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The God Idea

Bhikkhu Dhammapiyo

Was there a "beginning" -- "of course there was, the Bible says so!"-- Or is a beginning or "First Cause" even necessary?

If you consider that at one time you were not, then what has brought you into existence as this being known by the name you care called?

The usual answer is that a God or impersonal Power created this universe, this planet, and the beings on it.

Considering the above, a further question can arise: Where has this God or other power come from? If the reply is that He (or in some cases, "She"!) is eternal then why did He decide at some point in time to bring all this into existence? What for? His pleasure? Our tribulation? If the answer can be given in either way, He can hardly be called Compassionate. An answer to all such inquiries which kills further investigation of this subject, is that he ways of God are inscrutable and we should accept this as fact without any need of investigation.

It is interesting to examine and observe how people relegate the God to the distant past of Creation or to the distant future of Judgement. This means that He has little relevance in and to their daily lives, for if He did, those very people who claim to have unshakable faith in this God would live different lives and leave the rat race, the competitions, the politics of violence, warfare, and social injustice.

Perhaps "He" is a belief that arises out of a very real need for security, or maybe even a craving for some authority figure like a father -- or for the New Agers who prefer "goddess" -- a mother, or even a craving for eternal life. But when it comes to everyday living, the God idea really takes second place and the evidence lies in the very behavior an actions of people all over the planet.

Where is God intervening in the unspeakable crimes against humanity that are perpetrated and viewed on TV like a regular daily show? This is a fair question, if you assert, which you probably do if you are a "believer", that we are all made in God's image. Put the actions with the image, together, and that is one nasty God! Put forward "belief", and "doubt" will be found, too.

From a Buddhadharma perspective, even if "He" does exist, what practical difference does it make to one's life here and now? Is not the distant past and the distant future, strictly irrelevant to us in the present -- in the here-and-now?

It is always the present, which is important in the Dhamma, not the past, often compared to a dream, and certainly not the future, which we can liken to a mirage seen by one thirsty in the desert.

What I do NOW, how I react/respond NOW -- these things are infinitely more relevant than speculations over distant events. (And notice there is a difference between "react" vs. "respond".)

These are said by Buddha to be the "tangle of Wrong Views", "wrong" since no firm conclusions can be reached on the bases on which they are reared. And what are these? Blind faith is one and craving is the other. Ignorance is the root.

Moreover a hornet's nest is stirred up whenever opposing sets of "beliefs" come into conflict, and so-called "religious" wars and persecutions are a pointer to how strong the attachment can be to Wrong Views. Why be tangled up in them? Why get stung when the venom as well as the stinger is avoidable? Take a look at the atrocities that are ongoing and given such insidious and guileful a term as "ethnic cleansing". Religious differences play a bigger role than political ones in many cases.

When Buddha was asked about the length of an eon, He answered, "No beginning can be seen to beings, blinded by unknowing and driven by craving who are hurrying through the round of birth-and-death". Thus for the practitioner of the Buddhadharma, i.e., the "Buddhist", "in the beginning" has no meaning, and no point in time can be found when there was a Creation. Nor is there found any Creator (though we create things through cause and effect (kamma) and bring about a seemingly continuous sort of creation.

The Buddhadhamma-Vinaya practitioner knows well at some point, sooner or later, that unknowing and/or ignorance is the seed of (karma) kamma sprouting into the various stressful and unsatisfactory experiences termed "dukkha". "God" is a concept, a mix of ideas -- as evidenced by so many traditions holding the view of a god or gods under a Supreme Being or Creator God. "Buddhism" does not lump these ideas together calling them "God". If one speaks of "eternity", it is dealt with as it is -- Dharma; if one speaks of judgement and retribution -- Karma; if you want to know about beings -- there are other sentient beings seen and unseen through out the cosmos. And this area is more scientific and better explained than even some so called Buddhists know!

And since this matter deals with ideas, it is not more puzzling to comprehend an infinity of birth-and-death rounds rooted in unknowing than it is to communicate about a "Creator" who was never born. Indeed, the former has great advantage over the latter since unknowing is in one's very own heart and may be removed by education, investigation, and directly experiencing Reality as it is.

It is complex sets of conditions that give rise to dependent events, though the co-dependent arisings may not be clear to one's own awareness. Thus, all dhammas (paramattha dhammas) come into and go from existence in this way. One does not have to seek a beginning, nor does a "Maker" or "Creator" need be sought after.

In the Visuddhi Magga, XIX, translated by Nyanamoli Thera, we have this verse:

"No god, no Brahma can be called
The Maker of this Wheel of Life:
Just empty phenomena roll on
Dependent on conditions all."

The cosmology found in the Buddhadhamma not only takes into account the existence of innumerable systems of worlds grouped into what we should call galaxies, but has equally vast conceptions of cosmic time.

What did Lord Buddha really have to say about God? At times, He did remain silent on this topic. But there is an account given by Him on the genesis of the "Creator" and this should settle the issue. But before going on with that, we should note that Buddha was not an agnostic (one who does not know). In fact, He was a gnostic or 'one who knows' (in Pali: "janata") and was also called "Sabbannu", the 'All-knower". This means that to whatever subject Lord Buddha attended to, He knew all the contents of that subject. It does NOT mean that He always knew everything about every subject all at once, for this very claim was one He emphatically and specifically denied about himself. Now, to settle this question of "God" we can investigate. It happens that in the beginning of a new cycle (after one of the periodic cosmic collapses), a being according to his or her kamma (karma) is reborn into a heavenly realm or state where no other beings are to found. (That one's kamma being a condition for the arising of that particular heavenly experience.) That one does not remember her or his past life among other "gods" in the "higher" heavenly realms, and comes to believe during the passing of ages that s/he has lived there forever. With the passing of immense time spans, that one wishes for the company of others and then, since according to their kamma some other beings appear in that realm, s/he comes to believe that they were produced by her or his will. From this s/he goes on to glorify herself or himself, her or his supposed "creation" and this aids that being's vanity since such a being does not remember the past life it was subjected to and so imagines that it is a creature of Brahma. One of these great Brahmas called by the name of Baka, was made to see the emptiness and futility of his claims to eternal existence and creatorhood when Lord Buddha while in meditation paid a visit to that realm.

And not only that, the "Buddhist" attitude to Brahma or God or "the Creator" is fairly if somewhat seemingly acridly summed up in these translated verses:

"He who has eyes can see the sickening sight;
Why does not Brahma set his creatures right?
If his wide power no limit can restrain,
Why is his hand so rarely spread to bless?
Why are all his creatures condemned to pain?
Why does he not to all give happiness?
Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail?
Why triumphs falsehood -- truth and justice fail?
I count your Brahma one the unjust among
Who made a world in which to shelter wrong."
-- Bhuridatta Jataka, No. 453

Consider this: the greater the power of a so-called God then the less will be the ability of the human being to do skill or do the unskillful (as found in pre-destinarian doctrines). Thus the provocation for the following:

"If there exists some lord all-powerful to fulfill
In every creature bliss or woe, and action good or ill,
That Lord is stained with sin. The human being does but work his will."
-- Mahabodhi Jataka, No. 528

(This article above was inspired by the teachings of my teacher, Venerable Bhikkhu Dharmagupta Mahasthavir, the early work of former Venerable Bhikkhu Phra Khantipalo, and from venerable monks, of many traditions, including the Theravada, Tibetan Schools, Ch'an and Zen Schools, for whose teachings I am especially grateful for.)

In the Sasana,
Bhikkhu Dhammapiyo
Buddhadharma International Foundation, Inc.

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