First cause

Can there be a single source of all beings?

Buddhism began in India and defined itself in opposition to a number of other visions of the world and systems of practice. Most systems of thought and practice in early India subscribed to some version of a notion of a first cause, that is, something that is the cause of all other things and events but is itself uncaused. The first cause is said to set all other things into motion while being itself unmoved; it is said to be ultimately responsible for all change without itself being unchanged. There were various candidates for what this unmoved mover might be called. In some Indian philosophical systems, such as those based on the Upaniṣads, it was called brahman, described as an impersonal ground of being. In other systems it was portrayed as a personal divine creator. Buddhists in India tended to reject the idea that there can be a single source of all beings, whether that be thought of as a personal creator deity or an impersonal ground of being. Buddhist scholastics focussed most of their attention, however, on criticizing the concept of God.

What is the relevance of God to Buddhism?

Given the basic teachings of Buddhism, theology is arguably irrelevant. The task that the Buddha and his followers were interested in achieving was the eradication of the root causes of human unhappiness, which were said to be desire, animosity and confusion. Given that task, there was nothing to be gained in speculating about whether there is a supreme being and what the nature of such a being might be if it exists. Buddhists took at interest in such speculation only when others insisted that some kind of relationship with the creator of the universe was the answer to the problem of human discontent. As others became more vociferous about the necessity to turn to God, Buddhists responded by becoming increasingly critical of the very idea of a supremely powerful creator deity who continues to participate in human history. The Buddhist questioning of the doctrine that all things come from God was, however, only one example of a much larger project of questing any doctrine that says that the entire world of multiplicity comes from a single source. Traditional Buddhists tended to be radically pluralistic and therefore were strongly resistant to the notion that “all is one” or “we all come from the same source.” Traditional Buddhists from India would probably have been as skeptical of the Big Bang theory as they were of the theory of a creator god, or the theory of all things being a manifestation of Brahman, or the theory that the entire material world derived from an undifferentiated primordial matter. In this module, some of the reasons that Buddhists articulated will be explored. Among the questions to be asked are the following: