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Defining God Buddhistically

While Buddhism generally rejects the notion of a personal creator god or gods, still its descriptions of ultimate reality do not exclude the concept of a divine or godlike Absolute, as the following citation suggests:

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Our final ignorance is to imagine that our final destiny is conceivable.  All we can know is that it is a condition behond the reach of any psychophysical state still tethered to an “I”…  The Buddha would venture only one affirmative characterization.  “Bliss, yes bliss, my friends, is nirvana.”

Is nirvana God?  When answered in the negative, this question has led to opposite conclusions…  The dispute requires that we take a quick look at what the word “God” means…  Defined in this sense [i.e., a personal god], nirvana is not God.  The Buddha did not consider it personal because personality requires definition, which nirvana excludes it.  And though he did not expressly deny creation, he clearly exempted nirvana from responsibility for it.  Finally, the Buddha left no room for supernatural intervention in the natural causal processes he saw governing the world.  If absence of a personal Creator-God is atheism, Budhdism is atheistic.

There is a second meaning of God, however, which (to distinguish it from the first) has been called the Godhead.  The idea of personality is not part of this concept, which appears in mystical traditions throughout the world.  When the Buddha declared, “There is O monks, an Unborn, neither become nor created nor formed.  Were there not, there would be no deliverance from the formed, the made, the compounded,”  he seemed to be speaking in this tradition.  Impressed by similarities between nirvana and the Godhead, Edward Conze has compiled from Budhdist texts a series of attributes that apply to both.  We are told that

Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immovable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter, and the place of unassailable safety; that it is the real Truth and the supreme Reality; that it is the Good, the supreme goal and the one and only consummation of our life, the eternal, hidden and incomprehensible Peace.

We may conclude with Conze that nirvana is not God defined as personal creator, but that it stands sufficiently close to the concept of God as Godhead to warrant the linkage in that sense.

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(Huston Smith & Philip Novak:  Buddhism: a Concise Introduction. Harper Collins: NY, 2003, pp. 53-54)

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