Dr. Tony Page
First published by Nirvana Publications, London 2000.
Re-issued (with numerous revisions) for this website, 2005.
For a beautifully created PDF version of this booklet - generously prepared by Kendra Crossen, who has my deep thanks and gratitude - please go here:
Is Buddhism (at least in its Mahayana manifestation) atheistic? This is a question which has preoccupied me throughout my 25-year-long study of the Buddha’s teachings and to which the usual answer of ‘yes!’ from most Buddhists has always struck me as highly questionable.
In this little book, I attempt to show that there is most definitely room for the concept of God within the vast structure of doctrines which constitute Mahayana Buddhism.
Many Buddhists will dismiss my claim as contrary to the Buddhist traditions which they themselves follow. But those traditions may in fact be at variance with what the Buddha in the ‘sutras’ (scriptural dialogues) and tantras (mystical treatises of meditative and ritual instruction) is seen to teach. All I ask is that the Buddhist and sympathetic general reader look at the evidence which I shall present - evidence which is almost exclusively drawn from the purported words and teachings of the Buddha himself – and then make up their own minds. Buddhists perhaps more than any other religious group should cherish independence of thought and openness of mind. Blind obedience to commentarial Tradition (whether Tibetan, Sri Lankan or Indian, etc.) is in my view highly undesirable.
The present book is only a short and simple one, but I hope that it might help to cast Buddhism in a brighter, more positive light than is usually its fate at the hands of many ‘orthodox’ commentators. Buddhism, I feel, should not be excessively ‘doom and gloom’, but joyous, affirmative towards blissful Truth, and filled with envigorating faith in an immanent and transcendent cosmically intelligent, all-knowing Reality called BUDDHA or TATHAGATA. I also hope that this little book might encourage scholars more competent and skilled than myself to pursue this investigation into the linkage between Buddha and God in greater detail and along similar lines. After all, not all Buddhists have denied God. As the great 20th-century Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and teacher, Sokei-an, rapturously affirmed:
‘The creative power of the universe is not a human being; it is
Buddha. The one who sees, and the one who hears is not this
eye or ear, but the one who is this consciousness.
This One is Buddha. This One appears in every mind. This One
is common to all sentient beings, and is God. We worship
This One, therefore, we join our hands and bend our heads
before This One.’ (From The Zen Eye, ed. by Mary Farkas,
Weatherhill, New York, 1994, p.41).
But let us now turn precisely to the basic question: what is God, and does Buddhism actually teach of anything that can fairly be called God?
What is God?
Before we embark on our journey of exploration into the Buddhist sutras (scriptures) in quest of God, we need to define our terms: just what do we mean by ‘God’?
Webster’s New International Dictionary defines ‘God’ in this way:
‘the supreme or ultimate reality: the Deity variously conceived …
the one ultimate infinite reality that is pure existence,
consciousness, and bliss, without distinctions (as of time and
space); the Being supreme in power, wisdom and goodness
that men worship and to whom they pray; infinite Mind …’
(Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Merriam-Webster, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, etc., U.S.A. 1981, Vol. 1, entry for ‘God’, p. 973).
John Ferguson’s Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Mysticism defines God as: ‘ … the Ultimate Being, usually conceived as personal …
God as LOVE and as the Universal Self.’ (An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Mysticism and the Mystery Religions by John Ferguson, Thames and Hudson, London 1976, entry for ‘God’, p. 68).
The Cambridge Encyclopedia gives the following definition:
‘A supernatural being or power, the object of worship …
In the mainstream Western tradition, influenced by Classical
Greek philosophy and well as Christianity, God is conceived as
“being itself” …; as absolute, infinite, eternal, immutable,
incomprehensible (i.e. unable to be comprehended by human
thought), all-powerful (omnipotent), all-wise (omniscient),
all-good (omnibenevolent), and everywhere present
(omnipresent). He is also said to be impassible, or incapable
of suffering.’ (The Cambridge Encyclopedia, Third Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 1997), ed. by David Crystal, entry for ‘God’, p. 460.
The key points which emerge from all of this are the Absoluteness, the Ultimacy or Supremacy of God. Whether conceived of as a person or as a Power (and God can be viewed under both aspects), God is the highest Reality, present in everything, limitless, undying, free from all suffering, unchanging, universally good, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-worshipful. Always God seems to be linked with the all-knowingness and wisdom/super-cognition of Absolute Mind. We must keep out eyes open for these qualities and attributes in the descriptions of Buddha and Dharma (cosmic Truth) which follow.
