Feb 2, 2007

Buddhism and God

There were some great comments discussing my post on Buddhism and the charge of negativity. In the post, I said I might later say something about Buddhism and the idea of God. Here goes a first attempt.

People who don't know much about Buddhism are often surprised to learn that Buddhism is a religion without a God. Sometimes you hear that Buddhism is actually agnostic on the question and that the existence or otherwise of God is irrelevant to Buddhism. I do not think this is really true. For one thing, the Buddha actually listed belief in a supreme creator as one of the wrong views in the Brahmajala Sutta, Digha 1.

But more essentially, there are several ways the whole concept of a creator God is antethical to Buddhist thought.

1. It would contradict the anatta doctrine. (no-self) God is a kind of supreme being, a big self. One quite logical extension of the monotheist idea is found in the Upanishads where it is taught that Brahma equals Atman. That means, not only is God a self, but he is the one and only self. Buddhism taught that even this universal self is empty; all is sunya, void and nothing exists from it's own side. This Buddhism idea of voidness cannot be sustained if one postulates a God who is an essential reality.

2. It would contradict the anicca doctrine (impermanence) Just as God is a big self, he is also neccessarily conceived as everlasting (in most versions, in both directions "before Abraham was I am") If anything or anyone can exist eternally, then impermanence is false.

3. It contradicts the core axiom of the dependent origination; everything arises according to causes and conditions and not otherwise. In other words, no arbitrariness in the universe. God, as the First Cause and the Prime Mover is essentially arbitrary. There is no cause for God, nor does he have antecedents, nor need there be reasons for his actions.

The whole philosophical reason for wanting a God is to explain origins, but it is not really an explanation at all. The child's question, "Well then where did God come from?" cannot be answered. It is true that Buddhism has no explanation for ultimate origination. In fact, the Buddha said this was an "unanswerable" or meaningless question. While I don't think that the Buddha himself ever said so explicitly, later Buddhist thought has generally assumed that the universe is beginingless.

This is not such an impossible concept. Why must there have been a beginning? It is only to satisfy the limits of human imagination, and has nothing to do with the real world "out there." If we imagine any moment, arbitrarily far back into the past, can we not imagine a preceding moment? Indeed, musn't we?

Nor is Buddhist, strictly speaking, polytheistic. There are gods aplenty in Buddhist cosmology, but they are always explained as beings like us, impermanent forms in a shifting samsaric existence. They are not "gods" in the sense of ultimate beings at all.

However, Buddhism is not really atheistic either, if by that we assume as is usual, the implication of a materialist world-view. Buddhism does have a concept of the Transcendental (Lokuttara) or Supramundane. An absolute, if you will. That is the Nibbana-Dhatu (nirvana element) which is outside time and space, has nothing to do with being or non-being, causation or conditionality and is quite incomprehensible by the ordinary rational mind.

The idea of Nibbana separates Buddhism from materialist philosophies of all kinds, but it would hardly satisfy a theist looking for some equivalent to a personal, intervening God. There may be some approaches to this idea of the absolute in some versions of theistic thinking. I am thinking of the apophatic theology of Eastern Orthodoxy or the Veils of the Unmanifest in Qabbalah. But one thing that has always attracted me to Buddhism, and to Theravada in particular, is the purity and rigour of it's conception of the ultimate.

14 comments:

"James" said...

Well said. Or should I say written?? I think you handled that heavy subject well and with delicate comprehensive precision.

Canadafitz said...

Punnadhammo, you've posted a very well written explanation of the distinction between montheistic religions (such as Christianity) and Buddhism.

But for me the idea of a "Nibbana-Dhatu (nirvana element)" which is outside time and space, exposes the hint of subtle contradiction.

Wouldn't you say that such an "absolute" nirvana element posits a "permenant" reality of some kind?

And if so, how does one reconcile that permanency with Buddhism's doctrine of reality's impermanence?

The way out of the contradiction, if there is one, might lie in William Blake's (the Christian mystic) line about, "the world as a grain of sand, and a grain of sand as the world." If we can learn to see and experience in life's tiniest aspects the nirvana absolute, then nirvana is not outside of our own frame of reference but very intimately connected to it.

There is the kind of perception which experiences the absolute in a grain of sand, and the true dimensions of the absolute in the recognition of how tiny the Earth is.

In a sense, then, I guess what I'm saying is that one can experience the here and now as the absolute and transcendental nirvana. So, maybe in a very real and tangible sense, the bridge to nirvana is in the fleeting moment of human experience magnified by the scope of perception to an unlimited factor.

So, here is some attempt at a more critical examination of your very excellent comments.

Glenn Fitzgerald.

EBE said...

I really liked your post. Well written and interseting.

I have only one question: If impermanent is accepted how can we obey to temporary rulues?

Specifically- what forces the world to behave as it is- why karma exists? who forces the karma to continue? Is there any supreme rule? Who forces this rule to continue? After all- the world is impermanent. So even the "karma low" may change. Therefore, why paying so much attention to karma? why to believe that there are fruits to seeds we plant?

Moreover- about nirvana- once again the Buddha achieved the supreme human level and "stopped his karma". Buddhists believe that he is in Nirvana condition and will not come buck to the samsaric world, but who forces this condition to exist forever? Of course you can say- he plants no seeds- he eats no fruits anymore. BUT- you suggest this way as a general rule although it worked only for several. How do you allowed to make this mathematical/ phylosophical induction from him and other few arahants to us in an impermanent world, where all rules must be temporary (otherwise- there is something permanent- which was one of your problems with the term GOD).

XSurf said...

Ebe, Karma is not a law written by a God, it is basically not a 'law' so to say, as if it is dictated by someone else, but it teaches about truth of conditioning and cause and effect. In this way, it is totally in accordance of science. Let's say you clap your hands, the clapping hands is the condition, it causes the sound 'Clap'. This 'Clap' is not due to God's creation, but due to the conditions of two hands clapping. When condition is, 'clapping' arises. When condition ceases, 'clapping' ceases. No agent that creates is needed, only conditionings. Even the notion of a 'self' is an illusion. Karma is not a dictated law, it merely describes conditioning, karma is a conditioning factor.

I also suggest you read more about what 'Nirvana' is all about first. Nirvana is not a specific condition. It is in fact, the UNconditioned. The Buddha said:

"There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, emancipation from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned."

Nirvana is beyond time and space, it is NOT eternal in the sense that it lasts forever in time, but it is outside the illusion of time altogether. As a matter of fact time and space is only in relative truths, concepts, not the ultimate truth.

Lastly, in Buddha's times alone, there were thousands of liberated Arhants, not just a few. At times 1250 Arhats gathered in a single assembly. 500 Arhats were present during the first council a few weeks after Buddha entered Parinirvana. Today, there continue to be many enlightened Buddhists. It is not a philosophical induction, but something completely attainable.

Xsurf said...

To canadafitz:

Nirvana is timelessly abiding and yet not static or permanent. My friend spoke about six stages of his experiences (starting from here: http://buddhism.sgforums.com/?action=thread_display&thread_id=210722&page=3 , check out "Thusness"), about first experiencing the Hindu atman before he became a Buddhist, to the understanding of Buddhism's "no self" (subject and object is basically an illusion, and any sense of Witness consciousness apart from witnessed is an illusion), impermanence, and conditioned arising. He says:

"Since appearance is all there is and appearance is really the source, what gives rise to the diversities of appearances? “Sweetness” of sugar isn’t the “blueness” color of the sky. Same applies to “AMness”… all are equally pure, no one state is purer than the other, only condition differs. Conditions are factors that give appearances their ‘forms’. In Buddhism, pristine awareness and conditions are inseparable.

Although there is non-dual in Advaita and no-self in Buddhism, Advaita rest in an “Ultimate Background” (making it dualistic), whereas Buddhism eliminates the background completely and rest in the emptiness nature of phenomena; arising and ceasing is where pristine awareness is. In Buddhism, there is no eternality, only timeless continuity (timeless as in vividness in present moment but change and continue like a wave pattern). There is no changing thing, only change."

In Buddhism, No Self, Impermanence, Dukkha, are ultimate realities. In Mahayana it is even said that Nirvana is Samsara rightly seen... it is transcendental, unconditioned, and yet not separate from conditions. I am not so sure about Theravada's view, though I know of one Theravadin who is a teacher under the lineage of Mahasi Sayadaw, he elaborated very clearly about the non dualism of samsara and nirvana in the 'Heart Sutra Model' section (press ctrl+f, search 'Heart Sutra Model' in his e-book 'mastering the core teachings of the buddha': http://www.interactivebuddha.com/mctb.html)

I am looking forward to hearing Bhante's views as well..

