George Walford: The Gods of Buddhism

It is sometimes suggested that the original message of all religious leaders is at bottom the same. The truer view is, I think, that different religious leaders have taught very different messages; it is in what men do to those messages in the process of forming religious institutions that there is essential similarity. (Robert Thouless)

Responses to The Birth of the Gods, in IC 53, and Patterns of Faith, in IC 59, showed a lively interest in religion among our readers. (That does not mean they all favour it). Those articles covered an enormous field very thinly, and one point in particular seems to need reinforcement: that Buddhism is the same sort of thing as the other great religions. Like any other world faith this one presents a wide range of diversity, complexity and apparent contradiction; here I overlook most of this, trying to do little more than provide support for the assertion (it was hardly more) that as believed and practised today Buddhism does recognise deity.

Although this religion has lately become more familiar in the West, it still does not form part of the intellectual background here in the sense that Christianity does; a note of some of its main features is perhaps in order. Unlike Catholicism and Anglicanism, Buddhism has no overall hierarchy, so one cannot sensibly speak of its official doctrine. Commentators sometimes speak of the original scriptures in the Pali language as the ‘normative’ or ‘canonical’ teaching, but taking this to imply that only here does authentic Buddhism appear, that the beliefs and practices of vast numbers are to be disregarded if they depart from this standard, would leave the religion without interest or importance except for students of esoteric cults. In any case, the earliest scriptures date from some four centuries after the doctrine was first formulated; they carry no direct stamp of authenticity. I shall refer to them as the ‘original’ or the ‘Pali’ scriptures.

These writings recognise neither a presiding deity nor a divine Saviour. Nor do they speak of a Creator God or any permanent substratum of existence, envisaging instead a cyclical universe passing through origination, duration, destruction and annihilation to a new origination. The parallel with ‘Big Bang’ theory leaps to mind, but for such a gentle religion the term seems hardly appropriate; ‘Big Murmur’ might be better. From time to time, at intervals so immensely long as to make Bishop Usher’s four thousand years from the Biblical Creation look trivial, a Buddha appears, proclaiming the true doctrine which then undergoes corruption until purified by his successor. Buddhism retains the ancient doctrine of transmigration, each living creature being reborn in a condition determined by the desires felt in the previous existence. (Plato puts forward a similar idea in the Phaedo). It forbids all killing, even of creatures regarded as vermin, since they too have the capacity for higher things, including eventual Buddhahood. Salvation, understood as escape from this wheel of rebirth, depends upon individual effort; freedom from desire comes with spiritual development. (There seems to be scope for both feminism and anti-racism; although the religion provides a place for nuns as well as monks, all Buddhas and Bhodisattvas – aspirant Buddhas – are male, and as far as I know Asiatic).

As the latest in the series of Buddhas came Siddartha Gautama, who lived in India in the 6th Century BC. Impressed by the universality of death and decay he left his wife, child and princely surroundings to live as a wandering mendicant. Self-imposed penances leading to physical collapse, he gave up the ascetic life and his five disciples deserted him. Tempted to return to his family and comforts he resisted, attained Enlightenment and proclaimed the new gospel of the Noble Eightfold Path; his former disciples, after some scepticism, accepting this, he sent them and others forth to spread the good news, postponing his own release into Nirvana in order to help others secure their freedom. From this point the tradition presents disconnected events, in no assignable chronological order, until his death at the age of eighty, assuring his disciples that while his teaching remained he had not left them. His last words: ‘Decay is inherent in all created things. Work out, therefore, your salvation with diligence.’ The universality of decay often appears as the assertion that existence is suffering; although this or something close to it does occur in Buddhist writings, the concept intended in the original scriptures seems to be wider; rather that individuation entails limitation.

Buddhism divided into two schools, Hinayana and Mahayana, probably in the 1st or 2nd Centuries AD, and disappeared from India after the Muslim invasion of Northern India around 1200 AD; recently it has begun to return. The Mahayana version reached China in about the 5th Century BC; Maoism now makes its influence there difficult to estimate, and in any case it does not stand out against other religions, a Chinese Taoist being often also a Buddhist. It plays a prominent part in other Eastern countries with populations totalling some 600-700 million. Hinayana Buddhism appears mainly in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka; it has been compared, for its tendency towards dryness, with Protestantism, Mahayana standing as the more lush Catholicism.

