God in Buddhist scriptures

What do the Buddhist scriptures say about God?

In the early canonical literature, the question of the existence of God is treated primarily from either an epistemological point of view or a moral point of view. As a problem of epistemology, the question of God’s existence amounts to a discussion of whether or not a religious seeker can be certain that there is a greatest good and that therefore his efforts to realize a greatest good will not be a pointless struggle toward an unrealistic goal. And as a problem in morality, the question amounts to a discussion of whether human beings themselves are ultimately responsible for all the displeasure that they feel or whether there exists a superior being who inflicts displeasure upon people whether they deserve it or not.

An instance of the epistemological treatment of the question of the highest good occurs in the Tevijja Sutta, the thirteenth sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya.1 In this sutta there is an account of a dispute between two young brahmins, Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvāja, over the issue of which religious practices lead most directly to union with Brahmā. Brahmā is typically treated in the Nikāya literature as an object of brahmanical devotion who is believed by his devotees to be the master over whom no other being has mastery, who sees everything , the mighty one, who is lord, maker, designer, chief, creator, master and father of all beings that have been and of all beings that shall be. Moreover, companionship with Brahmā is believed to be the state of salvation, and so whatever set of practices leads most directly to companionship with Brahmā may be considered the most direct path to salvation. But the brahmin students Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvāja have heard from their respective teachers differing accounts on which practices lead to the goal that they both desire. And so they decide to approach the Buddha to see whether he can decide which party is right in this very important dispute.

On being told the nature of the dispute between Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvāja, the Buddha begins by asking the disputants a few questions of his own, and the answers to the questions show that the young brahmins believe that there are many alternative paths that lead to Brahmā, but the dispute is really over which path is most direct. On learning this much, the Buddha then pursues the supposition that there are paths that lead men to meet Brahmā face to face. What, asks the Buddha, entitles us to believe that anyone meets Brahmā face to face? Prompted by his questions, the young brahmins concede that no living brahmin teacher claims ever to have seen Brahmā face to face, nor has any living brahmin teacher’s teacher, nor has any teacher in the lineage of teachers for the past seven generations. Moreover, not even the ancient seers, who made the Vedas available to man and whose words the brahmin priests learn and chant and transmit down through the generations, claim to have seen Brahmā face to face. What we have, then, is the astonishing state of affairs in which the followers of the brahmanical religious tradition are striving toward a goal for the existence of which no one has any evidence. Their religious goal, says the Buddha, is laughable, vain and empty.

It is not only fellowship with the highest god that is dismissed in this way. Very nearly the same treatment is given to the Jaina disciple and his teacher in the Cūḷa-Sakuladāyi-sutta and the Vekhanassa-sutta, respectively suttas seventy-nine and eighty in the Majjhima Nikāya. Here the Jainas are depicted as seeking the “highest luster,” a shining light superior to which and more excellent than which there is nothing. On hearing of this unsurpassed light, the Buddha’s response is exactly the same as his reaction to the idea of comradeship with the mighty lord and creator of all beings: he challenges the devotees to point to that to which they are devoted. When they cannot do so, the Buddha spins out an analogy to illustrate to the devotees the nature of their search. They are, he says, like a young man who goes about saying, “I love and cherish the loveliest woman in the land,” but who cannot say whether she is of high birth or low, of pale complexion or dark, a city-dweller or a villager, and does not even know what her name is. In short, the poor fool does not know directly or indirectly the identity of the woman with whom he claims to be in love. We are entitled to wonder, then, whether he is really in love at all.

The Buddha’s reaction to those who seek to meet the creator or who seek the unsurpassed brilliance is not to deny that such things exist. Rather, it is to take the epistemologically cautious stand that even though the loveliest woman in the world may exist, one might very well see the person who uniquely answers to the description of the world’s loveliest woman and yet not realize that she is the person who answers to that description. Furthermore, it is not clear how one could ever be certain that a given woman were the loveliest in the world, unless he could see every woman in the world and know that he had seen every woman. Similarly, it is not clear how a religious seeker could be sure that he had correctly identified the greatest luster or the master over whom no other being has mastery. And, as we see in the Brahmajāla Sutta in the Dīgha Nikāya, the case can be made that people often misinterpret religious experiences and draw false conclusions from them, which should make one suspicious of even the very claims of direct experience of such things as unsurpassed masters. Until his identification of the supreme being is specific and certain, the religious seeker may be said to be pursuing such an ill-defined and nebulous goal that it becomes difficult to determine whether a given set of practices leads toward or away from the desired goal. In contrast, the goal of nirvāṇa toward which the Buddha’s disciples strive is sufficiently definite—the elimination of selfish desire and hostility—that a disciple can have a very clear idea of whether he has or has not reached it and whether he is or is not making progress toward it. It is a goal to be realized in this life, not in some future existence, says the Buddha, and he makes no promises to anyone other than that nirvāṇa can be achieved by anyone who strives diligently to attain it. The definiteness of the goal of Buddhist striving is what makes the goal more worthy of pursuit than the goals of the Brāhmaṇas and the Jainas―this seems to be the message so tirelessly repeated in the Nikāyas. And so the Buddha is portrayed not as an atheist who claims to be able to prove God’s non-existence, but rather as a skeptic with respect to other teachers’ claims to be able to lead their disciples to the highest good.

The above-described reactions of the Buddha to the claims of other religious teachers are simply instances of his well-known aversion to speculative views concerning matters that are beyond man’s ken. Speculation about such matters as whether the universe is beginningless or had a definite point at which it came into being was regarded as a distraction from pursuits closer at hand, and time spent thinking about such things was regarded as wasted time that could more profitably be spent on gradually ridding oneself of those counterproductive attitudes and beliefs that, when acted upon, bring further distress rather than the desired relief from the inconveniences of the human condition. That the attitude of the Buddha as portrayed in the early canonical texts is more anti-speculative than specifically atheistic is illustrated by a refrain that is frequently repeated in the Brahmajāla Sutta. Here the Buddha differentiates himself from other teachers on the grounds that he, unlike them, does not propound doctrines concerning the nature of the self after death. Furthermore, unlike other teachers, the Buddha realizes that “these dogmatic tenets thus taken up and thus embraced will lead to such and such consequences and will lead to such and such a destiny.” What the reader of this text is left to conclude is that if the consequences of embracing certain tenets about the existence of the self were healthy, then the Buddha would certainly recommend that his followers embrace them; but, since he in fact repeatedly warns people to avoid embracing certain tenets, there must be something about them that he regards as unhealthy or counterproductive.

Some insight into why it is that the Buddha regarded the belief in God as unhealthy, as an obstacle to spiritual progress, can be gained by looking at the Devadaha-sutta, the one hundred first discourse of the Majjhima Nikāya. Here we find an enumeration of the types of reasons that people often give for why they experience pleasure and pain. Among the five reasons, one is that pleasure and pain are created by God. This view is not refuted in the sutta in question, which is a polemical dialogue against the Jainas. All that is said is that if God creates pleasure and pain, then the Jainas are made by an evil creator who inflicts much suffering on them through their program of austerities; the Buddha, on the other hand, feels only pleasant feelings in his dispassionate state, and so, if pleasure be created by God, then the Buddha’s creator must be a kind one. The other theories, incidentally, as to why men experience pleasure and pain are that such experiences are 1) the result of actions done in the past, 2) the result of fate, 3) innate to certain species of beings, and 4) the outcome of efforts undertaken in the present life. A Buddhist monk, says this sutta, realizes that the source of all displeasure is self-centered craving, while the source of pleasure is non-attachment and dispassion. And so, while the reader is left to conclude that it is attachment rather than God, actions in past lives, fate, type of birth or efforts in this life that is responsible for our experiences of sorrow, no systematic argument is given in an attempt to disprove the existence of God.

Can God be a single being?

  1. A good translation of this is by Maurice Walshe (Walshe, 1995). ↩︎

Work cited

  • Walshe, Maurice O’C. 1995. The long discourses of the Buddha: a translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

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