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 Ä€bhāsvara 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.”  [ref] Knaster, M. (2010).  Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra.  Boston: Shambhala, p. 26. [/ref]

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.”


32 Replies to “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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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. “I define a theistic religion to be one where you believe in a higher power and strive to please it in some way”. As a theist myself I feel that definition is inadequate. It carries the suggestion that we try to do good and try to avoid doing evil because that pleases God. However, for me, I believe in objective goodness, and I seek the good as an end-in-itself, because I believe that it is desirable in its own right. I do believe that God exists, and is perfectly good, and therefore must be pleased by good; but, pleasing God is not the reason why I try to do to good.

          I believe in objective good, and I believe in a perfectly good God, but for me the former belief is prior to the later. I realise that not all theists order those beliefs in that way – for some (divine command theorists), the idea of good is simply defined in terms of what pleases God, and your definition is probably a more accurate reflection of their beliefs than it is of mine.

          Suppose that I was half-right and half-wrong — right about the existence of an objective good, wrong about the existence of God — if some sort of atheistic Kantianism were true — then I’d still strive for the good because it is desirable in itself.

          I used to be involved in Tibetan Buddhism. I was never wholly committed, more of a hanger-on or passerby. A large part (but not the whole story) of why I drifted away is that while I still love the aesthetic of Tibetan Buddhism, deep down inside I’m just too committed to Western ideas such as God (albeit, the God in whom I believe is more the God of philosophical theism than the God of the Abrahamic religions).

          1. “albeit, the God in whom I believe is more the God of philosophical theism than the God of the Abrahamic religions”

            Are you thinking along the lines of a Spinozan or Whiteheadian sort of diety?

  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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

  10. It is simple. Non theistic does not believe in the existence of a deity. The Buddha did recognize their existence, but he didn’t put the focus on their worship as a vessel to help you reach your goal in this life.

    People always overthink things…to put it simply, Buddhism shouldn’t be termed Non-theistic. Gods are real. Buddhism doesn’t focus on God/s.

    1. Would that it were so simple, Lionel; it depends on which “Buddhism” you subscribe to. If one follows the Pali canon (and not necessarily all the religious practices that are part of Theravada’s actuality in Southeast Asian cultures), that’s largely true. For many Buddhists, however, propitiating the Gods remains an active focus of religious practice. In addition, in Tibetan Buddhism, the concept of “gods” becomes an important focus of religious praxis, and these gods (while “empty of self nature” like all existents) have an ontological reality that extends beyond the psychic realm. Lastly, many Buddhist moderns see a non-anthropomorphic divine element in Buddhism (e.g., certain interpretations of the dharmakaya) which resonates with “perennialism” as well as with demythologized interpretations of the Judeo-Christian religion (e.g., Tillich’s “ground of being”).

