Is Buddhism Non-theistic?

You often see the claim made that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion.  As is often the case, however, things are never quite so simple.  There are ways in which the claim is true,  ways in which it’s untrue, and even ways in which it’s just quasi-true.  It makes my head hurt just to think about it.

The claim of Non-theism is true in the sense that there is no God in Buddhism who is a Creator, Judge, or Deity-in-Charge.  In Buddhist cosmology the universe has always just existed and is continually evolving and devolving based on causes and conditions.  There’s no First Cause or Prime Mover setting the machinery in motion.  In addition, the fate of human beings is determined by their own actions in accord with the laws of karma.  There’s no Divine Intercessor putting one’s merits and demerits onto a permanent record card that follows one around over countless lifetimes.

The claim of Non-theism is not completely true because the Buddhist suttas and sutras make reference to all sorts of supernatural beings who inhabit the universe, from ghosts, demi-gods, devas, and brahmās to celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas.  The Buddha, himself, is often described as “a teacher of gods and men”.  The ghosts, devas, and brahmās are reborn into their own realms, and the celestial buddhas reside in Pure Lands.  As you might imagine, all of this leads to a very complicated cosmological space.  At times these beings visited the Buddha in our world.  At times he went to their realms to teach the Dharma.

In the Brahmajāla Sutta, the Buddha describes how a brahmā may come by the mistaken belief that he is the “Great Brahmā, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, Ruler, Appointer, and Orderer, Father of All that Have Been and Shall Be.”  The Buddha sees this delusion as an natural consequence of the particular way the universe happens to expand after periods of contraction.  During this expansionary phase one of the beings residing in the Ābhāsvara realm (which corresponds to the second jhāna) is reborn alone into the lower Brahmā realm (corresponding to the first jhāna) through exhaustion of his accumulated merit.  Forgetting his former lives, he imagines having come into existence spontaneously and without cause. Brahmās are long-lived beings and over the eons this solitary brahmā becomes lonely and wishes for company.  When others come to co-inhabit his space through the natural process of rebirth, the brahmā mistakenly believes his wish for company made it happen.  This is the start of his delusional grandiosity.  The gods within the Buddhist cosmology are not omniscient, and they apparently need Buddhas to help straighten themselves out.

Do contemporary Buddhists believe in ghosts, devas, and brahmās?  It depends on whom you ask.  In traditional Asian Buddhist cultures literal belief remains widespread.  For example, Mirka Knaster quotes John Travis regarding Munindra’s teachings:

“I listened to him go into great detail, sometimes for two hours.  There was this incredible excitement about the Buddhist cosmology.  You felt like you were surrounded by devas and all kinds of unseen things, in some way.  He had that twinkle in his eye about the unseen.  It was not just a belief system for him.”  [1]

Western Buddhist communities, on the other hand, are often made up of converts who have left a prior theistic belief in an Abrahamic Sky God behind.  They often view celestial beings as outdated cultural vestiges which can be safely jettisoned without changing the essential meaning of the Dharma.  Western Buddhists are the foremost promulgators of the idea that Buddhism is non-theistic.

There are three additional issues, however, which complicate the relationship between Buddhism and theism even further.

Deity yoga is a practice within the Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition.  In deity yoga, a particular deity/bodhisattva/Buddha (the lines between these concepts get quite blurred) is taken as one’s yidam, or tutelary deity.  One engages in complex mental visualizations of one’s yidam, then engages in a process of imitating and merging with one’s yidam, and finally one dissolves the merged self/yidam.  The yidam is seen as having an existence within relative reality (within a Pure Land saṃbogakāya realm), but as being essentially empty in terms of absolute reality, so that it’s both real and unreal at the same time.  In yet a third understanding of the yidam’s reality, the yidam is a representation of one’s own unrealized Buddha nature.  Finally, the yidam is a means to exploring the reality of identity itself.  We have our usual view of ourselves as limited and unable to become a Buddha.  In deity yoga one practices giving up that limited self-view and tries on a different narrative in which one has the unlimited wisdom and compassion of a Buddha.  In the end both narratives yield to the realization of emptiness.

