Does God exist?

There are a number of versions of the following story in circulation:

One day in the early morning Gautama Buddha was sitting in a garden quietly with his disciples. A man arrived silently and stood in the shadows, that man was a great devotee of Lord Rama. He had built many temples across the country, he had devoted many years in the service of Lord Rama. He would always chant Rama’s name and contemplate on Rama’s greatness. He was old and close to his last years. Even after many years of dedicated spiritual effort he was not realized.

He wanted to know for sure if there is a God or not? When he heard about the realized one (Buddha) , he came to get his doubt cleared. When he felt nobody would notice him talking to Siddartha, the Buddha. He asked Gautama “O enlightened one, Please tell me the truth! and truth only. Is there a god?”.

Buddha, from his intuition knew that man to be a great devotee of Lord Rama, he looked at that man with seriousness and said “No, My friend. There is no god”.
Buddha’s disciples that were gathered there were very relieved and joyous to finally know the truth that there was no god. They all started muttering between them, sharing what the Buddha had just told. Whenever a disciple had asked that question to Buddha he would become silent. So they never knew.

His words spread through the whole town, the whole town was celebrating the day on which the truth of NO GOD was revealed by the enlightened. They were finally free of the ideas of hell, heaven and of somebody sitting up to judge one’s actions.

It was getting late in the evening, and once again the disciples came back and sat around the Buddha.

There was a materialist who had been an atheist all his life, he had convinced 1000s of people that there was no god, he used to go to the priests and scholars and defeat them in the argument about god.

He too was getting old and little suspicion arose in him, “what if there is god? isn’t it waste of my life to spread the “NO GOD” message if there is god?” he thought. He was eaten by this doubt, he finally decided to know the truth and sought the enlightened one.

He slowly came up to where Buddha was sitting, and asked him “They say you are enlightened, Please tell me if there is GOD?”.

Buddha knowing that man to be an atheist said with firm voice as if he is in firm conviction “Yes, there is God”. Buddha’s disciples once again were back to confusion.
Moral of the story: Belief that there is God or belief that there is no God are both equally useless, one has to realize the truth in himself with diligent self-effort. Enlightened one had told each of them what they had to know in order for them to get stronger on their spiritual quest.

This particular version is from here

There is a rather different version by Osho (aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) which I think may be the earliest one. It can be found here.

Another version can be found here.

This is a story that (I presume) Osho made up — something he was prone to doing. It’s not from the Buddhist scriptures.

The Buddha did use different language and different spiritual models depending on his audience. So when talking to monks he would talk in terms of the spiritual goal being nibbana, or liberation from the rounds of rebirth. When talking with householders he was more likely to talk in terms of being reborn in heaven and avoiding hell.

What were his views on God, or gods, we should say, since he lived and taught in a polytheistic society?

First, the Buddha’s teaching is incompatible with an eternal, omnipotent God, and he thought such a belief to be spiritually harmful, since it diminishes our sense of personal responsibility. He did often talk as if gods such as Brahma existed, and described conversations with them. In these stories Brahma frequently comes off as a buffoon, and I think we can safely take such stories to be satirical in intent.

In one such story (in the Brahmajala Sutta) he pokes fun at Brahma as having deluded himself into thinking that he was the creator of everything. In another sutta he described Baka Brahma as “immersed in ignorance” for believing himself and his heaven as being permanent and said that the Brahma and his entire retinue were under the sway of Mara (roughly the Buddhist equivalent of the devil).

Toward the end of the Kevaddha Sutta the Buddha recounts an episode in which Brahma confessed to being afraid of the other gods’ reaction if they discovered that he couldn’t answer questions put to him by one of the Buddha’s disciples — questions that the Buddha was able to answer.

Sometimes gods played positive roles in early Buddhist texts. Most famously, when the Buddha was newly awakened and unsure whether it would be possible for him to teach his realization to others, Brahma Sahampati appeared and encouraged him to work for the benefit of suffering beings. In this I suspect we’re hearing the words of the Buddha’s own compassionate nature communicating to him. Another time Brahma Sahampati gave the Buddha advice on lifestyle:

Let the wilderness serve for your seat and bed!
Go about set free from the ties that bind.
But if, perchance, you don’t find there your bliss, then
Live in a group — but watch over yourself:
Mindful, proceeding for alms from house to house,
Mindful, with guarded faculties — and wise.