What, then, do the Buddhist sutras teach which has any bearing upon these exalted notions?
The Basic Buddhist World-View
There are at the present time at least two main divisions - speaking very broadly - of Buddhism active in the world: the Theravada ('Doctrine of the Elders') and the Mahayana ('Great Vehicle/ Great Causeway'). In this book, we shall focus chiefly upon Mahayana Buddhism - the more 'developed' or expanded form of the religion.
The vision of life which Mahayana Buddhism offers is essentially the following: there exist infinite numbers of universes, which emerge, endure for immense stretches of time, fade and die, only to be reborn. Within these universes are also infinite numbers of beings, who are likewise born, live for varying lengths of time, fade, die and then undergo rebirth into some other mode of existence. The moral Law which governs these rebirths is called Karma, and according as a being thinks, speaks or acts with intentional kindness or selfishness/malevolence, he or she will experience varying degrees of happiness or suffering in consequence.
There are six different realms or categories of being (gatis) within which a person can find rebirth: the Hell realm (for those who have been exceptionally cruel and evil); the 'hungry ghost' realm (for beings who are very greedy and materialistic); the animal realm (for those beings possessed of lower intelligence yet more passion than the human creature); the human realm (where there is a mixture of intelligence, stupidity, suffering and happiness - as well as varying levels of moral attainment); and finally the heavenly or 'godly' realm (which is characterised chiefly by great happiness). None of these realms or states, however, lasts forever. Beings stay in these realms only for as long as their Karma (the energy generated by their intentionally activated good and bad deeds) dictates.
This cycle of life, death and rebirth within the six realms of existence is called "samsara". It is seemingly endless, and overall the constant changes it brings with it cause much suffering (an important preoccupation of Buddhism) - unless the being is able to liberate himself or herself from the cycle of rebirths and pain into the ultimate, blissful realm of undying peace and eternity called Nirvana. Nirvana is a sphere, realm or state (visaya) beyond all the other six "gatis", and transcends all human comprehension. It is the highest possible happiness - and it endures forever and beyond. It is the profoundest Knowledge (jnana), and the utmost purity. It is the Absolute.
The beings who have reached Nirvana and who are guides to all others on this quest for spiritual Liberation (moksha) are called fully Awakened Buddhas. Although they are infinite in number, their essence is One. It is in this sense that we can speak of the Buddha or the Tathagata (the 'One gone to Thusness') - a being in whom the Buddha-dhatu (Buddha Element, Buddha Principle, Buddha Nature) has been uncovered, seen and realised.
Dharma and the Natue of Buddha
When a person becomes a fully Awakened Buddha, that person becomes a vessel for the Cosmic Law of all universes. That sustaining, patterning and all-intelligent, spiritual Law of Reality is called Dharma or Dharmata (the essential nature of Dharma), but can also be called simply Buddha, or the Awakened Mind (bodhi-citta). This is the mysterious source of all that is - both the visible and the invisible.
Unlike all worldly things, Dharma is not made or constructed. It has not been constructed or assembled from different constituent elements - not fabricated or generated by any number of causes. It was always there, here and everywhere and always will be. It cannot be seen with the physical eye, yet it does exist and is in fact the sole highest Truth. To try to describe it is to enter into the world of paradox and apparent contradiction. This is because Dharma/ Dharmata is everything we know - and much more that we don't. It cannot be captured within our limited concepts. It goes beyond all human reasoning, time modalities and sensual experience.
In his final teachings before his physical death, in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha told of how Dharma is correctly conceived of by a trainee Buddha (a "Bodhisattva"). He said:
'The Dharma which the Buddhas have taught is most excellent and superlative ...
This authentic Dharma alone has no time or season. If it is only seen with the
Dharma-eye and not with the physical eye, no simile can serve as an analogy
for it. It is unborn, unarisen, unabiding, not perishing, without beginning,
without end, unconditioned [asamskrta] and immeasurable. It provides a
dwelling for those who are homeless, a refuge for those without a refuge,
light for those without light ... it is unimpeded fragrance for places without
fragrance, it displays what cannot be seen, it is unwavering/ imperturbable,
it does not change ... it is tranquillity, the pinnacle of all dharmas. It can
utterly eradicate all the kleshas [mental and moral afflictions]; it is totally pure;
it is devoid of perceptual attributes [animitta], and it is liberated from perceptual
attributes. It is the ultimate dwelling-place of countless beings, it extinguishes
all the fires of samsara. It is the abode where the Buddhas disport themselves.
It is eternal and unchanging [aviparinama].' (translation by Stephen Hodge).
This transcendent, mysterious Dharma-Realm is a kind of special, ultimate and immortal Body or Being (called the 'Dharma Body' or Absolute Body) which a person enters into or acquires on reaching Awakening (bodhi). This is the true Nature of Buddha, and is spoken of by the Buddha in the Samadhiraja Sutra:
'Inconceivable, surpassing the sphere of thought, not oscillating between bliss
and suffering, surpassing illusory differentiation, placeless, surpassing the voice
of those aspiring to the Knowledge of the Buddha, essential, surpassing passion;
indivisible, surpassing hatred; steadfast, surpassing infatuation; explained by the
indication of emptiness, unborn, surpassing birth, eternal from the standpoint of
common experience, undifferentiated in the aspect of Nirvana ... cool, unscorched,
placeless, unthinkable, blameless, infinite in terms of colours, born of the
application of the great supernatural faculty - thus is the Body of the Tathagata
to be called.' (taken from Philosophy in the Samadhiraja Sutra by Konstanty
Regamey, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1990, pp. 87-89).
The Buddha then says that this vast, unlocalised Buddhic Body (which we should understand to be a unified totality of Body-and-Mind) projects innumerable Buddha-realms or Buddha-spheres, but that beings simply cannot grasp this inconceivable Body of the Buddha:
'Thousands of millions of spheres are magically created by me, and they serve
beings. Even there my Body cannot be grasped. Markless, signless, as is the sky -
thus is defined my Body, which is ineffable and hard to understand.
The Great Hero [i.e. Buddha] is identical with the Absolute Body. Born of Dharma
is his body; the Victorious One [i.e. Buddha] cannot be conceived in the aspect
of the Material Body.' (ibid, p. 93).
This God-like vastness of Body and creative Mind, which surpasses the physical form of the Buddha that was visible while he was on earth 2,500 years ago in India, is active in redemptive work in all places and all times. It eternally and infinitely saves beings from the suffering of spiritually defiled life. The Buddha says:
'Undefiled is my mind, for I save beings during inconceivable millions of aeons.
And therefore my Body cannot be perceived ... Just as Space is immeasurable
and cannot be measured by anyone, so is the Buddha, exactly like Space.'(ibid).
It is clear from this that in his essence, the Buddha is open, spacious, invisible and ungraspable. He is beyond all limitation. Whatever categories we try to apply to him, he both fits and does not entirely fit them. He is the ineffable Beyond.
Let us listen to the Buddha's own paradox-filled characterisation of what BUDDHA or TATHAGATA ("He who has come from Thatness" - Ultimate Reality) bafflingly is. These words of the Buddha's come from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (based on Stephen Hodge's translation) and express the two aspects of the Buddha: the phenomenal (the historical person, Siddhartha Gautama, who could be seen and touched in the India of 2,500 years ago), and the supra-phenomenal or Absolute, which is not confined to a physical body:
"The Tathagata is not human: because the Tathagata has abandoned human existence for a long time over countless kalpas [aeons], he is not human. He is not not human: because he was born in the city of Kapilavastu, he is not not human ... He is also not a sentient being: because he has abandoned the nature of a sentient being for a long time, the Tathagata is not a sentient being. He is also not not a sentient being: because he has spoken with the attributes of sentient beings on some occasions, the Tathagata is not not a sentient being.
"The Tathagata is not a phenomenon: because the various phenomena each have distinct and different attributes, while the Tathagata is not thus but has only one attribute. He is not not a phenomenon: because the Tathagata is the Dharmadhatu [the all-encompassing realm of Truth itself], he is not not a phenomenon ...
"The Tathagata is not an attribute: because he has long since been devoid of attributes, he is not an attribute. He is not not an attribute: because he fully comprehends all phenomena, he is not not an attribute.
