Why don’t Buddhists believe in God? (or do they…)
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.
37 Replies to “Why don’t Buddhists believe in God? (or do they…)”
It seems that we have something in common here, David, as I too was brought up (or perhaps I should say ‘brought down’) under a very strict regime of Roman Catholic orthodoxy. I use the word ‘regime’ here quite deliberately as this is the factor that separates Buddhism, as practised by followers of Nichiren Daishonin, from other religions that have authoritarianism as their bedrock. As President Ikeda (and, may I say, others who do not practice Buddhism) has so often said, it is an authoritarian outlook that inevitably leads to strict procedures based on the formalities of doctrinal ideology, and as such leads to individual oppression when the original purity of any teaching, such as Christianity and Islam and even Buddhism, is gradually corrupted to the point where the dignity of human life is violated – examples of this being child abuse by Catholic priests and nuns, the abuse of children in Islamic Madrassas, and, I deeply regret to say, the historic abuse of acolytes, and the exploitation of gullible believers by the priests of some (but not all) temples of Nichiren Shoshu. So the concept of a ‘God’, as opposed to the of a pantheon of Buddhist deities that appear in the multiplicity of Buddhist Sutras that Shakyamuni (Gautama) scrutinised over countless lifetimes, can be viewed from different perspectives, which are dependent of our ‘placement’ of deities in the universal scheme of things. From a purely Buddhist standpoint, as a practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism over the last 30 years, it has been made clear to me, from studying the Gosho Zenshu (Writings of the Daishonin), chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo in front of the Gohonzon, and strengthening my belief that there exists no teaching that surpasses the Lotus Sutra, that it is a grave error to assert that any ‘God’ is above the True Law and that it is the slander of this Universal Law by mankind, tainted by arrogance, greed and stupidity that has brought calamity and disaster to the world we inhabit – the evidence for this being provided on a daily basis by newspapers, films, the entertainment industry, the international political arena and more besides. This is an essential point to be borne in mind with respect to ‘Rissho Ankoku’ and the establishment of kosen-rufu. As the sutra states: “At all times I think to myself, How can I cause living beings to gain entry into the unsurpassed way and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?”. So I invite anyone, anywhere who can present a reasoned argument, based on theoretical, documentary and actual proof, to offer me a better way to lead my life and I will abandon my faith immediately !
Again, may I offer you my deepest appreciation for all your sincere efforts to bring about a situation where we can freely discuss these things.
thank you for taking the time to share your very well informed comment, I must go and re-read the Rissho Ankoku, it has been too long! The line you quote from the end of gongyo is, funnily enough, the very question that started me writing this blog. Like you, I have always said that if someone can show me a more effective practice than Nichiren Buddhism, I will follow it…
Bestest all sorts
I’m pleased that my comment has been of some value – I am being bombarded by negativity all the time and I am having to do even more daimoku each day because of this. ‘Rissho Ankoku’ is just as relevant today, as it was during that time when the Daishonin was being attacked by the Japanese military authorities for refusing to compromise his faith.
In respect of our adventure towards world wide kosen-rufu, those who continue to try to ruin our efforts will eventually achieve nothing but misery and sorrow. As the sutra states “Since hatred and jealousy abound during his lifetime, how much worse will it be after his passing”. Well, we are all seeing the manifest effect of all these causes right now and for that reason we must redouble our efforts. And when I say “our efforts” I mean, also, to include the efforts of the multitude of organisations, regardless of denomination, who stand side by side with us advancing the cause of humanitarianism in a savage and barbaric world which offers us the likes of ‘Boko Haram’ and their ilk. The only way through this quagmire of obscenity is to connect with others in reasoned argument through which we all (including ‘non-Buddhists’) can do shakubuku. Fine examples of the philosophical connectivity which supports the views I have expressed here, include dialogues, such as those between Lou Marinoff and Daisaku Ikeda that have been presented in “The Inner Philosopher” ISBN: 978-1-887917-09-4
And if it hadn’t been for you, I would never have bought this wonderful book from the shop at Taplow Court !
NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO
Thanks Bernie once again for your thoughtful contribution and let’s chant even more earnestly that the lotus flower of wisdom and compassion will bloom from the ‘quagmire of obscenity’ that you eloquently describe. Glad you enjoyed the Marinoff-Ikeda dialogue and many congratulations on all the daimoku you are doing, ‘the wise rejoice…’, as Nichiren says!
Wow. Can anyone explain that any better. incredible. Thank you. I will be taking this wisdom down and writing it my book of notes. So I can express such wisdom with even a fraction of the authority delivered here. Wonderful way to explain it. You clearly know Christianity and Buddhism. Well done my friend. Well done indeed.
Reblogged this on Live undefeated.
Great article, thanks for emphasising the similarities as well as the differences between Christianity and Buddhism. Sharing!
Thank you for putting into words on how I feel about this issue. I’m presently experiencing “the three obstacles and four devils” scenario for the last month but I chant every day to turn my winter into spring! A dear friend just told me that since I won’t accept Jesus Christ as my saviour that I will continue to suffer! She totally ignored my views and faith of Nichiren Buddhism but I want to thank her for making me chant even more! I’m proud to say I’m a Buddhist and will continue my dialogue with everyone! Thank you for sharing yourself with others… Nam myoho renge kyo!
Jen, that is a very inspiring attitude that you have developed through your daimoku, absolute proof that when faced with obstacles, “the wise rejoice and the foolish retreat.” All best, David
Yes Joseph, spot on, I agree 🙂
Spot on ! Hoben Pon !
My first comment on this site, though I’ve been following you for a while. The first serious exposure I had to what God is all about was when we studied the Book of Job in high school: it gives a very poor impression of the deity. Since then, after decades of practicing Nichiren Buddhism, I can understand the comparison of God to the Mystic Law, but for the fact that prayer to God is begging an outside force, prayer in the Mystic Law is making a determination from our own lives. Ikeda Sensei, years ago, wisely described the difference as follows: Christians are trying to become ever closer to God, while Buddhists realize that we can become, in fact are, the Buddha.
Thank you for following my blog. 🙂 I have not seen that quote from Sensei,very illuminating indeed! And useful for Nichiren Buddhists who sometimes, when new to the practice, chant to the Gohonzon as if it were God.
As a follower of Jesus and a former Nichiren Buddhist, I am happy to say I experienced a major and liberating differences between Nichiren Buddhism and Christianity. I’ll take grace over karma any day. Grace truly is amazing….liberating. Karma exhausted me. lol With one, the battle is won. With the other, it goes on forever…. We can reach for similarities – but we can do that with anything can’t we? Ultimately, these two, in practice and philosophy are polar opposites. I respect my wonderful Buddhist friends (and I have many) so there is no disrespect intended here.
Thank you Ronnie for this interesting perspective on grace and karma. I love your point about respect and friendship, our wounded planet needs more of both. D 🙂
I like all the comments,they make some of us stronger and continue to chant ‘Nam ho renge kyo’ Kindly keep the enthusiasm David
Thank you for your comments regarding this issue. Several years ago, I attended a meeting where a senior women’s division leader from Japan was attempting to explain to a guest from Mexico, who was very strong Catholic, that Buddha is above God, not the other way around. She was gesturing as if climbing a ladder… God was here, and Buddha was the next step up.
It was so interesting to watch and listen to their conversation between Japanese, English and Spanish. It left a very strong impression on me. After all, I was brought up Christian and I spent my youth praying to understand why life was so different for me than it was for other people. When I was introduced to Buddhism, I felt that my prayers had been answered by learning about Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. It was like taking the next step up and then receiving Gohonzon was so amazing – like everything all fell into place. I still feel that same exhilaration when I sit in front of Gohonzon to this day (45 years).
I have talked to others who had similar experiences and feelings. We believe our seeking minds led us to this practice and we equate it to this gosho passage: “Be diligent in developing your faith until the last moment of your life. Otherwise you will have regrets. For example, the journey from Kamakura to Kyoto takes twelve days. If you travel for eleven but stop with only one day remaining, how can you admire the moon over the capital?” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, page 1027, Letter to Niike, Written to Niike Saemon-no-jo in February 1280)
Never give up!
Thank you Paula for this excellent story. I can definitely relate to the ‘seeking mind’ and once we have discovered Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, we must also keep seeking new ways to deepen our practice and propagate the Law. Best wishes, David
We had yet another wonderful discussion meeting this morning in which everybody gave sincere and convincing testimony of the actual proof gained from this supreme practice. It is an indisputable fact that SGI worldwide is the manifestation of the Bodhisttavas of the Earth entrusted with the noble mission for worldwide kosen rufu. I have just uploaded more than a dozen of SGI President Ikeda’s Peace Proposals from the SGI Website which attest to the magnanimous spirit of our mentor in faith. Nichiren Daishonin bestowed upon us all the Gohonzon of the Three Great Secret Laws, the ‘wish-granting jewel’ which is the only means by which we can advance in eradicating the miserable karma of humankind. The misery and despair is to be seen surrounding us all each day, and results from slander of the True Law of Life as presented in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra which the king of all sutras, free of error or falsehood. All your praise of the True Law and your obeisance to the Buddha-nature inherent in all life, will crown your life with fortune throughout eternity. Teach others about this – even if it is just a single phrase NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO – Bernie
Nice one Bernie, thank you, D 🙂
it is no accident Jesus’ message
of forgiveness followed
Buddha’s message of Oneness.
For humanity must first see it was
one collective thought that initiated
the physical universe, before it can forgive
that one thought’s purpose
and return to God.
when contemplating Oneness
few people ask what they become one with.
enlightenment is joining with
the one universal thought existing outside time
that created the physical universe. (where all things die)
this first point outside time
is where Buddhism’s task ends
and the possibility of God then begins.
so yet a further step appears.
forgive the part of mind in you
that made the universe
and return to God.
you were simply mistaken.
the universe is not your home.
it’s your hiding place.
John, I am not sure I fully understand everything you have written and neither do I feel that Buddhism’s task will ever end, however I appreciate the beauty and sincerity of your words, thank you. David
Thanks for your wonderful blog. Although I have been a Nichiren Buddhist for the 30 years, it i still hard for me to grasp the we are chanting to the Buddha within. I understand theoretically that the concept of a God outside of ourselves, or chanting as if the Gohonzon is outside of ourselves is incorrect, (as in the Gosho “On Attaining Buddhahood” describes) but in my heart, I just don’t get it. Also, a God seems personal, full of compassion (or anger), but the Mystic Law is so impersonal that I sometimes can not relate to it. The Gosho says that the treasure tower is ourselves; that we should revere Myoho-Renge-Kyo within our own lives, but I can’t see myself (at least consciously); my Buddha nature. We are supposed to have faith and just believe it because it is beyond our imagination, but I would like to have some experiential understanding. I want to feel that the Mystic Law pulsates through my life. I want to see myself in the mirror of the Gohonzon. I want to revere the Law that exists in my life; I want to change my life for the better. I don’t want mental masturbation (sorry for the analogy), but a living experience of the Buddha in my heart. Anyway, I have indeed gotten so many benefits, so I continue despite my doubts or delusions, but f I could experience the Buddha within on a continuous basis, how glorious that would be.
