brahmanism. This should not come as a surprise, as the earliestChristians were Jews and retained much of their Jewish identity and beliefs.
4Thirdly, some assert, with considerable justification, that the closest thing to“God” in Buddhism are the previous Buddhas themselves. Theravāda Buddhism,the oldest (subject to the early “Aryan Buddhism” referred to above) and mostnaturalistic form of Buddhism, is sometimes practised with an emphasis onvenerating or even worshipping Arahants and folk gods. Further, in somestreams of Mahāyāna Buddhism the historical Buddha himself, although he neverclaimed to be divine, is venerated, and in some places even worshipped, as anomnipotent divinity who is said to be endowed with various supernaturalattributes and qualities.Fourthly, some commentators say that the closest thing to God in Buddhism iskarma, from the perspective that Buddhism affirms that there are certainimmutable laws of the universe that involve the evolution of matter throughvarious natural cycles by means of rebirth.Fifthly, others, such as Joseph Goldstein, have written that the closest thing toGod in Buddhism is the Dharma (or Dhamma), the Truth, Wisdom and Lovewhich enfolds the entire universe, the very Ground of Being itself, or, in the wordsof the eminent Thich Nhat Hanh, the ground of “Inter-Being”, the latter being afield of dynamic energy within which we live and move and have our being (cfActs 17:28).Sixthly, we have the familiar so-called “Buddhist Trinity” in either or both of thefollowing: • the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sanga – the “Triple Gem” (or the “Three Jewels”), being the three things that every Buddhist takes “refuge” in, that is, holds on to, commits to spiritual discipline and practice, and constantly “returns” to and “comes home” to, • the Trikaya theory, comprising Dharmakāya (already referred to above, being the true nature of final Buddhahood), Samhogakāya (an intermediate state consisting of the Buddha’s embodiment in the form of a
5 subtle energy), and Nirmanakāya (the full embodiment of the Buddha in the form of a physical, tangible body, that is, a Buddha body of perfect emanation, of which Shakyamuni Buddha is said to be a supreme example).Seventhly, there is in various Mahāyāna schools including but not limited to Zenand Shinnyo-en the concept of “buddha nature”, a concept very similar to StPaul’s concepts of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27) and “one Godabove all things, through all things, and in all things” (Eph 4:6). Our “buddhanature” is that “divine spark” within each of us which, when nurtured andcultivated, enables us to manifest as gods (cf Ps 82:6, Jn 10:34).Finally (but not really finally, as I could go further and refer to other “God”concepts and thought forms), we have the notion of shunyata (Śūnyatā).Shunyata is a reference to the “emptiness” of true existence. It is not, as so manyignorant conservative Christian apologists continue to assert, a state ofannihilation - they say the same thing about Nirvana (Nibbāna) – but asupramundane state which is, quoting from the Vaipulya Sutra, “neither existingnor extinct, neither permanent nor annihilated, neither identical nor differentiated,neither coming nor going”. It is Ultimate Reality, “not defiled, not pure, notincreasing and not decreasing”. It is the voidness of all things and manifests itselfas infinite compassion and loving kindness (cf the Christian concept of God asLove, cf 1 Jn 4:8).We have a wonderful example, or personification, of this supramundane state ofshunyata in the figure of Quan Yin, the Mother of Mercy, which is one of the mostuniversally beloved of deities in the Buddhist tradition. Also known as Kwan Yin,Kuan Yin, QuanAm (Vietnam), Kannon (Japan), and Kanin (Bali), she is theembodiment of compassionate loving kindness. As the Bodhisattva ofCompassion, she hears the cries of all beings. Quan Yin enjoys a strongresonance with the Christian Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Tibetangoddess Tara. The word "quan" means to hear. Normally, when we hear
6anything it gets mixed up with our ongoing mental and emotional activities andattachments. However, when Quan Yin hears the cries and sufferings of theworld she does so out of a state of emptiness (shunyata). Only when there is thisstate of emptiness in us can there be compassionate loving kindness. Theessence of emptiness is compassion, and this is the Buddhist view of the Sacred,the Holy, or, if you like, the Divine ("God").The historical Buddha is said to have exclaimed, “he who sees me sees theDhamma.” Likewise, Jesus is quoted as having said, “He who has seen me hasseen the Father” (Jn 14:9) and “He who sees me sees the One who sent me” (Jn12:45). Both Buddha and Jesus taught a “Way” to be followed. Let me finish withtwo quotations. The first quotation is from the Third Karmapa, a Tibetan masterof the 14th century. He is writing about the “buddha nature” and the relationshipbetween what has been variously referred to as both Dharmakāya and shunyata,on the one hand, and the earthly, physical, manifest world on the other: The cause is beginningless mind as such. Though it is neither confined nor biased, Due to the unimpeded play of that very [mind], Empty in essence, lucid in nature, And unimpeded in manifestation, it appears as everything.The second quotation comes from the great 20 th century Protestant theologianProfessor Paul Tillich, who wrote: It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God does not exist as a being. God is the ground and power of being, and as such is the answer to the question of being generally. Everything that is has both its origin and its power to be in God.