The easy answer to this question is that in Buddhism the concept of God simply does not appear at all. After all, the historical Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, was born 500 years before Jesus. So if you had asked him, “does God exist?” he would probably have said, “Who?” But for people brought up in Judaeo-Christian cultures over the last few decades, it is a valid question. It is one that I grappled with myself 30 years ago, on my journey towards Nichiren Buddhism and away from my devout Catholic upbringing.
At first sight, the two philosophies seemed poles apart. ‘God’ was ‘somewhere out there’ whereas Buddhahood was in me. Christian prayer was about asking for salvation from an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Father. Whereas Buddhist chanting was about deciding and determining to be happy, all by yourself. Christianity had taught me that man was essentially flawed and needed forgiving, whereas Buddhism promised that we are essentially brilliant and just needed polishing (lots of polishing, as it turns out…). This all led to some overly spiky debates with sincere Christians.
With my superficial understanding of Nichiren’s teachings, Buddhism probably appealed to a more selfish and self-centred part of me. Especially as there were no concepts of sin, of guilt, or of what I saw as stifling obedience to an external power. Instead Buddhism seemed to promise freedom, individuality and self-expression.
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo
Yet of course that was only half the story. Because at the very core of Nichiren Buddhism and at the heart of the mantra Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is the small matter of the ‘Mystic Law of Cause and Effect’. This Law is eloquently described by my fellow SGI Buddhist, Eddy Canfor-Dumas, as “the mystical, invisible thread between the churning, inner reality of my life and the great outdoors of the rest of the world.”
The Mystic Law is also often compared to the law of gravity, in that it is invisible and impersonal and yet it shapes your whole life (including what happens to you, based on karma from previous lifetimes). In fact it explains how life works and it reveals that our lives are essentially one with the ‘world out there’. The word ‘Buddha’ just means someone who is ‘awakened’ or ‘enlightened’ to these mystical workings of life.
God – the Mystic Law with a beard on?
So, back to my original question, why don’t Nichiren Buddhists believe in God? Well, it’s because we believe in this Mystic Law of Cause and Effect instead. We chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo to put ourselves in rhythm with it. And, when you stop to think about it (and at the risk of upsetting both my Buddhist and Christian readers) how different are they really, these concepts of God and the Mystic Law? For example, if you take the personality and morality out of sin (leading to punishment) and out of virtue (leading to reward), you’d get something close to the Buddhist notion of an impersonal Law of Cause and Effect. And if you see the Mystic Law as a sort of ‘cosmic heartbeat’ or as the ‘rhythm of life’, you’re not a million miles from the concept of ‘God’ as ‘Sustainer of Life,’ (incidentally, there is no notion of ‘Creation’ in Buddhism.) And if you believe in a Law of Nature that governs how life works, you would recognise that it has to be omnipresent and omnipotent. In short, you could argue that ‘God is the Mystic Law, but with a beard on’.
I will nail my colours to the mast here. Strong belief in God over the centuries has without doubt inspired the most wonderful art, music and architecture and personally I can find it all incredibly moving. However, I believe that the Mystic Law is a more powerful concept for today’s age than the idea of God. I believe that Buddhism is a more profound, complete, practical and inclusive philosophy than belief in an Abrahamic God. And yet I would also argue that the concept of God has been an essential stepping stone in humanity’s spiritual evolution. One might even surmise that 2,000 years ago, we perceived the Mystic Law of Cause and Effect or the ‘universal life force’, but couldn’t quite understand how something so powerful could be impersonal, and therefore mapped human (to be precise, masculine…) attributes on to it. And voilà, you have an anthropomorphic God. And from this come the various ‘personalities’ attributed by different writers to God – loving, wrathful, creative, judgemental and so on…
Upsides and downsides
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of theistic religions – and the one most sorely lacking in our current ‘selfie generation’, is that belief in God brings an awareness of a greater power at work in the Universe, which chimes with the Buddhist view that we are part of the Mystic Law. But the downside is the lack of self-empowerment and self-esteem combined with rules that stifle individual expression (such as teachings that forbid homosexuality). The upside of the personal development movement and of interventions such as mindfulness (that have filled the vacuum left by God in recent years) is that we recognise our own brilliance. But the downside is self-centredness, a sense of ‘entitlement’ and ignorance of the universal life force. (See this post on Buddhism & the Law of Attraction).
So why is Buddhism the ideal teaching for this age? Because it provides the upsides of both theistic and personal development teachings, but with none of their downsides. And in the long term, I believe that Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (or similar teachings that affirm the dignity of Life) will be the tool that takes humanity to its next level of spiritual evolution, to the enlightened consciousness that our planet yearns for now. Part of that journey involves reaching out in heart to heart dialogue with people of other faiths, people whose beliefs are, in some ways, not so different from Buddhism as we sometimes like to think.
Love and Light,
PS. My fellow Nichiren Buddhist blogger, Seleus Blelis, gives some great insights on Buddhism and God in her ‘Lotus Flower’ blog: http://lotusflowersgi.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/do-nichiren-buddhist-believe-in-god.html Also an awesome post on this topic from Robbie Warwick Lockie.
PPS. Sorry for the long break between posts at the moment, my IT guru is moving this blog to a posh new platform with a new-look design and I have been busy with that.