Hi Louis, thank you for your kind comments. I can relate to much of what you say and have been to some similar places in my daimoku. Sometimes in Buddhism I think we need to put our sentiment aside a bit – for example I don’t personally like some of the implications of karma & cause and effect, but I can see that they are true! Shakyamuni and Nichiren were Buddhas because they understand how life and the mystic Law work whether we like it or not… I find that by letting go of my thoughts and just listening to daimoku that I can feel what you beautifully describe as the ‘living experience of the Buddha in my heart.’ The ‘think less, trust more’ approach… Keep going, you will win! David
As always,clear concise and easily understood by those outside of the practice. I think I will print this and keep it with my papers I use when trying to bring people into the practice by giving them and understanding of it. This really should be sent to the magazine Buddhism Today. Thank you ,Lynn Fux
Thank you Lynn for your continued support and good to hear that you can add this to your shakabuku papers! Bestest, David
The thing that really differs between “god” and “myoho; the mystic law” is that we are the controllers of it. The oneness of self and environment and several other teachings in Buddhism (teachings of life) expound on how our Karma has the ability to change and is not static as “fate” portrays. I can say much more, but I’ll leave at that for now.
That is a very enlightening comment, thank you 🙂 Please do say more when you have a moment! Best, David
How do you explain wanting something so badly, but not getting it no matter how hard you try, and then something else happens instead that turns out to be 1,000 times better — far beyond what you could ever have originally conceived as possible? Not only is what happened instead infinitely better for your life, but it then allows you to realize just how disastrous and wrong what you thought you’d wanted would have turned out.
How can that then be explained as a simple “cause and effect,” when what happened was not even close to what you wanted and tried so hard to obtain?
I believe this can ONLY be explained by a Divine or Infinitely Wise Being outside of one’s self who knows so much more than you what would be the most beneficial pathway in order to gain wisdom, spiritually evolve, and accomplish your earthly mission. I would equate it to a loving parent sometimes letting their child learn from his own mistakes, but then at other times mercifully intervening to gently guide them away from those decisions that would only have the most catastrophic results.
great question :-). What you describe in terms of ‘something 1,000 times better happening’ does in fact happen to Buddhists all the time. So I would never describe cause and effect as ‘simple’ – it is profound, mystical, multi-dimensional and eternal and I explain all this (or try to anyway!) in my book. That’s why I included the quote from Eddy Canfor-Dumas in my blog post.
Belief in the Mystic Law does not therefore require a belief in a Divine Being / loving parent – I see the theistic framework as an over-simplified and partial interpretation of the profundity of the Law revealed by Buddha. Thank you, David
Having brought up in a Hindu culture where we have millions of deities and every other day, a new practice is born, I completely agree with Dave. The human consciousness and revolution is of utmost importance than getting trapped into the debate of God inside or outside. Nature itself reveals so much about itself and is a very strong example of what you sow is what you reap. Prayers are powerful and hence Buddhism helps us grow in the same spirit as nature does.
Thank you Madhuri and I like that analogy you draw between Buddhism and nature, very powerful! best wishes, David
Finally a refreshing and intelligent post on this topic on the internet. Hats off to you for being brave and, I might add, for being so clear. I have been using the term God interchangeably with what you call the mystical law for years now in the USA just so that people can get onto the page with me rather than rejecting what I have to say as “Godless”. Humans use words to communicate their perceptions. Their perceptions are as clear or as foggy as the fruits of their practice has availed them. Karmic obscurations, original sin, confusion, not that much difference in my way of seeing but your presentation and refinement of the discussion is great. With you all the way.
Thank you very much Lama Rangbar – I enjoyed reading your wise and eloquent comment – you are spot on about people’s perceptions! And great to hear we are on the same page! all best, David
I am Christian and becoming a Buddhist. not sure where I am going but I can see its not exactly all the same but its all the same place…we are headed to…its clear to me Buddhism is quite complete and I find less tainted with Mans translation of Christs teachings. Nicheron clearly an anointed messenger. The practice helps maintain a better more dedicated lifestyle than that of an unaccounted for prayer life in the Christian life. But both provide such incredible ways to connect with God. My praise and worship has come up to another level since becoming Buddhist. The connection to God is what God wants from all of us so he can fill your heart with peace.