Asking a celestial Buddha for assistance is a practice within Pure Land Buddhism.  Pure Land Buddhism teaches that one cannot reach enlightenment through one’s own efforts, but if one recites the mantra of Amitābha Buddha one will be reborn into his Pure Land after death and will achieve enlightenment from there.   Having faith in a Buddha’s divine intervention seems similar in some ways to theistic beliefs and practices in the West.  Keep in mind, however, that Amitābha Buddha is neither a creator nor a judge.  He offers assistance to all who recite his mantra.  Prior to achieving Buddhahood,  Amitābha Buddha was a simple monk who declared an intention to create an ideal realm for Buddhist practice.

There’s one final issue concerning Theism and Buddhism which is probably unique to Western Buddhism.  I currently sit with a Zen group that meets in a church, has a Jesuit priest as its roshi, and a priest who’s a former Carthusian monk as a regular visiting teacher.  Dharma talks sometimes include references to Jesus and/or God.  I personally don’t find god-talk helpful to my Buddhist practice, and I’ll say more about my personal reactions in a future post about how to listen to Dharma talks.  But it’s evidently helpful to those who are using it, and I suspect to more than a few of my fellow listener/sitters.  I imagine their concept of God has evolved from a concrete, personified creator-controller-and-judge deity to something coexistant with creation itself, maybe a synonym for the ground-of-being.  You can certainly find strains within the Christian mystic, Sufi, and Kabbalistic traditions to  support such a view.  There are those who believe in the concept of the perennial philosophy, the idea that the mystical experience has the same content regardless of religion, and that underneath the hood all religions point to the same experience.   I think that many of those who are comfortable with god-talk in a Dharma talk believe there’s no fundamental contradiction between being a Theist and practicing Buddhism, or at least practicing Zen.

I recently heard Roshi Robert Kennedy, who’s both a Jesuit priest and a Zen master, talk about this issue with great subtlety.  He considers himself a Zen practitioner, but not a Buddhist.  He understands that the Buddhist and Christian views of the ultimate nature of reality are not really reconcilable, but he also believes that sitting zazen is a practice without theological content.  You don’t have to believe in anything to sit.  I suspect roshi believes that the truths (with a small “t”) that emerge from sitting are not the provenance of any religion and that sitting assists our maturation as human beings regardless of our religious beliefs. But I don’t want to put words in Roshi’s mouth.

So is Buddhism theistic or non-theistic?

As Suzuki Roshi was fond of saying, “not always so.”


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  1. [1] Knaster, M. (2010).  Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra.  Boston: Shambhala, p. 26.

19 thoughts on “Is Buddhism Non-theistic?

  1. Interesting post. This is a subject I have more than a few opinions on, and none of which sit too well with most people. The biggest problem is that the corresponding English words we use are inadequate. Devas are not gods and yidams (Tibetan, derived from Sanskrit ista-devata) are not deities, as we commonly understand those words. Celestial beings is probably the closest we can get. Secondly, for me, there’s the question of how much of this stuff was part of the Buddha’s original teachings and how much was added on later. Vajrayana and Pure Land were certainly later developments. The rest is difficult to say.

    But it’s clear is that the Buddha did not direct his followers toward some higher, holier being or mystical force. He told them to look within. For me, that’s the deciding factor. Which direction does go? If it’s outward, then it’s not really Buddha-dharma.

    Buddhism is not an add-on. I think there should be some element of renunciation in regards to one’s previous way of life and thinking. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice meditation, so I have no real problem with Christians (or members of any other religion) engaging in Buddhist practices (although I think they set themselves up for a form of spiritual schizophrenia), but I do have a problem with such individuals being teachers.

    • Thanks, as always, David, for your contribution.

      First, I agree devata aren’t deities. “Celestial beings” is as good a term for devata as any, except they don’t really live in the sky either. And then, of course, there are the more earthly spirits — gandharvas, nagas, yaksas, etc. — for whom “celestial beings” doesn’t quite seem as good a fit. (Sigh!) You’re right: sometimes there’s no easy way to translate Buddhist terms into Western categories. (Did I say sometimes?)

      I am never quite sure how to understand the slippery use of the words “deity,” “buddha,” and “bodhisattva” within the Tibetan traditions, but that’s probably just a result of my limited experience within those traditions. When I was editing “Encountering Buddhism” it drove me crazy. I’ve learned not to worry about it as much as I used to. Intellectual laziness on my part?

      In my own life I’ve not found it useful to treat Buddhism as an “add on.” I struggled for years to find a way to somehow be both Jewish and Buddhist religiously. It never worked for me. On the other hand I’ve friends for whom it’s worked out splendidly. (I once asked one of these friends, an Orthodox Jew and Buddhist practitioner, if he’d ever attended a Jewish meditation retreat. He replied he wasn’t interested because it “wasn’t Buddhist enough and wasn’t Jewish enough!”) I could write a book about why I couldn’t go that route while others could, so I’ll stop here.

