Many often wonder if Buddhism is one of the religions that believe in and pray to a god. In the Buddhist tradition who is the governing entity? Is there one at all? Growing up in western culture, the idea of God is everywhere. I had to connect to myself and decide if I believed in a higher power, the highest power. If you have found your way to this post, perhaps you are asking yourself the same question. Perhaps you are interested in a life of Buddhist practices. Let me help answer some of the questions you may be having as you either begin this journey or are continuing to learn more.
So, do Buddhists believe in God? According to the teachings of the Buddha, there is no belief in a singular or personal god. Buddhist beliefs are based upon a constant state of change and therefore there is no permanence and a belief in a god would entail such permanence.
Buddhism began as the belief centered around a man’s spiritual journey to Enlightenment or a freed soul. Again, this does not align with a relationship to a deity or higher power. The Buddhist belief system is based upon personal responsibility of actions, motives, and spirituality. As you read on, you will encounter topics such as karma, afterlife and life cycles as well as Judeo Christian beliefs about one God. Similarly, the topics of Buddhism as a tradition, the basis and texts of the tradition and its connection to the concept of grace.
What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is a tradition originating in ancient India between the 6th and 4th centuries. As aforementioned, this tradition is based upon the teachings of the Buddha, a titled given someone meaning the one who is awake. Around 2500 BCE, Siddhartha Gautama was born the son of a king. He decided to flee his life as a royal to embark on the most human journey of all.
After many years of self-reflection, studying under experts and teachers of meditation Siddhartha began to learn more about the human experience. He eventually took up living according to ascetic practices and continued a life of deep meditation and self-denial. Not self-denial in the way some may think; he was not in denial that he was a man, but rather he denied himself the desire of the flesh.
In his life, the goal was absolute freedom of the soul. He believed that in order to achieve this, he must take up this training in order to rid himself of the lowest human desires. He did it. After spending about half of his life dedicated to this spiritual goal, Siddhartha reached what is known as Enlightenment and became the Buddha.
Enlightenment in Buddhism is when an individual reaches absolute wisdom and knowledge combined with perfect and infinite compassion. After the Buddha reached enlightenment for himself he went on for another 40+ years teaching all that he had just learned.
Could you imagine sitting at his feet, walking as he walked? To be taught by the Buddha himself, that would be the dream. Even so, as he taught others, his disciples reached enlightenment for themselves and they, in turn, taught even more. This is how the Buddhist tradition spread across so much of Asia.
What are the teachings of the Buddha?
What were all of these men learning? What did the Buddha discover on his journey and how is it taught today? There are several forms of beliefs like the 5 precepts of Buddhism, the eightfold path, and the Vinaya. The most popular of which is the 5 Precepts. These are the tools to guide one’s training and a spiritual path. Let’s take a look at each one:
What are the 5 Precepts?
1. To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings
The first of the five impacts various aspects of life, not just in relation to the murder of another human. In a previous post, I relate this precept to a vegetarian lifestyle. One may assume that by avoiding taking another life would mean that it is a requirement to vegan or vegetarian. This is, in fact, not the case. Due to the fact that the individual is not personally responsible for the loss of animal life, the act is not on them. To put it plainly, the blood is not on their hands.
Additionally, the precept of not taking the life of beings has layers. The more virtuous the person, the greater the offense is against the perpetrator. Beyond that, there is a search for intent in the heart. Say there is a mosquito biting your arm, the intent in your heart is probably not one of malice but rather self-defense and reflex.
On the other hand, if someone were to make you angry and you acted resulting in that person’s death, the intent in your heart would be extremely dark. The karmic weight of the offense is greater in the latter instance. Karma plays a big role in the Buddhist tradition, especially in relation to the lack of belief in God. We will discuss this more in a future section.
2. To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given
The second of the five precepts speaks deeper than just taking for the sake of taking. There is an element of compassion. Remember when we talked about what Enlightenment meant? The freedom of your soul requires achieving perfect and infinite compassion. This precept has a few layers as well.
First is the existence of someone’s property or belonging, then there is an awareness and acknowledgment of the item and that it is, in fact, someone else’s. From there is the thought of taking what is not given followed by the action of actually taking what is not given. This results in the property or belongings being taken away.
There is a sense of entitlement when coveting someone’s belongings. You would need to examine why it is you desire to steal and then undergo what is necessary to retrain your mind to have perfect compassion. There is no punishment inflicted or brought upon by a deity, only a realization within oneself and a responsibility to change.
3. To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct and overindulgence
This precept has been interpreted to mean many different things to the different traditions. The Theravada tradition, the more rigid of the traditions, is said to follow the teachings of the Buddha most closely. Their relationship to this precept eliminates a sexual life altogether. They also refrain from a marriage of any kind as do monastics of other sects.
The precept, however, says sensual misconduct. Here the word “misconduct” is very important to Buddhist teaching. Misconduct is defined as unacceptable or improper behavior, especially by an employee or professional person. When accompanying the word sensual, as seen in the precept, it means improper behavior in a sexual relationship. This includes but is not limited to a relationship that does not consider the other party’s feelings. Examples of sensual misconduct for men include relationships with other men. Examples of sensual misconduct for women are much greater. There are 20 different types. The first 10 have to do with the protection of some variation while the other 10 are related to the nature of the relationship. i.e. a woman being bought, keeping concubines for pleasure, having sex with girls captured in war, and temporary wives.
Much like with the first precept, the purer the person, the worse the intent and therefore the greater the offense.
4. To undertake the training to refrain from false speech
To refrain from false speech does not merely mean to say that you did not eat a cookie when in fact you did eat the cookie. That is simply a lie. An offense of its own, of course, however, false speech is more than that.
Have you ever read a magazine headline that read “THE COUPLE THAT JUST CANNOT GET IT TOGETHER”? The reality is that the celebrity couple in question just had a mild fight about where they wanted to eat dinner that night and someone with a camera happened to capture it. In the world of journalism that is called libel. A misrepresentation of events. Not necessarily a lie but rather a stretching of the truth.
The precept of refraining from false talk covers lying, cheating, slander, deceit, and malice. Each of which has there own set of layers. There is the thought of the false speech, the action of speaking falsely and then the false words being heard by others. Once anything spoken with the intent of the one of the above list is uttered, the individual has abandoned, if even for a moment, true compassion. Training your mind and mouth to utter positivity only aids on your journey to Enlightenment.
5. To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness
In a previous post, I wrote about the spiritual benefits of a plant-based diet. This precept is pretty well aligned with that same message. While the spiritual goal of a Buddhist life is complete freedom of the soul, our minds are being hosted by our bodies. It is our responsibility to take care of it.
Substances that cause intoxication and heedlessness refers to drugs and alcohol. These are the substances which cloud the mind. How are you supposed to master the desires of the mind and body if your body is not in balance and your mind is clouded? Simple, you cannot.
Abstaining from drugs and alcohol allows you clarity of thought as you learn the art of meditation and asceticism.
What is a god?
If you are going to ask the question, do Buddhists believe in God?, you should probably understand the variety of beliefs around a god, God, and gods. There are so many different opinions and spiritual texts about the existence of a higher power. Due to this reason, it is relatively easy to get information. However, it is also easy to get lost in a sea of possibility. I found myself with more and more questions the more information I had. Questions like, is God a singular entity or multiple? Is God a male or a female? and Who created God?
The term god is defined as the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe. There is a growing discussion surrounding the gender of God. Is the Judeo-Christian God more feminine or masculine? I am not an authority on this and perhaps they will never know. In my opinion, it is not for us, as humans, to know. That being said, what are the differences between the different religions?
The Judeo- Christian “God”
God with a capital ‘g’ is reserved specifically for the Christian deity. An additional definition that may fit the belief of the Christian faith is this, the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being. Unlike Buddhism, in the Christian faith, God is the ultimate source of blessings and punishment in the face of sin. Furthermore, The Christian faith believes that Jesus was the Son of God as seen in the book of Philippians chapter 2 verses 5 and 6:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;”
Both Christians and Jews believe that God is the supreme being. They differ in that the Christian faith believes in the Holy Trinity; The father (God), the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. While the Jewish faith does not recognize that Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies and is therefore esteemed simply as a prophet like Abraham or Jonah.
Another religion that has a set of beliefs centered around a supreme being is Hinduism. This is a polytheistic religion, meaning the belief and worship of many gods. There is a deep complexity of the number of gods and are said to be as many as 330 million gods in the Hindu faith.
Even so, there are 33 supreme gods, separated by their purpose. There are 12 Adityas or “sun god”. These 12 gods represent the 12 months of the year, each one ruling over the earth for a certain amount of time. For example, the ruling month of the Adityas Vishnu is October-November. In addition to the 12, there are the 11 Rudras, the gods of the “middle world” between Earth and Heaven. Then there are the 8 Vasus, representing the elements of nature. The final 2 gods are Prajapati, the Master of Gods, and Indra, the Supreme Ruler. These are the main gods in which the Hindu people base their faith.
How are these different from Buddhism?
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Each of the above mentioned is a more formal religion whereas Buddhism is a tradition and collection of beliefs and practices. While they may have their differences, they all have strong beliefs and rituals. They all recognize a clear authority over some or all areas of life.
In Buddhism, there is an emphasis on self and a spiritual journey. Even though there is text from the Buddha and a Buddha at all, he is not worshipped but followed. He is not god, but a man who has transcended beyond desire and suffering. In Buddhism, there is no allegiance to a supernatural being.
What is Karma?
Many are probably familiar with the phrase “what goes around comes around.” You probably also have heard someone use this as the definition of Karma. The reality is this a true yet simplified definition of a more complex belief. The word Karma means action and is therefore defined as the idea that our past actions affect the present and that our present actions will, in turn, affect the future.
