God in Buddhism

Definition of God
How do you define God?  'Define' means place limits on, so maybe it's blasphemous even to try to define God, if this implies that the creature is attempting to place limits on its Creator. 

But this certainly hasn't stopped people from trying to define God in the past. In fact, disagreements about the definition of the Indefinable have been one of the major causes of wars, persecution and terrorism during the past two millenia.

To quote Revel and Ricard [REF1]:
'Intolerance is something that arose with monotheism. As soon as human beings allowed themselves to say, 'There's only one true God, and that's mine, so I have the right to annihilate anyone who doesn't  believe in him', the cycle of intolerance and religious wars began.

God the Creator
God is usually held to be the creator of the universe. Pantheists hold that God is still present within and throughout His creation.  Deists believe that God is totally separate from His creation - a watchmaker who constructed the mechanism, wound it up, and then let it run down according to the laws of thermodynamics, with no further intervention.

A Personal God
God is anthropomorphic, at least to the extent of being sexually differentiated as male rather than female (why?). 

God the Judge
In all religions (apart from Buddhism) God is the Judge of the Dead. Good people and/or true believers go up to heaven. Bad people and/or atheists and heretics (who disbelieve in God or believe in the wrong definition of God) go to hell, where they are subjected to sadistic tortures for all eternity.  The actual criteria for sorting out who goes to which destination is a matter of debate within the the various denominations. Some favor salvation by works, others salvation by faith, and yet others salvation by a bit of both.

Salvation by Works
Salvation by works consists of collecting Brownie points. Good deeds earn positive points, bad deeds negative ones. When you die your points are counted, and if you've got more positive than negative you go to heaven, if more negative than positive it's eternity in hell. If you've got exactly the same number of each,  they flip a coin.

Salvation by Faith
Salvation by faith places more emphasis on what you believe than what you actually do.  So if your religion has, say, 39 Articles of Faith and you believe 20 and disbelieve 19, then up you go. But if you only believe 19 then you go down. The coin-flipping situation can be completely avoided by having an odd number of articles of faith.

God is often stated to be omniscient, omnipotent and compassionate, but this is where the trouble starts, as these qualities are mutually exclusive. You can have any two but not all three. 

There is a contradiction in the idea of a supreme being who is omniscient, compassionate and yet creates souls in the knowledge that they are damned to eternal agony in hell.    If God is omniscient then he knows all events both past and future, including  how people will behave, and their ultimate fate in hell or heaven. He knows this before they are even born. God has already condemned newborn babes to eternal fire.

Within time or outside time?
If God exists within time, and is subject to the uncertainties of Time just  like the rest of us,  then Time is ultimately more powerful than God.

                                Hail Chronos,  Lord and Devourer of All!

If God is omniscient and exists outside time, then he can never make a decision or choose a course of action, because he knows in advance exactly what his future actions will be for all eternity. The entire history and future of the universe will be laid out before him like the frames of a movie. He cannot decide to change his mind because he knows in advance when and how he will decide to change his mind, so his mind will already be made up. Such a God would be totally paralysed by His own pre-ordained future.

The Abrahamic theologians have overspecified God with various power attributes to such an extent that he has become a logically impossible being. For example:

If he is omnipotent, can he produce a truly indestructible object? If he can't then he's not omnipotent. If he can then he's not omnipotent either because now there's one action he cannot do (destroy the truly indestructible).

God and Satan
If God is good then why is there so much human and animal suffering in His creation? If suffering and other evils result from Satan rather than God, then why doesn't God get rid of Satan - after all, God is omnipotent and Satan is limited?  In any case, if God is omniscient he knows what Satan is going to do in advance, so God could always outwit Satan and spoil his devious plots if he wanted to.

Free will and changelessness.
Can God create autonomous beings, whose wishes and intentions he can't control?   Most Buddhists and neo-pagans claim that humans have free will. Most materialists and some Christians (especially Calvinists) claim that free will does not exist. Materialists reject free will on the basis of physicalist determinism.  Calvinist Christians reject free-will because in creating autonomous beings God would lose his omnipotence (he couldn't control their actions). Which implies that by creating such beings he would have changed in his ultimate nature from a perfect being to a limited being.   Thus God would be seen as inconstant, changing and indeed diminishing over time. This is regarded by Christians as a theological non-starter.

Perfection and Predestination
If God is perfect then he is sufficient in Himself. So why bother to create a world at all?  The Abrahamic regions claim that the purpose of the universe is to act as a soul-sorting machine to sort good souls from bad.  But if God is omniscient, he already knows which are the rejects before they're loaded onto the conveyor belt, so why construct such a huge, wasteful and extravagant mechanism in the first place?

Buddhism is sometimes said to be an agnostic religion. Certainly there is no concept of God as the vindictive, judgemental, time-subservient warlord of the Old Testament.

Buddhism has ethical objections to the idea of a God who throws infidels and sinners into everlasting torment. The Buddhist ideal is that of the Enlightened Being, who has vowed to save all sentient beings from their suffering.  

