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Conceptions of God

Since the time of the Buddha, the refutation of the existence of a creator has been seen as a key point in distinguishing Buddhist from non-Buddhist views.[1] Buddhism is usually considered a religion, but is also commonly described as a "spiritual philosophy", because it generally lacks an Absolute creator god. The Buddhist approach is clinical and systematic. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha analyzed the problem of suffering, diagnosed its root cause and prescribed a method to dispel suffering. He taught that through insight into the nature of existence and the wisdom of "not-self" or "selflessness" (anatta) [2] all sentient beings following the noble eightfold path can dispel ignorance and thereby suffering. Hence Buddhism does not hinge upon the concept of a Creator God but upon the personal practice of ethics, meditation, and wisdom.[3] Buddhist philosophy can also be contrasted with Hindu ideas[4] of an ultimate Self, the definition of which varies between sects.

However, in all Buddhist traditions, veneration of the Buddha as a teacher of Dharma is significant and an important part of spiritual development. While according to Pali Buddhism, the Buddha rejected being deified, in some streams of Mahayana Buddhism Gautama Buddha is worshipped as 'an omnipotent divinity endowed with numerous supernatural attributes and qualities'.[5]

The Supernatural in Buddhism

While Buddhism does not deny the existence of supernatural beings (e.g., the devas, of which many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe powers, in the typical Western sense, for creation, salvation or judgement, to the "gods". They are regarded as having the power to affect worldly events in much the same way as humans and animals have the power to do so. Just as humans can affect the world more than animals, devas can affect the world more than humans. While gods may be more powerful than humans, none of them are absolute (unsurpassed). Most importantly, gods, like humans, are also suffering in samsara, the ongoing cycle of death and subsequent rebirth. Gods have not attained nirvana, and are still subject to emotions, including jealousy, anger, delusion, sorrow, etc. Thus, since a Buddha shows the way to nirvana, a Buddha is called "the teacher of the gods and humans" (Skt: śāsta deva-manuṣyāṇaṃ). According to the Pali Canon the gods have powers to affect only so far as their realm of influence or control allows them. In this sense therefore, they are no closer to nirvana than humans and no wiser in the ultimate sense. A dialogue between the king Pasenadi Kosala, his general Vidudabha and the historical Buddha reveals a lot about the relatively weaker position of gods in Buddhism.[6]

The Pali Canon also attributes supernatural powers to enlightened beings (Buddhas), that even gods may not have. In a dialogue between king Ajatasattu and the Buddha, enlightened beings are ascribed supranormal powers (like human flight, walking on water etc.), clairaudience, mind reading, recollection of past lives of oneself and others. Yet, according to the Buddha, an enlightened person realizes the futility of these powers and instead unbinds himself completely from samsara through discernment.

Attitudes towards theories of creation

Nowhere in the Pali Canon, are Buddhas ascribed powers of creation, salvation and judgement. In fact, Buddhism is indifferent to all theories on the origin of the universe[7] and holds the belief in creation as a fetter binding one to samsara. It is important to understand that the Buddha did not expressly say that creation did not occur or that there is no creator. Instead, Buddhist focus is on the effect the belief in theories of creation and a creator have on the human mind. The Buddhist attitude towards every belief is one of critical examination from the perspective of what effect the belief has on the mind and whether the belief binds one to samsara or not.

The Buddha declared that "it is not possible to know or determine the first beginning of the cycle of existence of beings who wander therein deluded by ignorance and obsessed by craving."[8] Speculation about the origin and extent of the universe is generally discouraged in early Buddhism.[9]


Huston Smith describes early Buddhism as psychological rather than metaphysical.[10] Unlike theistic religions, which are founded on notions of God and related creation myths, Buddhism begins with the human condition as enumerated in the Four Noble Truths. Thus while most other religions attempt to pass a blanket judgement on the goodness of the world (e.g. 'He then looked at the world and saw that it was good.' Book of Genesis, Old Testament) and therefore derive the greatness of its Creator, Early Buddhism denies that the question is even worth asking to begin with.[11] Instead it places emphasis on the human condition of clinging and the insubstantial nature of the world. This approach is often even in contrast with many of the Mahayana forms of Buddhism. No being, whether a god or an enlightened being (including the historical Buddha) is ascribed powers of creation, granting salvation and judgement. According to the Pali Canon, omnipotence cannot be ascribed to any being. Further, in Theravada Buddhism, there are no lands or heavens where a being is guaranteed nirvana, instead he can attain nirvana within a very short time, though nothing conclusive could be said about the effort required for that. In this sense therefore, there is no equivalent of the Mahayana "Pure Land" or magical abode of Buddhas where one is guaranteed to be enlightened, in Early Buddhist tradition.


