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The Buddhist Conception Of God: A Personal Perspective

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Posted by Glenn on April 28, 2004 12:10:36 UTC

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An excerpt from the book:

The eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism also understand divine cycles of time in comparison to human years. See Appendix Three for more information.
I respect and actually appreciate diverse understandings of God found throughout the world, especially those within foundational religious traditions. As I was raised with western traditions, the basis of God's Science will seek to understand God from the inspiration located within western religious and spiritual understanding. Like a philosopher of old or like many scientists today, I seek to understand truth.
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There are many interpretations and different philosophies/traditions explaining reality which many people labeled as "God" and has caused fighting their religious beliefs as the only truth which caused the spectacle of violence such as in the Middle East as Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, battle for control of their sacred sites. They hate each other for many reasons, and I am not even going to attempt to say who is in the right or who has been more grievously wronged. But it has struck me that one of the things that drive them into a frenzy of hatred is their differing ideas about who God is and what God expects from us. So this sparked the following reflections that I would like to share with and from the standpoint of Buddhism.

Who is God? What is He like? And what does He want from us? These are the questions that people in our culture often wonder about. These are the questions that strike at the heart of our hopes and our fears. I, at least, grew up wondering about these questions, and now that I have embraced the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, I have found a very different perspective from those I had growing up.

Who is God? Those who grew up in a Judeo-Christian or Islamic environment understand that this is a question about the Creator, the one who brought all of this into existence and who, to one extent or another, directs our lives in fulfillment of His divine plan. I say “He” deliberately by the way, because our culture is still very patriarchal and of course masculinity is considered the privileged, powerful, normative and authoritative sex and these are the qualities that Western theology attributes to God. God, in Judeo-Christian and Islamic cultures is the powerful creator and ruler of the universe, the father of us all. He is the dignified and stern gentleman with the gray beard of wisdom and the spotless toga of the Roman emperors as portrayed on the Sistine Chapel. Now, I will point out here that this is not the God of Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, or Averrhoes, the greatest theologians of Christianity, Judaeism, and Islam respectively. But it is the image that most people have because it is the image they grew up with since childhood and the one that is reinforced by the arts, TV and the movies. Isn’t this the God whose deep voice bellows at Charleton Heston in the Ten Commandments and whose fiery fingers inscribed the laws of Western civilization in stone?

Now, again, I am not concerned with what the Bible or the theologians actually teach. What I am concerned about here is the God that most people seem to believe in and the God that I grew up believing. This God was a person like my father or grandfather. But unlike my own father, God seemed to be much more stern and aloof. God demanded and expected perfection and the best behavior at all times -- no excuses. He was always ready to forgive, but only providing we were very sorry and would agree to play by the rules and accept the deal that He offered for our salvation. No questions asked and no reading the fine print! To question or have doubts is to show a lack of respect and acceptance of that deal. So this was a God who demanded perfection knowing we could not live up to it, and who expected our unthinking obedience and belief in His religion if we were to be saved. On top of that, this was a God who would only save those who were fortunate enough to be able to believe in the religion that He revealed. Consequently, I spent a good part of my life trying to figure out exactly what God wanted me to believe so that I could get on His good side.

But this image of God is one that I have long since abandoned. It took me a little longer to grow out of this Hollywood and Sunday School image of God, but eventually this God joined Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and other childhood ideas and fantasies. In the meantime, I had embraced the Buddha Dharma -- the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha who had awakened from delusion to the ultimate truth about our lives.

What does Buddhism tell us about God then? What did it tell me about God? Did becoming a Buddhist leave me in a universe without a God? In a way, yes, but in another way not at all. I say yes, because if God is the Creator, then there can not be a God in Buddhism because there is no such thing as a one-time creation or a final apocalyptic end. The universe is an open-ended and interdependent process, and so are our lives. The idea that there are definitive beginnings and endings or absolute boundaries between things or beings is viewed by Buddhism as part of the delusion that reinforces our selfishness and sense of alienation from all that exists. So we can not talk of a supreme creator in Buddhism because there is no creation -- there is only reality just as it is, beyond words or concepts. This reality we must see for ourselves and deal with directly and not through a fog of creation myths or metaphysical speculations.

