Buddhism does not deny that there are in the universe planes of existence and levels of consciousness which in some ways may be superior to our terrestrial world and to average human consciousness. To deny this would indeed be provincial in this age of space travel. Bertrand Russell rightly says: “It is improbable that the universe contains nothing better than ourselves.”
— Nyanaponika Thera in Buddhism and the God-idea
I’ve used this story once before, but it’s ready to be reborn:
When my younger son, Carl, was 5 or 6, he was playing in our backyard with a neighbor girl a couple of years older who was being home-schooled by her Christian parents. As I sat on the deck, Carl came running up to me and asked: “Isn’t it true, Dad, you’re a Buddhist?”
I replied, and he turned around and shouted the answer back to the girl: “It’s true, he’s a Buddhist.” Then he ran off and rejoined her.
But he returned almost immediately with another question: “How many gods do you believe in?”
“One, at most,” I told him, and again he shouted the answer before returning to his friend: “One, at most.”
The girl apparently had been taught to question Buddhism as a polytheistic religion, and if the two children were older I might have engaged them in a more complex discussion.
First, the Buddha rejected the idea of a creator god who controls our lives. So there’s nothing in Buddhism like the god of the Abrahamic Bible. But the Buddha was uninterested in cosmology beyond that. He cared only about relieving suffering and considered theological and cosmological questions a waste of time.
Nevertheless, he was a product of his time and a great marketer of his teachings. Like any good sales person, he addressed potential followers where they were, often using terms from the then-prevalent religions.And the prevalent religions were full of devas (male) and devis (female) — 300 million of them in Hinduism.
Pali and Sanskrit words like deva and devi tend to have several meanings, so finding the right English translation is tricky. The word “god” suggests an eternal, all-powerful being like the Abrahamic god. But the devas and devis in the Buddha’s culture were beings invisible to humans with finite lifespans, limited powers, and subject to successes and failures. Sometimes I think a better translation would be “superheroes.”
The Buddha gave one of his most famous talks (sutras), his sutra on loving kindness, to help his followers cope with the tree devas who were scaring the monks camped in a forest for the rainy season. The tree devas were causing havoc to get rid of the monks, so the Buddha suggested loving kindness to win over the devas, and it worked.
That Buddha, the man born Siddhartha Gautama, talked about other Buddhas (awakened ones) who had preceded him and would come in the future, and about the Amida Buddha, who is a personification of something that can’t be expressed in words. The Amida Buddha is the universal, transcendent Buddha-nature. Again, though, the word “god” doesn’t quite fit the Amida Buddha because Buddhists recognize Amida as a metaphor for something undefinable. They understand, or should understand, that Amida is a concept, not a being.
The historical Buddha, Siddhartha, told his followers that his teachings were like a finger pointing to the moon. He warned them not to confuse the finger with the moon. The finger is not the truth; the moon is.
We’ll never know whether he saw the devas and devis of his time as symbols or actual beings, but they were not gods in the Abrahamic sense.
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine