The Buddha on God, with Responses

The Buddha once made a number of remarks about God and why he discouraged his disciples from speculating about God:

On occasions, [the Buddha] expressed his opinions about creation and the role of God. When Ananthapindika, a wealthy young man, met the Buddha at a bamboo groove at Rajagriha, the Buddha made a few statements before him about the existence of God and the real cause behind the creation of beings in this world. Those views are summarized as below:

1. If God is indeed the creator of all living things, then all things here should submit to his power unquestioningly. Like the vessels produced by a potter, they should remain without any individuality of their own. If that is so, how can there be an opportunity for anyone to practice virtue?

2. If this world is indeed created by God, then there should be no sorrow or calamity or evil in this world and no need for the existence of the principle of karma since all deeds, both pure and impure, must come from Him.

3. If it is not so, then there must be some other cause besides God which is behind him, in which case He would not be self-existent.

4. It is not convincing that the Absolute has created us, because that which is absolute cannot be a cause. All things here arise from different causes. Then can we can say that the Absolute is the cause of all things alike? If the Absolute is pervading them, then certainly It is not their creator.

5. If we consider the Self as the maker, why did it not make things pleasant? Why and how should it create so much sorrow and suffering for itself?

6. It is neither God nor the self nor some causeless chance which creates us. It is our deeds which produce both good and bad results according to the law of causation.

7. We should therefore “abandon the heresy of worshipping God and of praying to him. We should stop all speculation and vain talk about such matters and practice good so that good may result from our good deeds.

For such reasons, the Buddha did not encourage speculation on the existence of Isvara (God) among his disciples. He wanted them to confine themselves to what was within their field of awareness, that is, to understand the causes of suffering and work for their mitigation. For the same reason, he discouraged speculation upon the nature of Nirvana.

Let’s take these one at a time:

1. If God is indeed the creator of all living things, then all things here should submit to his power unquestioningly. Like the vessels produced by a potter, they should remain without any individuality of their own. If that is so, how can there be an opportunity for anyone to practice virtue?

RESPONSE: This is strange objection since Buddhism denies BOTH individuality and personal virtue (there being, really, no persons to practice virtue). 

We are indeed created by God like a potter producing pots, but the Buddha’s contention that being a creature would render one without individuality is simply a non sequitur. Consider the obvious case of a great artist: is each of his works “without individuality”? On the contrary, the greater the artist, e.g. Shakespeare, the greater the variations in his productions.

Similarly with regard to virtue. There is simply nothing that prevents God from creating free creatures, creatures who can choose meaningfully between good and evil—and hence virtue and vice.  

The error the Buddha is making is in considering God only in terms of His power, and not His wisdom and goodness. That is, the Buddha is making exactly the sort of theological mistake he warns his followers about. 

2. If this world is indeed created by God, then there should be no sorrow or calamity or evil in this world and no need for the existence of the principle of karma since all deeds, both pure and impure, must come from Him.

RESPONSE: This is where the question of the Fall of Man becomes necessary.  And admittedly, the Fall is revealed primarily via divine revelation, a revelation the Buddha did not have access to.

Nevertheless, the Buddha’s  inference is false. The Fall of Man cannot be shown by natural reason, but it can be shown to be in accord with natural reason: why should it be, when it is logically possible for everyone to be good and virtuous, no one is, and most people are bad? It is obvious to all sane people—including the Buddha—that man is not what and how he ought to be. 

Unfortunately, the Buddha equates the fallen world with the world as such, and thus his doctrine can only be one of renunciation and escape from the world.  

3. If it is not so, then there must be some other cause besides God which is behind him, in which case He would not be self-existent.

RESPONSE: The Buddha is making a metaphysical error in confusing evil and suffering and sorrow and calamity with real things. The reason that the Buddha is wrong here is that God is capable of creating free beings with real choice, which opens the possibility of there being a secondary cause besides God, that is not “behind” or “beside” God.

The Fall of Man is the work of man, and man’s abuse of his freedom, in order to sin. Evil and death are the result of sin, sin is the result of human choice, and although God is the author of human beings as free beings, he is not the author of their free choices, since it would be contradictory for God to “choose our free choices for us.” 

4. It is not convincing that the Absolute has created us, because that which is absolute cannot be a cause. All things here arise from different causes. Then can we can say that the Absolute is the cause of all things alike? If the Absolute is pervading them, then certainly It is not their creator.

RESPONSE: Another metaphysical mistake.  All things within the totality of creation have a cause within that totality, within the order of nature. But God is at once the creator and sustainer of the whole totality of what is in being.  In this way, as the one who donates a portion of the Being that He Is, thus allowing all else to be, God is the source and ground and cause of all things. 

5. If we consider the Self as the maker, why did it not make things pleasant? Why and how should it create so much sorrow and suffering for itself?

RESPONSE: The Self, or Atman, is not the God, or Isvara. That said, God DID create all things as GOOD. Evils such as sorrow and suffering are the consequences of the Fall, and of Sin.  

6. It is neither God nor the self nor some causeless chance which creates us. It is our deeds which produce both good and bad results according to the law of causation.

RESPONSE: False in two ways: firstly, the Buddha is making the error of thinking of divine creation as being in time, and a “one and done.” God is our creator at every instant because he is our sustainer in being. Second, our ability to do good is radically impaired due to our fallen state. Once again, the Buddha is unaware of the Fall of Man, and consequently, despite his deep insight into the deficiency of existence, somehow believes it is within man to escape this deficiency.  But the broken man in the broken world cannot repair himself. What is needed is a RESCUER, a SAVIOR, to redeem us from our fallen state. 

7. We should therefore “abandon the heresy of worshipping God and of praying to him. We should stop all speculation and vain talk about such matters and practice good so that good may result from our good deeds.

RESPONSE: Romans 3:10-12

as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
     no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”

 

The Buddha’s failure to engage in proper metaphysical and theological thought results in his making metaphysical and theological mistakes. This is always the way: those who disdain metaphysics and theology end up with defective metaphysics and theology. 

The Buddha’s answer, “Do good by following the Eightfold Path and you will achieve Nirvana,” is a false answer, because no one unassisted by Grace can do good, nor is it, I repeat, within the power of the broken being in the broken world to fix itself.  

The Buddha’s rejection of the life of selfish craving, Taṇhā is good as far as it goes, but there is also selfless craving. Taṇhā is cognate with the various Indo-European words, the English of which is Thirst, and true thirst can be quenched not be extinguishing it, but with the water of life: 

John 4:14 “but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Revelation 21:6 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment.”

Revelation 22:17 “And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.”

Buddhism offers only a palliative. It is not worthless, but it can no more solve the problem of human sin, suffering, misery, and despair than Stoicism could—which was a sort of Roman Buddhism, albeit in a nobler key.

Doctrines of Resignation such as Buddhism and Stoicism must give way to the doctrine of Christ the bringer of new life, of eternal life:

John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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