Buddhism Articles

God in Buddhism - Is there one?

By Dr. Tony Page

"Tradition", said the great Beethoven pianist, Artur Schnabel, "is all too often a collection of bad habits". And this applies equally to habits of thought, too. For over a century now, most Westerners have been taught and have uncritically accepted that there is absolutely and categorically no God, no Divine in Buddhism. But is this true? Is it not time to look again at what this vast religion of Buddhism actually contains in connection with the idea of possible Divinity?

Firstly, we need to define "God". A key concept is that of ultimate, eternal Reality. The "Cambridge Encyclopedia" (CUP, 1997, p. 460) states: "God is conceived as 'being itself' as absolute, infinite, eternal, immutable, incomprehensible, all wise (omniscient), all-good (omnibenevolent), and everywhere present (omnipresent)."

Is there anything approaching this in Buddhism? Yes! Let's look at a small amount of the large quantity of evidence.

In his early teachings, the Buddha spoke of the realm of Nirvana (eternal peace and happiness) as being "unborn, unoriginated, uncreated" (Udana). This means that Nirvana did not spring into being from some cause or causes: it was always there.

Later, in his Mahayana teachings, the Buddha speaks of the Buddha as the "Holy King" of this mysterious realm of Nirvana. In the Nirvana Sutra, he states: "The abode of the unsurpassed Dharma Lord, the Holy King, is accordingly given the name, 'Great Nirvana'." (Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, tr. by K. Yamamoto, edited by T. Page, Nirvana Publications, 2000, Vol. 7, p. 28). "Dharma" is ultimate, sustaining cosmic Truth, and the Buddha is the embodiment of that Truth - the personalised face of the impersonal Absolute. 

Moreover, the Buddha is said to be present everywhere. Again in the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha declares of himself: 

"The Tathagata [i.e. Buddha] pervades all places, just like space. The nature of space cannot be seen; similarly, the Tathagata cannot really be seen, and yet he causes all to see him through his sovereignty. Such sovereignty is termed 'the Great Self'. That Great Self is termed 'Great Nirvana'." (ibid, p. 30).

He is thus stated to be "omnipresent", invisible, yet able to manifest through his great "sovereignty". An uncreated, omnipresent, invisible, sovereign Self who is Lord - does that sound familiar? Does it not have more than slight echoes of some form of Godhead?
Let us go further. In the Instructions on Non-Decrease and Non-Increase scripture, the Buddha reveals how his innermost and omnipresent nature - called the "Dharmadhatu" (realm of Truth) - constitutes the eternal Refuge for all creatures and the very heart of all being. He says: 

"Grounded upon this eternal, unshakeable, pure and unchanging refuge that is free from arising and cessation, the inconceivable pure Dharmadhatu, I term it 'be-ing' [sat-tva]."
We note that this "ground" of the Buddha's being is "inconceivable" or "incomprehensible" - another quality associated with the Divine.

But there is more. In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha tells of how he is worshipped under a vast array of names, including as Truth (satyata), Nirvana, and "God" ("Isvara"), and yet is not understood by those who worship him in these various modalities. They fail to see that one-and-the same uncreated, undying being is here being spoken of under a plenitude of names. Some even think he is a non-entity, a non-existence! The Buddha comments: 
"They pay respect and make me offerings, but they do not understand well the meaning of words, do not distinguish ideas, the true from the false; clinging to words of teaching, they erroneously discriminate that the Unborn and Undying means a non-existence. They are thus unable to comprehend that One Tathagata [i.e. Buddha] may be known in many different names and titles." (Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra, by Dr. D. T. Suzuki, Motilal, 1999, p. 354).

This is perhaps why many people have misconstrued an important area of Buddhism: because the Buddha speaks of something that was Uncreated or Unborn, many have wrongly assumed that this must mean there is nothing there at all - as it never became born into existence. But this is to miss the central point - that Reality was, is and never can be "created": it just IS! 

Finally, if the reader still has doubts regarding the God concept in Buddhism, let us listen to the words of the Primordial Buddha, whose name is Samantabhadra - which interestingly means "All-Good", one of our definitions of God - who in the "All-Creating King" scripture reveals, in the most awe-inspiring and majestic terms, that all beings and phenomena issue from nowhere other than himself:

"I am the core of all that exists. I am the seed of all that exists. I am the cause of all that exists. I am the trunk of all that exists. I am the foundation of all that exists. I am the root of existence. I am 'the core' because I contain all phenomena. I am 'the seed' because I give birth to everything. I am 'the cause' because all comes forth from me. I am 'the trunk' because the ramifications of every event sprout from me. I am 'the foundation' because all abides in me. I am called 'the root' because I am everything." 

("The Supreme Source", tr. by Adriano Clemente, Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Snow Lion Publications, 1999, p. 157).

This is assuredly the Buddha as God - the source, sustainer and essence of All. Is it not, therefore, time that we stopped calling Buddhism "atheistic"?

About the author / more information

Dr. Tony Page has been researching into the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (the Buddha's final sutra) for many years and am working in collaboration with the Buddhist scholar and translator, Stephen Hodge, whom he have commissioned to complete the first-ever translation of the Tibetan Mahaparirnirvana Sutra into English. If you are interested in these very affirmative teachings of the Buddha's, you can contact me at pagetony@onetel.com and I shall be happy to point you in the right general direction.

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