In both Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism (which is considered a third branch of Buddhism), there is far less reticence on the part of the Buddha to discuss metaphysical matters than is found in the Pali Canon. In some major traditions of Mahayana Buddhism (the Tathagatagarbha and Pure Land streams of teaching) there is a notion of the Buddha as the omnipresent, omniscient, liberative essence of reality, and Buddhas are spoken of as generators of vast "pure lands", "Buddha lands", or "Buddha paradises", in which beings will unfailingly attain Nirvana.


Tibetan schools of Buddhism all speak of two truths, absolute and relative. Relative truth is regarded as the chain of ongoing causes and conditions that define experience within samsara, and ultimate truth is synonymous with emptiness. While there are many philosophical viewpoints, they are all flavors of Madhyamaka, a central thread of the Mahayana philosophical tradition. Unique to the Vajrayana perspective is the expression (by meditators) of emptiness in experiential language, as opposed to the language of negation used by scholars to undo any conceptual fixation that would stand in the way of a correct understanding of emptiness. For example, one teacher from the Tibetan Kagyu school of Buddhism, Kalu Rinpoche, elucidates: "...pure mind cannot be located, but it is omnipresent and all-penetrating; it embraces and pervades all things. Moreover, it is beyond change, and its open nature is indestructible and atemporal."[12]

Veneration of the Buddha

Although an absolute creator god is absent in most forms of Buddhism, veneration or worship of the Buddha and other Buddhas does play a major role in all forms of Buddhism. While, in Buddhism all beings may strive for Buddhahood, striving to become a god or God in a monotheistic context (like in Abrahamic religions) would be futile or senseless, even heretical, due to a strict distinction between humanity and divinity. Throughout the schools of Buddhism, it is taught that being born in the human realm is best for realizing full enlightenment, whereas being born as a god presents one with too much pleasure and too many distractions to provide any motivation for serious insight meditation. Doctrines of theosis have played an important role in Christian thought, and there are a number of theistic variations of Hinduism where a practitioner can strive to become the godhead (for example Vedanta), but from a Buddhist perspective, such attainment would be disadvantageous to the attainment of nirvana.

In Buddhism, one venerates Buddhas and sages for their virtues, sacrifices, and struggles for perfect enlightenment, and as teachers who are embodiments of the Dhamma.[13]

In Buddhism, this supreme victory of the human ability for perfect gnosis is celebrated in the concept of human saints known as Arahants which literally means "worthy of offerings" or "worthy of worship" because this sage overcomes all defilements and obtains perfect gnosis to obtain Nirvana.

Thought as creator

In Buddhism, there is no Supreme creator. Yet thoughts (or mind, perceptions, etc.; Pali manas, mano in combined form) are the causes and conditions of the way we view the world.[14]

The opening phrase of the Dhammapada expresses in a few words the most profound understanding in Buddhism of the role of thought in the creation of our perception of the things (dhamma) with which we construct our worldview. In modern parlance it expresses a psychology of phenomonologically ideal realism.

Manopubbaṅgammā dhammā

Manoseṭṭhā manomayā
Manasā ce paduṭṭhena

These words are of such integral importance to understanding the Buddhist view of the role of thinking in the construction of a worldview that no single English translation should be relied upon. For example, many English translations insert the pronoun "we" into the lines which does not appear in the original Pali. To demonstrate the variety of English translations:

We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.

Preceded by perception are mental states.

For them is perception supreme.
From perception have they sprung.[15]

All mental phenomena are preceded by mind,

Mind is their master,
they are produced by mind.[16]

This verse, however, does not mean that we create the world by thinking in a godlike sense of creation, that is, by existing as a being who thinks of something and it is created. In Buddhism there is no "designer" who is outside of the design. The recognition of a "design" (i.e., pattern recognition at all levels of mentation, perception, mental complexes, etc.) is the function of manas (thinking mind) and is otherwise known in Buddhist psychology as the Sixth Consciousness. It is this role of the Sixth Consciousness in creating the fundamental patterns for the building blocks of a worldview that makes thought the "creator" of the world. All the notions we have about ourselves and our world are fundamentally incorrect notions that become the root cause of ignorance. In Buddhism, the term the world does not refer to an objective empirical world accepted as real, but to the process of objectification of a world that we experience. In Buddhism the world arises moment by moment, and no thing exists beyond the thought-moment of its existence, but that thinking makes it seem to be so by stringing together thought-moments (for example, using memory and associations) into a tapestry of the illusion of a world. So in Buddhism, the words the world refers to all this mass of stress created by the delusions of our thought-designs interpreting, configuring, and constructing the world of experience (i.e., the first Five Consciousnesses).