Canadafitz said...

xsurf writes:

"In Mahayana it is even said that Nirvana is Samsara rightly seen... it is transcendental, unconditioned, and yet not separate from conditions."

THAT point of view makes a lot of sense to me and doesn't contain any nuance of contradiction.

Nature is but another word for impermanence, so to say nirvana is, in some sense, a part of life, nature, and experience is also to say that nirvana is impermanent.

Anyway, thank you so much, xsurf, for your very excellent post and reply---I'll read it over again a little later.

Glenn Fitzgerald.

EBE said...

Dear xsurf,

Thank you for your answer. It was stimulating and it took me some time to think about it.

Let me state first that I'm not religious in any way. I do not take this post as an insult on any belief. Nevertheless, I found out throughout my life that talking about god provides much suffering and it is the cause for too much death. Therefore, if someone opens this subject- the post should be so clear that no questions should remain. Otherwise, it is better not to speak about things that words cannot describe (Nirvana as well as God). Since I tried to find answers to similar questions for so many years, I would like to take the advantage and understand the view of the post as much as posible.

I do have a problem with the post and your answer, and I'll try to be more specific:

Let's take the hand clap example. I clap my hand and a sound is heard. I do it one more time and another sound is heard. I do it time and time again and conclude that clapping hands provides noise. Of course, if I do not clap hands- no noise occurs. My conclusion, a result of many experiments, can be checked time and time again. Then, when I'm really convinced, I state a rule. I believe that every time I clap my hands- some noise occur.

Now- my question, and I'm not the first to ask it, David Hume did it before, si this: what makes you think that in a chaotic (samsaric- impermant) world, that next time you will clap hands a noise will arise? You found a "rule" after some scientific research, but when you suggest this rule as a truth- you add a hidden assumption of permanence!!! This contradicts the impermanence of the world. Moreover, take the four Noble truths. I admire the Buddha point of view, provided by these truths BUT- if the Buddha suggests these truths as rules in the sense that- "this is the cause for suffering, and way out of it for every one and every time", there is a hidden assumption of permanence. Otherwise- what is the point. It was good for him, why is it still good for me?

The cause and effect provide a rule. To say somethinng like: doing evil plants the seeds for suffering, or something like: one of the benefits of practicing a lot of meta is that one sleeps well, is acctualy meaningless if this rule is impermanent. After all, about 2500 years past from the Buddha days, a lot has been changed since then.

In that sense- the induction of the Buddha from himself to all humans in general is not right if you cannot say that the Noble truths, the cause and effect rule etc still work today.

You cannot predict anything from the past about the future if there are no permanent rules that you can state!!

I did not say that God creates the noise after the hands are clapped, I just asked what is the meaning of the belief in conclusions that are fundamentally impermanent, as the rest of the world.

Canadafitz said...

ebe writes:

"Therefore, if someone opens this subject- the post should be so clear that no questions should remain."

And on the other hand, if someone opens any post about religion, I think the post should avoid total clarity so that it raises more questions than it answers.

But that's just me. When I was a small child, I'm told that I loved tangled balls of yarn out of which poked lots of open-ended threads.

LOL.

That is likely the reason why most religious monks and clerics find my presence somewhat discomfiting.

LOL.

Glenn Fitzgerald, Thunder Bay.

EBE said...

Glenn Fitzgerald said:

"And on the other hand, if someone opens any post about religion, I think the post should avoid total clarity so that it raises more questions than it answers".

I used to think this was right some years ago. I read a lot of philosophy books and asked my self a lot of questions about the presence or absence of god, religions, what religion should I prefer etc.

One day, while walking, the head is full of distubing thoughts about this subject, I found an answer. Never mind what was it, I'm not sure this was the answer you are going to get, but I know it was the answer due to a blessed moment of a total silence that followed.

When I read something religios- I take few breaths, wait a little for this feeling. I felt it when I read several monotheistic books and also Noble Buddhist books. No one has the wisdom in his pocket.

