The Buddha and God. The Buddha showed the Way to God. Part 1 of 2.
The Buddha and God.
The Buddha showed the Way to God.
Part 1 of 2.
God in the Pali Texts
The Brahmins and the Yogis
Listening to Diverse Spiritual Needs
Abiding with God (Brahma Vihara)
Secular and Religious Buddhists
The Buddha’s regular positive use of the concepts God and Gods deserve widespread recognition. He did not turn his back on such religious concepts. He fully embraced them in his teachings.
Buddhists have mostly turned their back on God. The outcome of such a rejection means that those who hold sincere theistic beliefs feel that the Buddha’s teachings have little to offer since the Buddha was an atheist.
Far from any wish to negate the language of God, he applied the word God to some of the most important aspects of his teachings. Making enlightenment the priority, the Buddha used God and Dharma as inter-changeable concepts when he saw it as appropriate. Well-educated and articulate, the Buddha could easily have dropped the word ‘God’ (Brahma) altogether and used other words.
He did not regard God as Eternal, a benign Presence or as Pure Being.
Brahmins believed they came from the mouth of God. They regarded themselves as the voice of Brahma who preserved and interpreted the Vedas, the world’s oldest religious texts, taught Sanskrit and observed rituals/ceremonies/mantras/chanting.
The root meaning of Brahma associates with Greatness. Human beings have the potential to transcend their limitations and reach Greatness. The Buddha did not regard the achievement of being with Greatness, being with God and Godly conduct as the fulfilment of the spiritual life.
At times, the Buddha regularly used the word God (Brahma) inter-changeably with the word Dharma, namely the teachings leading to an enlightened life. He simply redefined the meaning of God. Instead of dismissing the concept God, he recognised the validity of the word since Brahmins, yogis, spiritual seekers and people of religious persuasion responded to ‘God.’
The Buddha knew that words had no inherent definition and the meaning of a word arose through agreement. We can choose to change the meaning. In ancient India, Brahma, the Creator God, shared an virtually identical meaning as God the Creator in English, Jehovah in Hebrew and Allah in Arabic.
The Buddha challenged his widespread audiences when he redefined the meaning of God. He wanted his audience to think about God in other ways. This article points out several examples of the use of the word Brahma.
God in the Pali Texts
The Pali texts consist primarily of the discourses of the Buddha, who spoke in a Pali dialect. There are several terms that the Buddha employed prefixed with the word God (Brahma). A holy person might be described as a ‘Man of God.’
BRAHMA BHUTA (Sn 561, D iii 84. M i.111, iii 195, D iii 223. M 1 341) Become God – said of the Buddha and fully liberated ones.
BRAHMA NIMITTA (D 111.81). Created by God
BRAHMA CARIYA. (Mi 77.147, 193, 205), Godly conduct. Ethical and virtuous way of life. 426, 463, 492. Ii. 38.iii 36, 116. S I .38. S.1.5 60, M iii 117, Sn 695, 973 Godly life.
BRAHMA LOKA. (A iv 76) God’s world
BRAHMA PATTI (S 1.169 . M 1. 386) the attainment of God
BRAHMA VIHARA (D 11.196). God Abiding (Abiding with God
BRAHMA-CAKKA (M 1. 169, A 11.9.24. A iii 417, v333
BRAHMA-DANDA D ii 154. God’s punishment.
BRAHMA-JALA (D.1). The Net of God (various religious/spiritual views).
BRAHMA-KAPPA Th. 1.909. Like God
BRAHMA-KAYA (D iii.84). Body of God
BRAHMA-PATTA (A.11. 184) A state like that of God.
BRAHMI-PATTI. S 1.169. Attainment of God
BRAHMA-SSARA. A heavenly voice of God,
BRAHMATI MATAPITARO A 1.132 Gods who are mother and father
BRAHMA-UPOSATHA. Day of Abstinence for God
BRAHMA-YANA. (S.v 5). The vehicle of God. Also Dhamma-Yana – the vehicle of Dharma.