It is noteworthy therefore that while creation in most other religions, as perceived by a person who objectifies themselves as a being, or separate entity, is the act of a divine being and viewed as a purely positive event, while in Buddhism, neither is creation divine nor is it only positive, but necessarily both positive and negative, plus and minus, in equal proportion. That is, when the undifferentiated mind (i.e., the Eighth Consciousnesses) discriminates itself (i.e., the functioning of the Seventh Consciousnesses), that discrimination is itself the activity of mind functioning in both plus and minus capacities. This discrimination function must necessarily include both poles of every "opposition" or "polarity" that is discriminated. When the thinking process (manas) then attempts to configure a design out of the multiplicity of oppositions, it naturally falls on or grasps at one side of the apparent opposition in distinction to the other side in order to create a sense of solidity or fixation to the world. By such "taking sides" or "one-sidedness", thinking makes itself appear supreme (seṭṭha) in its own world, thus the designation manoseṭṭhā in line two of the Dhammapada above. In the Buddhist view, liberation occurs when our thinking mind (manas) comes down off its self-created throne and sees that the world it creates is illusory and that all things or patterns (i.e., dhammas) are not other than discrimination of Mind as the waves are the discrimination of the ocean. This Mind that is discriminated is designated in positive language as the Tathagata, Dharmakaya, Tathagatagarbha, Buddha Nature, Suchness, Thusness, etc. and in negative language as Sunyata, Emptiness, Non-dual, No-Mind, etc.

God in early Buddhism

In early Buddhism, the Buddha clearly states that "reliance and belief" in creation by a supreme being leads to lack of effort and inaction:[17] This is a significant hindrance in the path to liberation in the Buddha's view. It may be noted that the Buddha did not criticize veneration of the noble, veneration of the wise and learned, but only said that the belief in the existence of a creator God fetters the mind to samsara.

Having approached the priests & contemplatives who hold that...

'Whatever a person experiences... is all caused by a supreme being's act of creation,'
I said to them: 'Is it true that you hold that... "Whatever a person experiences... is all caused by a supreme being's act of creation?"'
Thus asked by me, they admitted, 'Yes.'

Then I said to them, 'Then in that case, a person is a killer of living beings because of a supreme being's act of creation. A person is a thief... unchaste... a liar... a divisive speaker... a harsh speaker... an idle chatterer... greedy... malicious... a holder of wrong views because of a supreme being's act of creation.'

When one falls back on creation by a supreme being as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], 'This should be done. This shouldn't be done.' When one can't pin down as a truth or reality what should and shouldn't be done, one dwells bewildered and unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative. This was my second righteous refutation of those priests and contemplative who hold to such teachings, such views.

It is also noteworthy that gods in Buddhism have no role to play in liberation. Sir Charles Eliot describes god in early Buddhism as such:[18]

The attitude of early Buddhism to the spirit world — the hosts of deities and demons who people this and other spheres. Their existence is assumed, but the truths of religion are not dependent on them, and attempts to use their influence by sacrifices and oracles are deprecated as vulgar practices similar to juggling.

The systems of philosophy then in vogue were mostly not theistic, and, strange as the words may sound, religion had little to do with the gods. If this be thought to rest on a mistranslation, it is certainly true that the dhamma had very little to do with devas.

Often as the Devas figure in early Buddhist stories, the significance of their appearance nearly always lies in their relations with the Buddha or his disciples. Of mere mythology, such as the dealings of Brahma and Indra with other gods, there is little. In fact the gods, though freely invoked as accessories, are not taken seriously, and there are some extremely curious passages in which Gotama seems to laugh at them, much as the sceptics of the 18th century laughed at Jehovah. Thus in the [Pali Canon] Kevaddha Sutta he relates how a monk who was puzzled by a metaphysical problem applied to various gods and finally accosted Brahma himself in the presence of all his retinue. After hearing the question, which was "Where do the elements cease and leave no trace behind?" Brahma replies, "I am the Great Brahma, the Supreme, the Mighty, the All-seeing, the Ruler, the Lord of all, the Controller, the Creator, the Chief of all, appointing to each his place, the Ancient of days, the Father of all that are and are to be." "But," said the monk, "I did not ask you, friend, whether you were indeed all you now say, but I ask you where the four elements cease and leave no trace." Then the Great Brahma took him by the arm and led him aside and said, "These gods think I know and understand everything. Therefore I gave no answer in their presence. But I do not know the answer to your question and you had better go and ask the Buddha."

