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Gods in Buddhism- Are There Gods, or Aren't There? (link)

Gods in Buddhism- Are There Gods, or Aren't There? (link)

By Barbara O'Brien

It is often asked if there are gods in Buddhism. The short answer is no, but also yes, depending on what you mean by "gods."

It also is often asked if it is all right for a Buddhist to believe in God, meaning the creator God of monotheism. Again, this depends on what you mean by "God." As I believe most monotheists understand God, the answer is no. But there are lots of ways to understand God.

Buddhism is sometimes called an "atheistic" religion, although some of us prefer "non-theistic" -- meaning that believing in gods really isn't the point, even if there are some.

But it's certainly the case that there are all kinds of god-like creatures called devas populating the early scriptures of Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism makes use of tantric deities in its esoteric practices. There are Buddhists who believe devotion to Amitabha Buddha will bring them to rebirth in the Pure Land.

So, what's the deal with the gods?

What Do We Mean by Gods?

Let's start with poytheistic-type gods.

In the world's religions these have been understood in many ways, Most commonly, they are supernatural beings with some kind of agency -- they control the weather, or they might help you win victories. The classic Roman and Greek gods and goddesses are examples.

In this case, the religion mostly consists of practices to cause these gods to intercede on one's behalf. If you deleted them all, there wouldn't be a religion.

The devas, on the other hand,most of the time are depicted as characters living in a number of other realms, separate from the human realm. They have their own problems and have no roles to play in the human realm. There is no point praying to them even if you believe in them, because they're not going to do anything for you.

Whatever sort of existence they may or may not have really doesn't matter to Buddhist practice. Many of the stories told about the devas have allegorical points, but you can be a devoted Buddhist for your whole life and never give them any thought.

See the difference?

The Tantric Deities

Now, let's move on to the tantric deities. In Buddhism, tantra is the use of rituals, symbolism and yoga practices to evoke experiences that enable realization of enlightenment. The most common practice of Buddhist tantra is to experience oneself as a deity. In this case, then, the deities are more like archetypes than supernatural creatures.

Here's an important point: Buddhist Vajrayana is based on Mahayana Buddhist teaching. And in Mahayana Buddhism, no phenomena has objective or independent existence. Not gods, not you, not your favorite tree, not your toaster (see "Sunyata, or Emptiness"). Things exist in a kind of relative way, taking identity from their function and position relative to other phenomena. But nothing is really separate or independent from everything else.

With this in mind, let me say that the tantric deities are understood in many different ways. Certainly there are people who understand them as something like the classic Greek gods, supernatural beings with a separate existence who might do something nice for you if you ask. But that's not really what they are for, and indeed, is not actually possible according to Mahayana and Vajrayana teaching.

Lama Thubten Yeshe wrote,

"Tantric meditational deities should not be confused with what different mythologies and religions might mean when they speak of gods and goddesses. Here, the deity we choose to identify with represents the essential qualities of the fully awakened experience latent within us. To use the language of psychology, such a deity is an archetype of our own deepest nature, our most profound level of consciousness. In tantra we focus our attention on such an archetypal image and identify with it in order to arouse the deepest, most profound aspects of our being and bring them into our present reality." (Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality [1987], p. 42)

Other Mahayana Godlike Beings

Although they may not practice formal tantra, there are tantric elements running through much of Mahayana Buddhism. Iconic beings such as Avalokiteshvara are evoked to bring compassion to the world, yes, but we are her eyes and hands and feet.

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