      1. Thank you much for sharing this with us. I read through all the comments & it is an intriguing topic. I am one of those ‘rare’ atheistic Vajrayana Buddhists. This has been a challenge to me at times. I didn’t particularly choose Tibetan Buddhism, but i did choose a teacher who is from Tibet. It would not have mattered to me where he was from, nor what style of Buddhism he practiced. Though he does deity practice, which as you briefly touched on, would be very hard to resolve with atheism, or even ‘non-theism’, he never set that down as a requirement for me, or anyone else, to my knowledge. In his culture they take it for granted that there are unseen beings who intervene in our lives. It’s sort of like the Classical Greek cosmology. I’m definitely not saying it’s identical. In Classical Greek mythology the Gods had a domain, within the boundary of this planet, & reality, where they lived. They interacted, & propagated with humans, and so on, all not part of Buddhism as far as i know. But like the Greek Gods, & Titans, most protectors & retinues are unenlightened beings. The Buddhas & high level Bodhisattvas are pretty much seen as enlightened. The unenlightened ones can either harm or help depending on causes & conditions. The other important thing that the unenlightened beings allegiance relies on, is whether or not we propitiate them properly, be giving them specific ‘offerings’, both real & imagined, & by practicing their sadhanas, & chanting their mantras. None of this has ever seemed atheistic, or ‘non-theistic to me. The difference between straight theism in practice is that when a Vajrayana practitioner generates a visualization of a deity, accompanied by the deity’s mandala, retinue and so on,when you get to the ‘completion’ stage of the meditation the deity dissolves into you and you view yourself as dissolving into emptiness. This creates the mystery for me. I have been practicing Vajrayana Buddhism for about 25 years now, & I still don’t know if this practice is atheistic or theistic. The propitiation of the deities has very particular rituals involved, & according to at least one of your early commenters (Gabriel), it could not be either Buddhist or non-theistic because he said “however to be theistic you have to ”praise” these beings.” I think all Buddhist praise the divine, or celestial, or “sambhogakaya” (enjoyment-body) beings, even Theravada practitioners, who refer to their version of ‘perfection’ as Arhants, perfectly realized beings who at the time of death will not return to Samsara. I realize there are differences between Arhants and Bodhisattvas, but they both are said to be ‘worthy of praise’. Taking formal refuge is an integral part of all strains of Buddhism of which i am aware. I don’t mean to be so long-winded, & it is less that i think i have a lot to impart, than that i am trying to explain my own confusion thoroughly in the hopes that someone can help me to understand. When i do Vajrayana practice i try to focus on the emptiness of self, & other, & to see the generation of celestial beings as a cosmic restructuring of mind, rather than as an acknowledgement & plea for assistance from another realm. I feel that the 4 noble truths, & the 8fold path, & meditation will direct one towards a positive state of mind, you could say to the birth of a greater state of mind, that has always been with us as untapped potential. This is probably pretty ‘monistic’. The yogas i see as part of the transformation of mind, though i sometimes reflect that other Tibetan Buddhists may consider my views to be heretical. Anyone can offer any insight here, I would be greatly appreciative.

        1. Harpster Dave — My own limited familiarity with Vajrayana practice is congruent with your own description. I can recall, for example, visiting lamas tossing cornmeal into a roaring fire to propitiate the local woodlands spirits, and I recall my own practicing deity yoga (Vajrasattva) with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. In general, Buddhists don’t believe in a creator/judge deity, but certainly have historically believed in immaterial beings and/or only barely material beings in different realms. Traditional Buddhist practices, whether in Tibet, Japan, or wherever, have always incorporated older animistic practices into their belief/practice system. On the other hand, there has always been some degree of ontological ambiguity in the Tibetan approach. At an absolute level, neither the deities nor ourselves have any self-existence, and we are always free to view yidams as real external beings or as representations of our own inner potential. Two stories of note that I have heard. One from Jan Willis whom I took a course in Tibetan Buddhism with at Wesleyan University years ago. She studied with Lama Yeshe who once suggested to her that Americans might need to create new Americanized yidams to practice with—you might visualize them in three-piece suits smoking a cigar. The other story was from Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who when a student objected to identifying with a deity responded with a comment that was basically ”you spent your whole life identifying with/pretending to be this little small self that is essentially a self-constructed narrative that limits your potentiality. Why not try at pretending to be a bigger unlimited self and see where that practice takes you?” I liked the answer, but Tibetan practice and deity yoga have never been my own entrance-way into the Dharma because they are just too incongruent with my own belief systems. I suppose, however, if I met a Tibetan teacher who inspired me and ”set my hair on fire,” I might find a way of overcoming those objections. That certainly happened with Jan Willis when she first met Lama Yeshe. (See my blog post on finding one’s teacher.)

          1. Thanks for your response Seth. For me, that was what happened. I was considering that Maybe Vajrayana wasn’t my cup of tea after all, when i met my root Lama. There was something, not just in his words, but in his presence, that opened me up to possibilities i hadn’t previously entertained. And as i spent time around him, i began to see more & more what that was. When he entered the room, rather than his presence commanding respect, it always seemed that his attention was on others. Whoever might have needed some attention at that particular moment. He displays genuine humility in all his actions, even when others suggest he is overextending himself. Although he teaches a lot of deity meditation, & prayer reciting, he is primarily interested in teaching shamattha, & vipashyana, & mahamudra. The deity yoga seems like a blend of animism, shamanism, & Mahayana Buddhism. I have struggled with it, but i continue to reflect on what it could mean, from a non dualistic perspective, & my understanding has definitely changed over the years.

