Do Buddhists Believe in God?
This is a question I am often asked. There are generally three types of people (for more on these types, view here) that want to know the answer. The first kind of person is an Exclusivist. Exclusivists are folks who believe their religion is the right one, and that truth cannot be found outside of what they have been taught. They often ask the above question to confirm what they already think, and possibly to consider convincing those who believe otherwise that they should come over to their side. Among Exclusivists are not only people of faith, but also those who consider themselves atheist or non-believers. Many (not all) scientists and Buddhist converts fit neatly into this paradigm.
These folks remind me of the story of the conversation the Zen Master had with the professor. The professor spoke at length about all the things he knew, while the Zen Master patiently listened. At one point in the conversation, the Zen Master offered a cup of tea to the Professor. As she was pouring the tea into his cup it became full to the brim. She continued to pour even though it was over-flowing. The professor then yelled out, “Stop! Can’t you see that no more tea can fit in my cup?” The Zen Master said, “Likewise, your mind is so full of ideas you are incapable of pondering anything other than what you know already.”
The second kind of person is an Inclusivist. This person generally incorporates anything from outside their worldview (whether religious or not) back into their worldview. In other words, they look for the ways in which a different worldview has elements of their own view in it. They are open to seeing the possibility of truth in another faith outside their own, however, they are not necessarily open to learning something new. They don’t necessarily recognize that there really are differences in the world, because they try to see what is the same in others.
The Inclusivist is like the person who wears only rose-colored glasses, yet they don’t realize how much their lenses limit what they are able to see. Having a conversation with this kind of person would appear on the surface to be very agreeable, but a true exchange of ideas may be difficult.
The third kind of person is a Pluralist. Pluralists see that their own perspectives are limited. They recognize that they cannot possibly know everything, and they perceive definite differences in the world, yet they don’t necessarily categorize those differences as “better” or “worse,” just different. This kind of person asks sincere questions, wanting to better understand. They have come to a place where their tea cup is empty, and are looking for it to be filled. With the pluralist, a genuine conversation is possible. Differences don’t need to be glossed over. They can be wrestled with in a respectful way. Agreement is not necessarily the goal with the pluralist, but rather a recognition of the limits in which reality can be perceived by any of us.
We can find ourselves on the spectrum between Exclusivist and Pluralist at any given time. We are fluid in our ideas, and are often influenced by the people we are surrounded by in the moment. A question one could ask themselves before asking the question about God is where one exists on this spectrum in this moment now.
To each of these categories I would offer a different response. I would take into account not just an intellectual reply, but a heart-felt response. I could go on endlessly about some response issued based on being academically correct. But what I really want to know is, where is this person right now in their lives that they would be asking such a question? Are they grieving a deep loss? Have they been displaced in some way (such as a refugee)? Do they have a history of trauma? Are they simply curious?
My response to this question would be based on the needs of the individual before me. Buddha is said to have taught one thing and one thing only: there is suffering and there is a way to end suffering. I ask myself how can I address this person’s suffering based on a very brief encounter? What words can I say that may be helpful in this moment? What can I say that brings us together rather than divides us?
A student asked a Zen Master, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” In other words, does a dog have the capacity to lead all beings to Enlightenment? The Master said, “Yes.”
A second student asked the same Zen Master, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” The Master responded, “No.”
Why would a Zen Master respond, “Yes” to one person and “No” to the other person regarding the same question about the nature of reality? Are they a hypocrite?
Well, is everyone the same?
To someone coming from an Exclusivist position, I might not share anything about Buddhist beliefs, but simply talk about my personal belief in Jesus Christ. There are Buddhists who also believe in Jesus! Or, I may challenge that person to recognize the value of other faith traditions. There is really not much one can say to an Exclusivist. They just want you to confirm what they already know and agree with them, or they want to challenge you to see it there way. But where are they in their heart?
To an Inclusivist, I may talk about how Zen Buddhists conceive of God. While we don’t necessarily talk about God or address God explicitly, we do have very clear teachings about the limitless nature of reality, which some may call, “God”. We may say things like, “no concept or thought about the Ultimate can grasp the Ultimate.” The Dao De Jing says, “The name that can be named is not the Eternal name.”
I’d refer them to this picture. Is it an old lady or a young woman? While both exist simultaneously, depending on how you look, one is present while the other remains hidden.
To a Pluralist, I might talk about how the idea of God – an all embracing reality that leads the faithful and can be worshiped – is a Western concept found within Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Can you imagine a culture that sees all life as inter-dependent without necessarily referring to God? Is the concept of God necessary to be a good human being? Buddhists refer to the concept of karma. They know that every action has an opposite and equal reaction. One cannot rely on a God to save them from their karma, but they can change their karma for the better in the present moment, and they can take refuge in inter-dependence as a guiding principle.
To the Pluralist, I might refer to this image of the blind wise men and the elephant.
All of them have a glance at reality. None of them have the whole picture.
In the end, I am only one of approximately 488 million Buddhists. How can I possibly know a definitive “Buddhist” response to this question? But thank you for asking.