Buddhist theodicy

Theodicy and the Buddha

The closer Buddhists come to portraying the Buddha as a being who knows all things, can do all things and responds to the suffering of all beings, the closer they come to describing an impossible being. Were the Buddhists in danger of making the Buddha impossible to the same degree that Hume and Mackie argued that traditional Christian conceptions of God are impossible? Let us examine each of the three predicates in turn, and see what Buddhist claims about the Buddha were.


Although the Buddha is often described as sarvajña, which literally means knower of all things, the Buddhist tradition has for the most part not taken that term literally. Jayatilleke says that in the Theravāda tradition, the phrase was usually taken to mean that the Buddha could know what he set out to know, and that his range of knowledge was greater than that of an ordinary being. Dharmakīrti ridicules the idea of a fully omniscient being and argues that anyone who is looking for a guide out of turmoil will be satisfied with someone who knows what is necessary for that task. As he puts it, what good to us is someone who knows the number of maggots living in the world?

Given that the majority of Buddhists did not depict the Buddha as omniscient, they were not depicting the Buddha as a being whose characteristics are incompatible with the fact of suffering in the world.


The Buddha is often portrayed as having extraordinary powers. The canonical texts say he can discern the thoughts in the minds of other people and can hear conversations taking place very far away, and he even has the power to heal serious wounds in other people by just thinking about them. But being able to do more than most people can do is still a long way from being able to do anything at all. Usually Buddhists do not claim that any buddha is omnipotent. Even the remarkable Amitābha in the Sukhāvatīvyūha has limited power. Recall that his vows had the power to elevate people to a celestial realm of bliss, but even Amitābha could not prevent the karma of the five especially heinous actions from ripening as rebirth in a hell realm.


The Buddha is not depicted as having unlimited knowledge or unlimited power to do whatever he wanted to do, but his compassion is often portrayed as reaching the ideal of being universal. That is, there was no one for whom the Buddha did not care, no one whose suffering he did not want to eliminate, no one whose good fortune did not bring him joy. He is usually portrayed as the embodiment of the kind of love recommended in the Karaṇīya Mettā sutta of the Suttanipāta in the Pali canon:

Cultivate an all-embracing mind of love
For all throughout the universe,
In all its height, depth and breadth—
Love that is untroubled
And beyond hatred or enmity.

As you stand, walk, sit or lie,
So long as you are awake,
Pursue this awareness with your might:
It is deemed the Divine State here.

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