MAHA-BRAHMA. D.1.18. Chief of the Gods
Theravada, Tibetan Mahayana and Zen, along with small number of secular Buddhists in the West could take inspiration from the Buddha and expand their dialogue to include God in their teachings rather than reject God.
Readers can make a contemporary comparison with change of meanings of words. For example, the word ‘gay,’ as in a gay man: this had a different meaning two or three generations ago than its current use. The first meaning referred to a happy, fun-loving man and the second meaning refers to gender preference in intimate relationships. He related God to the Dharma, deep abidings of the heart, conduct, attainment and more.
The Brahmins and the Yogis
A dialogue with a Brahmin, named Baka, who believed in God, reflected the Buddha’s rejection of the conventional meaning of God as an Eternal and Unchanging Presence.
Baka, a man of God, said to the Buddha: “God (Brahma) is permanent, everlasting, eternal and complete. “God is not subject to passing away, to birth, decay or death.
The Buddha replied:
“Ah, the worthy Baka has fallen into ignorance.
“You say the impermanent is permanent;
“the non-everlasting is everlasting;
“the non-eternal is eternal;
and the incomplete that is everything.”
Baka believed he had merged into God and thus shared the same nature as God, eternal and complete. We have a sense of God when we forget ourselves and our heart/mind/consciousness opens to the sense of Greatness which our lives take part in.
The Buddha refuted any belief in the absolutism of such experiences or the culmination of the spiritual/religious life.
The Buddha recognised the diversity of approaches to the religious life. He offered a fresh perspective that incorporated the best of the old and rejected unhelpful and harmful practices. He spoke often with Brahmins and yogis.
The Brahmins advocated:
belief in the authority of the Vedas,
chanting, prayers, mantras
devotion to God,
faith in Brahmin priests,
wholesome action (karma yoga),
Yogis offered a different view. Inspired by the mystical texts of the Upanishads. The yogis:
engaged in dialogue to acquire knowledge,
relationship with a guru,
intense meditation practices
sacrifice of intimate relationships and the field of pleasure
sacrifice of the material world,
ardent desire to go beyond limits of the mind
ardent desire to transcend the body
union with God or the Absolute
vegan or vegetarian diet
withdrawal from society,
Yogis practised meditation and personal sacrifice so that consciousness generated the space for the presence of God. The yogis referred to this approach as the yoga of knowledge (jnana yoga) and the yoga of meditation (dhyana yoga – the Sanskrit equivalent of jhana).
The Buddha, Brahmins and the yogis empathised with each other with various spiritual priorities but also expressed criticism of each other.
The Buddha criticised the definition of God of the Brahmins and yogis, their attachment to forms and holding to an identity. He advised against clinging to certain religious/spiritual/mystical experiences. His words generated a debate among Brahmins, yogis, householders, as well his Sangha of men and women. He breathed a totally fresh approach to the spiritual/secular/religious life without polarising Brahmins, yogis and his Sangha.
Contemporary secular/religious Buddhists as well as spiritual seekers/practitioners need to look at the potential for divisions and conflict due to identification with one approach or another. He told his nomadic Sangha that after murder, theft and sexual abuse, those who cause a split in the Sangha also faced expulsion.
Gurus and yogis enjoyed meeting with the Buddha as they regarded him as one of them – a guru with a homeless sangha living on alms. The Brahmins also appreciated meeting with Buddha because they knew he was deeply committed to offering householders and yogis a path to enlightenment, as show in his first discourse in Sarnath, near the ancient pilgrimage city of Varanasi.
The discourse states: “The Matchless Wheel of Dharma, which cannot be set in motion by recluse, brahmana, deva, Mara, God or anyone in the world, is set in motion by the Blessed One in the Deer Park (in Sarnath).
Listening to Diverse Spiritual Needs
The teachings of the Buddha reveal his willingness to employ a variety of resources in his quest to meet the spiritual needs of those who listened to him whether householders or yogis, men or women, powerful or powerless.