      It’s always interesting to examine our discomfort with other people’s practice. I understand your discomfort with practitioners of other religions being Dharma heirs and lineage holders. The idea of it raises all kinds of reactions within myself as well. I can only suggest you watch your own reactions with interest and curiosity and not take them as necessarily true. The real question is when you meet non-Buddhist lineage holders in person, what is their level of realization and awakening? How is it made manifest through their teachings and in their behavior? Everything else is just a mind-made problem.

      • What I would like to add is that saying meditation is a Buddhist thing is incorrect. Meditation comes in many forms, praying is a form of meditation (when done correctly). The purpose of praying isn’t saying Hail Marie’s and all that stuff, it’s reflection on ones day, existence, place on the planet.

        I was always told that Buddhism was an atheistic religion. There are theistic things within it, however to be theistic you have to “praise” these beings.

        I think what it really falls down to is how you define things. I define a theistic religion to be one where you believe in a higher power and strive to please it in some way. To me and what I know of Buddhism, you don’t do that at all ever. The point of the religion is to seek ones own worth and expand our minds to reach enlightenment, to become one with the cosmic powers of the universe and transcend. Yeah you can believe in spirits, someone must have done it before you. You can believe in the existence of gods, there can be beings that do what gods do, but ultimately they don’t matter to you. I don’t believe that acknowledgement of some god existing makes you non-theistic. I don’t particularly believe in the term non-theistic to begin with.

        The simplest way I can see non-theism defined is “sometimes believe in a god.” For a religion like Buddhism, that state would prevent you from reaching any form of higher being. You have that level of doubt between there being some higher power or there not being one. Doubt is the greatest thing that impedes the progression of enlightenment.

        • Gabriel, I agree that there are non-Buddhist forms of meditation, such as centering prayer. I’ve always loved Mother Teresa’s answer to the question of what she said to God when she prayed. She said she didn’t talk, she just listened. She was then asked “And what does God say to you?” She replied “He just listens, too.” The issue of non-theism vs. atheism is really a semantic question about how to use words, not a substantiative one. I agree with you that most Buddhists would say that while gods/spirits may exist, they are not an important part of the Enlightenment project. I certainly don’t find “God talk” very helpful, and I’m not drawn to tantric practices like deity yoga But I also know sincere Zen practitioners who believe in God, but construe God in a non-anthropomorphic way as being something akin to what we Buddhists would call the dharmakaya, or Tillich would call the ground of being. We live in a pluralistic world where all different kinds of shades of belief and syncretic heterodox and heteropractic possibilities exist side by side. It’s best to not be too certain about things.

  2. Excellent post! I’ve always tried to explain it that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, but definitely not atheistic. I think many Western converts come, as you said, shedding their belief in a creator God. But in the end, for our practice, I maintain the question of God is not important. It maybe for Buddhist scholars and such, but asking and pondering these questions can be a distraction from our practice.

    • Thanks, Kyle! Of course, you’re right. The interesting thing about Buddhism is that even if gods exist, they’re not important. (At least in the way we Western non-Vajrayana converts practice!) I admit it: within my own practice they’re an interesting intellectual diversion — at times rising to the level of a distraction.

  3. Seth, actually I don’t believe I have ever met one of these non-Buddhist lineage holders in person. I’ve only heard about them and read some of their writings and what I see manifested in those writing are usually Christian shadings that seem out of place. I was not familiar with Kennedy, until you mentioned him here. Frankly I am a bit shocked to learn that not only is he a lineage holder but that he has dharma heirs. I’m sorry but I don’t get that at all.

    I read an interview with Kennedy yesterday where he that through Zen you could recognize “the expression of God’s will through our own voice” and “that God is unknowable.” Whenever I see stuff like this my question is always “If God is unknowable, then how can you possibly think you understand God’s will?” Riddle me that, Batman. My step-brother is a Christian theological and his stuff drives me nuts.

    God is a delusion and as Buddhists we are trying to discard delusions not embrace them. I don’t understand how someone with such delusions can lead others (in Buddhism). Really, Christianity has nothing to do with Buddhism. As you wrote, this only happens in the West and I say it’s because there are so many people who can’t completely let go of their Christians beliefs. Why folks keep wanting to mix Jesus up with the dharma I dunno. I say leave Jesus alone, the poor guy has suffered enough already.

