Do Buddhists Believe in God?

Many people in the West have a mistaken idea that Buddhists do not believe in God. They often say that Buddhists are atheists. While some Buddhists are atheists, just like many Jews in Israel today are atheists, there are many Buddhists in Asia who do in fact profess faith in a Higher Source (God). Recent surveys have shown that the majority of American Buddhists believe in God, but what about Asian Buddhists? Surveys indicate that 83.9% in Taiwan believe in God; 56.7% in Japan; and 86.3% in Singapore. The same survey* indicated that many in Sri Lanka are not atheists as some have wrongfully claimed.

A prominent Buddhist writer, Kusala Bhikshu/Thich Tam-Thien, wrote: “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. …. 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.”

Many Buddhists in the West have taken up the “no god in Buddhism” hype. Some say that such a belief in a Higher Power is “folk religion” or some kind of ancient and backwards religious ideal. There are many self-styled “Buddhists” in the West who will adamantly tell you that Buddhism does not believe in a Higher Source. There are also many who have blindly followed such unenlightened individuals. We can not simply follow the words of those who indicate they have no insight in the more important spiritual matters. As indicated by the survey mentioned above, the majority of Buddhists in Asia do in fact believe in God.

When asking some in predominantly Buddhist countries if they believe in God, some often respond that they do not and would rather not speak of the subject. In many cases, this is because they do not believe in the same “missionary god” of the Christians. They attribute violence, bigotry, hatred and hypocrisy to the Christian religion.

In Sri Lanka, after taking over the kingdom, Portuguese Christians “exercised no restrain in spreading their religion, and suppressing Buddhism at the same time. Those who took up Christianity were rewarded with power and privileges, while those who did not were punished, often with extreme brutality. The violence and damage inflicted on the Buddhists and their places of worship is unsurpassed in the history of Sri Lanka.

“Men were thrown into rivers to be eaten by crocodiles, babies were crushed before their parents’ eyes, and mothers were tortured to death. Monasteries were looted and set on fire, and temple lands were given to Catholics to build churches on. People found worshiping the Buddha in public were put to death. Monks were killed on sight and those who remained, fled to the central kingdom of Kandy.

“The Portuguese missionaries made no attempt to understand Buddhism, seeing it as nothing more than a creation of the Devil. They believed that only Christianity could save a person from eternal damnation. Therefore, they considered it a duty to their god to destroy Buddhism wherever they encountered it, by sword or fire if necessary.”1

There is no wonder why they would not wish to worship the same deity as such Christians claim to represent.

The Monijiao school of Buddhism professes faith in a Higher Source or First Cause, but makes it clear that this is not the same view held by Christianity; Buddha Moni teaches it is impossible to “know” God because the Divine Source or First Cause is outside of time and space and above human understanding. Monijiao Buddhists profess faith in the various Emanations of the Primordial Buddha (Adi Buddha) who is the originator of all things (a concept shared by much of Tibetan Buddhism). Monijiao typically refer to the current Buddha as Amitabha or Moni, however, Monijiao does not teach that any of the Buddhas are to be worshiped in the same manner as a deity.

In Chinese the First Cause or Divine Source is referred to as “Shang Di,” while in Tibet, God is referred to as Sangpo Bumtri. Ven. Tenzin Doje Shenchen Yungdrung’s2 brochure “Bonpo Deities”, he identifies Sangpo Bumtri as “the Creator Deity.”

By Tenzin Bhikkhu

References and Other Notes
* Pew Research Center

1 Island of Light – Buddhism in Sri Lanka – A Concise History and Guide to its Sacred Sites, by T.Y. Lee, 2010, KepMedia International Pte Ltd, Singapore.

2 Ven. Tenzin Doje Shenchen Yungdrung is a spiritual teacher in the Zhangzhung Shenpo tradition (Tibetan Manichaeism) and resides in Tibet.