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Frequently Asked Questions For Christians: God And Buddhism

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Posted by Glenn on December 18, 2003 09:30:00 UTC

Part 1a: God the Creator
Question: Why doesn't Buddhism believe in God?
Answer: This is not a simple question to answer because there are many conceptions and ideas about God even within Christianity, and Buddhism also has different ideas about God. So what do you mean when you say "God?"
Question: I mean the God who created the world, revealed Himself in the Bible, and who so loved the world that he sent His only beloved Son for our salvation.
Answer: Well, those are three different conceptions of God which you have just listed, so let's take them one at a time.
1. "The God who created the world." -- Buddhists have a problem with this because we view the world as part of a larger cosmos that is at least as big as that taught by modern science, and in addition we believe that this universe includes realms that transcend the physical universe. Furthermore, this universe is believed to arise and fall in accordance with causes and conditions in a rhythmic process that takes billions of years to go through just one cycle. This is similar to the modern scientific idea of a big bang and then a big crunch, except that Buddhism teaches that the universe expands and contracts repeatedly over countless eons. The Buddha also taught that we should not concern ourselves with speculations concerning the ultimate beginning or end of this process (assuming that this process is not beginningless and endless) but rather we should focus on taking responsibility for our lives and strive to extinguish suffering by living a noble life characterized by such qualities as loving-kindness, compassion, joy, peace, generosity, virtue, and patience to name a few. To engage in fruitless cosmological speculations instead of working on the practical issue of suffering and the liberation from suffering would be like getting shot and while bleeding to death refusing to go to the hospital for treatment until you knew who shot you, why they shot you, what kind of gun they used, what kind of bullet etc... So, the priority should be on resolving our actual human condition and not speculating on the beginning or end of the universe. So from this perspective, whether God created the universe or not, we are still faced with suffering and its causes and we must do something about it through learning what constitutes a noble life and then finding a way to live such a life.
Aside from the priority of dealing with actual issues versus cosmological speculation, Buddhism also teaches that all things arise and cease depending on causes and conditions. When we say that everything is "empty," we do not mean that things do not exist. What we mean is that things are always elements in a process of change and interdependence. When we learn to see things as processes and not as isolated finite objects then we will see that to talk of something being "created" or "destroyed" is only true conventionally. The network of causes and conditions that bring any "thing" into existence is actually a never-ending process with no boundaries. So in this sense, Buddhism never speaks of "creation" or "destruction," "birth" or "death," "appearance" or "disappearance," because that way of talking about things misses the infinite open-endedness and inclusivity of the process which is the reality behind the "things" that we perceive and try to grasp. This holds true for chairs, people, planets, or universes. This is the other reason why Buddhism does not speak of a creation or a Creator, because the reality of life, the universe, and everything defies such concepts.
There is also the inherent contradiction in insisting that there must be a God who caused the universe because everything must have a cause, but then insisting that God is an exception to the rule that everything must have a cause. Either one must insist that everything has a cause, including God, or one must admit that things do not always need causes and therefore you can not insist that the world or the universe must have a cause. This logical dilemma is another reason why Buddhism does not speak of a creation or a Creator.
Part 1b: God the Creator
Having said all this however, there are two ways in which a Creator does appear in Buddhism after all. The first case is as the deity Brahma. Brahma was the all-powerful creator deity of Brahmanism (the religion that today is known as Hinduism). In Buddhism, Brahma appears when the Buddha attains enlightenment and is the one who convinces him to share his profound realization out of compassion for all suffering beings. Brahma is then viewed as the protector of the Dharma (or Truth taught by the Buddha).
Other times however, Brahma is shown to be no better than the Greek Zeus, the chief of the gods but not the actual creator of the universe. Though he tries to make others think that he is omnipotent and omniscient, he is actually just as much a part of the process of life as all other beings and not its originator. However, these less than flattering representations of Brahma are probably directed more towards the pretenses and limited conceptions of Brahma held by the priests of Brahma in the time of the Buddha than they are towards Brahma as an actual being.
This leads to the next problem. The conception of Brahma or God taught by the Brahmanist priests was very similar to that taught by most Christians today. But when you really look at the image being taught, it is not much different from the mythological Zeus. God is reduced by unreflective piety to a mere being among beings, even if he is a "Supreme Being." As a being among beings, God is no longer a transcendent reality but just another being caught up in the process. This very primitive and even idolatrous conception of God is what the Buddha was poking fun of at the expense of the priests who claimed to be God's representatives on earth who could decide who will be saved and who will be damned. In the Buddha's teachings, however, other images of Brahma come through which are much more mystical and edifying, this will be covered further on in this FAQ.
The second way in which a Creator appears is as the Dharmakaya Buddha. The Dharmakaya Buddha is the Truth-body or Reality-body of the Buddha. We are no longer speaking about an individualized man or woman, nor are we even talking about a pantheistic concept such as "Nature" or "Being." The Dharmakaya Buddha is the unfathomable mystical reality without which there would be no true nature of reality. In this sense, it is the ground or "creator" of all beings and things. It is the basis of the process of causes and conditions, but it is also beyond the process as well. That is because causes and conditions are merely the phenomenal aspect of the Dharmakaya. In other words, it is the Dharmakaya as experienced by our finite minds and senses. Now the Dharmakaya is not a being or person, but it is not impersonal either. It defies any and all such categories, but one could say that the Dharmakaya becomes personal in and through us and our interactions with each other and the world that we live in. In this way, the Dharmakaya becomes very personal through the manifestation of individuals like Shakyamuni and also as a loving spiritual presence underlying our every experience and especially in our own awakenings and acts of compassion. In Mahayana Buddhism this is discussed in terms of the three bodies of the Buddha. Buddha-nature is another term for the Dharmakaya in terms of its presence in our lives.
Question: So, you avoid talking about a creation or a Creator because you believe that these concepts are logically flawed and distracting from actual spiritual practice. And you believe that the Dharmakaya or buddha-nature, is the true nature of reality which is the basis of the universe and acts in our lives so that we can free ourselves and others of suffering and manifest the ideal qualities of love, compassion, and wisdom that you spoke of. Is this correct?
Answer: That would be a good way of putting it.
Question: Then why not just call the Dharmakaya or buddha-nature God and explain how it is different from the usual understanding?
Answer: Two reasons. The first is that I teach the Buddhist tradition in its own terms. I do not want to confuse things by incorporating terminology from other sources. Secondly, I think that there are too many connotations to the word "God" that are problematic. Unfortunately, even when you explain what you mean, the word still tends to make people think of an old man with a beard and a bolt of lighting like Zeus. The word just creates more problems than it solves in my opinion. That does not mean I reject the deeper reality that the word or name "God" is trying to point to, it is just that I find that word can act as a barrier as much as a window to the infinite, and in keeping with the Buddhist tradition whose terms and concepts I find more liberating, I choose to avoid using it.
Part 2a: God in the Bible
2. "God revealed Himself in the Bible." -- I was raised to believe that I should always think for myself, that I should discern fantasy from reality, that violence is not something that should be glorified, and that God is greater than our ability to describe in words or to limit with ideas. For these reasons, I do not accept the Bible as a unique authority on God or any other subject. That does not mean that I dismiss it entirely, however.
To begin with, I will not accept anything just because it is written in the Bible. As far as I am concerned the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament from the Christian point of view) is a collection of the tribal legends, historical records, and religious writings of the ancient Hebrews. I am a modern American - not an ancient Hebrew. Therefore, my entire worldview is informed by scientific data and cultural assumptions that are extremely far removed from those of the ancient Hebrews. Unlike them, just to name a few examples, I am convinced that this universe is billions of years old; that life as it now appears on Earth is part of an ongoing process of evolution; that different languages and dialects developed over time; that it is not an abomination to eat pork, shrimp, or lobster, or to mix beef and dairy products; that slavery is immoral; that it is immoral to execute disrespectful children; and that one is never justified in committing genocide or ethnic cleansing. The ancient Hebrews, however, were ignorant of modern astrophysics, ignorant of geology, ignorant of the fossil record and carbon dating, they believed that all of the existing language groups originated from God's curse at the tower of Babel, they believed that it is an abomination to eat certain kinds of foods or to prepare foods in certain ways, they believed that disrespect to God or one's parent's is a capital offense, they practiced slavery, and they believed that God had commanded them to kill every man, woman, and child in certain towns during the conquest of the promised land (in other cases the men and boys were killed and the woman and girls enslaved). So, for scientific and moral reasons I do not view the Bible as an authority.
The Bible also relates stories wherein a donkey speaks to its master, a flood covers the entire world and all life on earth today is descended from only the animals aboard Noah's ark, a woman turns into a pillar of salt, people are lifted up bodily into the heavens never to return, the sun stands still in the sky, and finally a man physically comes back from the dead and proceeds to walk through walls and ascend bodily into the heavens. I am leaving out a lot of other miraculous tales that are either logistically impossible, or which could be explained in a more rational way. The point is that the reality I live in does not operate that way, and I have never been given any good reason to believe that any of these things happened in real life other than the testimony of the ancient Hebrews who (as I said) had a prescientific mythical worldview; and the testimony of a small sect of Judaism which became the nucleus of a minor mystery religion in the Roman Empire, which eventually became the official religion of that empire, which then become the reigning religious ideology of various European nation-states. I must say that I require objective, empirical, and verifiable and irrefutable evidence before I throw common sense out the window and accept that any of these things happened in real life.
I apply the same standard to the more fantastical stories and anecdotes which appear in Buddhism. In Buddhism, however, the fantastic elements are never the main point and they almost always exist to underscore a point that does make sense. In most cases, the metaphorical nature of the supernatural and miraculous in Buddhism is very easy to see and the Buddhist scriptures themselves state that they are using metaphorical language on many occasions.
I also cannot accept the Biblical God's use of violence, terror, and threats to get people to do what He wants. This includes Joshua's conquest of the promised land, the behavior of the Judges, Jesus and St. Paul's threats of eternal damnation for those who do not believe, and finally the Armageddon promised in the Book of Revelations. Jesus even says at one point that he comes not to bring peace but a sword to divide families against one another (Matthew 10:34). It seems to me that the violence and threats of violence in the Bible are nothing more than a very human way of abdicating responsibility and laying all of our very human shortcomings at God's door. I do not accept the Biblical portrait of a God who commands, condones, and makes use of violence and terror.
Part 2b: God in the Bible
Finally, I do not believe that everything that could be said about such an infinite reality as God has been said in the Bible. I have read too widely in the scriptures of the other great religious traditions of the world than to believe that everything worth saying has been said only in the Bible. The Hindu scripture called the Srimad Bhagavatam, just to name one, is to the Bible what a textbook on particle physics is to a book on algebra. Not only that, but I believe that all words and stories, no matter how sublime, should act as fingers pointing to the moon. They should not be mistaken for the moon itself. Another way of putting this, is that the God portrayed in the Bible is, at best, a faint reflection in muddy water of the full moon shining overhead. I think that we need to stop being so fixated on dead words and try to have a direct experience of the living reality instead.
Buddhist scriptures, or sutras, present a far more refined and uplifting description of the divine reality which we awaken to once we are free of our finite, materialistic, and self-centered point of view. The Buddha describes God (he called him Brahma, since he had never heard the Germanic word "God" or the Jewish "YHWH") as one who resides in the highest of the heavens and who is perfect in his love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. This God is one we can unite with if we develop those same qualities in ourselves. But even this is a limited conception of God according to Buddhism.
The experience of nirvana is spoken of as a state beyond birth and death, beyond any possible conception or description. It can not be spoken of in terms of anything that our finite minds can relate to. But it is the supreme reality that is beyond causes and conditions which we can awaken to even within this lifetime, though this awakening may be only the beginning of something even more unimaginable upon death as implied by the term parinirvana (complete nirvana). Nirvana is not a state of annihilation though it is selfless. It is spoken of in terms of being pure, blissful, eternal, and the basis of true selfhood - though even these terms are only used analogously - the truth being beyond even these. Nirvana is not a person, place, or thing but it is not nothingness either.
On some occasions the Buddha even spoke of nirvana as Brahma or God, but again only analogously. The Buddha did not want to directly identify the realization of nirvana with God realization because that term meant different things to different people depending upon their idea of God. So to prevent confusion, the Buddha spoke more in terms of what nirvana is not rather than in terms of what it is. He certainly did not want to identify it with a name like "God" which was already too loaded with all kind of misleading connotations. Just as importantly, the Brahmanist priests were using their scriptures and their alleged ability to mediate God's will to impose their power over others. The Buddha wanted to avoid this pitfall of someone presuming to be able to mediate the will of God, by avoiding such rhetoric entirely. The Buddha did not claim to speak for God, rather he simply pointed the way to a direct experience of that which others speak of as God.
Part 3: God's Son
3. "God so loved the world that he sent his only Son for our salvation." -- Once again, this presumes that God is a person who can beget a Son in some metaphysical manner, and then send that Son into the world to receive one of the most awful, torturous, and humiliating deaths that humanity has devised so that he could then forgive people for their sinful imperfection. This Son then comes back from the dead, defying all known laws of biology and physics and then physically ascends into heaven, thus defying astrophysics as well. I think that it is very likely that there is a sublime spiritual truth that is being conveyed by the New Testament, but as a rational human being I can not make any sense of the story if it must be understood in a crude and literal fashion.
Buddhists do not doubt that Brahma is loving, compassionate, joyful, and full of peace. Brahma can also be reborn as a human being. But one must remember that Brahma is the Buddhist portrayal of God as a person or being among beings, the higher conception of a supreme reality is Dharmakaya. The Dharmakaya is always making itself known through its sambhogakayas (enjoyment-bodies) and its nirmanakayas (transformation bodies). This is a complex Mahayana teaching beyond the scope of this FAQ, but let me relate these ideas here to the Christian worldview. The enjoyment-bodies are the personal aspects of the Dharmakaya which are apprehended as a very personal presence in our lives. The enjoyment-bodies touch our hearts and minds with the ideal qualities of buddhahood including love, compassion, and wisdom. In the sutras, the sambhogakayas are even portrayed as transcendent figures or beings who reside in various pure lands from whence their compassion and wisdom embraces all beings. A sambhogakaya has many similarities with the Holy Spirit or the Risen Lord. A transformation-body is the historical actualization of the Dharmakaya and sambhogakaya in the life of a specific individual - Shakyamuni Buddha for instance. Through such a person, we are able to hear the teachings, learn the methods for realizing the truth in our own lives, and see for ourselves how a fully enlightened person acts in the world. It must be stressed that these three bodies are not separate, they are three aspects of one reality, and to the extent that we awaken, we will also participate in that reality as well.
It also needs to be said that according to Buddhism there are also many bodhisattvas or "enlightening beings" who are constantly reborn into this world from the pure lands. These bodhisattvas voluntarily take up all forms of suffering and bestow all their merits upon others due to their compassionate vows to save all beings. In a sense, they have renounced their own liberation until they can be sure that all beings will be liberated from suffering. In many ways, their acts of renunciation, their willingness to suffer for the sake of others, and their bestowal of the rewards for their own good conduct upon others is similar to the story of a savior who renounces divinity, enters the world, suffers for the sake of others, and then rises and ascends into heaven in order to prepare a way for others. The bodhisattva is a prototype of such a savior, and one that appears centuries before the Christian era.
Part 4: God in Buddhism?