Sometimes gods came to the Buddha as disciples, and heard teachings from him. Sometimes they gave teachings to monks.

There are always going to be some people who will be annoyed by me saying this but my sense is that the Buddha did not believe in gods, and that his stories involving them were either satirical or poetic. This particular story, however, was not one he told.

10 thoughts on “Does God exist?”

  1. Does this not depend on how we interpret the word “god”. For Christians it usually means “the creator” or “he who has made all things” but my impression from my (very limited) knowledge of Buddhist texts is more that “devas” are simply beings who were reborn into a high realm of existence but like all unrealised beings they are subject to kamma and therefore to the cycle of birth and death.

    I don’t find it necessarily impossible that the Buddha could converse with the devas. One can only imagine what is possible when nibbana is attained. But I don’t think it was necessary for him to “believe” in any gods / devas if we assume he knew them to be real, if that makes sense

    1. Yes, for Buddhism the gods are simply beings who have long and pleasant lives. But that’s the point, really; the Buddha undermined the notion of a creator God (which is what Brahma was) and demoted him to the status of being just another deluded mortal.

      Also, people didn’t need to have attained nibbana to converse with the gods. In the suttas many people had encounters with deities, including very unenlightened monks who were “haughty, unsteady, garrulous, of loose speech, unmindful, thoughtless, without concentration, with wandering minds and faculties uncontrolled.”

  2. For ages, all buddhist world (Laos, Myanmar, Cambodja, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea, Japan, China, etc..from both Mahayana and Theravada cultures), believes in many Gods, (Devas, non inmortal Gods, like many old greek Gods, for example, but still Gods). But, 150 years ago, westerners came to us, and instead of learning from us, they choose to read our books alone (pretending to be experts in Pali), and now they teach us that ‘we’ are the ones who were influenced by ‘other’ cultures (!?) and that we should forget more than 2000 years of teaching and became atheists and they built their own temples, raised their own monks and flood all the net, telling that they, the newcomers (noobs?) who created the so-called ‘western buddhism’ are the right ones. Pretty intersting…

    1. Hi, Ananda.

      Buddhism has taken on different forms in every one of the cultures you’ve mentioned, and Buddhism will look different in the West, too. Fortunately no one is making you change what you do and believe.

      1. All countries listed, even with different cultures and even with diffetents forms of Buddhism, believe in many Devas (Gods). Even the main Theravada countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodja, pay respect to Devas. It’s been our way for ages. A Deva isn’t inmortal but they can live an entire aeon (400,000 years or more) and can hear your prayers and help you in your life. It’s true that, to be a buddhist, you are not obligated to pay devotion and to ask help from them. But as a buddhist, you acknowledge their existence and their capability to help people. As buddhists acknowledge the existence of demons too, who can cause suffering to people

        1. You, as a Buddhist, may believe in the existence of gods and their capability to help others. But I, as a Buddhist, don’t.

          Presumably you can accept that my beliefs don’t interfere with your ability to hold your own beliefs, so as far as I’m concerned there isn’t really an issue worth discussing.

  3. You are right. The goal is not to discuss but, to show that the atheistic point of view spreaded by western buddhists is not historically shared by Mahayana, Theravada and Varjrayana communities. It’s a new, pretty new, way of thinking spreaded, today, mainly in USA and by USA thinkers and by their own interpretation (sometimes satiric, you said) of the Pali Canon. (I do not know if this view is shared by european thinkers)

    1. I appreciate your equanimity, Ananda.

      Views are very varied in both the US and Europe (where I am originally from). Some people adopt traditional views wholesale, including a belief in devas, etc., while others adopt a more skeptical approach.

  4. Perhaps, Ananda, you might think of the Buddha’s teachings as a practice. Religions are quick to tell us to do good and avoid bad, but they offer little training and help on how to do this. So Buddhism often goes hand-in-hand with the prevailing religion, with the different religions of the different countries in which it is found. In Japan, it goes along with Shinto, while in Tibet it goes along with Bon. Many Irish Buddhists (I am Irish) are Christians.

    So it is not surprising that many countries have Buddhist traditions that believe in gods. But these gods are not Buddhist gods, they are the local deities.

    And what makes a Buddhist practitioner is not what they believe but what they do; so long as we share this practice, we are part of a sangha together. Our beliefs may be as different as our clothes or our customs, but hopefully our actions are guided by the same wisdom.

    _()_

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