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  • A Buddhist God?
  • David R. Loy (bio)

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Amitabha Buddha sits at the center of this eighth-century Chinese painting, The Paradise of Amitabha Buddha.

Is it right to describe Buddhism as atheistic? Many people do, pointing to the fact that Buddhism doesn’t refer to a creator God. Yet it’s not so simple.

In the earliest Buddhist texts, the Buddha tells some stories that make fun of Brahma, who thinks he is the supreme deity. But in some versions of Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha himself eventually became elevated from “a person who is awake” (the literal meaning of Buddha) to a more celestial figure. Whereas Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) emphasized the importance of “being a lamp unto yourself,” it was believed that Amitabha Buddha could intercede at the time of death and take us to his Pure Land in the West, far beyond our world. This led to the development of more devotional types of Buddhism, which still predominate in East Asia. In some ways this Pure Land Buddhism seems more similar to the Abrahamic religions than to the original teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali Canon, the core collection of early Buddhist scriptures.

Moreover, there are plenty of less powerful gods and spirits in the premodern Asian Buddhist traditions. Early Buddhism accepted the existence of these disincarnate beings, even as it emphasized how they are impermanent and subject to laws of cause and effect, including the law of karma.

All this raises questions about whether Buddhism should really be described as “atheistic.” The modern term has connotations that do not really fit Buddhism, especially naturalistic presumptions about the secular nature of this world. It’s better to say that Buddhism does not accept the theism vs. atheism dichotomy. It accounts for our experience (and our spiritual potential) in a different way.

Two Perspectives on Nirvana

Apparently the Buddha did not say very much about the nature of nirvana, the goal of the Buddhist path. As a result some ambiguity arose as the Buddhist tradition developed. Nirvana certainly involves transcending this world of suffering and delusion, but transcendence can be understood in different ways—and has been.

Early Buddhism understood nirvana as the end of rebirth, which has often been understood to imply the attainment of a higher reality no longer subject to the sorrows of this one. In contrast, some forms of Mahayana Buddhism claimed that enlightenment involves simply realizing the true nature of this world. Using more contemporary terms, we could say that our usual ways of experiencing and understanding this world are mental constructs that should be deconstructed and reconstructed, with the implication that we don’t need to go anywhere else—we only need to wake up to what’s happening right here and now.

The two perspectives are not necessarily all that different, depending on how literally one understands transcendence. Does nirvana refer to another reality (analogous to an afterlife), or another way of perceiving this one?

It’s an important issue—maybe the most important issue. I have come to believe that any religion espousing cosmological dualism (devaluing this world in favor of a superior reality such as heaven) and individual salvation (the idea that what ultimately happens to me is disconnected from what ultimately happens to you) is contributing to our world’s problems rather than offering a solution. For too long religious orthodoxies have diverted our attention and concern from what’s happening here to “pie in the sky after you die,” thereby making it easy for modern educated people to dismiss religious claims as outdated superstitions. Yet there are other possibilities that have been explored by great mystics in all the world’s major religions, many of whose teachings have emphasized our nonduality with the world.

Overcoming the Delusion of Duality

For Buddhism (literally “Awake-ism”) the important issue is not whether a supreme deity exists but rather the fact that, because of our cravings and delusions, we do not usually experience the world as it really is, nor do we understand who we really are. To become enlightened is to awaken to the true nature of our cravings and...


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