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Buddhism and God

Ajahn Jagaro

There are so many other things we could be doing rather than listening to a talk about Buddhism and God, so many important things in our lives which are crucial to our material well-being. However, anyone who has taken the trouble to come here this evening will appreciate that there is something more important than our material well-being - and that is the spiritual aspect of life.

We have to devote a great deal of time and energy, both physical and mental, to obtaining comfortable living conditions and creating a safe and pleasant environment for ourselves and our families. But is that all there is to life? There is something else which is at least equally as important as the material aspect of life, which is the spiritual side.

Unfortunately, Australian society is traditionally not very interested in religion. In one sense this is unfortunate. In another sense, it is fortunate that our culture is rather disinterested in religion, because this means there are not such strong fanatical tendencies. In fact Australian society is probably one of the most free, open and fair societies as far as the practice, study and choice of religious paths in concerned. It would be very difficult to find another society that offers such a degree of freedom and fairness.

People quite often ask me whether, being a Buddhist monk, I have encountered any discrimination in coming to Australia. The answer is no, none at all, it's a very fair society. I only wish that other societies, other cultures, other countries, and other religions in this world were as free and as fair as here in Australia. That is the good side of a society that has not made religion into an obsession.

But, of course, the unavoidable consequence is that Australian society is very wishy-washy when it comes to religion. Religion is not a major concern in people's lives. Nevertheless, these days there are growing numbers of people who are beginning to realise the need for something other than material comforts, a spiritual need. You could say it is a religious need, or a need of the heart. It is something other than just striving to get enough to eat, a place to live, money, a car and success. There is a need for something more than that, and that is a religious or spiritual need.

Talking about the spiritual or religious side of life, we encounter a tremendous variety of beliefs, and every belief system has its own vocabulary. A large proportion of our population has been brought up and conditioned by the terminology, attitudes, values, assumptions and beliefs that are prevalent in this particular culture. This doesn't necessarily mean that people will believe them or follow them completely, but they cannot escape the fact that it is part of their make-up or their conditioning. It considerably affects the assumptions they make about life, the world, existence, the future, birth and death.

So much that is part of our culture comes from religious beliefs. For those who have been brought up in a culture that is not Christian, such as Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, the conditioning is very different. The terminology, assumptions, beliefs and attitudes towards life, death, the future and our existence are very different. This is why a lot of confusion arises when different belief systems or religions come into contact.

People from a theistic background coming into contact with Buddhism inevitably ask if Buddhists believe in God. This arises because for them religion is always equated with God. For them, God is religion, you cannot separate the two. If you are going to talk about religion then you must talk about God. To find out whether a Buddhist is a religious person, the first thing asked is, "Do you believe in God?" If you say yes, you are obviously all right, you are a religious person. If you say no, then you aren't a religious person.

But for those who have received their conditioning from a Buddhist culture, that question is a strange one. It really has nothing to do with religion. It is an irrelevant question which leads to a lot of misunderstandings. A lot of assumptions are made without careful consideration or understanding of what we are talking about.

Where does God fit in?

I chose this topic because I think it is of interest in our situation, where Buddhist people are living amongst a predominantly theistic culture, mainly Christian, and as such often encounter such questions regarding God. People new to Buddhism and taking up many of its practices are often perplexed or unresolved as to where God fits into the picture - not that they necessarily //want// God to fit in, but due to their past conditioning they can't help wondering about God's relation to all this.

I shall endeavour to talk around this topic, sharing some ideas, reflections and personal appreciation, rather than giving a lecture. It may be helpful to you; you don't have to believe it, you don't have to take it as the word of authority, or as Buddhist dogma. You should consider wisely, reflect on it and use your capacity to contemplate and reason clearly; not only to contemplate and question what I say, but to question your own thoughts, assumptions and beliefs on the subject.

It is not good to believe others too easily, but neither is it good to believe yourself too easily. You are no more trustworthy than others, in the sense that much of our thinking is conditioned, biased and contained within fixed limitations. If we stay within that limited view, in that limited belief system and its assumptions, we are going to remain trapped and we will be unable to grow.

There is a fine line between being gullible and being hidebound. That fine line is the point of sincerity, the desire to understand, the humility to admit that one may not be right, that one may not know. It is the sincerity and openness to contemplate and see things from different angles, to try to understand and trust in the human ability to consider things carefully. Dare to question, be open, be willing to listen; question and consider.

The first thing to question is the very word "God" - it's a strange word, because as soon as you say the word 'God' something comes into your mind. What it is depends on what kind of conditioning you have received through a lifetime of association with a culture and a belief system. The word 'God' has an immediate emotive effect, certain assumptions arise in the mind. That is the first problem with the word, because your mind is already closed.

