No God, but Many Gods in Buddhism

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“And while this discourse was being spoken, there arose in “the Venerable Kondañña the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.”

And when the Wheel of the Dhamma had been set in motion by the Blessed One, the earth-dwelling devas raised a cry: “At Bārāṇasī, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, this unsurpassed Wheel of the Dhamma has been set in motion by the Blessed One, which cannot be stopped by any ascetic or brahmin or deva or Māra or Brahmā or by anyone in the world.” …. 

“Then the Blessed One uttered this inspired utterance: “Koṇḍañña has indeed understood! Koṇḍañña has indeed understood!” In this way the Venerable Koṇḍañña acquired the name “Aññā Koṇḍañña—Koṇḍañña Who Has Understood.”

It is from the discourse of Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma in Samyutta Nikaya.

A Buddhist Monk in Seder Dinner

One day, I was invited to a dinner by my friend to celebrate the passover, Seder of the jewish holiday. About fifty people of my friend’s family and relatives were there at the dinner, and I was the only asian and also Buddhist monk. It was like Alice in ‘Wonderland’ where all men were wearing yamakas,a small hat, on their heads except me. The people at the dinner called me as a seder virgin. 

It was first time for me to experience jewish holiday.  I had been much interested in Judaism, jewish culture, and tradition. It has been always a wonder to know how jewish people scattered all over different places have been able to maintain their religion and culture without the tangible location of their own country for hundreds years. 

While people were mingling around three longs tables prepared dinner, out of much curiosity, I was looking at the table settings. And then, some people came to me. 

Interestingly, while I was curious about their religion and culture, some of my friend’s family were interested in Buddhism. They asked some questions about Buddhism before the dinner started. As it is expected, one of the questions was that; whether does Buddhism have God in it?  

The First Sermon of the Buddha

The passage I read at the beginning is from a discourse of Buddhist scripture. The title of the discourse is “Setting in Motion the wheel of the Dhamma.” The discourse of Setting in Motion the wheel of the Dhamma is the record that the Buddha right after his enlightenment taught five monks, his disciples for the first time. 

These monks used to be the Buddha’s friends. Near the Himalaya mountains, they together did rigorous practice of self mortification such as self inflicting, starving, holding breath for long time and so on. 

Some years later, the ascetic Gotama Siddhartha felt the rigorous practice futile and took the Middle way. The five ascetics thought Gotama was corrupted so they abandoned and left him alone. It was unthinkable for them to take food from people, as Gotama Siddhartha did.

Finally, Gotama Siddhartha achieved Buddha-hood and decided to spread the dhamma, the teaching of truth, after much deliberation. The Buddha visited where his five former friends and showed them the right way that leads to enlightenment. 

Not God, but Many Gods in Buddhism

What is interesting about the discourse of the first sermon is that it mentions many groups of gods who dwell and live in different realms. As soon as the Buddha finished his first teaching, one of the five monks, whose name is Kondana, attained enlightenment to become an arahant. 

Immediately after this happened, a group of gods dwelling on  the earth raise their voice, saying 

“At Bārāṇasī, in Deer Park at Isipatana, this unsurpassed Wheel of the Dhamma has been set in motion by the Blessed One, which cannot be stopped by any ascetic or brahmin or deva or Māra or Brahmā or by anyone in the world.”  

Again, immediately after hearing the cry of the earth gods, another group of gods dwelling on an upper realm in sky raised their voice and made the same statement. 

One by one, others groups of gods dwelling on upper realms cried and made the same phrase so the whole universe resonated with cries of numerous gods, who rejoiced in the memorable event of the first sermon and celebrate it on their own way. 

As we can see in the discourse of the first sermon, Buddhism acknowledges many gods, but not one God that is the only source of the universe. Numerous gods in Buddhist ontology live in different celestial places based on the results of their karmic formation. Somehow, the pantheon of Buddhist gods is similar to the one of ancient Greece and Rome, but the difference between them is that Buddhist gods are mortal whereas gods of ancient Greece and Roam are often immortal.

Although the life span of gods is much longer than humans’ and they live in better places, gods in Buddhism are not different than humans in terms of the fact that they are not enlightened yet. This means that all the gods in Buddhism are not free from samsara, the endless circle of rebirth. Like humans and other sentient being, they are subject to samsara until they can destroy all the defilements in their mind. 

In Buddhism, the place of gods is not inherent and fixed. A human can be reborn as a god through various spiritual practices or good actions, like giving, sharing, serving one’s community. Based on the cosmic law, a person can be reborn in a celestial realm as a god depending on the extent of one’s merit or the level of spiritual practice. The more you do good for people and the world, the higher you can be reborn in the celestial realms. The better your spiritual practice is, the higher you can be reborn in celestial realms.

Likewise, gods can be reborn as human once their life span runs out and their karmic formation results in humans. Nothing is permeant in Buddhism. One cannot stay or live in one place forever. Things come and go based on the cosmic law that governs how the beings exist and change. 

Gods Subject to Cosmic Law

As we can see in the case of gods, the cosmic law is same, equal, and impartial to all beings without exception. In the passage from the discourse of the first sermon that I read first, the cosmic law of the universe is briefly expressed by Kondanna’s utterance. “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” Nothing is permeant. Thus, God or gods are not permeant as well. 

Buddhism does not acknowledges God as the sole source of existence. Such a thing is not possible and does not exist. Even if the God existed, he or she must die and perish in Buddhism. 

Equity of Buddhism

Standing in front of the cosmic law of impermanence, all beings and things are treated equally without discrimination, which I think is the beauty of Buddhist ethics and justice. this is somewhat similar with the principle of democracy, in which all people are free to do whatever they want to do and the consequences of their actions are treated equally in front of the law of a country. 

Like other religions, Buddhism also acknowledges that gods can influence people and the world through their power, but that is only within the boundary of the cosmic law. Gods in Buddhism are not privileged and they are subject to the cosmic law.

This is how I answered to one of the questions on the night of seder dinner.

Gods Pay Homage to the Buddha

Then, if there is no god, and Buddhism should be regarded as a religion among many, what do Buddhists believe? 

The passage from the first sermon that I read at the beginning shows that after witnessing the Buddha taught and lead one of the five monk to attain enlightenment, god living near the place raise their voices and say,

“At Bārāṇasī, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, this unsurpassed Wheel of the Dhamma has been set in motion by the Blessed One, which cannot be stopped by any ascetic or brahmin or deva or Māra or Brahmā or by anyone in the world.” 

Their cries are like celebration of joy for the memorable event of the Buddha’s first sermon and teaching for the world out of compassion. It is because the unsurpassed wheel of the dhamma is preached by the Buddha, which is way beyond what they can do for people and the world. In other words, gods respect the Buddha that makes the unsurpassed wheel of the dhamma to appear in the world. This means that in the hierarchy of respect and worship  the place of Gods is under the place of the Buddha and the enlightenment 

In this way, the supreme place, which is usually occupied by the almighty God, is for Buddha, which literally means enlightened person. Through enlightenment, a person becomes a Buddha who is knower of the cosmic truth. Dhamma means for the cosmic truth among its many different meanings. Thus, the Buddha knows Dhamma and he also teaches Dhamma. An enlightened person obtains perfect and omnipotent knowledge about all things. Then the Buddha lives by the perfect knowledge, so the way in which the Buddha lives is blameless, impeccably virtuous, and hopelessly compassionate toward all sentient beings. There is no dissonance, discrepancy or difference between what the Buddha knows and what the Buddha does. 

Belief in Potentiality of humans to be Perfect

In Buddhism, anyone can become enlightened to be a Buddha through right effort and practice. Like in democracy, anyone can actualize their potentiality through effort, everyone has potential to become a Buddha. And wisdom of perfect knowledge and virtue of impeccable action are the criteria by which someone is respected.

Even after hearing these explanation until now, some people can still wonder how the Buddha explains the creation of the world? How did the universe start? 

Buddhism does not acknowledge creation, nor a supreme being. Simply, these are inherently wrong ideas and the questions, who created the world? How did the world begin?  When did the world begin? are inherently wrong. These questions are like an imaginary animal, a rabbit that has horns on its head. So the Buddha was silent when someone brought up these metaphysical questions. 

However, some people cannot forgo the questions, which keep lingering in their heads. This tendency is regarded as a form of attachment or craving that have to be removed by the right view in Buddhism. 

In sum, what buddhists believe is not God, but many gods and the possibility that humans can attain wisdom of omnipotent knowledge and impeccable virtue through rigorous effort and practice. This is what Buddhists believe and how Buddhism becomes a religion. 

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