Do Buddhists Believe in God?

According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of American Buddhists are “absolutely certain” that God exists, while 29% are “fairly certain” that God exists:

This is somewhat misleading, since the actual survey question asked whether you “believe in God or a universal spirit,” which can be interpreted in many different ways:
http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/11/201.11.03_RLS_II_questionnaire.pdf

According to the Pew Research study, only 23% of American Buddhists believe in a personal god, while 42% instead believe in “an impersonal force”:

There is no creator in Buddhism, since the universe has always existed in some form. However, there is belief in the Dharmakaya, the wisdom and compassion in all things.

The Dharmakaya or universal Buddha-nature can be described as a universal spirit, in which we are all connected, since we all possess Buddha-nature as well.

All the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas, like Amitabha and Avalokitesvara, are believed to be embodiments of the one Dharmakaya or universal Buddha-nature.

Unlike a theistic god standing above us, the buddhas and bodhisattvas have the same Buddha-nature as ourselves, but they’ve reached a higher state of spiritual realization.

We all have the potential to become buddhas ourselves, no matter how many lifetimes it takes. The celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas compassionately help us along the way.

According to the above Pew Research study, 43% of American Buddhists pray daily, 16% pray at least once a week, and 10% pray on a monthly basis.

The word “pray” or “prayer” also might have a different meaning among Buddhists than it does in other religions, such as chanting the name of a buddha or bodhisattva.

Chanting the names of buddhas and bodhisattvas can be seen as supplicating an external being or as a method of cultivating their enlightened qualities within oneself.

Buddhists might also interpret karma as a universal spirit which rewards and punishes, and Nirvana as a universal spirit which the Buddha realized in his enlightenment.

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I hope I made clear that I am not promoting theistic belief. There is a difference between believing in a theistic god and believing in a universal spirit.

While there is no concept of a creator god in Buddhism, there are such concepts as Buddha-nature, Dharmakaya, karma, etc., which one might interpret as a universal spirit.

That’s why it’s important to question a survey that says a majority of American Buddhists believe in God, when the actual survey question asked if they believed in God or a universal spirit, which are two different things.

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Generally I’d identify as an atheist, in the literal sense of believing there is no creator God. As to why a significant percentage of US Buddhists affirm a belief in God, it is an interesting and unexpected detail, so thanks for bringing it to light. My thought would be that this may encompass a number of kinds of belief:

  1. People who think of themselves as Buddhists but who don’t really know anything about it.
  2. People who identify as syncretic Buddho-Christians or Jubus, etc.
  3. Indonesian Buddhists who are used to thinking of themselves as not atheists (as atheism is illegal there).
  4. People who believe in a Buddha nature as some kind of universal consciousness or spirit, as you suggest.

It would be interesting to see this broken down by type of Buddhism; one suspects such views would be more common among Mahayanists, but this may not be the case at all. In practice, the beliefs of many Theravadins are not all that different.

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Thank you for your response, Bhikkhu. I’d identify as an agnostic when it comes to the existence of a creator god, since it’s not relevant to my Buddhist practice or my day-to-day life whether the universe was supernaturally created or if it’s always existed in some form.

As a Mahayana Buddhist, I do believe there’s such a thing as a boundless compassion which defies human language and conceptualization, though I wouldn’t call it a theistic god. Thich Nhat Hanh in The Energy of Prayer refers to it as the collective consciousness.

The third layer of consciousness, store consciousness, is the deepest. There are many names for this kind of consciousness. Mahayana tradition calls this store consciousness, or alaya, in Sanskrit. The Theravada tradition uses the Pali word bhavanga to describe this consciousness. Bhavanga means constantly flowing, like a river. Store consciousness is also sometimes called root consciousness (mulavijñana in Sanskrit) or sarvabijaka, which means “the totality of the seeds.” In Vietnamese, we call store consciousness tang. Tang means to keep and preserve.

Weirdly enough I’ve come come across Burmese (Theravadan) Buddhist who seem to have some idea of Buddha as a god. The idea of ‘praying to Buddha’ was explained to me as being somewhat common there. I didn’t dig too far into it, so it might have been a translation thing.
They seemed to not understand Nibanna as the ‘flame going out’.

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Thank you for your response, Bhikkhuni.

I think the Buddha can be interpreted as a spiritual being who can hear our prayers, without being a theistic god.

As far as the meaning of Nirvana, I tend to agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi, that it’s an existing reality, rather than merely the blowing out of a flame:
http://www.beyondthenet.net/dhamma/nibbanaReal.htm

Do you believe that the historical Buddha is somewhere around able to listen to your prayers?

This quote is from The Religion of the Samurai: A Study of Zen Philosophy and Discipline in China and Japan by Kaiten Nukariya:

Enlightened consciousness is often called Buddha-nature, as it is the real nature of Universal Spirit… When we are Enlightened, or when Universal Spirit awakens within us, we open the inexhaustible store of virtues and excellencies, and can freely make use of them at our will.

The book is from 1913, which I believe makes it public domain.

When Zen masters refer to the Big Mind or the One Mind, this is what Kaiten Nukariya meant by Universal Spirit.

If the Buddha was right about dependent origination, then all life, as well as all consciousness, is interconnected:

This means that all life is interdependent.

Universal consciousness, in my own experience, isn’t believed through blind faith, but instead experienced or intuited through Buddhist practices.