It is important for us to contemplate this word 'God'. What is God? What do we mean by this word 'God', by 'belief in God'? If you are going to believe something you first have to know what it is. If you ask me whether I believe in God, my response is to ask, "What do you mean by God?" Tell me what you mean by the word, and then I can tell you whether I believe it or not.

This is where it becomes so interesting, because as soon as we say that everybody gives a different answer - and I mean everybody. They may agree on some generalizations if they are from the same cultural heritage, but when you look closely there will be many disagreements on the details. If we went around the world asking five billion people, "What do you mean by God?" we would get a billion different answers.

Now what does that indicate? I suggest that it indicates a very fundamental, recurring situation. The God that we are talking about is created by the individual who talks about it. That is why each individual talks about it in a slightly different way. What they are describing is actually the God they are creating in their own minds. That is all that they can describe. You may think that if you talk about God to Christians they will all have the same idea of God, but there will be many discrepancies in their descriptions of God.

Man creates God

I heard a story which I can't really believe is true, although I guess by repeating it I'm giving it some validity. The story comes from a Buddhist monk who was very outspoken about Christianity, because he had once been a very staunch Catholic, but had renounced Catholicism. You tend to get very 'anti' when you renounce something, like getting divorced. This monk went to a meeting where there were Christians from different parts of the world, all talking about God. There was a European who said, "God is a white man;" there was an Asian who said, "God is an Asian;" there was a black man who said, "God is a black man;" and there was a woman who said, "God is a woman."

Even if this story isn't true, it's not very different from the way people talk about God. Note how much of theology today is based on God being a man, and European of course, because most of that theology was developed within the Roman Empire and was therefore European based. Of course today that is being challenged. Perhaps 'God the Mother' is the right terminology.

Ridiculous though this story may be, it serves to illustrate the idea that people create God in their own image. Different people describe God in different ways. They tend to create God in their own minds - in other words they conceive God in their minds. And they can only create God in their own minds, in their own image, because all that they can create is the thoughts and images that they conceive. That is why we can recognise every description of God that we encounter. Have you ever noticed that? If I can recognise it, it means that it is something familiar to me, something very similar to me. I can relate to every aspect that is described, because it is something that has been created by the human mind.

Now contemplate this in terms of the history of human religion, going back to its most primitive forms. What sort of gods were created and worshipped? They were rough, coarse, primitive - war gods, power gods, nature gods. The more fierce and warlike the tribe and culture, the more fierce and warlike the gods. As culture and society became more civilised, more emphasis began to be placed on other attributes, such as compassion, kindness and love. Consequently the form and description of the gods changed. Such is the progression of the descriptions of God that have been worshipped by people through the ages.

This is evident even in a single religion, such as Christianity. If we look at the Bible carefully we can see an evolution in the form God takes, from a very fierce, warlike God to a more loving, compassionate God. I'm not saying that God changes, but the attributes that are described and attributed to him as represented in these books do change. What that means is that the people, the culture and the society are changing. They are changing in their psychology, toward an appreciation of more humane, more refined qualities. As they learn to appreciate these qualities and respect them, they then attribute them to God.

You can recognise these attributes in yourself. Whether it is love, hatred, jealousy, fire and brimstone or universal compassion, you can always recognise them. That's the sort of thing that goes on in the human mind to one degree or another.

Most of the primitive or older societies talked about God singular, one God as we have in the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths. But when the descriptions in these different religions are compared there is some disagreement.

Generally the concept of God is as the creator who rewards and punishes, and it is a personal God. It is very hard for people to stop thinking about God as an entity with which they have some form of personal relationship, as a God who rewards and punishes.

The Buddhist view

Buddhism, however, has very different ideas on this matter. Buddhism grew out of a culture which certainly believed in gods, many levels of gods, called //devas//. There was also the highest level of gods, the //Brahma// gods, and Maha Brahma, the highest God. That was the Brahman belief system. There were many gods, and Maha Brahma was the great God, the creator, the destroyer and the punisher. Buddha made it very clear that he rejected this.

Although you should not jump to any conclusion here, clearly a Buddhist can say at this point that Buddhism does not believe in a creator God, an all-powerful being that punishes and rewards. Buddhism simply does not teach this. The Buddha did not believe this, he did not teach it. It's an interesting statement because it seems so final. People will say that Buddhism is not a religion, it's just a philosophy, a way of life. Many people like to present it that way. Buddhist philosophy as a good way of life.

But that is a very inaccurate and incomplete description of Buddhism. Why? The Buddha once made a very interesting statement concerning the motivation that led him to leave his home at the age of twenty-nine, in the midst of wealth, prosperity and good health. He said:

"Why, being myself subject to birth, aging, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement, do I seek after that which is also subject to these things? Suppose, being myself subject to these things, seeing the danger in them, I were to seek after the unborn, unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled, supreme freedom from bondage, Nibbana?"

