Creator In Buddhism

There is no creator in BuddhismBuddhism is a religion which does not include the belief in a creator deity, or any eternal divine personal being. It teaches that there are divine beings or gods (see devas and Buddhist deities), heavens and rebirths in its doctrine of saṃsāra (cyclical rebirth), but it considers none of these gods as a creator or as being eternal (they just have very long lives). In Buddhism, the devas are also trapped in the cycle of rebirth and are not necessarily virtuous. Thus while Buddhism includes multiple gods, its main focus is not on them. Peter Harvey calls this “trans-polytheistic”.

Buddhist texts also posit that mundane deities such as Mahabrahma are misconstrued to be a creator. Buddhist ontology follows the doctrine of dependent origination, whereby all phenomena arise in dependence on other phenomena, hence no primal unmoved mover could be acknowledged or discerned. The Buddha in the early Buddhist texts is also shown as stating that he saw no single beginning to the universe.

In spite of this mainstream non-theist tradition in Buddhism however, some writers such as B. Alan Wallace have noted that some doctrines in Vajrayana Buddhism can be seen as similar to some theistic doctrines of creation.

A depiction of the Buddha's defeat of Baka Brahma, a brahma god who mistakenly believed he was all powerful creator. Wat Olak Madu, Kedah.

A depiction of the Buddha’s defeat of Baka Brahma, a brahma god who mistakenly believed he was all powerful creator. Wat Olak Madu, Kedah.

Early Buddhist texts

Damien Keown notes that in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Buddha sees the cycle of rebirths as stretching back “many hundreds of thousands of eons without discernible beginning.” Saṃyutta Nikāya 15:1 and 15:2 states: “this samsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.”

According to Buddhologist Richard Hayes, the early Buddhist Nikaya literature treats the question of the existence of a creator god “primarily from either an epistemological point of view or a moral point of view”. In these texts the Buddha is portrayed not as a creator-denying atheist who claims to be able to prove such a God’s nonexistence, but rather his focus is other teachers’ claims that their teachings lead to the highest good.

According to Richard Hayes, in the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13), there is an account of a dispute between two brahmins about how best to reach union with Brahma (Brahmasahavyata), who is seen as the highest god over whom no other being has mastery and who sees all. However, after being questioned by the Buddha, it is revealed that they do not have any direct experience of this Brahma. The Buddha calls their religious goal laughable, vain and empty.

Hayes also notes that in the early texts, the Buddha is not depicted as an atheist, but more as a skeptic who is against religious speculations, including speculations about a creator god. Citing the Devadaha Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 101), Hayes states, “while the reader is left to conclude that it is attachment rather than God, actions in past lives, fate, type of birth or efforts in this life that is responsible for our experiences of sorrow, no systematic argument is given in an attempt to disprove the existence of God.”

Narada Thera also notes that the Buddha specifically calls out the doctrine of creation by a supreme deity (termed Ishvara) for criticism in the Aṇguttara Nikāya. This doctrine of creation by a supreme lord is defined as follows: “Whatever happiness or pain or neutral feeling this person experiences all that is due to the creation of a supreme deity (issaranimmāṇahetu).” The Buddha criticized this view because he saw it as a fatalistic teaching that would lead to inaction or laziness:

“So, then, owing to the creation of a supreme deity men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, abusive, babblers, covetous, malicious and perverse in view. Thus for those who fall back on the creation of a god as the essential reason, there is neither desire nor effort nor necessity to do this deed or abstain from that deed.”

High gods who are mistaken as creator

Further information: Brahma in Buddhism

The high god Brahma is often seen as an object in devotion in Buddhism, but he is not seen as a creator nor does he have eternal life. This depiction of the deity is from the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand.

The high god Brahma is often seen as an object in devotion in Buddhism, but he is not seen as a creator nor does he have eternal life. This depiction of the deity is from the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand.

According to Peter Harvey, Buddhism assumes that the universe has no ultimate beginning to it, and thus sees no need for a creator God. In the early texts of Buddhism, the nearest term to this concept is “Great Brahma” (Maha Brahma) such as in Digha Nikaya 1.18. However “[w]hile being kind and compassionate, none of the brahmās are world-creators.”