"The Tathagata is not a mind: becasue he has the attribute of space, he is not a mind. He is not not a mind: because he is endowed with the mental qualities of the Ten Powers and the knowledge of the minds of other beings, he is not not a mind.
"The Tathagata is not compounded: because he is Eternal, Blissful, the Self, and utterly Pure, he is not compounded. He is not not compounded: because [in his physical manifestation] he comes, goes, sits and lies down and also displays Nirvana, he is not not compounded ...
"The Tathagata has four deportments [as a physical being], so he is not eternal. An eternally abiding thing has no location or direction, just as is space. The Tathagata emerged in India and dwelt in Shravasti or Rajagraha, so he is not eternal. For these reasons, the Tathagata is not eternal.
"Yet he is also not not eternal. Why not? Because he has severed arising forever. Phenomena endowed with arising are not eternal, whereas phenomena devoid of arising are eternal. The Tathagata is devoid of arising, so he is eternal. Phenomena which are eternal are devoid of intrinsic nature [svabhava], whereas phenomena endowed with intrinsic nature are not eternal. The Tathagata is devoid of arising and lineage. Because he is devoid of arising and lineage, he is eternal.
"Phenomena associated with eternity pervade all places, just as there is no place where there is no space. The Tathagata also is thus and pervades all places, therefore he is eternal.
"Phenomena which are not eternal are said to exist here and not exist there, but the Tathagata is not like that, for it is not possible to say that he exists [ = is present] in one place and does not exist [ = is not present] in another. Therefore he is eternal.
"Phenomena which are associated with impermanence exist on some occasions and do not exist on other occasions, but the Tathagata is not thus - existing at some times and not existing at other times - : hence he is eternal ...
"Phenomena which permanently abide are disassociated from the three times [i.e. past, present and future]. The Tathagata is also thus, disassociated from the three times, and thus is eternal ...
"The Tathagata is not fixed. Why? Because the Tathagata manifests himself entering into Parinirvana between the two sala trees here at Kushinagara. Therefore he is not fixed. Again, he is not not fixed. Why not? Because he is Eternal, Blissful, the Self, and utterly Pure." (Dharmakshema)
We see that the Buddha is limitless, timeless, and omnipresent. These are pre-eminently attributes of God. He is also that which was never created or assembled and which will never die - another aspect of the Divine. He is true Selfhood, in a state of immortal purity and bliss. Again, we are essentially speaking of divine Perfection here. Buddha is the Mystery of mysteries, as the Avatamsaka Sutra indicates:
"Buddha is not finite or infinite: the great sage has transcended finitude and infinity. Like the sun coursing through the sky, giving light every day, so does the sagacious guide appear, independent of past, present, and future ... As the wind blows swiftly through the sky, not sticking to anything, in the same way does the nature of Buddha operate in the world. ... Unquantifiable, the Victor [Buddha] cannot be known by any scales; endowed with unobstructed knowledge, Buddha transcends the path of words. Radiant as the full moon, steady, adorned with a multitude of qualities, He passes infinite eons creating transformations. Thinking of the Buddha in every way with perfect concentration, even after untold billions of eons, Buddha would still be inconceivable." (The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, tr. by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala, Boston and London 1993, pp. 1,153 - 1,155).
Another attribute of the Divine which emerges from this is that Buddha transcends time, as already mentioned. As a physically projected being, he has his feet within the temporal realm, it is true, but in his divine hypostasis he towers beyond Time in its threefold modality. Yet though timeless, he is not a non-entity. He is possessed of a mass of virtues, beyond reckoning. And chief amongst these is Loving-kindness - as we shall see in our next chapter.