Even more curiously ironic is the account given of the origin of Brahma. There comes a time when this world system passes away and then certain beings are reborn in the "World of Radiance" and remain there a long time. Sooner or later, the world system begins to evolve again and the palace of Brahma appears, but it is empty. Then some being whose time is up falls from the "World of Radiance" and comes to life in the palace and remains there alone. At last he wishes for company, and it so happens that other beings whose time is up fall from the "World of Radiance" and join him. And the first being thinks that he is Great Brahma, the Creator, because when he felt lonely and wished for companions other beings appeared. And the other beings accept this view. And at last one of Brahma’s retinue falls from that state and is born in the human world and, if he can remember his previous birth, he reflects that he is transitory but that Brahma still remains and from this he draws the erroneous conclusion that Brahma is eternal.

Brahmins and communion with God

The Brahmins of the day apparently claimed that they were the link between humans and the devas. Often this would place the priestly class at an advantageous position. But the Pāli suttas dismiss the folly of those religious teachers who would lead others to what they themselves do not personally know, as "foolish talk", or "ridiculous, mere words, a vain and empty thing".[19]

Brahma in the Pali Canon

Brahma is among the common gods found in the Pali Canon. Brahma (in common with all other devas) is subject to change, final decline and death, just as are all other sentient beings in samsara (the plane of continual reincarnation and suffering). In fact there are several different Brahma worlds and several kinds of Brahmas in Buddhism, all of which however are just beings stuck in samsara for a long while. Instead of belief in such a would-be Creator God as Brahma (a benign heavenly being who is in reality not yet free from self-delusion and the processes of rebirth), the wise are encouraged to practise the Dharma (spiritual truth) of the Buddha, in which the Noble Eightfold Path are paramount and are said to bring spiritual Liberation and Awakening.

Other common gods referred to in the Canon

Many of the other gods in the Pali Canon find a common mythological role in Hindu literature. Some common gods and goddesses are Indra, Aapo (Varuna), Vayo (Vayu), Tejo (Agni), Surya, Pajapati (Prajapati), Soma, Yasa, Venhu (Visnu), Mahadeva (Siva), Vijja (Saraswati), Usha, Pathavi (Prithvi) Sri (Lakshmi) Kuvera (Kubera), several yakkhas (Yakshas), gandhabbas (Gandharvas), Nagas, garula (Garuda), sons of Bali, Veroca, etc.[20] While in Hindu texts some of these gods and goddesses are considered embodiments of the Supreme Being, to early Buddhists this is a ridiculous idea. In the Buddha's view all gods and goddesses were bound to samsara. The world of gods according to the Buddha presents a being with too many pleasures and distractions.

God as a maintainer and the force behind the world

One of the popular views emerging in the time of the Buddha and often seen even today was the view that even though the world was not created by a creator God, there is a driving force, a guiding principle behind the workings of the world. As an example, in ancient India, some Hindu sects considered God to be the dispenser of the results of action. According to the Buddha, this view was very dangerous in two ways.

One of the primary reasons is that this places a limitation in ones understanding of the mechanism of karma. Understanding the mechanism of karma is central to the understanding the Dharma leading to the cessation of stress and hence to complete unbinding (nirvana). In fact, when the Buddha attained enlightenment, he first used his insightful awareness to view his past lives and the past and future lives of all other beings and observed the law of karma in action. Belief that a Supreme God is the force behind this law of nature places a significant road-block in spiritual progress, thus disabling the person from understanding the mechanism of karma, in terms of paticcasamuppada (or dependent causality).

The second reason the Buddha considered this notion as egregious is that this belief makes God a dispenser of the results of our actions. Given this, we could try to bribe God or as was common in those days and even today, one would worship God (or confess) to ask for forgiveness. According to the Buddha, this only makes a person irresponsible. If he were solely responsible for the results of his own actions (as he truly is) he will have no one to ask for pardon. The tendency of the human mind to look for such a God is mainly due to its tendency to indulge and yet expect to be forgiven. However, only when we understand that we are entirely responsible for our own actions, and that results accrue as a law of nature and not due to some benign or judgmental being, will we understand the importance of skillful action and reflection that leads to happiness and escape from samsara.

Another view quite popular today which was also present at the time of the Buddha in India was that God is the principle of the law of nature that causes events to occur in a causal manner. In this belief he is not considered a being whose behaviour could be influenced by human endeavour, but nevertheless was a personified image that 'governs' the world. However this is essentially an egregious personification of the laws of causality that the Buddha ascribed to the workings of the world. According to the Buddha, the law of causality could be described briefly as:

When this arises, that arises

When this ceases, that ceases.

A detailed exposition of the dependent causality was needed to understand the more subtle function of the mind-body complex of the human world. The law of causality is not intended to explain the workings of every single phenomenon in the world, but to understand the nature of samsara, the round of birth and death and karma. Personifying this law of nature into a God is of no special benefit as seen from the Buddhist standpoint.

