Six weeks ago I started this series, “God and Buddhism.”
The general theme of this series is to highlight the fact that even though the orthodox Buddhist view is that most traditions of Buddhism are atheist traditions, there are many passages in the Buddhist Sutras that refer to Gods and heavenly states and devas (angels) and the like.
I have presented the case that these passages suggest that the Theravada Buddhist tradition is not really as much of an atheist tradition as their leading teachers claim.
However, the core of intellectual integrity is to approach any subject as dispassionately and objectively as one can. With this in mind it is important to be clear most Theravada Buddhists, and the teachers of most other Buddhist traditions, do not believe in God or the need for divine grace for a person to reach the highest goals of the spiritual life.
A good example of how the Buddha somewhat scornfully dismisses beliefs in an all- powerful creator, please see Sutta #1 “What the teaching is not” sections 2.1 to 2.7.
The Long Discourses of the Buddha A Translation of the Digha Nikaya Wisdom Publications Somerville, MA 2012 Pages 75-76
In this passage the Buddha begins by saying that for one reason or another a being is reborn in an “Abhassara Brahma world.” This is a high plane of existence where beings live as beings of light, or devas, in great joy and ease for a very long time.
But through fatigue or loss of merits, one of these beings drops down a level of being into an “empty Brahma palace.” which is also a lofty plane of existence just not as high as the “Abhassara Brahma world.” Over time this being gets a little lonely and begins to wish other beings were present. When other beings also drop into this realm the first being begins to think, “I am Brahma, The Great Brahma….the All-Seeing, the All-Powerful Lord, the maker and creator, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be.”
In short, the first fallen being starts to mistakenly describe their identity as being Brahma. The beings who appear later in this “empty-Bhrama palace” also start mistakenly thinking of the first one they meet there as being Brahma.
To appreciate the full significance of this, it helps to know that Buddhism developed in the midst of sixth or fifth century BCE in India, when Brahma was the name given to the supreme deity of the Indian culture of the time. With this in mind, this passage from Sutta #1 is saying the God the Indians have worshiped for centuries as the supreme deity is in actuality a deluded being who fell from a higher realm. Furthermore those who worship this being are also deluded into thinking something is true that is not. To say that this analysis is a bit disrespectful and specious is an understatement.
But, from a Buddhist perspective the most important feature in all such matters is this:
Even though in Buddhist texts there are many references to Brahma, heavenly states, devas, the 33 Gods, and the Ruler of the Gods, these realities are not seen as being that important. To Buddha and his followers all of these heavenly states and Gods are simply additional examples of impermanent states and beings.
To orthodox Theravada Buddhists the Buddha’s enlightenment is superior to all these states and beings for a very simple reason. All states and beings however exalted are created. All that is created will pass away. Gods, devas, heavenly states, heavenly sights and sounds may be exalted and very pleasant, but like all created phenomena they will come to an end. In that end they will experience suffering and death and rebirth into the cycles of birth, suffering, and death.
But Nirvana is not a created state and therefore escapes the cycles of arising and passing away. What is surprising to me though is that Nirvana is often referred to as “The Deathless.” (I believe it is in Chapter 3 of the Dhammapada from the Pali Canon but I need to check that source).
What Buddhists are generally not willing to concede is that this “deathless” Nirvana state sounds a great deal like eternal life as described by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others. When you think about it “eternal life” and the “deathless” don’t really sound all that different do they?
But, perhaps the Buddhist teachers are right. Perhaps there is no real comparison between Buddhist Nirvana and Christian eternal life in Heaven.
Then again it is also possible Buddhist teachers refuse to consider the possibility that Nirvana and eternal life in God are very similar due to unwholesome attachments they have to the views of their teacher/savior Gotama (or the tradition that used his name to expound their views).
By the way even If this is the case, they are no less attached to their dogmas than Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others are to theirs.
Still it is a good question. What is this “Deathless” the Buddhists talk about?
Please send in your comments or stories. All constructive comments will be responded to and posted.
More next week.
will at meditation practice dot com ( spelled out to limit spam)
Nice thoughtful examination of one of the many contrasts in religious thought .
My apologies for being tardy in posting your note. It seems that you have pondered these subjects yourself. Is that the case?
The passage about beings who have dropped into the lesser (though still lofty) place – the empty Brahma palace – reminds me to be carful who I seek company with. I like that my Christian faith tells me that God is God, and I AM NOT.
As far as I know, all religions and philosophies strive for personal and spiritual perfection. Who teaches, “Ah… I’ve reached mediocrity… how blissful!
I would like to hear from non-believers about their motivators and aspirations.
My apologies for being tardy to post your comment. Why are you curious about the motivations of non-believers?
Here are my thoughts, on this point.
Though Theravada Buddhists are non-believers, their motivation is liberation or the cessation of the cycles of birth and death. For Mahayana Buddhists, at least for those I am familiar with, their motivation is to forgo their own liberation until all beings are enlightened. As for atheists (secular humanists), at least those with strong ethical interests, their goal is to live a more humane life and to create a more peaceful world without the destructive damage caused by the escapist delusions they feel are present in those those who believe in God, angels, life after death, etc.
Just a few thoughts.
I’d like to know if an atheist goes through a revelation of sorts. I remember a few of my own, when I knew I wanted to stay on a better path, to not reinvent the wheel of my faith… my ah-ha moments. Several years ago in a n OT class, the priest professor talked about man’s “cry of wonder” upon sensing the existence of God. Do atheists or Buddhists have cries of wonder. I hope the do.