So is this reality an impersonal absolute? Is it a mystic void? Or perhaps it is like the Force in Star Wars? But these are also speculations and cold abstractions. None of them can describe the living reality which Buddhism helps us to awaken to. I think, however, that the best way of putting it is that while Buddhism does not view the ultimate reality as a person, it nevertheless views it as very personal. In other words, the ultimate reality is not a cosmic grandfather with a flowing beard, a toga and the proper genitalia, but is something that defies any category while still being the source of loving-kindness, compassion, joy and the peace that surpasses understanding. One who awakens to this reality (which is what the word Buddha means: “Awakened One”) awakens to that which is the pure, blissful, eternal and true nature of all life.

This reality becomes known, or makes itself known, through the lives and teachings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. In other words, those who awaken to this reality realize that they are this reality and they are the ones who embody this reality in a way that allows others to awaken to it. Ultimate reality may be the source of compassion and wisdom, but it only becomes actual compassion and wisdom in the lives of those who awaken to it. Buddhas are the ones who are fully enlightened to this and they invite us to come and learn from them. The bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are the more active aspect of this awakening. Motivated by compassion, the bodhisattvas remain involved in the world over innumerable lifetimes to help lead people to the buddhas and to their own buddhahood.

One of these you have all seen many times -- Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, whose name means Regarder of the Cries of the World. She is the graceful figure I am sure many of you have seen decorating some restaurants or being sold in tourist shops in Chinatown. She is the one who is dressed in simple robes and is either holding a vase or sometimes a child. She almost seems to be the Asian equivalent of the Virgin Mary and in some ways she is. But she is actually more than that. In the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, she is shown to be one of the most exalted of all the bodhisattvas, whose compassion reaches throughout the universe and whose assists all those who call on her name. The 25th chapter also tells us that she is not really a “she” at all, or a “he” either. Kuan Yin is formless but able to take on any form that will best help others. Of the 33 forms that chapter 25 lists, one of those is Isvara, the Indian name for the personal God who is the creator and savior of humankind. The Lotus Sutra is actually saying that God is our perception of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, the Regarder of the Cries of the World.

Now let’s be sure we understand what the sutra is really trying to tell us. It is not saying that God is actually a Chinese goddess or a Buddhist bodhisattva. It is saying that our image or concept of God rests upon a deeper reality, and that deeper reality is compassion and wisdom which is formless but which can take on any form to inspire and assist us. In order to teach us this, the sutra describes Kuan Yin Bodhisattva who personifies the true nature of reality and embodies the compassion which springs from it. This universal and compassionate activity is perceived as the presence of God. In other words, according to Buddhism, what we call the presence of God is actually the universally compassionate activity of the true nature of reality.

The most important thing about the chapter on Kuan Yin Bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra is that when the other bodhisattvas try to give her offerings she refuses. When she does finally accept, after the Buddha asks her to, she splits the offering between Shakyamuni Buddha and the stupa of Many Treasures Tathagata. This is important because it unequivocally shows that the bodhisattvas, those who embody the compassion of the ultimate reality, do not want us to worship them. The point of their compassion is not to win our praise, but to direct us to the source of compassion and wisdom represented by the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha and the stupa of Many Treasures Tathagata.

So who is God? What is He like? And what does He want? According to my understanding of the Lotus Sutra, God is one way of perceiving the compassionate activity that flows out of the ultimate reality which transcends our images and concepts. This ultimate reality is not a person, but is the very personal source of compassion and wisdom. The whole purpose of our lives is to discover this ultimate reality as the true nature of our lives( our inherent Buddha nature) so that we can join the buddhas and bodhisattvas(enlightened beings) in embodying its wisdom and compassion for others.

"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. The universe is an open-ended and interdependent process, and so are our lives. The idea that there are definitive beginnings and endings or absolute boundaries between things or beings is viewed by Buddhism as part of the delusion that reinforces our selfishness and sense of alienation from all that exists. So we can not talk of a supreme creator in Buddhism because there is no creation -- there is only reality just as it is, beyond words or concepts. This reality we must see for ourselves and deal with directly and not through a fog of creation myths or metaphysical speculations.

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.

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.

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.

The "God so loved the world that he sent his only Son for our salvation." -- 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 which 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.

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.

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