Recently I had the good fortune to travel and visit with my mother. My mother is a wonderful woman of good Methodist stock who has finally made peace, it seems, with
On this most recent visit she asked the “God” question: “Do Buddhists believe in God?” This question is actually quite important and one that Buddhist should consider deeply.
First we must unpack the question a little. The question would be better stated, “Do Buddhists believe in the Christian god?” And the simple answer would be that generally Buddhists accept the existence of many gods, the Christian god being no exception. But then you would have to explain that Buddhists don’t really think of gods as being particularly special, they are just one possible form of existence. This usually does not sit well with Christians.
So the question now becomes something like, “Do Buddhists believe in the Christian god who is the only omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, creator being (person)?” While we are trying to get our minds around this question it is important to remember that the question is coming out of a well-established Christian paradigm. If the “God” question was not coming out of a Christian paradigm then the a different question might be asked, “What do Buddhists believe?” This is a good question and creates an opening for dialogue.
The “God” question however is a question that puts us on the defensive. It assumes a Christian paradigm that most definitely has a “God.” We are immediately put in the position of defending our lack of belief in a Christian god and lack of adherence to the dominant Christian paradigm - reality. We may answer by trying to redefine the Christian god so that it becomes something like “Pure Being” or like Lao Tzu’s “Tao” or the “Satchitanada” of Advaita Vedanta. And while all of these are wonderful articulations of something beyond articulation, they are not really the Christian Creator god nor are they Buddhist.
For myself, I think the best way to answer is directly, “No, Buddhists do not believe in God.” Its honest and it is clear.
Buddhism has very good reasons for rejecting a supreme god. One of the most compelling reasons, for me, is that the rejection of a supreme god changes the power dynamics at play in religion and society. Instead of a religious hierarchy with all of the power concentrated in the apex (supreme god), the Buddha established a religious model in which power (responsibility) rest in each individual as part of a larger community (Sangha.) The community (Sangha) is held together by rules of conduct (sila) and the teachings of the way to end suffering (Dharma.)
In the theistic model of religion obedience trumps everything. Obedience to a god absolves us of personal responsibility for our actions, individually and communally. Our actions, moral or otherwise, are subservient to obedience to our god.
Buddhism is very different. Correct action trumps orthodoxy (correct belief.) There are very definite things that should not be done because they create suffering and are unbeneficial. And there are things that should be done because they alleviate suffering and are beneficial. In Buddhism, as Dr Ambedkar points out, “Morality is Dharma and Dharma is Morality.” This is a very radical message which I think often gets missed. Our well being as a community and as individuals depends entirely upon our actions (karma.) We can spend our time thinking about the dharma and trying to create a Pureland, which embodies the highest ideals of Buddhism or we can pursue the 3 poisons which create more suffering. It is that simple. The buck stops with us. We can create a world that is a heaven or a hell. Our actions make a big difference and it is important that we do not give our power away to governments, gods, and gurus or to our own greed, hatred, and ignorance.
As Buddhist I think we should be proud of the fact that we are willing to take responsibility for our actions. We don’t blame gods or devils. It’s up to us. Believing or not believing in a particular god may or may not be useful. But if we look at the past track record of belief in a god, I am quite happy to say: “As a Buddhist I don’t believe in ‘God’.”