The Buddha never proposed belief in a personal or impersonal God who interfered with history or revealed Himself/Herself to the individual. Instead, he taught in detail ethics, virtuous behaviour, reflection, meditation, action, livelihood and many practical features of the noble path. The Buddha would express the same concerns today about beliefs in God. People can have a variety of spiritual/religious/mystical experiences which confirm their faith or their perceptions but these experiences often do not make a scrap of difference to their lifestyle or political/social views.
The Buddha neither endorsed reliance on God or one of the Gods (gurus/saints/Brahmins/those with deep mystical experiences) nor taught people to rely upon the inner self due to the influence of latent tendencies influencing the so-called ‘self.’
Only occasionally, he referred to self-reliance when faced with unacceptable views and attitudes of others.
In Darwinian terms, a wise species learns to adapt to its environment. The Buddha adapted his teachings so that he could work with the beliefs of Brahmins, yogis and householders without trying to provoke divisions, splits and sectarianism. He adapted the familiar forms of language, such as God and primary concepts, religious/spiritual and secular.
References to God were first said in the ancient Rigveda which claimed that God is the source of the universe, the primordial Being. The gurus taught the oneness of God and self. They used a common metaphor of the Ocean as God and the Waves as all formations including sentient beings. The waves come from the Ocean, share the same nature (water) and dissolve back into the Ocean. The microcosms of life confirmed the Macrocosm and vice-versa.
Some Brahmins referred to the ‘Ocean’ as the Immeasurable. The gurus said the Creator and the creation were the same event confirming each other – just like the Ocean and the waves confirm each other. This spiritual viewpoint reached its culmination in the Upanishad literature, where reference is made to the undifferentiated unity of Brahman and Atman, the Universal and the specific.
Centuries later, devotion to Brahma faded to a considerable extent in India as religious India adopted fresh names for God such as Krishna, Siva. Parvati, Shakti, Sita and Ram
The Buddha understood these teachings on a personal or impersonal God. He knew about the relationship of the self to God and had such experiences in the six years of his spiritual quest. He refused to elevate such experiences to the highest status. For a simple reason. These deep experiences arose when the conditions were ripe for their arising and changed or dissolved when the same conditions changed.
God and the self were tied up with the conditions; one could not prove that God dwelt separate and independent from the experience and the conditions that gave rise to the experience.
Brahman became the universal, indestructible and the ultimate ground of existence. The purpose of the spiritual life culminated in being one with God. In the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13), a discourse titled On the Way to God, Brahmins and yogis found themselves confused over the different approaches to know oneness with God. and knowing the experience of God.
In this discourse, two young Brahmins told the Buddha they believed an experience of being in God’s world (Brahma loka) meant achievement of the supreme goal so the Buddha asked whether they knew any Brahmin priests or gurus who had seen God ‘face to face.’ They replied they did not know of any. This left them more confused since these religious spiritual teachers were unable to offer any description of God.
The Buddha said the Brahmins can see the sun and moon but can’t even show a way to reach the sun or moon, even though they see it. Similarly, religious leaders teach a path to God but do not know if the path leads to God. The Buddha said they are like “a line of blind men (the Brahmin/guru traditions) who cling to each other because neither leaders nor the ones in the middle nor at the end see God.” He added that the same situation applied to such teachers in their tradition going back for seven generations.
As often the case, the words of the Buddha cut to the bone. The Buddha got into his stride.
“A man goes looking for the most beautiful girl in the country but does not know anything about her or anything that he can specify to show she is the most beautiful one.
Here the Buddha criticises the spiritual quest when the seeker has no idea of what he or she is searching for.
He then employs another analogy.
“It is like a man standing on one side of the river waiting to experience the other side of the river. Will the other side of the river cross because he sitting there waiting for the other side to cross over?
The other shore analogy referred directly to the yogis sitting in meditation waiting for God to descend into them.
The Buddha then asked the Brahmins about the nature of God.
Is God weighed down with possessions?
Does God experience blame/ill will/negativity?
Is God pure in heart?