In the Pali canon, Buddhism includes the concept of reborn gods. According to this theory, periodically the physical world system ends and beings of that world system are reborn as gods in lower heavens. This too ends, according to Buddhist cosmology, and god Mahabrahma is then born, who is alone. He longs for the presence of others, and the others gods are reborn as his ministers and companions. In Buddhist suttas such as DN 1, Mahabrahma, forgets his past lives, and falsely believes himself to be the Creator, Maker, All-seeing, the Lord. This belief, state the Buddhist texts, is then shared by other gods. Eventually, however one of the gods die and is reborn as human with the power to remember his previous life. He teaches what he remembers from his previous life in lower heaven, that Mahabrahma is the Creator. It is this that leads to the human belief in Creator, according to the Pali Canon.

A similar story of a high god (brahma) who mistakes himself as all powerful Creator can be seen in the Brahma-nimantanika Sutta (MN 49). In this sutta, the Buddha displays his superior knowledge by explaining how a high god named Baka Brahma, who believes himself to be supremely powerful, actually does not know of certain spiritual realms. The Buddha also demonstrates his superior psychic power by disappearing from Baka Brahma’s sight, to a realm that he cannot reach and then challenges him to do the same. Baka Brahma fails in this, demonstrating the Buddha’s superiority. The text also depicts Mara, an evil trickster figure, as attempting to support the Brahma’s misconception of himself. As noted by Michael D. Nichols, MN 49 seems to show that “belief in an eternal, creator figure is a devious ploy put forward by the Evil One to mislead humanity, and the implication is that Brahmins who believe in the power and permanence of Brahma have fallen for it.”

The Problem of Evil in the Jatakas

Some stories in the Buddhist Jataka collections outline a critique of a Creator deity which is similar to the Problem of Evil.

One Jataka story (VI.208) states:

If Brahma is lord of the whole world and Creator of the multitude of beings, then why has he ordained misfortune in the world without making the whole world happy; or for what purpose has he made the world full of injustice, falsehood and conceit; or is the lord of beings evil in that he ordained injustice when there could have been justice?

The Pali Bhūridatta Jātaka (No. 543) has the bodhisattva (future Buddha) state:

“He who has eyes can see the sickening sight,
Why does not Brahmā set his creatures right?
If his wide power no limit can restrain,
Why is his hand so rarely spread to bless?
Why are his creatures all condemned to pain?
Why does he not to all give happiness?
Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail?
Why triumphs falsehood—truth and justice fail?
I count you Brahmā one th’unjust among,
Who made a world in which to shelter wrong.”

In the Pali Mahābodhi Jātaka (No. 528), the bodhisattva says:

“If there exists some Lord all powerful to fulfil
In every creature bliss or woe, and action good or ill;
That Lord is stained with sin.
Man does but work his will.”

Medieval philosophers

Madhyamaka philosophers

In the Twelve Gate Treatise, the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna works to refute the belief of certain Indian non-Buddhists in a god called Isvara, who is “the creator, ruler and destroyer of the world.”

A later Madhyamaka philosopher, Candrakīrti, states in his Introduction to the Middle Way (6.114): “Because things (bhava) are not produced without a cause (hetu), from a creator god (isvara), from themselves, another or both, they are always produced in dependence [on conditions].”

Shantideva (c. 8th century) in the 9th chapter of his Bodhicaryāvatāra, states:

‘God is the cause of the world.’ Tell me, who is God? The elements? Then why all the trouble about a mere word? (119) Besides the elements are manifold, impermanent, without intelligence or activity; without anything divine or venerable; impure. Also such elements as earth, etc., are not God.(120) Neither is space God; space lacks activity, nor is atman—that we have already excluded. Would you say that God is too great to conceive? An unthinkable creator is likewise unthinkable, so that nothing further can be said.

Yogacara philosophers

The 5th-century Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu argued that a creator’s singular identity is incompatible with creating the world in his Abhidharmakosha.