That’s a good question. If one is seeking worldly things like a new Jaguar, then no. If one is praying for spiritual things, like the cultivation of inner wisdom and compassion, then yes.

As a Mahayana Buddhist, I believe the Buddha’s promise in the Lotus Sutra to always be spiritually present in the world, even after his parinirvana.

I also show gratitude for the Buddha’s positive influence in my life, by saying “Thank you, Lord Buddha,” which can be seen as a form of prayer.

Are you aware that the Mahayana sutras were developed 600 years after the Buddha death so cannot come from him?

That cannot be proven, one way or another:

One might as well say the Pali suttas cannot come from the historical Buddha either, since they were also not written down until hundreds of years after the Buddha’s passing.

Ancient India was an oral culture, and important religious texts like the Rigveda were passed down for hundreds of years before taking a written form:

Even if the Mahayana sutras do not contain the actual words of the historical Buddha, they might have naturally developed from the seed which the Buddha originally planted, making explicit what the Buddha already taught, at least implicitly.

I do not expect non-Mahayanists to accept the validity of Mahayana sutras. If the Buddha taught 84,000 paths to enlightenment, as is often said in Mahayana Buddhism, then that includes Theravada as a legitimate path. Even in the Pali scriptures, the Buddha taught different things in different ways to different people in different circumstances who had different temperaments.

There seem to be scientists today who also believe in the existence of a universal consciousness:

New theories in neuroscience suggest consciousness is an intrinsic property of everything, just like gravity. That development opens a world of opportunity for collaboration between Buddhists and neuroscientists.

While these things involving a universal spirit might sound like Hinduism, it’s worth noting that Hinduism may have copied Mahayana Buddhism, and not the other way around:

According to the Pew Research study, only 23% of American Buddhists believe in a personal god, while 42% instead believe in “an impersonal force”:

Sorry, no, this is a false equivalence. The EBTs stem from the earliest period of Buddhism. While we cannot say that all of them stem from the Buddha himself—and in fact clearly not all do so—the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the bulk of the content, especially the doctrinal material, stems from the pre-Ashokan period, and much probably comes from the Buddha himself.

The Mahayana sutras, on the other hand, were composed, that is, written afresh, starting from around 500 years after the Buddha. They do not contain any historical teachings of the Buddha, apart from what has been drawn from the EBTs. The only relevance they have for a study of what the historical Buddha taught is that they may, on occasion, draw from EBT material that has otherwise been lost. So far, however, very little such material has been identified.

The medium of transmission affects the manner of transmission, but it doesn’t affect the reliability. Oral texts are just as reliable as written ones.

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It’s sad that we can’t express openly what Buddhism believes in our country… :disappointed_relieved:
in the educational curriculum, we describe the god with Udana 8.3 . Sometimes, it’s difficult to explain why the concept of Buddhist God is very ambiguous. Often I say to my friends, this concept is just a formality. Udana 8.3 explains about Nibbana, not about the God.

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It seems to me this law, which arose following the communist scares of the 60s/70s, is badly out of date. Do you think there’s any chance it’ll be rescinded?

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This concept is a creation of Ven Moggaliputtatissa, about 100 years after the Buddha’s time, during the time of King Ashoka. Bhavanga is not an EBT concept.

with metta

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Nor, it might be added, is it equivalent to a universal consciousness. According to the late Pali Abhidhamma, it is purely a functional element of consciousness that provides continuity when more active forms of consciousness have subsided. It does not underlie anything, it only appears intermittently, in-between occurrences of active six-sense consciousness.

Moreover, the term bhavaṅga has nothing to in and of itself do with “stream”, it means “factor of existence”. We do find the word bhavaṅgasota used, which means “stream of bhavanga”. But this doesn’t refer to an underlying universal stream, but only to a series of subliminal mind moments that occur between one occasion of full awareness and the next.

The idea that the Theravada bhavanga is equivalent to the “storehouse consciousness” is first asserted by Vasubandhu, and is repeated uncritically based on this. However, his statement needs to be taken in context. Firstly, Vasubandhu’s idea of the storehouse consciousness is, so it seems, very different from the later notion of a universal consciousness. And secondly, he was speaking in the terms of functional explanations: the bhavanga addresses similar problems and plays a somewhat comparable role in Theravada theory as the storehouse consciousness does, i.e. it is a theoretical clarification of the mechanism of continuity and transmission of kamma in an ever changing consciousness. But the fact that it serves a similar function doesn’t mean that it is the same thing.

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Dear Banthe, when did this notion, and by whom, appear in Buddhism (Mahayana Yogacara school?) ?
Is it found in Theravada circles too?

The concept of universal consciousness seems to have already existed at least implicitely in a Greek Philosophy context: idealism (Anaxagoras).
The latest form can be found in the essays of Bernardo Kastrup.

It seems to have developed in later Yogacara, post-Vasubandhu and Asanga, and to have been largely influenced by the revitalized Advaita Hinduism that emerged at the time (which in turn was largely influenced by Buddhism).

The idea is not really part of Theravada mainstream, but is popular in some circles of the Thai forest tradition and some modern Buddhists of universalist tendencies.

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As far as I had known, the sixth patriarch of the Tiāntāi school, Ven Zhànrán, was the only person in Mahāyāna Buddhism to assert the sentience of things conventionally considered to be insentient: like rocks or water.

It seems this is a more widespread belief?

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