The two young Brahmins said God dwelt freely, without blame and abided with a pure heart.
The implication stood out – abide freely, live blameless lives and act with a pure heart. This is the way to experience God.
The two men said they had heard that the Buddha teaches the way to find God.
The Buddha agreed. He confirmed he makes his teachings available to “people, royalty, the angelic beings, the maras (those caught up in self-deception) and the Gods (those with authority, deep experiences, religious and otherwise). He then directs the two Brahmins to ethics, depths of meditation and instructs them to suffuse the world with love, compassion, appreciative joy and the peace of equanimity.
Abiding with God (Brahma Vihara)
Secular/religious Buddhists have often reduced Brahma Vihara (Abiding/Residing with God) to a warm, fluffy feelings around being kind, self-compassion, fleeting appreciations and some equanimity around pains in the body. This is like holding a postcard of the Himalayas and saying to oneself and others: “I have been to the Himalayas and climbed the highest mountains.”
Abiding with God consists of a profound depth of love/compassion/appreciative joy and equanimity.
First Abiding with God is Love/Friendship/Loving Kindness (Pali word is Metta)
Metta emerges naturally and easily from wisdom and insights into the nature of things.
Metta arises from an open and clear heart and mind.
Metta reveals itself through acts of friendship, kindness of speech and numerous thoughtful gestures for the welfare of people, animals and the environment.
We find metta in romantic love, love- making, playful activities, wholesome creativity and mindful approaches to numerous activities.
As an abiding in God, metta confirms itself with the realisation of its deep significance for a human being. This realisation affects ethics, perceptions and ways of relating to another (s). The deep understanding of metta and its application shows an Abiding with God. It is easy to confuse warm, pleasant feelings towards oneself and others in comfortable times as a Brahma Vihara.
Metta meditations/generations have evolved in the West in recent generations in the Theravada tradition. The Buddha did not offer any metta meditations. His short talk on metta consists of about 30 lines or so describing the way of being of one who lives with metta. Metta means a life totally dedicated to a contented, sustainable way of life that shows kindness for all. This statement to live in such a way without blame or ill-will places an immense but worthwhile challenge on any human being. To put this into a religious language, it means to live a life the way that God wants us to live every day of our lives.
The Buddha on Friendship, Love, Loving Kindness
This is what should be done By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace: Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited, Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen, Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born — May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another, Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths; Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views, The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires, Is not born again into this world and knows the path of peace.
Second Abiding with God is Compassion (Karuna)
Compassion confirms itself as the act of love with a specific purpose, namely to reduce or resolve suffering. In the fading of “I” and “my,” compassion can move through the being and engage in action. This action shows itself in expressions of body/speech and mind. Compassion informs the written/the arts and the deeds. Compassion can express itself through analysis of social/political issues, actions and campaigns.
There are no teachings of the Buddha on self-compassion. Self-compassion belongs to the contemporary ideology, which believes the self takes priority and others come second. When the self feels good about itself. it then assumes it is ready to do something for others. The Buddha does not teach compassion meditation. It is a contradiction in terms. Meditation can only develop feelings of pity/sympathy for oneself or others but such feelings bear no relationship to compassion. Self-compassion does not lead to compassion to others. One (self-compassion meditation) is not the cause for direct action to resolve suffering in its various expressions. First hand experience, clarity and wisdom contribute to action to relieve or dissolve suffering.
Compassion confirms itself through specific actions that directly benefit others. Hundreds of monks chanting about wisdom and compassion bears no direct relationship to compassion. The chanting can numb the mind rather than lead to inspiration for action. At best, religious services, including chanting, praying and mantras, can give some peace of mind to painful circumstances. Peace of mind is not compassion. Once again, the profound recognition of the importance of compassion leads directly to acts of compassion. This means that something in the depth of the being has woken up to compassion and the steps that make a difference to the lives of people, animals and the environment.
Compassion dissolve identification with the nation state, the problematic differences of self and any indifference to the circumstances of others, near and far.
Third Abiding with God is Appreciative Joy (Mudita)
Appreciative joy expresses a radical alternative to consumerism. Consumerism depends upon the pursuit of the purchase of goods and personal attention to gain pleasure. Followers of consumer culture desire the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. This view contributes to addictions to certain pleasure with the consequential impact on health, well-being and agitation/violence at not getting what one wants. Appreciative joy springs from calmness and receptivity in wise application of the senses. Appreciative joy does not arise from pursuit, nor from pleasurable gain. Various sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch generate such joy. The evening sunset, the dawn chorus, the scent of a flower, remembering the food chain to make a meal possible and the taste, the calm sensations of the body in a harmonious posture enable appreciative joy. Appreciative joy arises insights from memories, the living present and the creative vision for the future. Appreciative joy reveals itself through empathy, love and caring contact with another.
The power of appreciative joy dissolves jealousy (loss of love to another) and envy (desire to have what somebody else has). As with friendship and compassion, appreciative joy dissolves infatuation with consumerism and “I” and “my. ” Mudita confirms a depth of gratitude for minor and major events.Such events as noble acts of service, respect for others and the capacity to offer support/gifts for another elicit appreciative joy.
The one who is waking up to such an abiding cannot see any limits to what the heart can realise and express. Love, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity can show in situations, near and far. The Buddha made clear that the Kingdom of God has no walls, no boundaries and no limits to its manifestation.
Fourth Abiding with God is Equanimity (upekka)
The Buddha’s use of the metaphor shows the depth of equanimity he advocates. The Earth does not complain when we shit and piss on it. This is equanimity. The mountain does not collapse despite a hurricane striking the mountain. Equanimity confirms a deep dwelling in the being of unshakeable steadiness despite the vicissitudes of daily life. Equanimity means that one can remain upright and dignified amidst pleasure and pain, health and sickness, profit and loss, success and failure and praise and blame. As an expression of abiding with the divine, equanimity bears something in common with Truth, Reality and Liberation. Truth, Reality and Freedom share a steadiness despite the world of change, impermanence and the insecurities of self.
Equanimity rests on the edge of time facing a world of fluctuations, sudden and gradual change and the upheaval of patterns and forces. Yet the same equanmity abides in a deep place, firm and clear, with a sense of the timeless.
Various Buddhist practices often focus on development of equanimity to be calm in painful situations such as meditation for extended periods of time. Practitioners also practice equanimity when others behave in unacceptable ways. The practices constitute preliminary practices rather than show a depth of realisation.
Deep equanimity reveals a clarity about life. We see we have little in the way of choice. We cannot control circumstances. We live in the unknown as much as the known. There is no loving God, no saviour, no guarantees and more questions may arise than answers. As a profound abiding, equanimity means facing up to the full flush of existence having stripped away the hopes, fears and disappointments that impact on life. Equanimity springs from deep insights about the nature of life and the immense forces that influence the shape of life.
The Benefits of the Residential Retreat
There are dedicated practitioners who develop immense receptivity during a residential retreat. Some realise the deep significance of abiding in the depths of the heart and expressing those depths.
Some partake in a collective loving kindness (meditation) at the end of the retreat and can feel the power of such meditations. They dedicate themselves to love, friendship and kindness regardless of any hostile circumstances.
Others dedicate themselves to acts of compassion for people, animals and the environment and know these acts of love to relieve or resolve suffering reveal a sacred and sublime way of life.
Others develop daily experiences of appreciative joy. Such people know intimately the Garden of Eden, experience the wonder, beauty and awe of the human/natural experience. They make little demand on the world.
Others know the deep peace of equanimity and steadiness amidst the fluctuations of existence and non-existence, of continuity and change. There is the capacity to stay as steady as a mountain in a hurricane. They abide with a depth of inner peace.
These depths of boundless experiences regularly in daily life confirm the immeasurable nature of the sense of abiding with God, a knowing beyond the mundane and reactive. Others will prefer to use of the language of the Divine, Sublime or Profound rather than the word ‘God.’ Spiritual practitioners need to use the language that reflects their boundless heart.