The Chinese monk Xuanzang (fl. c. 602–664) studied Buddhism in India during the seventh century, staying at Nalanda. There, he studied the Yogacara teachings passed down from Asanga and Vasubandhu and taught to him by the abbot Śīlabhadra. In his work Cheng Weishi Lun (Skt. Vijñāptimātratāsiddhi śāstra), Xuanzang refutes a “Great Lord” or Great Brahmā doctrine:

According to one doctrine, there is a great, self-existent deity whose substance is real and who is all-pervading, eternal, and the producer of all phenomena. This doctrine is unreasonable. If something produces something, it is not eternal, the non-eternal is not all-pervading, and what is not all-pervading is not real. If the deity’s substance is all-pervading and eternal, it must contain all powers and be able to produce all dharmas everywhere, at all times, and simultaneously. If he produces dharma when a desire arises, or according to conditions, this contradicts the doctrine of a single cause. Or else, desires and conditions would arise spontaneously since the cause is eternal. Other doctrines claim that there is a great Brahma, a Time, a Space, a Starting Point, a Nature, an Ether, a Self, etc., that is eternal and really exists, is endowed with all powers, and is able to produce all dharmas. We refute all these in the same way we did the concept of the Great Lord.


The influential Theravada commentator Buddhaghosa also specifically denied the concept of a Creator. He wrote:

“For there is no god Brahma. The maker of the conditioned world of rebirths. Phenomena alone flow on. Conditioned by the coming together of causes.” (Visuddhimagga 603).

The 7th-century Buddhist scholar Dharmakīrti advances a number of arguments against the existence of a creator god in his Pramāṇavārtika, following in the footsteps of Vasubandhu. Later Mahayana scholars such as Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla continued this tradition.

The 11th-century Buddhist philosopher Ratnakīrti at the then university at Vikramashila (now Bhagalpur, Bihar) criticized the arguments for the existence of God-like being called Isvara, that emerged in the Navya-Nyaya sub-school of Hinduism, in his “Refutation of Arguments Establishing Īśvara” (Īśvara-sādhana-dūṣaṇa). These arguments are similar to those used by other sub-schools of Hinduism and Jainism that questioned the Navya-Nyaya theory of dualistic creator.

Vajrayana doctrines

Some Vajrayana Buddhist teachings have been seen as being similar to theistic views by various writers.

Adi Buddha Samantabhadra, a symbol of the ground in Dzogchen thought.

Adi Buddha Samantabhadra, a symbol of the ground in Dzogchen thought.

B. Alan Wallace writes on how the Vajrayana concept of the primordial Buddha (Adi Buddha), who in some scriptures is viewed as one with the tathāgatagarbha, is sometimes seen as forming the foundation of both samsara and nirvana. This view, according to Wallace, holds that “the entire universe consists of nothing other than displays of this infinite, radiant, empty awareness.”

Furthermore, Wallace notes similarities between these Vajrayana doctrines and notions of a divine creative “ground of being”. He writes: “a careful analysis of Vajrayana Buddhist cosmogony, specifically as presented in the Atiyoga tradition of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, which presents itself as the culmination of all Buddhist teachings, reveals a theory of a transcendent ground of being and a process of creation that bear remarkable similarities with views presented in Vedanta and Neoplatonic Western Christian theories of creation.” He further comments that the three views “have so much in common that they could almost be regarded as varying interpretations of a single theory.”

Eva K. Dargyay also notes that the Dzogchen tantra called the Kulayarāja Tantra (“All Creating King”) uses symbolic language which is reminiscent of theism.

According to Alexander Studholme, the Kāraṇḍavyūhasūtra presents the great bodhisattvaAvalokiteśvara, as a kind of supreme lord of the cosmos. A striking feature of Avalokiteśvara in this sutra is his creative power, as he is said to be the progenitor of various heavenly bodies and divinities. Alexander Studholme, in his monograph on the sutra, writes:

The sun and moon are said to be born from the bodhisattva’s eyes, Mahesvara [Siva] from his brow, Brahma from his shoulders, Narayana [Vishnu] from his heart, Sarasvati from his teeth, the winds from his mouth, the earth from his feet and the sky from his stomach.’

Avalokiteśvara himself is seen, in the versified version of the sutra, to be an emanation of the first Buddha, the Adi Buddha, who is called svayambhu (self-existent, not born from anything or anyone) and the “primordial lord” (Adinatha).

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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