  11. As a BB Christian (Bible Believing; a personal understanding based on a relationship with Jesus), I have been pursuing an way of approaching extended ecumenism (something like the COEXIST bumper-sticker). I’m therefore excited to find out that a variety of theism exists in Buddhist beliefs.
    From what you said, Buddhism doesn’t hold with a creator God, but some Buddhists believe in God or gods, at least in the sense of something like celestial beings. These exceptional beings exist in the cosmology of a universe that always existed, that is, a steady-state universe. From this point, therefore, one or more of these gods may have always existed, as well. While this is not a pre-existent God who created ex nihilo (out of nothing), neither is it an existential god who’s existence preceded it’s essence, and therefore created it’s own being and subsequent Buddha-land. This circumstance allows for some possibilities.
    While it appears that gods were not useful to the Buddha, and God-talk is not useful for some Buddhists, it clearly is useful for others. The Buddha did not claim to be a god, and therefore his beliefs, though helpful for many, are not immutable. Therefore, Buddhist belief may rightly vary from what the Buddha taught.
    A steady-state universe has been precluded as a result of the discovery of spontaneous particle decay into light energy, while there’s been no observation of the reverse process, and no observation of self-emergent light or matter (the theoretical Hawking radiation, which begins with virtual particle pairs, originates either inside or outside of an event horizon, which would seem to not allow half of the emergent particle pair to escape if inside, and to not become emergent if outside).
    Lacking a viable steady-state cosmology, it appears that Buddhist cosmology must be an oscillating universe, which is somewhat like steady-state, but it would allow God or gods to preexist the current expansion cycle. As this is within the range of contemporary Buddhist thought, someone with this belief may further believe that such a pre-existent God may be a creator God, as such a belief cannot be proscribed by the Buddha, who was admittedly not a god.
    I’m sorry if this is not helpful, but there are other approaches other than God-talk. There is also God-feeling, which is what most people rely on, rather than logic. These are both useful, but what it comes down to is God-being, which is the understanding of the heart. The Buddhist realization of emptiness may be comparable to the Christian peace that passes understanding.
    The experience of theism, on the natural level is like the big dipper, which always points towards the north star, whether it is morning or evening, or midday or midnight. The tetragammadion is not contrary to the tetragrammaton, and together they form a tetragram. Further, when only the morning and evening positions of the big dipper are considered, and the points of the dipper are smoothed into curves, the tao of yin-yang is found, in the inbreath and the outbreath, YH (yawn) WH (whew).
    Thanks for all the fish.

    1. Bruce, Glad you liked the fish! The model of the universe in the earliest strata of Buddhist writings (The Pali Nikayas) is an oscillating one. During periods of universal contraction, the various heavens are emptied out of celestial beings, and during periods of regeneration and expansion, the highest heavens again gradually fill up with them. The first reincarnated celestial being to make it to the highest heaven sometimes makes the mistake of thinking he caused the world into being. I agree with you that a relationship with God is a matter of the heart. You write that “the experience of theism, on the natural level is like the big dipper, which always points towards the north star, whether it is morning or evening, or midday or midnight.” I find myself wondering how much the experience of being accompanied by Jesus or being aware of the indwelling Christ is like being aware of one’s Buddha-nature or having a centered inner stillness that also always points toward true North. Its always hard to compare one’s own phenomenological experiences to those of others, but it seems to me there must be someplace where these two experiences overlap.

      1. This is almost exciting enough to make a dolphin do a back flip! It appears that theism is part of the earliest Buddhist writings! However, I’m left wondering where the celestial beings go when they are emptied out of the heavens due to a contraction phase? Do the same ones that existed in a previous cycle then enter into the next cycle as it expands? if so, then do they remain incorporeal?

        It appears the at least some do not remain incorporeal, as you stated “The first reincarnated celestial being…”. This would correspond to the Christian doctrine of juxtaposition over the doctrine of postponement. That is, a celestial being may exist as a spirit being in a heaven while at the same time existing in a physical body (psychology: that would mean that at least some cases of somatic delusion are not delusional). It is my view that this “first [created] being” according to Christian scripture is “I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of God – Lk1:19”. However, it is unlikely that he was ever incarnated, as that would make him a “son of the resurrection – Lk20:36/1Cor15:42,44”, that is, a son of man; a son of (God in) man.