Gautama himself neither declared any deity nor claimed for himself the title of Buddha, preferring to be known by a term usually translated as ‘saint.’ His original formulation recognised no Creator and no divine Saviour, displaying an emphasis upon personal responsibility and individual effort reminiscent of humanistic movements; were Buddhism nothing more than this doctrine we should have to accept it as qualitatively distinct from the great religions. It comprises, however, a great deal more: temples, monasteries, monks, rituals, sacred objects, regulations and sacrifices have all been added to the original nucleus, and for a time a few sects recognised a Creator-Buddha. About 1,000 AD Buddhists in North West India ’rounded off their theology with the notion of an Addibuddha, a kind of omnipotent and omniscient primeval Buddha who through his meditation originated the Universe. This notion was adopted by a few sects in Nepal and Tibet.’ [1] By incorporating these things the religion, although still accepting the Pali scriptures, has moved away from the original intention, and this has happened as it has spread beyond a select coterie to become a world faith. Unaggressive, not concerned to promote any gods of its own, Buddhism early accepted the deities of Brahmanism Buddhism as a world religion has been shaped less by the words of its founder than by the requirements of its supporters.

Buddhism is frequently called atheistic, but this credits (or debits) it with a definiteness that is hardly present. An atheist is committed to disbelief in deity as strongly as a theist to belief; Buddhism imposes neither requirement. Evil spirits and demons, witches and ogres occupy a great deal of attention, protection from them perhaps even more, and this feature is no mere external accretion; it plays a crucial role in Buddhist thinking. [2] Unaggressive, not concerned to promote any god of its own, Buddhism early accepted the deities of Brahmanism, and its adherents tend to adopt the local gods of whatever region they inhabit. [3] In Japan the indigenous gods of Shintoism and semi-celestial beings from folk-cults have found a welcome, and Tibetan Buddhism incorporates many figures from the native religion as guardian spirits. (General restriction of literacy to the monks has not hindered presentation of these popular tendencies; they appear in pictures and carvings). This change is more than a recent addition; in the time of the Emperor Asoka (264-228 BC), who played a role in some ways similar to that of Constantine in the history of Christianity, the transformation was already well under way, his intervention rather speeding it up. Occasional assertions present Buddha himself as a great god, but even if we discount these as exceptional (or misguided) the religion clearly accepts less sophisticated conceptions of the supernatural; this already links it with the other great faiths, for each of those also offers a place for spirits, demons and similar beings inferior to the great gods.

The Pali scriptures hold frustration to be inseparable from life in the world; they call for direction of interest and effort to the attainment of release from the wheel of rebirth. Other religions put forward a similar conception (though restricting both suffering and chance of salvation to the one lifetime) and indeed the redirection of attention to higher things can almost be offered as distinctive of the great religions. In each of them, however, there also appears the tendency to treat religion as a path to worldly satisfaction. Although Buddhism presents existence of any sort as suffering, and rebirth as a human being in any condition at all as a rarity (reappearance as animal, demon or ghost being much more likely), yet the hope of better luck next time round now forms one of its attractions. [4] This, again, constitutes both a significant departure from the original intention and an approximation to other faiths.

With the single exception noted, no version of Buddhism, popular or normative, recognises any Creator, but creation is not the only mark of divinity. Religions offering a divine Saviour (technically known as soteriological) also count as theistic, and Mahayana Buddhism includes this conception. Some if not all of its sects recognise the Buddha as Saviour (a position he did not claim for himself) and Bhodisattvas also sometimes attain this status. Mahayana holds a trinitarian conception of the Buddha as a human being, a spiritual principle and a glorified body, and in this last aspect some of its sects elevate him to godhood; the ‘stupa,’ originally a reliquary or memorial monument, has come to symbolise the divine presence for laymen and priests alike. Buddha performs miracles, [5] receives adoration, worship, prayer [6] and sacrifice, he sometimes appears as omnipotent and omniscient. [7] His example provides the nuclear example for Buddhist thought as the Crucifixion and the Passion do for Christian and the Exodus and Sinai for Judaic. If he does not belong among the great gods, it must at least be said that he has come to exhibit features linking him with them rather than with fallible humanity.

Buddhism today, Buddhism as a great faith, shows significant departures from the original prescription, and although the religion itself predicts corruption for the periods between Buddhas, this hardly covers what has happened. Rather than decay, living Buddhism exhibits the results of growth in a direction not intended by its founder, and the importance of this for our purposes here is twofold. First, that the changes have brought this religion closer to the others; second, that they have paralleled its expansion into a world faith with a following in the hundreds of millions. Buddhism as a world religion has been shaped less by the words of its founder than by the requirements of its supporters and in that, too, it follows the same path as the other great faiths. That these institutions have come together in this way for the most part unknowingly, each of them claiming unique validity for its own message, increases the significance of the correlation.