  4. Nicely written!
    I agree. First, in debating this issue it is first important to make sure that the discussion admits to many, many different Buddhisms. Without that agreement, the conversation is totally different.

    You wrote:

    There’s no Divine Intercessor [in Buddhism]

    But there are intercessors (spirits of ancestors and boddhisatvas and others) in some forms of Buddhism the help us in spite of our karma and help us shortcut it. No? I guess you agree when you spoke of the interventions of Amitābha

    Isn’t it controversial that perhaps some Buddhist scriptures were altered over time to accomodate rich patrons who believed in deities?

    Anyway, what it comes down to for me is the “Benefits vs. Harm” in beliefs (theistic vs. non-theistic in this case), and I think this is complicated — as you illustrate well here.

    • Thanks, Sabio. You’re right, I wasn’t thinking of Pure Land Buddhism when I wrote the phrase that there was “no Divine Intercessor” in karma. Thanks for the correction.

      I’m not familiar with the claim that some suttas/sutras may have been altered to accomodate deity-believing patrons. Please tell us more.

  5. Very informative! I love how your posts dispense the bits and pieces of Buddhism in digestible portions for those of us with very little background.

    • I’m glad you find this blog useful, Leah. My biggest hope when I started this blog was that it would find its way to readers like you. I enjoy following your own blog about your unique, personal spiritual journey as well.

  6. Very interesting discussion of theism in Buddhism. Especially interesting in light of the writing of Stephen Batchelor (Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) and other american contempory writers who advocate for a decidedly non-supernatural (for lack of a better word) Buddhism.

    • Glad you found it interesting. While there are clearly theistic aspects to Buddhism, I’m actually close to Stephen Batchelor in my own personal practice. I don’t find theistic elements advance my own practice — they just seem to just get in the way. I haven’t read Stephen’s most recent book, so I really can’t comment on it. If Stephen is making the historical case that Buddhism was originally atheistic and non-supernatural and that every non-empirical aspect of it is either an unnecessary holdover from pre-Buddhism or a later add on from the evolving vedantic and yogic traditions, I can’t fully agree with him. If Stephen is making the case that one can engage in meaningful dharma practice without those elements, I whole-heartedly agree.

  7. Batchelor’s newest book is excellent. While I think your suspicions about his view are close I think his view is a bit more “anthropological.” At the risk of putting words in his mouth I think his position is that the theistic elements of Buddhism are what I’d call “traces” of the Hindu culture in which he was raised and taught, and none are essential to the Buddha’s actual teaching.

    The point being that just as our discussion of Buddhism would contain the traces of our own shared culture (though language choice, style and metaphor use etc…) I believe his view is that the Buddha’s teaching were OF a culture (theistic culture), they were not dependent thereon.

    Interestingly, I think his own view demonstrates this point in that his view itself can be seen as carrying the traces of his own study of existentialism (notably Heidegger and Levinas).

    A good read, and one I’m sympathetic too as well.


  8. In order to debate any issue within Buddhism, we each present our understanding of what is Buddhism–really. For me, Buddhism is the belief held by someone who calls him/herself a Buddhist. My own definition Buddhism is set forth in the Four Noble Truths. Do I believe that the major problem is suffering? Do I believe that the cause of suffering is ignorance (of the nondual nature of reality)? Do I believe there is a way to exhange this ignorance with understanding? Do I believe that the pathway described by the Buddha is the way to awaken from the ignorance? If I answer all of these questions, “Yes”. Then, for me at least, a Buddhist. What it boils down for me, is am I practicing an eightfold path–a necessary part of which is meditation? No matter what I believe, if I answer, “No” I am wasting my time and the time of others. A simple way for me to inform others of my spiritual belief is to say the I am a “practitioner of Zen”.

  9. are we here and who we are by some natural, biologically-engineered accident? That’s the bottom line answer that neither Buddhism or Christiannity or any other religious study has even come close to for me. Seems to me that the answer to that question is the unfulfilled quest of all philosophical thinking.

    • We’re here through the entirely natural interplay of causes and effects. As such, there’s nothing accidental about our being here, but neither is there anything intentional about our presence. We weren’t designed or created; we emerged. In Buddhism, things arise and pass away due to causes and conditions, not through the activity of divine intervention in the natural order of things. Personally, I find that answer entirely satisfying.

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