But more than that, the Buddha adopted here a radical viewpoint on the basic tendency of the human mind to posit a God or a governor. Humans tend to look for a governor or a God primarily because of his fundamental need for protection and self-preservation. This lack of security and human weakness was according to the Buddha, the root cause that inspires humans to posit a God. In Buddhism, it is precisely because of this clinging to self and the need for self-preservation that we conceive a self, a soul or a super-soul. It is the proximal cause of ignorance and the root cause of clinging, thus binding us to samsara.

Mahayana and tantric mystical doctrines

Mahayana Buddhism, unlike Theravada, talks of Mind — using terms such as "the womb of the Thus-come One" — in a manner that is mistaken by some to indicate an "eternal entity". Such positive statements arose as a way to relate to the common misunderstanding of emptiness as nothingness, that is a nihilistic view of reality. The affirmation of emptiness by positive terminology appears quite radical when compared with early Buddhism's avoidance of "atman" and "god" terminology. Theravada, the oldest surviving school of Buddhism, generally does not subscribe to the idea of referring to the emptiness of mind with positive terminology. According to the Pali Canon, there is no eternal, all-pervading entity that is the source of all energy. Several Theravada scholars criticize the Mahayana scholars as having resorted to the same Vedantic ideas of eternal entities that the Buddha had rejected. From the Mahayana view, to the extent that any Mahayana practitioner actually asserts an "eternal entity" then this Theravada criticism is warranted. However, also from the Mahayana view, the Theravada criticism of Mahayana's use of postitive terminology as an assertion of "eternal entity" is itself a misperception of Mahayana and of Buddha's teaching.

Tathagata and Dharmakaya as God equivalents

In some Mahayana traditions, the Buddha is worshipped as a virtual divinity who is possessed of supernatural qualities and powers. Dr. Guang Xing writes: "The Buddha worshipped by Mahayanist followers is an omnipotent divinity endowed with numerous supernatural attributes and qualities ...[He] is described almost as an omnipotent and almighty godhead.".[21] In the Mahayana, it is also believed that there are countless Buddhas, but all of one essence – that of "Tathata" ("suchness" or "thusness") – and it is in this sense that the Buddha proclaims himself as "Tathagata" and exalts himself in theistic terms beyond all other "gods" when he declares, (Lalitavistara Sutra), "I am the god above the gods, superior to all the gods; no god is like me – how could there be a higher?" There are also many examples in the Pāli Canon, where the Buddha shows his magical superiority over the Brahma class of gods. So this was already present in the Pāli scriptures/ agamas. The Mahayana schools take the "akalikam" ("timeless") or eternal Dhammakaya of the Buddha in the earliest Tipitika and take it to its furthest understanding. His realm ("dhatu"), of which he is the "Holy King" (Nirvana Sutra), is further said to be inherent in all beings. This indwelling, indestructible, incomprehensible, divine sphere or essence is called the "Buddha-dhatu" (Buddha-sphere, Buddha-nature, Buddha-realm) or "Tathagatagarbha" in such sutras as the "Mahaparinirvana Sutra" and the "Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa".

A further name for this irreducible, time-and-space-transcending mysterious Truth or Essence of Buddhic Reality is the Dharmakaya (Body of Truth). Of this the Zen master (Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana school), Sokei-An, says:[22]

... dharmakaya [is] the equivalent of God ...

The Buddha also speaks of no time and no space, where if I make a sound there is in that single moment a million years. It is spaceless like radio waves, like electric space - intrinsic. The Buddha said that there is a mirror that reflects consciousness. In this electric space a million miles and a pinpoint - a million years and a moment - are exactly the same. It is pure essence ... We call it 'original consciousness' - 'original akasha' - perhaps God in the Christian sense. I am afraid of speaking about anything that is not familiar to me. No one can know what IT is ...

The same Zen adept, Sokei-An, further comments:[23]

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.

The Rinzai Zen Buddhist master, Soyen Shaku, speaking to Americans at the beginning of the 20th century, discusses how in essence the idea of God is not absent from Buddhism, when understood as ultimate, true Reality:[24]

At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience ... To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, 'panentheism', according to which God is ... all and one and more than the totality of existence .... As I mentioned before, Buddhists do not make use of the term God, which characteristically belongs to Christian terminology. An equivalent most commonly used is Dharmakaya ... When the Dharmakaya is most concretely conceived it becomes the Buddha, or Tathagata ...

Primordial Buddhas

The idea of an eternal, all-pervading, all-knowing, immaculate, uncreated and deathless Ground of Being (the dharmadhatu, inherently linked to the sattvadhatu, the realm of beings), which is the Awakened Mind (bodhicitta) or Dharmakaya ("body of Truth") of the Buddha himself, is promulgated in a number of Mahayana sutras and in various tantras as well. Occasionally, this principle is presented as manifesting in a more personalised form as a primordial buddha, such as Samantabhadra, Vajradhara, Vairochana, and Adi-Buddha, among others.

In the Mahavairocana Sutra, the essence of Vairocana is said to be symbolised by the letter "A", which is claimed to reside in the hearts of all beings and of which Buddha Vairocana declares that "[the mystic letter ‘A’] is placed in the heart location:[25]

it is Lord and Master of all,

and it pervades entirely
all the animate and inanimate.
'A' is the highest life-energy ...

The text refers to Vairocana Buddha as the "Bhagavat" ("Blessed One," a term traditionally linked in Indian discourse with "the Divine"), "Master of the Dharma, the Sage who is completely perfect, who is all-pervasive, who encompasses all world systems, who is All-Knowing, the Lord Vairocana".[26]

The Tantric text, The Sarva-Tathagata-Tattva-Samgraha, characterizes Vairocana as follows:

He is universal Goodness, beneficial,

destroyer [of suffering], the great Lord of Happiness, sky womb, Great Luminosity ... the great All-perceiving Lord ... He is without beginning or end ... [He is] Vishnu [God] ... Protector of the world, the sky, the earth ... The elements, the good benefactor of beings, All things ... the Blessed Rest, Eternal ... The Self of all the Buddhas ... Pre-eminent over all, and master of the world.

Similar God-like descriptions are encountered in the All-Creating King Tantra (Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra), where the universal Mind of Awakening (in its mode as "Samantabhadra Buddha") declares of itself:[27]

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 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.

Another important primordial Buddha is Ādibuddha (Adi-Buddha), who figures prominently in the Kalachakra tantra. Ādibuddha is believed to be a primordial, self-existent, self-created Buddha who is the personification of Shunyata or emptiness [freedom from confining substance or conceptual graspability) enshrining the infinitely Knowing Mind of Great Compassion; all phenomena lack true separate existence yet still appear, and their basis is the undifferentiated and inconceivable Mind of Buddha (empty of all defects and ignorance). However, all these seemingly godlike figures (Samantabhadra, Vairochana, Vajradhara, etc.) are traditionally understood to be personifications of emptiness and compassion – the ungraspable, limitless, invisible, inconceivable, unimpeded benevolent Reality of Buddha-Mind and the true nature of all phenomena. Some Buddhists see the above quote from Samantabhadra Buddha as radically subjective psychology, while still others will insist that the words mean what they say and do communicate the sense of an actual sustaining force or spiritual essence behind and within all phenomena.

God as manifestation of mind

One of the Mahayana Sutras, the Lankavatara Sutra, states that the notions of a sovereign God, Atman are figments of the imagination or manifestations of the mind and can also be an impediment to perfection as this leads to attachment to the concept of God:

All such notions as causation, succession, atoms, primary elements, that make up personality, personal soul, Supreme Spirit, Sovereign God, Creator, are all figments of the imagination and manifestations of mind.

No, Mahamati, the Tathágata’s doctrine of the Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the philosopher’s Atman.[28]

Instead of a personal creator God, the sutra speaks of creative Mind, and of Suchness (tathata - universal Truth-as-it-is), which is defined as: "... this Suchness may be characterised as Truth, Reality, exact knowledge, limit, source, self-substance, the Unattainable".[29]

Moreover, the same sutra also sees the Buddha reveal that he is the unrecognised One who is actually being addressed when beings project from their unawakened minds notions of Divinity and address themselves to "God". The many names for such ultimate Being or Truth are in fact said by the Buddha to be unwitting appellations of the Buddha himself. He states:

The same can be said of myself as I appear in this world of patience before ignorant people and where I am known by uncounted trillions of names.

They address me by different names not realizing that they are all names of the one Tathagata.

Some recognize me as Sun, as Moon; some as a reincarnation of the ancient sages; some as one of "ten powers"; some as Rama, some as Indra, and some as Varuna. Still there are others who speak of me as The Un-born, as Emptiness, as "Suchness," as Truth, as Reality, as Ultimate Principle; still there are others who see me as Dharmakaya, as Nirvana, as the Eternal; some speak of me as sameness, as non-duality, as un-dying, as formless; some think of me as the doctrine of Buddha-causation, or of Emancipation, or of the Noble Path; and some think of me as Divine Mind and Noble Wisdom.

Thus in this world and in other worlds am I known by these uncounted names, but they all see me as the moon is seen in the water.

Though they all honor, praise and esteem me, they do not fully understand the meaning and significance of the words they use; not having their own self-realization of Truth they cling to the words of their canonical books, or to what has been told to them, or to what they have imagined, and fail to see that the name they are using is only one of the many names of the Tathagata.

In their studies they follow the mere words of the text vainly trying to gain the true meaning, instead of having confidence in the one "text" where self-confirming Truth is revealed, that is, having confidence in the self-realization of noble Wisdom.[30]

In the "Sagathakam" section of the sutra (which contains some striking statements contradictory of earlier chapters of the sutra), one also reads of the reality of the pure Self (atman), which (while not identical to the atman of the Hindus) is equated with the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-Essence):

The atma [Self] characterised with purity is the state of self-realisation; this is the Tathagatagarbha, which does not belong to the realm of the theorisers.[31]

This Tathagatagarbha is in the Lankavatara Sutra identified with the root or all-containing Consciousness of all beings, the Alaya-vijnana. This Tathagatagarbha-Alayavijnana is stated not to belong to the realm of speculation, but can be understood directly by

those Bodhisatva-Mahasattvas [great Bodhisattvas] who like you [Mahamati] are endowed with subtle, fine, penetrative thought-power and whose understanding is in accordance with the meaning ...[32]

Such an all-containing Buddhic Matrix (Tathagatagarbha) or basis of universal consciousness (Alayavijnana) has resonances with a conception of divinity which posits the latter as the underlying reality behind and within all things. This "Self" is in some Mahayana Buddhist scriptures and tantras equated with the original, primal, all-sustaining cosmic Buddha himself (viewed either as Samantabhadra or Mahavairochana).


Though not believing in a creator God, Buddhists inherited the Indian cosmology of the time which includes various types of 'god' realms such as the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, the Four Great Kings, and so on. Deva-realms are part of the various possible types of existence in the Buddhist cosmology. Rebirth as a deva is attributed to virtuous actions performed in previous lives. Beings that had meditated are thought to be reborn in more and more subtle realms with increasingly vast life spans, in accord with their meditative ability. In particular, the highest deva realms are pointed out as false paths in meditation that the meditator should be aware of. Like any existence within the cycle of rebirth (samsara), a life as a deva is only temporary. At the time of death, a large part of the former deva's good karma has been expended, leaving mostly negative karma and a likely rebirth in one of the three lower realms. Therefore, Buddhists make a special effort not to be reborn in deva realms.


Schopenhauer claimed that Buddhism is atheistic. In the "Sinology" chapter of his On the Will in Nature, he cited the reasons for this claim.[33]

See also


  1. B. Alan Wallace, Contemplative Science. Columbia University Press, 2007, pages 97-98.
  2. No-Self or Not-self, Thanissaro Bhikku
  3. Mahasi Sayadaw, Thoughts on the Dhamma, The Wheel Publication No. 298/300, Kandy BPS, 1983
  4. Helmuth von Glasenapp, Vedanta and Buddhism: A comparative study The Wheel, Publication No. 2, Kandy, 1978
  5. Dr. Guang Xing, The Three Bodies of the Buddha: The Origin and Development of the Trikaya Theory, RoutledgeCurzon, Oxford, 2005, p. 1
  6. Kannakatthala Sutta, (MN-90)
  7. Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1)
  8. David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 111.
  9. David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, pages 111-112.
  10. Smith, Huston (1991) [1958]. The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins. ISBN 0062508113. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  11. Life Isn't just suffering, Thanissaro Bhikku
  12. Kalu Rinpoche, Kyabje (1997). Luminous Mind. Boston: Wisdom Publications. pp. 20–21. ISBN 0-86171-118-1. 
  13. Johnson, Peter (2001). "The Ten Titles of the Buddha". Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  14. Dhammapada, 1.1-3
  15. Sacred Writings, Buddhism: The Dhammapada, Translated by John Ross Carter and Mahindha Palihawadana, pp. 13, 89. 1992. Quality Paperback Book Club, New York [1]
  16. [2]
  17. Tittha Sutta AN 3.61
  18. Sir Charles Elliot. ""Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch"" (in English). 
  19. Digha-Nikaya No. 13, Tevijja Sutta
  20. Mahasamaya Sutta, DN 20
  21. Guang Xing, The Three Bodies of the Buddha: The Origin and Development of the Trikaya Theory, RoutledgeCurzon, Oxford, 2005, pp.1 and 85
  22. Zen Pivots, Weatherhill, NY, 1998, pp. 142, 146:
  23. The Zen Eye, Weatherhill, New York, 1994, p. 41
  24. Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, by Soyen Shaku, Samuel Weiser Inc, New York, 1971, pp.25-26, 32
  25. The Maha-Vairocana-Abhisambodhi Tantra, p. 331
  26. Ibid., p. 355
  27. The Supreme Source, p. 157
  28. Lankaavatar Sutra, Chapter VI
  29. Suzuki, Lankavatara Sutra, p. 198
  30. Lankavatar Sutra, Chapter XII Tathagatahood Which Is Noble Wisdom, translated by Suzuki and Goddard
  31. (see Suzuki, op. cit. p. 282)
  32. (op. cit. p. 193)
  33. On the Will in Nature, "Sinology."