Aldous Huxley stresses the parallel between developments in Buddhism and those in Christianity:

The Christ of the Gospels is a preacher and not a dispenser of sacraments or performer of rites; he speaks against vain repetitions; he insists on the supreme importance of private worship; he has no use for sacrifices and not much use for the Temple. But this did not prevent historic Christianity from going its own, all too human, way. A precisely similar development took place in Buddhism. For the Buddha of the Pali scriptures, ritual was one of the fetters holding back the soul from enlightenment and liberation. Nevertheless, the religion he founded has made full use of ceremonies, vain repetitions and sacramental rites. [8]

Crediting the shaping of Buddhism as a movement to Sariputra, a first-generation follower of Gautama, Edward Conze notes that Elias of Cortona performed a similar service for Saint Francis, Laynez for Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint Paul for Jesus, Abu Bekr for Mohammed, Xenocrates for Plato and Stalin for Lenin. He goes on to explain that followers are better fitted to perform this function just because they work on a more ordinary level:

The founder would be, of course, the living source of the life-giving inspiration which initiates the movement, but a great deal of his teachings and insight would be beyond the range of more ordinary people. With less genius the successor produces a kind of portable edition of the Gospel which accords more with the needs of the average man and his capacity for comprehension. [9]

Whatever their original doctrines, and whatever the intentions of their founders, as the great religions have developed they have all come to display substantially the same complex pattern of belief and behaviour. We account for this by ascribing it to the presence and the power of ideological tendencies which transcend religious, cultural and geographical boundaries

That ‘average man’ oversimplifies; each religion that acquires world stature goes beyond one single Gospel to develop a hierarchical structure of practice and belief corresponding, as far as it goes, to the ideological structure of society. At the base a body of practices and beliefs best seen as magical rather than religious in the more specific sense of the term. These include Huxley’s ‘ceremonies, vain repetitions and sacramental rites’ used as a magician uses spells or a technician some tested formula, with little reference to any standard other than worldly success. These seldom receive full recognition, those who write the books and deliver the sermons insisting that they are only the shell enfolding the living faith and that those who go no farther are failing to grasp its spirit. No founder of a great religion has valued these features but, equally, no faith has grown to world stature without developing a range of them.

Above these practices, both in our metaphorical structure and in the estimation of those who mainly manage the affairs of the religion, comes its main substance, the doctrines, beliefs and practices that are religious in the central meaning of the word. On this level the foreground is usually occupied by a High God, a figure which varies from one religion to the next, is routinely presented as beyond human comprehension, and in Buddhism makes no more than a doubtful appearance. For all the prominence of deity in the great religions, this conception is only one particular form taken by a more general tendency, the imposition upon reality of a dualistic structure, the sacred above the secular. Although the distinction is firm, the ascription of a given entity to this or that level retains some indeterminacy. The Divine Lord of one religion plays a different role in the next; perhaps a Messiah, perhaps a devil; to Protestants the sacred rituals of Catholicism look like tawdry theatricals, and Kipling’s veteran had seen that ‘Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud – Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd.’

The great gods carry more than a touch of unpredictability; their most enthusiastic worshipper can never be quite sure of pleasing them, and each great religion also affords scope to an impulse seeking more accurate and reliable information. Familiar in Christianity as Nonconformism, this appears in Buddhism as the contention that true Buddhist doctrine is to be found only in what Gautama said in about 500 BC. In the best Nonconformist style these students disagree with each other except on one point: that the true doctrine is not what it is generally taken to be. [10]

Beyond this stage comes the conception of deity as indwelling spirit rather than external authority, leading on to humanism and atheism. Faced with the more assertive religions these tendencies take shape as anti-religious movements; the greater flexibility of Buddhism where concepts of deity are concerned enables it to incorporate them. Indeed it is here, rather than with the beliefs now held by most Buddhists, that the austere and demanding doctrine of Gautama is best located.

Whatever their original doctrines, and whatever the intentions of their founders, as the great religions have developed they have all come to display substantially the same complex pattern of belief and behaviour. We account for this movement by ascribing it to the presence and the power of ideological tendencies which transcend religious, cultural and geographical boundaries.

Conze E. 1957 (1951) Buddhism; its essence and development. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer
Dutt S. 1962 Buddhist Monks & Monasteries of India; their history & their contribution to Indian culture. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Huxley, A. 1989 (1985) The Perennial Philosophy. London: Grafton Books
Rhys Davids, T.W. Article ‘Buddhism’ Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edn.
Spiro, Melford E.1971 Buddhism and Society; a great tradition and its Burmese vicissitudes. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Thouless, Robert E. 1940 Conventionalization and Assimilation in Religious Movements as Problems in Social Psychology. London: Oxford University Press.

1. Conze 43
2. Spiro 161
3. Conze 42
4. Spiro 67
5. Conze 172
6. Spiro 198, Conze 157
7. Spiro 60
8. Huxley 304
9. Conze 90
10. Conze 27


‘It is foolish to think that others see themselves as we see them, and it is very foolish to conclude, when we find that they construe the world differently, that they are stupid or wicked’ (F. G. Bailey 1991 The Prevalence of Deceit, Cornell U.P. 113)

from Ideological Commentary 60, May 1993.