Buddha and God

Ed Halliwell notes that Buddha declined to express an opinion about the existence of God, and argues that there is much wisdom in avoiding a debate about whether God exists:

When I first started reading about the Buddha’s life, I was disappointed to learn that the existence of God was one of the subjects on which he declined to make a definitive comment. At the time, this seemed to me either rather unfair or something of a cop-out – surely this was exactly the kind of topic that an awakened being should pronounce upon, for the benefit of all. However, after the last couple of years of amusing but unproductive pantomime debate (“oh yes he does, oh no he doesn’t”), I am beginning to get a sense of how not answering may well have been an enlightened response.

. . .

The tussle over God is marginally more entertaining than getting shot, but the protracted diversion created by its war of words could nevertheless be more of a hindrance than a help. Not only has the stream of agitated comment brought us no closer to finding an answer, it hasn’t even enabled us to formulate agreed terms for the question. Part of what makes the argument so comical is how the concept of “God” onto which atheists project is rarely the same as the one defended by believers. Part of what makes it tragic is how, at the extremes, each party insists that their denial of what they think the opposition believes is enough to make them correct, to the point of misrepresenting the traditions they seek to uphold.

As we appear to be getting nowhere on this, I’d like to offer a fresh perspective for the new year – that of a non-theistic approach. Following the Buddha’s example, the non-theistic position refutes the extremes of both a nihilistic view (atheism) and an eternalist one (theism). In doing so, it cuts through intellectual speculation concerning the origin of the universe, in order to free up the space in which we can systematically investigate, engage with and appreciate the world as it is in this moment, right now.

Non-theism may sound somewhat like agnosticism, and indeed contemporary Buddhist teachers such as Stephen Batchelor have adopted the agnostic label as a way of distancing themselves from those metaphysical elements of Buddhist tradition, such as rebirth and karma, that are not empirically demonstrable. However, whereas agnosticism tends to emphasise not-knowing, which results from and remains confined by the limitations of intellectual and philosophical inquiry, a non-theistic approach implies letting go of all concepts in order to go deeper into experience, creating the possibility that this might produce a more profound kind of understanding.

Read it all here.

Category : The Lead

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