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Does God(s) Exist and Does it Matter?

It seems like there’s some disagreement among students of the EBTs about whether deities actually exist despite the fact that their mentioned in the EBTs many times. Perhaps this would be a good topic to further flush out because it seems to involve foundational elements of the Buddha’s teachings.

Personally, I do have faith in the Buddha’s teachings, and based on those teachings, there seems to be ample support for having faith that deities exist. What do you think? Also, do you think the question of whether deities exist or not even matters to the EBTs?

with metta,

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Yes I believe that devas exist. Yes I think it’s important.

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Obviously devas are accepted as existing in the EBTs. That doesn’t mean that they are real, of course, since—as the EBTs themselves insist on—we should always test and investigate before accepting anything as true.

Disagreeing with things found in the EBTs is healthy. But we shouldn’t impose our own beliefs on them.

Of course, rebirth is central the four noble truths. Which doesn’t mean that every detail of the devas and their lives we find in the EBTs is literally true. But it does suggest that we should take the cosmology seriously.


Incidentally, “capital-G” God is a metaphysical absolute posited by theists, who is typically described as the omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, infinite, and morally perfect creator of the Universe. None of these epithets apply to the “small-g” gods of Buddhist cosmology, and we should be very clear not to conflate the two concepts.

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Indeed. Same thing applies to Mara. which is another role played by a certain type of deity.

Buddhist views on gods seems to be a middle way when compared to theism and atheism. It provides a fresh perspective to practitioners from a theistic background like myself. The difference between beings is presented as of degree, not of kind. Not denying their existence of gods but at the same time emphasizing their impermanent nature makes them less significant. The less absolutist approach to gods also avoids linking them to creation which is equally useless and speculative. The relative emphasis on Mara as opposite to the god of Abrahamic religions is more conducive to awareness and personal responsibility and makes avoiding evil more important than doing good (which is more often than not evil in disguise).

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Not only are they mentioned but the Buddha also clearly stated that they exist when asked by someone in MN 100:

But Master Gotama, do gods absolutely exist?”
“I’ve understood the existence of gods in terms of causes."
“But Master Gotama, when asked ‘Do gods exist?’ why did you say that you have understood the existence of gods in terms of causes? If that’s the case, isn’t it a hollow lie?”
“When asked ‘Do gods exist’, whether you reply ‘Gods exist’ or ‘I’ve understood it in terms of causes’ a sensible person would come to the definite conclusion that gods exist.”
“But why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
“It’s widely agreed in the world that gods exist.”

The Buddha replies that he knows by experience that they exist. He didn’t say yes the first time because the questioner could have believed that he said yes because of hearsay rather than by personal experience.

And as you say they are omnipresent in the suttas. In the EBTs, they are as real as human beings.

PS: it’s worth reading Bhikkhu Bodhi translation which phrases it in a different way (without adding the ‘absolutely’).

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Sadhu and thanks Venerable @sujato for responding. My primary motivation for posting was to develop my understanding of the Dhamma, and your comments are helpful in that regard.

Perhaps because deities are difficult to investigate is what makes them challenging to talk about and bring into our practice. I say bring into our practice because of the instances in the EBTs where the Buddha teaches to recollect deities, and especially their qualities, to “cleanse” the mind. For example, AN 3.70. Perhaps even more frequently, the Buddha seems to teach householders to make offerings to deities.

That said, perhaps working with some of these teachings is a way to investigate deities. For example, if one reflects on deities and their qualities while meditating and gets good results, similar to those described by the Buddha, that would seem to validate the existence of deities as taught in the EBTs. This has been the case for me.

Sadhu.

Thanks for bringing this up. I used a Capital “G” for god in the title somewhat referring to Brahma in the EBTs whose name is usually capitalized. It seems like the Brahma worshiped by Brahmins in the EBTs and who the Buddha speaks to and about in the EBTs is perhaps the same entity that many modern theists refer to as God. That said, your comment helped me see that even if that’s true, it’s important to remember that doesn’t necessarily mean that Brahma has the same qualities that many modern theists ascribe to him.

That inspires another research project: Look at all the suttas that discuss Brahma and Brahma’s qualities.

with metta,

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It’s very hard to accept these things in EBT’S. But my concern is that by time the canon was written down generations of new belief was added to Buddhism. Who can tell what developments happened during the years prior to them being written down. Sometimes I think Suttas was made to make the teaching more complete at first by oral transmission but by time it was written down beliefs kept changing. And another possibility is of Brahmins taking over of Buddhism. I sometimes think if Buddha really taught the brahmaviharas or it was added by them. There is more possibilities of what happened. And the more safe for us right now, is having the right view that there is a next life. That’s I think the only important teaching. But also my opinion is maybe this also a wrong view we had to remove. Since most teachings of Buddha is hinting to us that we are creating illusion. It’s better said. gods are taught by Buddha to be Empty. That’s why they are called gods.

That can be done with all the names we create. It’s a mental habit we have to tame.

What we call ‘I am’ is just empty. That’s why it’s called ‘I am’.
What we call feelings is just empty. That’s why it’s called feelings.

So every naming we have to done as humanity of ‘gods’ is empty.