That is a very interesting statement from someone who says he doesn't believe in God. He didn't mention God, he didn't say, "I want to unite with Great Brahma eternally." But there is something very important in his statement that is obviously not concerned with material well-being, with comfort, with a nice philosophy about how to live with family and offspring or how to govern a country or make a decent living. He didn't say anything about that, but simply asked why he, being mortal, being subject to old age, sickness and death, should use his life to seek wealth, health, knowledge, position, power and family? Why should he use this life for these things? Instead, he decided to strive to realise the unconditioned, the unoriginated, the deathless, that which is free from mortality.

This was the Buddha's motivation for leaving home and striving for something other than just a material goal in life or a philosophical idea or a different way of life. He had a definite goal. It was a spiritual goal, a religious goal, because, by definition, religion means that which binds to the highest, that which takes you to the highest. This was a tremendous spiritual quest. His realisation was a spiritual realisation because his Enlightenment was the very attainment of the unborn, the uncreated, the unoriginated, the complete freedom from mortality and bondage.

What, then, do we make of this teaching? What do we make of this teacher who is obviously after something spiritual, who claimed to have attained and realised something spiritual, but who has nothing to do with God, and does not accept the idea of a creator God who rewards and punishes? He mentions gods, many kinds of them. In much the same way as the Hindu tradition, and to some extent as in the Islamic tradition which says there are many levels of heaven: depending on your level of merit, the closer you get to God. This is very similar to the Buddhist cosmology, where, according to accumulated merit, people are reborn into various heavenly realms. These realms increase in refinement up to the Brahma realm - not just one, but many.

The Buddha did talk about gods, heavens, hells and beings in all three realms in his teaching, but with one important distinction: all these gods are mortal, all these realms are mortal. Mortal means that which is born and dies. Every being, in whatever shape or form, is subject to the process of birth and death. Every being in every realm, be it god, //deva//, hell-being, animal or human being, is born and dies, all are mortal.

However that doesn't seem to fit the description of what people mean when they use the word 'God'. If you inform a Christian or a Muslim that God is born and dies they will not be very happy about that. That's not what Christians are referring to when they talk about God, not gods, //devas//, or spirits. They're referring to something different, something that isn't born and doesn't die.

In Buddhism, all gods, //devas// and spirits are mortal. Some of the Brahma gods can become quite conceited and arrogant. There are many stories in the Buddhist texts where the Buddha used his psychic powers to confront these Brahma gods. In the scriptures, the Brahma god is portrayed as very arrogant and conceited, calling himself the All-Powerful, All-Knowing Creator. It's very easy to be arrogant when you are powerful, because power corrupts, but it always has its limits. These Brahma gods, too, eventually find their limits. They, too, pass away and are reborn in other realms. This is rather abstract and is obviously not what we mean in the English vocabulary by the word 'God', certainly not what is meant from the Christian or Muslim point of view.

And it's not what the Buddha aimed at when he left home. He didn't aim at the Brahma realm and becoming the all-knowing, the all-powerful, the creator, the destroyer or even at going to live in the Brahma realm. He strove for the unborn, the unoriginated, the uncreated, the deathless.

What is it that he strove for and attained, this ultimate goal? Was it God or the Buddhist equivalent of God? I would never say that, in view of the statement I made at the beginning of this talk, because as soon as you say 'God', people start getting ideas in their heads, and that is already far from the unborn, the unconditioned, the uncreated, the unoriginated, the deathless.

All these words - the unborn, the unconditioned, the uncreated, the unoriginated, the deathless - tell you nothing. What comes into your mind? Nothing? Very good, you are getting a bit closer to it. This is very important, because until people understand this there will never be any understanding between religions.

False Idols

There will never be any true inter-religious dialogues until people appreciate that the false idols are not statues. No one would worship a statue as God or Buddha. Those statues represent something. They are symbols, just like a photograph of your mother: you don't stand on it, you put it up on the wall. You may even put some flowers in front of it. That's what a statue is. Not many people are inclined to attach to, or worship, idols of that nature.

But the tendency of human beings, even intelligent human beings, to worship and believe in the idols they create in their own minds is very common. They cannot see that they are idols, false idols, that these beliefs are not the truth, or anything near the truth. It is their own creations of God which they worship, and that is why they will never reach the truth. What we think is what blocks us off from the truth. Thoughts, images, concepts - these are all barriers, obstacles to realising the unborn, the uncreated, the unconditioned. This is because by its very nature the unborn is beyond thought. Thought cannot reach it because thought is always creation. Thought is in creation, it is limited and dualistic.

To that which Buddhism calls the highest, I would not put the label 'God', because the word 'God' is misinterpreted. One Christian monk defined God in a way which I find acceptable. He said, "God is the nothing that supports everything" - that's a very good definition and quite useable. But how many people would be prepared to accept that? You can't make head or tail of it anyway. Just like the unborn, the uncreated, the unoriginated - you can't make anything of that either. That's why it is so good; you're not supposed to be able to make something of it. If you make something of it you are creating something which is not real, you are creating God.

We should stop creating God and realise the truth - that which is beyond creation. The Buddha made this wonderful statement:

"There is, monks, an unborn, uncreated, an unconditioned. Here, monks, I say there is no coming, no going, no standing, no ceasing, no beginning. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering."

It's a very powerful statement, a very wonderful statement, a penetrating view of reality. Note that it is negative: negating all creation, negating all that is individual, negating all the characteristics that isolate, such as concepts of an individual, concepts that are dualistic, limited, mortal. It is pure negation, sweeping away everything. That is what the unconditioned is - when you sweep away all conditions.

What sort of debate would it be, to ask is God a man or a woman? In the lower realms there are said to be both male and female gods, but even in the Brahma realms there are no longer male and female, because those beings are without bodies; they are radiant beings of pure consciousness. So how can the Ultimate be male or female? People can't give up the idea of a personal relationship with God the father: "Ask, and He will give; He will look after you and He will punish you."

This is incompatible with the unborn, the unoriginated, the unconditioned, the deathless. There is no personal relationship with this. It has nothing to do with rewarding and punishing, having a chosen people, punishing non-chosen people. This is the unborn, uncreated, unconditioned - that's all. Just realising it is freedom from all bondage, from all rounds of mortality, from all limitations.

So what about all this punishment and reward? Is Buddhism somehow lacking? No, because the Buddha pointed to very fundamental truths. Everything that comes into existence, which is the whole round of mortality, exists according to laws. These fundamental laws have nothing to do with reward and punishment. There's no one there to reward, no one there to punish.

These laws of nature can be expressed very simply in a broader sense, as the Law of Dependent Origination (//Paticcasamuppada//), like this:

When this is, that is;|
When this arises, that arises;
When this is not, that is not;
When this ceases, that ceases.

This is a very simple little formula, meaning that everything that comes into being does so dependent on conditions. When the conditions are there, the result is there. That result in turn becomes a condition for other results. It is a pure relationship of cause and effect, not linear, but multi-faceted. It is a fundamental and all-inclusive law, a self-contained system.

This leads to the next question: "Who made that law?" This is where Buddhism is radically different. What is the beginning? Who created things? These questions are based on certain assumptions. As soon as you say, "Who created?" something outside is implied, but in Buddhism we say mortality is a self-contained system. No beginning can be seen. Of course, that's not very satisfactory. If you say, 'This part is the beginning", you have to say what is before that point. It is like asking, "What is the smallest number?" It depends on which school you went to. A child in Grade One might say number one; a PhD might say something else. Whatever you say it can be cut back further, unless you say zero, and that's not a number. Where is the smallest number? Nowhere. Where is the beginning? Nowhere. The system doesn't have a beginning. It's the wrong way of looking at it. Buddhism says there is no beginning, no creator, because as soon as you say there is a beginning, the question arises, who created it? Who created the creator? You just go round in circles.

This is a self-contained system. Everything in this system follows the law of nature, all results depend on conditions. Why does it rain today? "God made it rain." This is very simplistic. It rained because the conditions were right for it to rain. Not many people today say "God made it rain." It depends on certain conditions. Is it a reward or a punishment? It depends on how you view it. This is a law that operates at all levels, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

In is a more personal and spiritual sense, Buddhism talks about the Law of //Kamma//, which is a more specific application of this wider, all-inclusive Law of Dependent Origination. The Law of //Kamma// states that through the doing of certain volitional actions, certain results will come about. Good actions bring good results, bad actions bring bad results. This is not punishment, just natural results. The idea of God the rewarder or punisher is replaced by the law of nature. It is impersonal, it has no bias and makes deals with no one. There are no favorites, the Law is very neutral and very fair. All people who develop goodness, regardless of their religion, go to heaven through the power of that goodness. When that power of goodness fades away they die and are reborn somewhere else. Goodness and evil have their own rewards according to the laws of nature. These laws are fundamental, they are the basis of nature.

This is the Buddhist explanation of that which is normally attributed to God. The role of punishing, rewarding, creating and destroying is all taken over by the laws of nature. The idea of God as something ultimate, which is the idea behind all religion, is now presented in this very enlightenment, absolutely free from any limitation or blemish of mortality, as the unborn, the unoriginated, the uncreated, the deathless.

It's a wonderful way of putting it if you can open your mind to it. Then you see how it frees you from so many illogical, unsustainable conflicts that arise from the usual way of thinking about God.

Ajahn Jagaro
(now John Cianciosi)


Sincere thanks to Antony Woods (Sydney, Australia) for making this digital copy available
(Binh Anson, July 2004).

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last updated: 15-07-2004