I must say that this feeling is absent when I read this post time and time again. If those questions arise and not the silence of knowing, then it is only philosophy and not wisdom.

This is why "if someone opens this subject- the post should be so clear that no questions should remain". When you have the insight- you do not need convince others anymore. You just know.

"That is likely the reason why most religious monks and clerics find my presence somewhat discomfiting". BINGO!!!!!!!


EBE

Canadafitz said...

EBE writes:

"I must say that this feeling is absent when I read this post time and time again. If those questions arise and not the silence of knowing, then it is only philosophy and not wisdom."

You should read Haiku, then.

One good Haiku is worth a thousand philosophical dissertations on Buddhism. Here's one written by a guy who (in the spring and summer) meditates on a rock out on the lake at Chippawa Park in Thunder Bay.

Almost the break of day
A gentle tide moves this way,
A man or a rock,
who can say?

Glenn Fitzgerald.

Anonymous said...

The point in terms of present moment awareness is that to treat God or no God in those terms is just an idea, a belief and taking a position on it. Belief in God is no way less relevant than not believing in God from the point of view of witnessing the present moment in which God is a thought produced in the mind and one is invited to notice the conditioning effect one way or the other...

Anonymous said...

In the post it is said:

"It would contradict the anicca doctrine (impermanence) Just as God is a big self, he is also neccessarily conceived as everlasting (in most versions, in both directions "before Abraham was I am") If anything or anyone can exist eternally, then impermanence is false".

I agree with the above comment that if one restricts himself to the present moment, as well as only to his six senses, then "Dukkha, anicha, annata" provide a good model for the human existance.

Probably, in this formal philosophical region the Buddha taught his ideas. He told the bikkhus that he teaches on the suffering, its origin and how to end it, and only that. Moreover, he urged the bikkhus to experience his ideas and not to take his words for granted.

If we accept the convention that the Buddha said those things, then we are in the philosophical region of an empiricist religion.

However, once one tries to state a general conclusion from his own empiricist "experiments" to "the reality as it is", if I'm allowed to use the term Kant used, it is one step too much.

I think this is the main criticism on this post.

There is a nice story, I do not have the exact location, about one bikkhu how came to the Buddha and asked all those questions about the origin of the world and god etc, and said that if the Buddha will not answer, he will go.

The Buddha told him politely that he may go, and that he never ever promissed to teach him such things, and then the Buddha gave a story about a man that an arrow is stuck in his chest. The doctor comes and try to take the arrow out while the wounded man resists and wants to know who shot the arrow and why etc. He probably dies at the end since he did not let the doctor to pull the arrow out.

The Buddha then said that all his teaching are about sufffering and how to stop it, and no more.

He probably knew the philosophical restrictions of his own ideas, and he was wise enough to know where arguments about "god- yes or no" may lead. Since the Buddha asked his bikkhus to really test his words, one is allowed to turn on TV at news time and to see how wise was the Budha and how much he is right. One can see where such arguments lead!

Neil S said...

Nicely argued, but I have some reservations about the completeness here.

First, the anatman doctrine is meant ot *only* be applied to the concept of a self in terms of the skhandas. From that perspective there may be no deity, but there is also no you, me, Buddha, or anyone else. (See J. Perez-Remon, "Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism", Mouton Publishers, 1980.)

Next, while the arguments from impermanence and mutual-coarising work, they only work aginst the idea of an eternal creator. This no more rules out the Hindu deities (whom Buddha claims to have met in several Theravad texts) than it does the Buddhist deities.

What we can say is three things here:

1) Buddha said any concept of a deity was irelevant to Nirvana.
2) At best any deity falls on the level of conventional truth. (See Nagarjuna's two-truths doctrine)
3) Buddha insisted we use critically evaluated empirical standards (The now famous "Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it..." quote) Based on these standards, there is no evidence for any deity, and therefore there is no reason to take the concept oif a deity seriously.

All in all, a thought provoking blog entry. Thank you.

kalratri said...

I'm afraid, Buddhists are wrong. In Indian religions Bhagavan is a common word for God, as common in India as God is common in English.

Buddha merely stated the 5 upadana skandhas are "Not self", not that there is no self.

Without having faith in Buddha as Bhagavan (4 factors of Stream Entry), one does not gain the Eightfold Path.