Buddha as Love
Perhaps the single characteristic which many people associate with "God" is Love. This quality is pre-eminent in Buddha. It is called "maitri", which can be translated as "friendliness", "benevolence", "kindliness", "loving-kindness", or simply "love". The Mahaparinirvana Sutra contains a veritable paean to Loving-kindness in the following words addressed by the Buddha to one of his disciples. When the Buddha refers to himself, he normally uses the term, "Tathagata", which means the One who has gone to, and come from, the Absolute ("Tathata"). He states:
"Loving-kindness is the Tathagata. O noble son! Loving-kindness acts as the parent of all beings. The parent is Loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the Tathagata. O noble son! Loving-kindness is what exists in the inconceivable world of all Buddhas. What exists in the inconceivable world of all Buddhas is at once Loving-kindness. Know that Loving-kindness is the Tathagata. O noble son! Loving-kindness is the Buddha-dhatu [Buddha Principle, Buddha Core, Buddha Essence] of all beings. This Buddha-dhatu has long been overshadowed by defilements. That is why all beings are unable to see it. The Buddha-dhatu is Loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the Tathagata ... O noble son! Loving-kindness is the Eternal. The Eternal is Dharma. Dharma is the Sangha [all the Awakened Beings in their entirety]. The Sangha is Loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the Tathagata. O noble son! Loving-kindness is Bliss. Bliss is Dharma. Dharma is the Sangha. The Sangha is Loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the Tathagata. O noble son! Loving-kindness is the Pure. The Pure is Dharma. Dharma is the Sangha. The Sangha is Loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the Tathagata. O noble son! Loving-kindness is the Self (atman). The Self is Dharma ... O noble son! Loving-kindness is the Immortal (amrta). The Immortal is Loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the Buddha-dhatu. The Buddha-dhatu is Dharma ... O noble son! Loving-kindness is the limitless world of the Bhagavat [Blessed One]. The limitless world is Loving-kindness. Know that Loving-kindness is the Tathagata." (The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit., Vol. 5 (2000), pp. 17-18).
Here, everything ultimately resolves itself into one thing - Love. And interestingly, we learn from this passage that the quintessential, beneficent nature of the Buddha is in all beings, but covered up by their vices (chiefly, hatred, selfish desire, spiritual ignorance, pride and jealousy). Once those contaminants of our innermost nature are removed, we allow the fount of pure Love to spring forth from within us. This loving, immortal Buddha Principle (Buddha-dhatu) is referred to in this scripture and others as the True Self - as opposed to the deceptive, grasping, clinging, transitory, physically-based puny ego which dominates all of our unawakened lives. The Buddha is the embodiment of that True Self (the atman, as it is called in Sanskrit), and that True Self of Loving-kindness can be attained by all sentient beings.
Perhaps, at this juncture, we should say a few words about the Buddha-Self, since many people are under the mistaken impression that Mahayana Buddhism absolutely denies the existence of the eternal Self or Soul ((which is Buddhically One in its nature, not multifarious and diverse). In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha states:
"... all phenomena are not non-Self. The Self is real, the Self is eternal, the Self is virtue, the Self is everlasting, the Self is immovable, and the Self is peace."
This Self is what the Buddha truly is. But he has two other forms of manifested body-and-mind, which are less mysterious and more visible than his "Dharma-Being" (dharma-kaya): they are the "Enjoyment Body" (sambhoga-kaya), which is the radiant, heavenly form of the Buddha perceived by high-level beings, and the "Transformation Body" (nirmana-kaya), the physical body which the Buddha assumes here on earth. In his manifestation as Buddha in the world, as well as Buddha in the various Buddha-Paradises which he develops, the Buddha is very much a person. In fact, the Buddha is frequently called (and refers to himself as) the maha-purusha. This means, "Great Man" or "Great Person" - but crucially the term would have had connotations to Buddha's Indian Brahmanic lsiteners of the day of "God" (just as the term, "Bhagavat", was usually applied to a perceived Divine incarnation by the Brahmanic religionists of that time). The Brahmanic religion understood purusha to mean (and here I quote from Sri Swami Sivananda): "the Supreme Being; a being that lies in the city (of the heart of all beings). The term is applied to the Lord. The description applies to the Self which abides in the heart of all things." (Yoga Vedanta Dictionary, by Sri Swami Sivananda, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1973, p. 135). Interestingly, the Buddhas are specifically styled the "Hearts of All Beings" in the Lalitavistara Sutra (The Lalitavistara Sutra: The Voice of the Buddha, tr. by Gwendolyn Bays, Dharma Publishing, Berkely, USA, 1983, p. 527). We should become sensitive to such important verbal resonances.
But is the Buddha actually worshipped like a God? After all, as we saw from our various dictionary definitions, worship is an element invariably associated with God. Let us see what the sutras reveal on this point.
[Continued in "Buddha and God (2)"]