A couple of people have asked me recently about what Buddhism has to say about God. There are a couple of different ways to answer this.
Buddhism, God and practice
The most important thing from my perspective is the practice of Buddhism. The ideas of Buddhism are only useful to the extent that they support your practice.
There are many Christians and people of other theistic faiths who find Buddhist practice of interest and of use.
Meditation doesn’t belong to Buddhism, it belongs to everyone. Meditation on the breath, cultivating universal loving-kindness, bringing your attention to what is. These do not require a belief in anything specifically. And they don’t require you to deny a belief in anything either.
Buddhism has integrated successfully with whichever indigenous religion it has happened to find itself encountering. In China Buddhism encountered Taoism and developed into Cha’an (‘Zen’ in Japanese). In Tibet, Buddhism encountered the pre-existing Bonn religion and was hugely influenced by it. I see no reason why the same could not be true of Buddhist encounters with Christianity or Islam.
Or science or psychology.
In reality, I think both of these strands will be explored in the west.
Personally, I’m fine with that. Buddhism will find its way. ‘Reality’ and ‘truth’ can be expressed in any number of ways, through any number of forms. A Buddhism influenced by Christianity will still be Buddhism. And hopefully Christianity will benefit from interactions with Buddhism too.
But what does ‘real’ Buddhism have to say about God?
The universe, according to traditional Buddhist cosmology, is filled with non-physical beings. There are gods, there are ghosts, there are pretty much anything you can imagine.
The thing is, they aren’t enlightened. And therefore, in the Buddhist pantheon, Buddha comes out on top (yes, surprising isn’t it).
World systems (universes) come and go, according to the Buddhist view. They are impermanent and arise and cease according to causes and conditions.
The first god to be reborn in a new world system according to his or her or its karma looks around, sees no other being, and thinks ‘Wow! I created this!’
This god has accrued lots and lots of good karma, so they have amazing powers, live a super-long time, and generally have a lovely experience of being alive.
But they’re not enlightened and are a bit deluded by all this good stuff. They think they’ll live forever and they think they’re omnipotent. Eventually (after a REALLY long time) they will exhaust their karma, die, and be reborn as something not quite as groovy.
Other beings of all kinds are also reborn into that world system according to their karma. And the first god thinks ‘I created them too!’
This is one story from the Buddhist tradition about gods that think they’re creator gods.
If you ask me, this is all a bit political and I don’t particularly care for it. It’s a funny story, but it has nothing to do with reality, though it may be a useful teaching about how we tend to think we’re something special when life goes well.
The Buddha says don’t get too big for your boots. The good stuff, like the bad stuff, shall pass.
Buddhism in its historical context
You have to remember that Buddhism emerged within a historical, philosophical and religious context.
There was a pre-Buddhist Vedic tradition in ancient India that was sophisticated and popular. This developed over time but one of the key ideas that emerged was that we have a true self (‘atman’) and that self is in fact one with god (‘Brahman’).
The point of spiritual development, from this perspective, is to remove the illusion that we are separate from God. We are pure, eternal, divine.
The Buddha took god out of the equation.
He said that the law of karma in itself is enough to explain why we are born as we are and lots of the weird stuff that happens to us around inequality and suchlike.
He also said that if you look closely at yourself, and in fact at everything in the world, you find that you only have limited control of it, and that it’s impermanent. In what way then is it a ‘self’? In what way is it eternal? In what way is it divine?
Hence the theory of ‘anatta’ or ‘anatman’ – ‘not-self’. This theory too must be understood in its historical context.
I should also point out that there were other theories around at the time. Different ideas about karma (including that there’s no such thing), and different ideas about what happens when you die (including nothing – when you’re dead you’re dead).
So whether you like this karma and rebirth stuff or not, we can’t easily brush them aside as ‘mere cultural accretions’. But that’s for another day.