June 05, 2014

God or Human?

While Buddhism has a place for gods, the Buddha wasn’t exactly one of them.Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

This article is the sixth in the Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

Buddhism is famous in the West as an “atheistic religion,” in the sense that, unlike the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it does not recognize a single creator deity. However, one should not assume from this that Buddhism has no gods. It has not one, but many.

In traditional Buddhist cosmology, the gods—or deva in Sanskrit, a cognate of “divinity”—are distributed among 27 heavens (svarga): six are located in the sensuous realm (kamadhatu) along the slopes, at the summit, and in the air above Mount Sumeru, the mountain at the center of the world; 17 in the meditation heavens of the realm of subtle materiality (rupadhatu); and four are in the immaterial realm (arupyadhatu), where there is no form, only consciousness. Because each of these heavens is located within samsara, the realm of rebirth, none of these heavens is a permanent abode of the gods who live there, and none of the gods is eternal. Rebirth as a god is based on virtuous actions performed in a previous life, and when the god’s lifespan is over, the being is reborn some place else. Thus, no god in Buddhism has the omniscience, the omnipotence, or the omnipresence of God in the Abrahamic religions. This does not mean, however, that gods have no powers. They have powers far beyond those of humans. And over the long history of Buddhism, Buddhists, including monks and nuns, have propitiated various gods for blessings and boons. A substantial part of tantric practice, for example, is devoted to inviting gods into one’s presence, making offerings to them, and then requesting the bestowal of various powers (siddhi).

What then is the status of the Buddha? Technically, he is a human, among the five other rebirth destinies (sadgati) in samsara: gods, demigods, animals, ghosts, and denizens of hell. But he is unlike any other human, both in his relation to the gods and in his physical and mental qualities.

In his penultimate lifetime, the Buddha-to-be was a god, abiding, where all future buddhas abide, in the Tushita heaven. It was from there that he surveyed the world, and chose the place of his final birth, his caste, his clan, and his parents. After his enlightenment, the Buddha spent 49 days in contemplation in the vicinity of the Bodhi Tree, concluding, the story goes, that what he had understood was too profound for others to understand, and thus futile to try to teach to anyone. The most powerful of the gods, Brahma, descended from his heaven to implore the Buddha to teach, arguing that although many might not be able to understand, there were some with “little dust in their eyes” who would. This is an important moment because it makes clear that the Buddha knew something that the gods did not, and that the gods had been waiting for a new buddha to appear in the world to teach them the path to freedom from rebirth, even from rebirth in heaven. For this reason, one of the epithets of the Buddha is devatideva—“god above the gods.”

Although a human, the Buddha has a body unlike any other. It is adorned with the 32 marks of a superman (mahapurusalaksana), such as images of wheels on the palms of his hands and soles of his feet, a bump on the top of his head, forty teeth, and a circle of hair between his eyes that emits beams of light. Some of the marks are characteristics found in animals rather than humans: webbed fingers and toes like a duck’s, arms that extend below the knees like an ape’s, and a penis that retracts into body like a horse’s. His mind knows all of his past lives and the past lives of all beings in the universe. In fact, he is omniscient (although the various Buddhist schools have different ideas about exactly what this means). Even in the early tradition, it is said that he can live for an eon or until the end of the eon, if he is asked to do so. And in the Lotus Sutra it says that his lifespan is immeasurable. He can go anywhere in the universe. He can perform all manner of miracles.

Did he create the universe? No. Is he omniscient? Yes. Is he omnipotent? It depends on what you mean. Is he eternal? Sort of. Is he God? You decide.

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

Further reading: Mothers of Liberation

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Keto's picture

Wow, I guess I had to read this to find that I am not a Buddhist!

#6 in particular is ridiculous and would, I hope, alienate most scientifically-educated Buddhists. Just because Buddhism grew in areas of the world where every grass has a supernatural being hidden behind it, does not mean that those beliefs have anything to do with Buddhism. The Buddha himself didn't find those beliefs useful, as far as we can know. The fact that many Asians are/have traditionally been superstitious does not imply that all ideas originating in Asia have to be clouded by superstition too or that every unproven claim becomes true because it is said (or was written) by an Asian person in robes.

By the way, if someone had lived on this Earth that had "a bump on the top of his head, (...) a circle of hair between his eyes that emits beams of light, (...) webbed fingers and toes like a duck’s, arms that extend below the knees like an ape’s, and a penis that retracts into body like a horse’s" would such a sorry-looking being not become famous for such features outside of Buddhist circles? Especially if he had spent all his life travelling around?

So, yes, you can keep your Buddha God, demigod, superhero or whatever (and his court of celestial and superior beings, plus their mirror demons). I'm happy enough with the human Siddhartha Gautama. I believe I can reach Enlightenment because a human reached it before me. I prefer to keep supernatural tales and feats restricted to mythology, comic books and Marvel movies, maybe inspiring, perhaps entertaining, but definitely fiction.