Question: Well, I am confused. On the one hand you say that you do not believe in a personal God who is the Creator, who has revealed himself in the Bible, and who has given his only Son to die for our sins so that we can have eternal life; but then you say that Brahma is like God, that the Dharmakaya is like God, that nirvana is like God, and that the bodhisattvas are like God the Son. How can all of these be God?
Answer: I can ask, in turn, how could God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit all be God without being three Gods or one God with a multiple personality? However, the point is not to justify an irrational doctrine, but to realize that anytime you try to describe a transcendent reality in human language you are going to end up with paradoxes. I am not trying to set up a paradox or mystify anyone. The fact is that if God can only be understood as "a personal God who is the Creator, who has revealed himself in the Bible, and who has given his only Son to die for our sins so that we can have eternal life" then I can not believe in God, because I do not find that description of God very credible or even intelligible. On the other hand, I think that the reality of which the word "God" is just a label or pointer can be more intelligibly described in terms of:
a) God described as a being like Brahma who personifies love, compassion, joy, and equanimity who works to protect the Truth and ensure its spread in this world. While Brahma is not apart from nor the originator of the true nature of reality, he is the most powerful and spiritually refined of all those beings who have not awakened to the selfless nature of reality. He appreciates the truth of selflessness, but still insists on clinging to a finite ego separate from others. In some ways, Brahma is like the Greek Zeus, a literal father in heaven. This persona of God may be easier for some to relate to, and Buddhism does not deny that for some people this can be helpful, but Buddhism also insists that there are much deeper realizations of divinity.
b) God described as a more refined notion like the Dharmakaya, which is the true nature of reality that is not a person but which is always being expressed and related to in a very warm and personal way. The problem with this conception is that it is just a conception, a mere abstraction, if it is not directly realized for oneself.
c) God as an actual realization of the purity, bliss, eternity, and true selfhood of nirvana. This is the realization of the birthless and deathless nature of supreme reality. Once again, this description is only helpful as a pointer to direct realization. Nirvana is really an anti-conception and is not trying to be a description of God or any "thing" else. The whole point of nirvana is that it is a teaching device to help us let go of all those attitudes and ideas which prevent us from seeing and living in the reality which others speak of as "God." This negative method, however, can also be misleading if it ends up leading one to a state of withdrawal and apathy, which is another way of missing the point.
d) God actively engaged in the world as a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva ideal shows that the actual experience of nirvana is about living for others, not enjoying spiritual peace by oneself. The bodhisattva ideal depicts reality working in and as the lives of those who are free of self-centeredness and self-consciousness and who are able to dedicate all their efforts for the liberation of all beings. This is God as active and embodied and fully immanent in the lives of all beings. The bodhisattva ideal also recognizes that this active embodiment must be based upon a transcendent freedom which is another way of understanding God. It should also be noted that Buddhism implies that Brahma is also a bodhisattva who has appeared as Brahma in order to help others.
Again, the Buddhist tradition did not develop the need to used the term "God" in connection with these ideas (except in the case of Brahma who is a personal deity). Rather, the Buddhist tradition developed in reaction to the misunderstandings, confusion, and even oppression of the masses spread by the Brahmanist priests in the name of God or Brahma. The Buddha was not concerned with denying the reality of the Divine, the Buddha was concerned with liberating people from fear based and superstitious views of Divinity so that they could directly experience the reality that people have labeled as God.
Part 5: The Bible
Question: So as a Buddhist, you totally reject the Bible?
Answer: I would not say that I totally reject it. I certainly do not take every word of it literally. I certainly would not take it's word for scientific or historical facts until they have been checked with empirically verifiable sources. I do, however, see it as a valuable, intriguing, and sometimes even inspiring record of the Jewish people's growing understanding of God in terms of their own history, and of the early Christian community's experience of God through Jesus Christ. I recognize that many of the cultural attitudes, references, and values of the culture I have grown up in are rooted in the Bible. For that reason alone, I study it and I think that future generations should at least be familiar with it. However, that does not mean that I accept it as any truer than any other such record or scripture.