Buddhist translators have often dropped the word God (Brahma) and substituted the word Divine or Sublime. Those who cannot tolerate God language can use Divine while being respectful to sincere believers who believe in God. The Buddha supported both kinds of language.
This liberation of the heart reveals the Residence of God (Brahma Vihara). Vihara is also used as the residence or abiding place of Buddhist monks and nuns. Bihar, where the Buddha spent many years teaching, derives from Vihara. Vihara is a residing. We reside in our home. We reside in a country, such as the United Kingdom. Brahma Vihara is the Kingdom of God. We reside in the Kingdom of God through the experience of deep love, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.
The Buddha took a practical, down to earth view of the Kingdom of God. The deep experiences may last a long time, alone or with others, but he regards it as a “pernicious” view to speak of eternally abiding in the Kingdom of God. The Buddha also used the concept Immeasurable – the immeasurable heart reaches out to all beings, near and far.
Experiencing appreciative joy with the words of the Buddha, the two young men recognised the wisdom of the Buddha when espousing the Dharma.
Secular and Religious Buddhists
Secular and religious Buddhists, as well as spiritual teachers, would benefit themselves and offer service to others if they spoke of God and the path to God with the same conviction as the Buddha.
The assertion of the denial of God belongs to a long-standing Buddhist tradition that purports to be in harmony with the core teachings of the Buddha. Well educated articular, the Buddha could have chosen other words than God when he gave teachings. He used numerous words for deeper teachings with God appearing on a variety of occasions in 10,000 Pali discourses.
The Buddha speaks to Vasettha:
“He whose faith in the One who has Gone Beyond the mundane (Tathagata) is settled, rooted, established, solid, unshakeable by any yogi, Brahmin, angel, deceiver (Mara), God or anyone else in the world, can truly say:
“I am a true son of the Blessed One (Bhagavan), born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma.
“Why is that? Because, Vasettha, this designates the Tathagata: ‘
“The Body of Dhamma,’ that is, ‘The Body of God,’ or ‘Become Dhamma,’ that is, ‘Become God.'” describes his relationship to the Buddha: (DN 111 84)
This is a bold, powerful statement of the Buddha. It is very, very rarely used ion in the discourses of the Buddha where Dharma (Dhamma in Pali) and Brahma refer to the Ultimate Truth.
Religious Buddhists and secular Buddhists tend to keep away from positive references to God in their interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings. East and West, Buddhists taken pride in avoidance of such a concept in the variety of spiritual practices they offer. Their views do not show compassion but a lack of imagination to support those who love God.
The small minority of secular Buddhists often identify themselves with Western psychology and neuro-science. Reliant on these two institutions, the secularists tend to confirm the authority of the Buddha when his teachings agree with the findings of Western science. There is hardly any room for God, heaven, karma, rebecoming, deep mystical experiences and genuine enlightenment in psychology, neuro-science and secular Buddhism.
Most Buddhists worldwide adopt a variety of religious beliefs from merit making to karma/rebirth and realms of existence such as heaven and hell. Monasteries, temples, monks, nuns, rituals and ceremonies play an important part in their lives. Others offer the dry, secular version of the Buddha’s teachings. Others prefer a mixture of the two. Both kinds of Buddhists claim to be atheists following on from the core teachings of the Buddha
The Buddha gave a priority to inquiry, wisdom and an enlightened approach to daily circumstances. He endorsed freedom from identification with any form of existence including dwelling in the Kingdom of God. Thus, he took the exploration of our existence further than an experience of God.
The Buddha used the language of God and Gods in various contexts. The teachings refer to the path leading to the world of God (Brahma loka). The Tevijja Sutta says that the path to God’s world includes development of meditative absorptions (jhanas) to experience the ‘Pure Abodes’ of God. Each of the jhanas bring the meditator closer to God, to the Divine.
A religious believer does not have to abandon God as a precondition for Dharma practice. The deep experience of love, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity matters far more than metaphysics.
end of Part 1 of 2