(Sorry if I'm posting twice but it doesn't look like the first went through, this is the first time I was so outraged by an article on tricycle that I wanted to comment. )

johnderyl's picture

I think it is important to ask one question: will all this talk about whether he is God or not, omniscient or not and so forth help us to practice better? It seems like the historic Buddha did not want to bring up the idea of God much because it was not beneficial practically. I think the Buddha way is in practice, not in a philosophical discussion of Buddhism. A discussion here only makes sense if it leads to practice whether it's discussing a koan with a Zen master or debating with Tibetan monks.

badrudin's picture

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indonesiatravelling's picture

Buddhism is not a way of life, actually it's just a good philosophy but the real way of life is Islam, if you learn something more about Islam there you will find peaceful in your heart and happiness in your life.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Lotus Sutra teaches that the lifespan of the universe is immeasurable. The Big Bang was a speed bump along the way from the infinite past to the eternal future.

Richard Fidler's picture

Donald Lopez and Robert Buswell see Buddhism as it presents itself through written accounts originating in India, Tibet, China, and elsewhere. They describe a religion that shares the qualities of most religions that existed at the time: a strong belief in the supernatural including miracles and gods and in the power of ritual as a means of affecting outcomes of every kind. They describe the religion as it was practiced at the time, ignoring the divisions that no doubt began even while the Buddha lived.

My question is: Are the authors attempting to describe the real, pristine Buddhism of the sixth century B.C.E? Further, IS there a pure, uncontaminated source of Buddhism? Divisions among practitioners started within the Buddha's lifetime, some perhaps even encouraged by the Buddha, himself. For example, in the Heart Sutra, it is made clear that the teaching contained therein is too difficult for ordinary people with all the cultural baggage they carry. Did the Buddha have one set of teachings created for one population and another set for other listeners? The Zen tradition implies that is so with its lineage going back even before the Buddha. Even if that lineage can be shown to be impossible, the underlying idea has merit: that there is more to Buddhism than meets the eye, that the religion itself is more diverse than we know.

JoseBuendia's picture

Of course there is a "pure, uncontaminated source of Buddhism". You can access it it right now through Buddhist practices on ultimate truth -- it helps as a practical matter to have a genuine lineage teacher -- but the pure source exists regardless.

However, if you are looking for it in doctrine or dogma or historical texts -- you will only find arguments and disputes.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhist practice on ultimate truth was often purposely mystified, overlooked or shunned by various would-be "masters" throughout its history. It's no wonder the Buddhist world is burdened with arguments and disputes.

Peter77's picture

Although I think it's fair to say that the overview of traditional Buddhist cosmology in this article is sound, the authors lose me at the very end:

"Did he create the universe? No. Is he omniscient? Yes. Is he omnipotent? It depends on what you mean. Is he eternal? Sort of. Is he God? You decide."

The use of the personal pronoun "he" is a little weird. Yes, the Buddha was a man and thus male. But "he" died a long time ago and thereby lost his "he-ness". By using "he" the authors are personalizing the Buddha as some sort of ultimate deity. I can only surmise that this fixation on "God" by some Buddhists (I assume that they are Buddhist) is a result of a traditional Judeo-Christian upbringing which at the root they are unable to let go of. There is no God-agent in Buddhism. There is no personal or universal savior called Buddha in Buddhism despite what many in the west seem to want to introduce to Buddhism. The entire concept of "God" in Buddhism is unhelpful. It only muddies the waters. The Buddha himself never spoke of God as far as we know. He did speak of suffering and the path to the end of suffering. And Buddhist teaching is predicated upon the notion that the Buddha attained Nirvana - or ultimate enlightenment. And, that ultimately, we all can attain Nirvana. But "God"? Give me a break.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Later followers of the sutras misconstrued them, elevating "buddha" to "god". We're in the midst of clarifying many misconceptions of the past 2,500 years.

James Mullaney's picture

I've found Worship to be a profound, fast, and effective Way of Liberation. But not 'one-size-fits-all' worship. Worship, for me, wells up spontaneously from deep inside my heart, and it can take a specific object or not. I believe worship is a deep-seated part of human nature, and a human need we ignore at our own peril. And I give myself permission by virtue of my own free will to worship Whomever I please whenever I like. It's not any given deity who saves you; it's the purity and integrity of the worship in your Heart.. Religion works best when you 'earn' it by discovering it within yourself. Carl Jung said the same thing. For him it was part of the Individuation process.

johndsykes1's picture

This is the first that I have read of the super human physical characteristics of the Buddha. Please cite your sources.


mahadragon's picture

Don't need to cite any sources for the 32 marks of a buddha. It's all over the Internet. And it can be found in many different texts all over the world.