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Basic Buddhism
A Modern Introduction to the Buddha's Teaching
by Dr Victor A. Gunasekara

The Buddhist Attitude to God

It is first of all necessary to establish what is meant by the term "God". This term is used to designate a Supreme Being endowed with the qualities of omnipotence and omniscience, who is the creator of the universe with all its contents, and the chief law-giver for humans. God is generally considered as being concerned with the welfare of his human creatures, and the ultimate salvation of those who follow his dictates. God is therefore a person of some kind, and the question whether such an entity exists or not is fundamental to all theistic systems.

In contrast to this notion of a personal God some modern theologians have interpreted the term "God" as representing some kind of abstract principle of good (or "ground of being"). This view was first developed in the ancient Indian Upanishads where God is equated with an abstract principle (Brahman). The ancient Indian philosophers could entertain such a view because they also had a theory of karma which really does away with the need for a personal God. Buddhists too have a theory of karma, which is different from that of the Hindus, and which even more unequivocally dispenses with the need for a Deity. The use of the term "God' to denote an abstract reality by monotheistic theologians who have no theory of karma is difficult to justify; one suspects that this is merely a device to explain away the contradictions that arise from the notion of a personal God. In fact the actual practice of theistic religion proceeds as if God is a real person of some kind or other.

Just as Buddhism rejects the notion of a Supreme God it also rejects the notion of an abstract God-principle operating in the universe. The notion of Brahman (in the neuter) is not discussed at all in the Buddhist texts, and even in India it may well be a post-Buddhist development resulting from the attempt to reconcile the belief in God(s) with the powerful critique of the Buddha. It is therefore the attitude of Buddhism to the notion of a supreme personal God animating the Universe that we must consider.

One popular misconception of Buddhism must be dismissed at this point. This is view that the Buddha is some kind of God figure. In the Theravada tradition the Buddha is regarded as a supremely enlightened human teacher who has come to his last birth in samsra (the Buddhist cycle of existence). Even Mahayana traditions which tend to think in terms of transcendental Buddhas do not directly make a claim for Buddha as God. Thus the Buddha cannot be considered as playing a God-like role in Buddhism.

In the Buddhist texts Mah‚ Brahm‚ is the equivalent of God and is represented as claiming the following attributes for himself: "I am Brahm‚, the Great Brahm‚, the Supreme One, the Mighty, the All-seeing, the Ruler, the Lord of all, the Maker, the Creator, the Chief of all appointing to each his place, the Ancient of days, the Father of all that is and will be." (Dgha Nikya, II, 263).

The Buddha dismisses all these claims of Mah‚ Brahm‚ as being due to his own delusions brought about by ignorance. Mah‚-Brahm‚ is seen simply a deva unenlightened and subject to the samsric process as determined by his kamma (cf the Brahmajla and the AggaŮŮa Suttas). In the Khevadda Sutta he is forced to admit to an inquiring monk that he is unable to answer a question that is posed to him, and advises the monk to consult the Buddha. This clearly shows the Brahm acknowledges the superiority of the Buddha.

In the West a number of "arguments" have been adduced to prove or disprove the existence of God. Some of these were anticipated by the Buddha. One of the most popular is the "first cause" argument according to which everything must have a cause, and God is considered the first cause of the Universe. The Buddhist theory of causation says that every thing must have preconditions for its existence, and this law must also extend to "God" should such an entity exist. But while the "first cause" claims that God creates everything, it exempts God from the ambit of this law. However if exemptions are made with respect to God such exemptions could be made with respect to other things also hereby contradicting the principle of the first cause.

But the argument which the Buddha most frequently uses is what is now called the "argument from evil" which in the Buddhist sense could be stated as the argument from dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness). This states that the empirical fact of the existence of dukkha cannot be reconciled with the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient being who is also all good. The following verses from the BhŻridatta Jataka bring this out clearly:

If the creator of the world entire

sace hi so issaro sabbaloke

They call God, of every being be the Lord

Brahm‚ bahŻbhŻtapati paj‚na

Why does he order such misfortune

ki sabbaloke vidahÓalakkhi

And not create happiness but only discord?

ki sabbaloka na sukhi ak‚si

If the creator of the world entire

sace hi so issaro sabbaloke

They call God, of every being be the Lord

Brahm‚ bahŻbhŻtapati paj‚na

Why prevail deceit, lies and ignorance

m‚y‚mus‚vajjamadena c'api

And he such inequity and injustice create?

loka adhammena kimatthaksi

If the creator of the world entire

sace hi so issaro sabbaloke

they call God, of every being be the Lord

Brahm‚ bahŻbhŻtapati paj‚na

Then an evil master is he, (O Aritta)

adhammiyo bhŻtapatÓ Ariha

Knowing what's right did let wrong prevail!

dhamme satÓ yo vidahi adhamma

[Translated by the Author]

The Buddha argues that the three most commonly given attributes of God, viz. omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence towards humanity cannot all be mutually compatible with the existential fact of dukkha.


Updated: 1-2-2001

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