What also causes problems is that Buddhism is as much a philosophy as it is a religion, and does not adopt logically inconsistent doctrines.  To quote  Alfred North Whitehead   - 'Christianity ... has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion.'  The concept of an 'inherently-existent' God is fraught with difficulties:

Buddhist philosophy regards all phenomena as being 'dependently-related' , that is existing contingently upon three relationships.
(1) In relation to their causes
(2) In relation to their parts.
(3) In relation to the mind of the observer.
(see Sunyata for further discussion)

The opposite of being 'dependently-related' is to be 'inherently-existent', ie existing from its own side. An inherently existent thing contains the reason for its existence within itself.

The standard Christian idea of God is that He is self-defined and not dependently-related to anything else. God is an uncaused monad with no constituent parts who exists even in the absence of any other observer. But the fact that he is not dependently-related to anything else means that no external event can change his state, so he cannot, for example, become angry if someone blasphemes against him. Neither can he forgive someone against whom he has a grudge.

An inherently-existent God can never change nor be other than what He has always been, and can in no way make any reference to Time.   Nor can he in any other way interact with, or receive information from dependently-related entities. He resides in splendid isolation for all eternity.

Neither can he be bipolar, having an inherently-existent 'end' embedded in the Platonic Realm and a dependently-related 'end' reaching into the contingent universe.  It is logically impossible to have an interface between the two ends.


For in Him we live, and move, and have our being.
Having described the Buddhist objections to the overspecified inherently-existent God, it should be pointed out that Buddhism is not purposely atheistic, and certainly does not deny the existence of a God in the sense of  that in which 'we live and move and have our being' [ACTS 17, 28].

Perhaps we can shed some light on this concept of God by considering Buddhist views on the 'Participatory Anthropic Principle' of cosmology, whereby God provides the possibilities, but sentient beings choose the actualities. To quote from the article on the Participatory Anthropic Principle:

'In the absence of an observer, the evolving universe remained as a 'multiverse' - a coherant quantum superposition of all logically possible states. Throughout its early history the universe continued to develop as an immense superposition of probabilities. Not only was the structure of the universe superposed, but all logically possible states of matter, physical constants, properties and laws were simultaneously present and evolving into ever increasing diversity.

Quantum theory states that any physical system remains in a superposed state of all possibilities until it interacts with the mind of an observer. Both quantum theory and Buddhist teachings on sunyata suggest that as soon as an observer's mind makes contact with a superposed system, all the numerous possibilities collapse into one actuality. At some instant one of these possible alternative universes produced an observing lifeform - an animal with a nervous system which was sufficiently evolved to form a symbiotic association with a primordial mind. The first act of observation by this mind caused the entire superposed multiverse to collapse immediately into one of its numerous alternatives.

That one alternative version of the multiverse was not just the first configuration to be inhabitable by mind. The fact that it was the first configuration also guaranteed that it was the only configuration. All uninhabited alternative universes, ranging from the nearly-but-not-quite habitable few, to the anarchic and unstructured vast majority, were instantly excluded from potential existence. According to the participatory anthopic principle, the evolving multiverse was thus always destined to resolve itself into a sufficiently ordered state to allow itself to be observed.'

Now the sentient being who collapsed the superposition determined the actualisation of the laws of physics. But a myriad other strands of potential existence remained unactualised, and still remain unactualised and will forever remain unactualised. The difference between potential and actuality has, does, and will result from the choices (including ethical choices) of sentient beings.

The strand was never actualised in which the young Adolf Hitler, motivated by his love of military uniform, chose to join the Salvation Army and devote his organisational genius to making it the greatest force for the relief of poverty and the eradication of disease that the world has ever seen.

The strand was never actualised in which Joseph Stalin realised that absolute power caused absolute corruption, and decided to continue his studies at Tiflis theological seminary and lead the Orthodox Church through the turbulent times ahead.

God provides the options in vast profusion. We make the choices.

This view of God accords with the grandeur of the Mahayana conception of humanity's place in the cosmos. God is indefinable (in the sense that limits cannot be set on Her potential). She is pregnant with all possibilities (see Sanskrit root of sunyata), and She is the source of freedom whereby the choices of sentient beings dictate the actualisation of their myriad potentials.

But how does this view of God correspond to traditional Christian views, and in particular can it resolve the conflict between omnisicience, omnipotence and compassion?

Omniscient - Yes, all that ever was, ever will be, ever could have been, and ever might still be - are included within God. Their actualisation as experiences depends upon the choices made by sentient beings.

Omnipotent. -Yes, in the sense that all potentials are present. The driving power to make anything that could logically occur actually occur ('breathe fire into the equations') is available.

Compassionate  Yes, the samsaric universe, for all its apparent faults, provides a path for deluded primordial mind to achieve enlightenment. Thus from the viewpoint of an Awakened Being, the universe is a perfect ground for advanced beings to rescue other migrators and bring them to enlightenment.

Judgemental - No, all beings will eventually be saved (Bodhisattva vow)

God within time or outside time?  Neither - time operates within God - She is pregnant with possibility, and time consists of a series of instances of actualisation of those possibilities.

- Sean Robsville

[REF 1]  'The Monk and the Philosopher' Revel, J-F and Ricard, M. Tr. Canti, J. Publ. Thorsons/HarperCollins, London, 1998. ISBN 0 7225 3649 6,  Page 115.


Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation