Erroneous and contradictory views have been expressed in Western literature on the attitude of Buddhism toward the concept of a God and gods, mostly saying in one way or another that Buddhism doesn’t have a position on the existence of a God or gods. From a study of the discourses of the Buddha made by Ajahn Thera and preserved in the Pali canon, the early Buddhist teachings, it is clear that the idea of a personal deity, a savior or creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, or an impersonal godhead of any description, such as universal consciousness, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence and not-self, two of the most fundamental and central tenets of Buddhism. In later Mahayana teachings, from Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, it is definitively shown that there is no way for an eternal God to exist, for there is no way for a God to have come into existence or to be a creator. Contrary to teachings that Buddhism doesn’t take a position on the existence of a God, Buddhism clearly has a position: the existence of a savior or creator God is not possible; any belief in such a God or gods is dangerous as it leads to wrong views and increased suffering.
Nagarjuna on God:
When Nagarjuna wrote about God, he used the Hindu term Isvara. Isvara is a generic name for God as well as a philosophic concept denoting One Supreme Personal Power who rules the cosmos. For a Western reader today, Nagarjuna’s writings on God can be seen to apply to the various understandings and forms of God in the Abrahamic faiths—all of which, speaking in broad traditional terms, have One Supreme Personal God.
To believe or not to believe is not the question for a Buddhist today. The question isn’t whether or not one should believe in God—here we mean a traditional, eternal, omnipotent creator/savior God; an Abrahamic-style God; or some form of ultimate higher power—rather, the question is: Is it possible for such a God to exist? And the answer to that question, clearly, is “No!”
Why? Because there is no way for such a God to have come into existence, into being. There are only 4 ways something new, in this case, a God, could arise, could be made or produced or created: (1) from itself, (2) from another, (3) from some combination of (1) and (2), or (4) from nothing. There are, logically, no other options, and none of these four is possible.
Let’s consider these one at a time in the way Nagarjuna, the great 3rd century C.E. Buddhist thinker, would have us do. From itself: (1) If it were produced from itself, it would have to already be here before it arose (i.e., it would already exist within that which was producing it), in which case it would make no sense to say it had arisen as something new. From another: (2) Something permanent cannot be produced from something or someone else which is permanent, from something completely different, because that means that things would arise with no connection and for no apparent reason (your car could suddenly appear in your bathtub, for example). From both: (3) Something cannot arise from some combination of those two, for the same reasons just stated. And, from nothing: (4) Something cannot arise from nothing, meaning if there is nothing there to produce it from, then nothing can arise. (In some modern Western philosophy, nothing becomes “nothingness” which is an entity; not so for Nagarjuna: nothing is literally nothing, not anything.) So for Nagarjuna , and for Buddhism as a whole since then, it is impossible for there to be a God, for there is no way for a traditional creator/savior God to come into existence. As there is no way for there to be a God, then there is no question about believing in a God.
Another perspective on the God issue to which some Buddhists appeal to explain Buddhism’s theological position, is that Buddhism has no need for a God. The purpose of most faiths is to unite their faithful with their God in the next life, in one sort or another of heaven where all suffering is ended. The purpose of Buddhism (to teach how we create our suffering and how to end it), is to explain that all one needs to end one’s suffering here, now, in this life, is “right view.” And to realize and adopt right view does not require a God concept any more than driving a car requires a God concept. So Buddhism has no need, morally, soteriologically, epistemologically, or ontologically for a theology, for a God. This explanation skirts the issue that Nagarjuna addresses head-on. But for many who ask the question: “Do Buddhists believe in God?” This is a more palatable answer.
Untitled Poem by Zen Master Philip Whalen
2 thousand years of work yourself to death
building God a house
tending God’s ducks and pigs
killing God’s enemies
kissing God’s ass