Besides I have faith that we are not supposed to delight in these gods as Disciples working towards Nirvana.

So in EBT’S text these was probably after added as part of the teachings because it was given to ones low in faith. Not ready for Nirvana. And people’s faith in them was accepted as something to keep the mass faithful towards following the precepts. But actually the goal of Buddha is that eventually they will reach Nibbāna by starting somewhere.

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Any evidence or argument you can bring to indicate that they are a late addition?

That’s my point we can’t prove anything. So we can’t let are hope’s up. My only notice what I have studied. See first chapter of Samyutta. It’s really simple. It just says unnamed devatas. Some obvious with names. But later it’s all about the Vedic gods.

This if seen as before and after. And then chapter 2 is the start when Sangha development seemed higher. To me then.

Another wholly from my opinion. Sutta Nipata vs Nikāyas. How could it have been possible for a Buddha to change his flow of teaching style. If the Nikāyas was in the same style as Suttanipata I would have more faith in Nikāyas. But I’m basing my faith in Suttanipata etc. because they are more simple. I think one evidence is that Abhidharma style is evidently in Nikāyas. Really structured. But I believe that Sangha made this as still teachings of Buddha but more easy to remember for trainees. But there can be another possibility. Sāriputta influenced Buddha is his teaching style. So for example Sāriputta will give a discourse detailed and that was accepted by Buddha as better way to explain his teachings. But about the gods could have been also teachings influenced by the two main Disciples. Since they went forth and joined other ascetics they could have brought it from these other sects. Another possibility is that family tradition is to be respected according to Buddha, and he used these terms thinking to respect his family tradition. But also it seems the Enlightenment mind doesn’t remove former belief and just keep using the terms but still without thinking if they exist or not. I have noticed that in Milarepa also. He really seemed enlightened. But he still keeps mentioning terms that is just used because it’s tradition.

What about in relation to the teachings in the Brahmajāla Sutta?( eternalism view, partial eternalism )

Do the God(s) exist?
Based on years of grappling with Christianity and the problem of evil, I am ready to conclude that the Abrahamic God does not exist.

In terms of devas, I am open to their existence based on the Pali Canon, but I have not yet found or experienced any evidence outside of that Canon that they do in fact exist.

Do they matter?
I have not yet found any reason why they matter in my practice.

If the devas exist, each day I strive to follow the 8-fold path, meditate, liberate myself from craving, hatred, and delusion, and approach all beings with generosity, compassion, and loving-kindness.

If the devas do not exist, each day I strive to follow the 8-fold path, meditate, liberate myself from craving, hatred, and delusion, and approach all beings with generosity, compassion, and loving-kindness.

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Regarding the existence of devas and if it does matter or not, one of the definition of right view (or belief) might be useful to look at:
E.g. MN 117

‘There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds. There is an afterlife. There are duties to mother and father. There are beings reborn spontaneously. And there are ascetics and brahmins who are well attained and practiced, and who describe the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight

There is no direct mention of belief in devas but there is an indirect one with the mention of a belief in an afterlife (the ‘other world’ of Bhikkhu Bodhi) and in spontaneously reborn beings (which mostly apply to non-(gross)-physical beings, including some devas).

The inclusion of such items in Right View points towards the importance of such beliefs on the path… Although of course, the Kesamutti Sutta (with the Kamalas) gives a way to deal with doubts regarding these beliefs.

I would say that having the working hypothesis (or temporary belief without clinging to it) that devas exist can help on the path until one experiences them for themselves…?

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No they energy. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

When I look at my own body, sure its built up by rice, porridge and gruel but whence came the seed? When I reflect like this I have no trouble believing in gods and other states of existence.

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For some people deities are difficult to investigate and it is hard for these people to accept these teachings. For others deities are easy to investigate and the teachings regarding them are easy to accept because their existence and qualities are simply self-evident.

I think different people bring different qualities, and understandings to their practice and it is maybe useful to play to our individual strengths.

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The wrong views was mentioned in a Ghandhara commentary to the oldest parts of Suttanipata that tradition goes then alteast till the oral tradition. The exact amount of views we have and later the Chinese also have a close translation that is probably from Ghandhara.

Right, and i think it’s an important distinction. The fundamental idea is that life doesn’t just end here, but that, powered by our choices, consciousness goes on. What exact form that takes is less clear, and as described in the EBTs, is obviously influenced by Indian context. Even within the EBTs, the forms of different dimensions of rebirth are not really clear or consistent.

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All these items in mundane right view are linked to the action of kamma- “There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds,” kamma and its action is the main point made there (MN 117), that is the indispensable belief.

Sounds like a whole load of speculation and conjecture. When you teach for long enough your teaching style will vary dependent upon the audience.

It also states that mundane right view includes the view of “there are beings reborn spontaneously.”

True but suttanipata what does it tell us about gods if we read the earliest parts. Reading I guess in my opinion anything with someone accepting the faith is the later texts or modified. And one like that is Buddha being asked about Brahma world. Coincidence. If you read the ones without that ending. They are centered on humans not aliens. :alien: They are deeper verses showing the nature of a realized person. Suttanipata talks about the Sage not going in Debates. There is this humbleness. Buddha came for us. And it makes more sense today.