In the Buddhist tradition, this karmic activity dictates where you are born and to what status. Based on the actions of a previous life, one can be born as high as the heavenly realm. If the actions were particularly heinous, one could find themselves being tormented in a realm of hell. Furthermore, there are less drastic places to be born. You could be born again as a plant or a natural element. You could be born again as an animal as small as a bee to as large and majestic as a whale. There is even the difference in what type of human you may find yourself as; poor or rich, male or female. That being said, karma was not created as a means to comfort and/or vilify the poor nor was it created to protect and/or justify the rich.
As I learned in my 10th-grade physics class all those years ago, every action has an opposite and equal reaction. So it goes with Karma; every cause has an effect and every karmic action has what is known as Vipaka. Vipaka, meaning fruit or result, is the outcome of any action viewed through the lens of karma. It is known as the Law of Moral Causation. There is both positive and negative karma. The idea is to align your motives perfectly with positivity as to avoid accruing any negative karma.
Due to the very literal translation of action, karma is somewhat self-determined. You can choose to act differently in every situation. There is a catch-22 to this though, it is not just about the action. As I previously stated, you are working to align your motives with positivity. It is about the heart of why you do what you do. Good karma is born out of generosity, compassion, kindness, sympathy, mindfulness, and wisdom. On the other hand, bad karma is born out of greed, hatred, delusion, malice, and deceit.
Karma is not a means to deal punishment like a deck of cards. There is no deity to align that with. Punishment would require the hand of a punisher. Buddhism is a worship of the universe. It is not a religion but a tradition that is based upon self-improvement in the deepest and most spiritual sense. Karma is neither fate nor predestination but rather the existence of bettering your motives which, in turn, better your actions.
Lifetimes and the Afterlife
Our site features more in-depth descriptions of the three major sects of Buddhism; the Theravada tradition, the Mahayana tradition, and the Vajrayana tradition, and outlines some of the differences they possess. In this context, an important difference is the idea of karma and lifetimes.
As aforementioned, the type of karma you accrue determines where you are reborn and to which status. This may be the time in the post that you are doing a double-take and asking, “Woah, Woah, Woah! Do you mean to tell me this is not the first time I have been here? What does it mean to be reborn anyway?”
In the Buddhist tradition, to be reborn means to die and then your spirit or your essence is born again as a different entity. This is displayed in the cycle of samsara, the painful and endless cycle of birth, life, death, and being born again. From life to life you are followed by your karma, feelings and moments. The goal of each life is to continue acquiring good karma in order to break the endless cycle of samsara by reaching Enlightenment also known as Nirvana.
The Vajrayana tradition is unique in believing that Enlightenment can be achieved in a single lifetime. Meaning, one would not need to be reborn. This life may very well be your first and you could reach Nirvana by the end of it. The other two traditions believe Enlightenment can be achieved through the accumulation of good karma over several lifetimes, as discussed above. As stated in an article about karma, “the aim of Buddhism is to escape the cycle of rebirth altogether, not simply to acquire good karma and so to be born into a more pleasant state.”
What does all of this mean? In summation, it means that you are responsible for the placement of your soul, mind, and body. There is no higher being playing with you like a toy in a dollhouse, dictating punishments or rewards.
The Concept of Grace
A popular topic discussed amongst Christian communities is this idea of grace. Biblical grace or the grace of God is defined as the unmerited or undeserving favor of God to those who are under condemnation. This concept is contradictory to everything you now know about karma and the godless tradition of Buddhism. So, is it possible to apply the concept of grace when adopting the practices of Buddhism? Let’s take a look at the non-biblical definition of grace.
There are several ways to use this word, grace. For our purposes, we are going to examine a definition from Merriam-Webster. It states that grace is the disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.
Disposition, meaning the act or the power of disposing of. In the stance of showing grace without the presence of God, there are several examples. For instance, a parent has the opportunity to show grace to their child that has just hit a baseball through the window of the upstairs bedroom.
Can’t relate to that? How about a teacher showing grace to the student who had to attend a funeral and was not able to finish a paper on time. Furthermore, a boy can show grace to his girlfriend that forgot that they had made dinner plans. None of these examples is reliant on their being a god or not.
Kindness, meaning the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate, much like in the hypotheticals above, is a key component of grace. Let’s use the example of the parent. The first step is consideration of what may have happened, what are all the facts?
After kindness and before grace is compassion. A circumstance may warrant rage and punishment, but tapping into empathy and compassion allows an individual to see past the immediacy of action. Compassion allows an individual to act with grace.
Here is where a little bit of personal discernment is necessary. How does karma affect the person willing to dull out grace? Is it possible for a person to show grace to their companion who is often forgetful? This is hard to say.
There is no hard and fast divinity directing the path towards right and wrong. Instead, there is a deep and personal understanding of one’s own motives. If you know that your motives are aligned to acquire good karma, by all means, show grace. Karmic weights know the truth, even you know the truth. One must keep in line with the teachings of the precepts, undertake the training that will help you know infinite compassion.
Check out the other content we have here on the website. The world of Buddhist faith is fascinating and rewarding. As the Buddha once said, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
Buddhism is unique in that it is not a tradition based on the belief in a higher power. It does, however, teach that our actions matter, kindness is important, and life has more to offer than meets the eye.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.