        This requires a lot of Deep Thought, night and day (times 2); Bruce Dollie Phin.

        1. Bruce — I’m not sure the early Buddhists worked this all out very systematically. Below is the passage in the Brahmajala Sutta in which the Buddha describes how a celestial being may come to the delusion that he is the Lord of Creation. Enjoy!

          “There comes a time, bhikkhus, when after the lapse of a long period this world contracts (disintegrates). While the world is contracting, beings for the most part are reborn in the Ä€bhassara Brahma-world.[7] There they dwell, mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the air, abiding in glory. And they continue thus for a long, long period of time.

          40. “But sooner or later, bhikkhus, after the lapse of a long period, there comes a time when this world begins to expand once again. While the world is expanding, an empty palace of Brahmā appears. Then a certain being, due to the exhaustion of his life-span or the exhaustion of his merit, passes away from the Ä€bhassara plane and re-arises in the empty palace of Brahmā. There he dwells, mind made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the air, abiding in glory. And he continues thus for a long, long period of time.

          41. “Then, as a result of dwelling there all alone for so long a time, there arises in him dissatisfaction and agitation, (and he yearns): ‘Oh, that other beings might come to this place!’ Just at that moment, due to the exhaustion of their life-span or the exhaustion of their merit, certain other beings pass away from the Ä€bhassara plane and re-arise in the palace of Brahmā, in companionship with him. There they dwell, mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the air, abiding in glory. And they continue thus for a long, long period of time.

          42. “Thereupon the being who re-arose there first thinks to himself: ‘I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Vanquisher, the Unvanquished, the Universal Seer, the Wielder of Power, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Supreme Being, the Ordainer, the Almighty, the Father of all that are and are to be. And these beings have been created by me. What is the reason? Because first I made the wish: “Oh, that other beings might come to this place!” And after I made this resolution, now these beings have come.’

          “And the beings who re-arose there after him also think: ‘This must be Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Vanquisher, the Unvanquished, the Universal Seer, the Wielder of Power, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Supreme Being, the Ordainer, the Almighty, the Father of all that are and are to be. And we have been created by him. What is the reason? Because we see that he was here first, and we appeared here after him.’

          1. Flippin’ wonderful: The reappearance of a first being in an empty palace in an expanding world as a result of passing on from a spiritual abode! This has definite similarities to my beliefs. This merits a reference in the galactic guidebook.

            There is one drawback to the overall design, due to the need for the acceleration of our expanding universe to reverse, and no one yet knows if it will. Hence, the need for “a long, long period of time”. However, the concept of spirit beings who exhaust their merit such that they (in some manner) incarnate into the physical world, is a shared belief. The exhaustion of merit may compare to preincarnate transgression for which the punishment is spiritual death on the day (subsequent thousand year period) thereof. Spiritual death meant that physical incarnation/death would soon be following. As the descent of man progressed, this led to shorter life-spans, until all of mankind were being incarnated, not in spirit bodies, but as the sundered germ of being, the mortal soul part. That is the basic paradigm which every koi (coin fish / koinonia) should know.

            As for the second part, when “beings are for the most part reborn…”, the regeneration is given to the believers who endure. Undergoing the second birth is necessary to entering the spiritual kingdom of God, but is only mentioned in the gospel of John. That is because it refers to the general spiritual resurrection which is discussed in all the gospels, as sharing His spiritual eternal life. The spiritual resurrection is presently ongoing for individual believers in communion, for “the fields are white with harvest Jn4:35”. “The harvest is the end of the age [age means world, or the world’s dominion over the believer] Mat13:39”, so after crossing over in faith, one may become qualified for the ingathering of the harvest resurrection. The first resurrection is given by the election of grace, which returns the soul to its former estate of having a spiritual body, for “you are gods, those to whom the word comes Jn10:35” to manifest to the believer His countenance, and announce the election of adoption.

            There’s more of course, but the basic similarities are wonderful. It is for the preservation this sort of common Heritage that a Congress should be established for the world’s theistic peoples. Thanks again for all the fish in the Zuider Zee.

            Bruce Dollie Phin

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