(A talk given at a high school in Los Angeles.)
Why is it... The Buddha never talked about the One God of the desert, the Judeo-Christian God? Does this mean that all Buddhists are atheists and don’t believe in God? Did the Buddha believe in God?
These are some of the questions I would like to try and answer today.
The Buddha was born 500 years before Christ, in what is now Nepal. His dad was a king, his mom was a queen, and his dad wanted him to take over the family business (the kingdom) when he got older.
The kind of world the Buddha was born into was magical. Everything seemed to be alive. The trees, mountains, lakes, and sky were living and breathing with a variety of gods in charge. If you needed rain you asked one god, if you needed it to stop raining you asked another. The priests of India did all the religious work, and got paid for it.
In India at the time of the Buddha you became a priest if you were born into the right family, and not because of the school you went to, or the grades you got.
There were other kinds of religious people as well.
Mendicants were men who left their family, friends, and jobs to find the answers to life. They did not live in homes or apartments, but lived under trees and in caves, and would practice meditation all day long. They wanted to really be uncomfortable, so they could understand what suffering was all about.
Many kinds of meditation were practiced by these mendicants. In Tranquility Meditation for instance, you think about just one thing, like looking at a candle or saying a word over and over. When the mind becomes focused in oneness, you experience a great peacefulness.
Even if the mendicants were sitting in the rain on a cold day, they were still content. They found in their meditation practice the essence of happiness.
Renunciation is when you give up all the things that make your life pleasant. Sometimes the people with money and power in India would buy a lot of stuff to make themselves happy and their lives more comfortable, thinking that happiness and comfort depended on what they owned.
When the mendicants could see their own suffering clearly, after many years of renunciation, they understood that happiness was not dependent on the things they owned, but the kind of life they lived.
Even all the gods in India could not end the suffering of one human being.
At the age of 29, the Buddha stopped praying to the gods to end his suffering and the suffering of others. He left his family and friends, went to the edge of the forest, took off all his clothes and jewelry, covered his naked body with rags of cloth, cut off his hair and started to meditate.
He became a mendicant, and It took him six years of hard work and much suffering, but in the end he was able to stop his suffering forever (Nirvana) and help others stop their suffering as well.
Did the Buddha believe in God, the One God of the desert, the God of the Christians, Jews and Muslims?
Well... No... He didn't... Monotheism (only one God) was a foreign concept to the Buddha, his world was filled with many gods. The creator god Brahma being the most important one.
At the time of the Buddha, the only people practicing the religion of the One God of the desert, were the Jews. Remember, it was still 500 years before Christ came into the world.
The Buddha never left India. The Buddha walked from village to village... In his entire lifetime he never went any further than 200 miles from his birthplace.
The Buddha never met a Jew... And because of this, he never said anything about the One God of the desert.
There is also nothing in the teachings of the Buddha that suggest how to find God or worship the god's of India, although the Buddha himself was a theist (believed in gods), his teachings are non-theistic.
The Buddha was more concerned with the human condition: Birth, Sickness, Old age, and Death. The Buddhist path is about coming to a place of acceptance with these painful aspects of life, and not suffering through them.
Please be clear on this point... The Buddha is not thought of as a god in Buddhism and is not prayed to. He is looked up to and respected as a great teacher, in the same way we respect Abraham Lincoln as a great president.
He was a human being who found his perfection in Nirvana. Because of his Nirvana, the Buddha was perfectly moral, perfectly ethical, and ended his suffering forever.
Does that mean that every Buddhist in the world is an atheist?
No!!! I have met a lot of Buddhists who believe in God. I have met a lot of Buddhists who don’t believe in God... And a lot of Buddhists just don’t know.
All three points of view are OK if you’re Buddhist because suffering is more important than God in Buddhism.
Sometimes a student will ask me how everything in this world got started... "If you don’t have God in Buddhism then who or what caused the universe?"
When the Buddha was asked how the world started, he kept silent. In the religion of Buddhism we don’t have a first cause, instead we have a never ending circle of birth and death. In this world and in all worlds, there are many beginnings and ends. The model of life used in Buddhism has no starting place... It just keeps going and going.
Now having said that... If you’re a Buddhist it’s OK to believe God was the first cause... It really doesn't go against the teachings of the Buddha, his focus was on suffering... It's also OK to believe science has the answer… Like the big bang theory, etc... Some Buddhist’s don’t even care how it all started, and that’s fine too. Knowing how the world started is not going to end your suffering, it’s just going to give you more stuff to think about.
I hope you can see that God is not what Buddhism is about... Suffering is... And if you want to believe in God, as some Buddhists do, I suppose it's OK. But, Buddhist's don't believe God can end suffering. Only the teaching's of the Buddha can help us end suffering through wisdom and the activity of compassion.
In his whole life and in all his teachings the Buddha never said anything about the One God of the desert.