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Can Buddhists believe in God?

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In modern times Buddhism we commonly find the statement that Buddhists do not believe in god. Therefore choosing Buddhism as your religion means choosing not to believe in god. However, even in countries where Buddhism flourished as the main religion, the urge to believe in some higher force that still is present and did not pass away with the passing away of the Buddha, can be seen to express itself in manifold ways.

In traditional Buddhist countries the Buddha himself actually is very often still believed to exist somewhere in some higher world, and even many of those who will in public make the safe statement, will in more private circumstances if need arises, be caught to utter a prayer to the Buddha.

But since this urge to believe in some higher power is so fundamental to human nature, we might ask, did the Buddha actually really forbid it?

In fact the answer is no. There is no discourse given by the Buddha declaring that he who would follow him should not believe in god. The fact of the matter is, that the concept of god as it exists now, especially in the abrahamic religions, seems to not yet have fully emerged at the time of the Buddha.

At the Buddha’s time the general worldview was, that the earth was somewhat something along the line of a flat disc, with a giant mountain in the middle. On top of that mountain there dwelled the main pantheon of gods, the ruler of which was called Sakka, king of gods. Towering above this there were various other planes of existence, the top of which was called the realm of Brahma. But as these were far removed from the world of humans and thus human concerns, they seemed to have played a not very important role in the religious life of the Buddha’s time.

Even of Brahma the claim seemingly wasn’t that Brahma was the creator of the world with everything on it. Rather at most he was thought to be the creator of living beings. And even there, we find such a claim only in relation to the beings of the upper planes.
The upanishadic view of Brahma as a transcendent entity, seems to largely have just emerged at the Buddha’s time and seemingly did not take a central role in the religious life of his time. And although the Buddha did mentioned such idea, it seemingly was not his main concern to refute or argue with it.

Of the gods common at the Buddha’s time, although they were understood to be imperfect, the Buddha seems to have taken it for granted that people revere them, a practice he nowhere condemns. In fact it is common Buddhist practice to be respectful and reverential towards every person (and thus also every higher entity).

But what about the Buddha himself? Did he ever pray?
Actually we can find at least one indication of that in his famous exclamation just after his enlightenment.

Through the round of many births,
I wandered in samsara,
seeking, but not finding, the builder of the house.
Suffering is birth again and again.
O, house-builder! You are seen.
You shall not build a house again.
All your rafters are broken.
Your ridge-pole is shattered.
My mind has attained the unconditioned,
obtaining the destruction of craving.1

(Dhammapada 153-4)

Was indeed this joyful exclamation not a form of prayer? Was it not addressing a god who builds houses, that is bodies, for those who have not yet outgrown samsara? Tradition certainly denies that, being quick to add to that stanza an explanation that what is meant with housebuilder was actually craving. But nevertheless the stanza itself does not say that.

Concluding with this, this little exploration, let us turn once again to our initial question: Is it ok for a Buddhist to believe in god?
In the author’s own opinion, it is entirely ok for a Buddhist to believe in god. But if you want to hold regular discussions and arguments about god, taking that to be a central aspect of your religious life, then arguably you should perhaps consider increasing the number of followers of some other religious faith.

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