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.