In addition, my values were never directly shaped by the Bible, but by the Enlightenment values upheld by the founders of this country, many of whom were Deists but not Christians. Those values of the right of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as well the egalitarian and democratic values embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the values of tolerance and rational inquiry that I grew up with have a far stronger hold on me than the Levitical code or the Epistles of St. Paul. I definitely choose the values of the European Enlightenment and the founding fathers of this country over what I see as the very dubious values of the ancient Hebrews and St. Paul. In addition, I also find that the values and teachings of the Buddha are far more in line with the rational and humanistic values of the founding fathers and the Enlightenment than is the Bible.
Part 6: Jesus Christ
Question: What do Buddhists believe about Jesus Christ then, if they do not believe in the Bible as an authority or the God of the Bible?
Answer: Buddhist find much to admire in the life and teachings of Jesus. Different Buddhists have different ideas about Jesus's place in the Buddhist worldview. Most Mahayana Buddhists would see him as an exemplary bodhisattva. I would agree with this. I see Jesus as an embodiment of the bodhisattva ideal. He did not teach the unique teachings of Buddhism concerning the four noble truths or dependent origination so I can not see him as a Buddha. Furthermore, his experience of God as Abba (the Aramaic word for "Daddy") seems to describe a very devotional and intimate personal relationship to Brahma. However, his selflessness is suggestive of one who has realized nirvana and he attempted to convey that to others in terms of being "born-again." His disciples experience of the Risen Lord does seem to match the Buddhist description of the sambhogakaya - a limited form of which is possessed by the bodhisattvas who are able to emanate many spiritual bodies for the sake of suffering beings. So in many ways, the life and teachings of Jesus are not incompatible with Buddhism if Jesus is understood to be a bodhisattva who attempted to convey as much as he could of the Dharma (Truth) in terms his contemporaries could understand.
In Mahayana Buddhism, it is taught that the buddhas and bodhisattvas appear throughout the universe in order to convey the Dharma in different ways to different beings. To do this, they employ what is called upaya or "provisional methods." This means that if they can not convey the Dharma directly, they will find a way to express it in a way that their listeners can understand and work with. In this way, they can gradually mature those beings to the point where they can understand the Dharma directly either in that lifetime or in a future lifetime. Sometimes, they just try to provide a way for beings to attain the heavenly pure lands where they can meet the sambhogakaya buddhas and learn the Dharma from them. Jesus's remark that he was going to prepare a place for his disciples, and that in heaven there were many mansions, and that he had other flocks his disciples did not know about are all very suggestive of such an arrangement. St. Paul also suggests that in the end, people will see clearly and not through a glass darkly.
Part 7: The Afterlife
Question: So what do you think will happen to us when we die?
Answer: The witty Zen come-back to this question is "I do not know. I have not died yet." However, I will tell you what I believe. I think that whatever we put our faith in is what we will gravitate towards upon our death. Now, I do not mean what we "say" we believe in. I mean what is really in our hearts. What is it that we truly have confidence in, truly take joy in from the depths of our being? If one has faith in the Buddha, one will go to the buddha-lands after death and directly hear the Dharma and attain buddhahood, or at least become a great bodhisattva and embark on the mission to share the Dharma with all others throughout the universe. That is the mythical description, the truth defies any adequate explanation but I will gladly speak of it in traditional terms.
Buddhahood, by the way, does not mean becoming a "super-being" nor does it mean extinguishing one's selfhood or individuality. Rather, it means being freed of the limitations of a finite self dependent upon a specific form, or set of feelings, perceptions, ideas, habits, or self-consciousness. To use Christian language, one attains a body of glory and participates freely in the life of God. I think that many Christians may be able to accomplish the same thing, though of course they would not describe it the same way. It is my conviction that the reality transcends any idea of it in any case, and that as the Lotus Sutra says: "What we attain will be greater than anything we could have asked for or imagined."

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