A Buddhist God?

Is it right to describe Buddhism as atheistic? Many people do, pointing to the fact that Buddhism doesn’t refer to a creator God. Yet it’s not so simple.

In the earliest Buddhist texts the Buddha tells some stories that make fun of Brahma, who thinks he is the supreme deity. But in some versions of Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha himself eventually became elevated from “a person who is awake” (the literal meaning of Buddha) to a more celestial figure. Whereas Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) emphasized the importance of “being a lamp unto yourself,” it was believed that Amitabha Buddha could intercede at the time of death and take us to his Pure Land in the West, far beyond our world. This led to the development of more devotional types of Buddhism, which still predominate in East Asia. In some ways this Pure Land Buddhism seems more similar to the Abrahamic religions than to the original teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali Canon, the core collection of early Buddhist scriptures.

Moreover, there are plenty of less powerful gods and spirits in the premodern Asian Buddhist traditions.

Amitabha Buddha

Amitabha Buddha sits at the center of this eighth-century Chinese painting, The Paradise of Amitabha Buddha. Credit: Creative Commons/British Museum/ancientartpodcast.org.

Early Buddhism accepted the existence of these disincarnate beings, even as it emphasized how they are impermanent and subject to laws of cause and effect, including the law of karma. All this raises questions about whether Buddhism should really be described as “atheistic.” The modern term has connotations that do not really fit Buddhism, especially naturalistic presumptions about the secular nature of this world. It’s better to say that Buddhism does not accept the theism vs. atheism dichotomy. It accounts for our experience (and our spiritual potential) in a different way.

Two Perspectives on Nirvana

Apparently the Buddha did not say very much about the nature of nirvana, the goal of the Buddhist path. As a result some ambiguity arose as the Buddhist tradition developed. Nirvana certainly involves transcending this world of suffering and delusion, but transcendence can be understood in different ways—and has been.
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