    When they [Europeans] found themselves in a country where temples, priests and monasteries

    abounded, they started from the firm assumption that Theism would also be found there, though in some very unusual form. On seeing these expectations disappointed however, and on finding that the very conceptions of such things, let alone the words to express them, were unknown, it was but natural, considering the spirit in which their inquiries were made, that their first reports of these religions should refer rather to what they did not, than to what they did, contain. ... Monotheism, an exclusively Jewish doctrine, to be sure is alien to Buddhists and in general to the Chinese. For instance, in the Lettres édifiantes we find: "The Buddhists, whose views on the migration of souls are universally adopted, are accused of Atheism." In the Asiatic Researches (vol. vi. p. 255) we find: "The religion of the Burmese (Buddhism) shows them to be a nation far advanced beyond the barbarism of a wild state and greatly influenced by religious opinions, but which nevertheless has no knowledge of a Supreme Being, Creator and Preserver of the world. Yet the system of morality recommended in their fables is perhaps as good as any other taught by the religious doctrines which prevail among mankind." And again, p. 258: "The followers of Gotama (i.e. of Buddha) are, strictly speaking, Atheists." Ibid., p. 258: "Gotama's sect consider the belief in a divine Being, Creator of the world, to be highly irreligious (impious)." Ibid., p. 268, Buchanan relates, that Atuli, the Zarado or High-Priest of the Buddhists at Ava, in an article upon his religion which he presented to a Catholic bishop, "counted the doctrine, that there is a Being who has created the world and all things in it and is alone worthy of adoration, among the six damnable heresies." [Father Vincent] Sangermano relates precisely the same thing, and closes the list of the six grave heresies with the words: "The last of these impostors taught, that there is a Supreme Being, the Creator of the world and of all things in it, and that he alone is worthy of adoration." Colebrooke too says: "The sects of Jaina and Buddha are really atheistic, for they acknowledge no Creator of the world, nor any Supreme ruling Providence." I. J. Schmidt likewise says: "The system of Buddhism knows no eternal, uncreated, single, divine Being, having existed before all Time, who has created all that is visible and invisible. This idea is quite foreign to Buddhism and there is not the slightest trace of it anywhere in Buddhistic books." We find the learned sinologist Morrison too not less desirous to discover traces of a God in the Chinese dogmas and ready to put the most favourable construction upon every thing which seems to point in that direction; yet he is finally obliged to own that nothing of the kind can be clearly discovered. Where he explains the words Thung and Tsing, i.e. repose and movement, as that on which Chinese cosmogony is based, he renews this inquiry and concludes it with the words: " It is perhaps impossible to acquit this system of the accusation of Atheism." And even recently Upham says: "Buddhism presents to us a world without a moral ruler, guide or creator." The German sinologist Neumann too, says in his treatise ...: "In China, where neither Mahometans nor Christians found a Chinese word to express the theological conception of the Deity. The words God, soul, spirit, as independent of Matter and ruling it arbitrarily, are utterly unknown in the Chinese language. ... This range of ideas has become so completely one with the language itself, that the first verse of the book of Genesis cannot without considerable circumlocution be translated into genuine Chinese." It was this very thing that led Sir George Staunton to publish a book in 1848 entitled: "An Inquiry into the proper mode of rendering the word God in translating the Sacred Scriptures into the Chinese language.


  • Fozdar, Jamshed K. (1995) [1973]. The God of Buddha. Ariccia (RM), Italy: Casa Editrice Bahá'í Srl. ISBN 8872140315. 
  • Hodge, Stephen (tr.) (2003). The Maha-Vairocana-Abhisambodhi Tantra. London, UK: Routledge Curzon. 
  • Norbu, C.; A. Clemente (1999). The Supreme Source. New York, USA: Snow Lion Publications. 
  • Yamamoto, Kosho (tr.); Dr. Tony Page (ed. and revision) (1999-2000). The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. London, UK: Nirvana Publications. 
  • Sokei-an, 1998, Zen Pivots, Weatherhill, New York, Tokyo.
  • Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe, Tarcher, 1995 reprint, softcover, ISBN 0-87477-798-4

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