Creator in Buddhism

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Buddhist beliefs regarding a creator deity are conflicted. It teaches the concept of gods, heavens and rebirths in its Saṃsāra doctrine, but it considers none of these gods as a creator. Buddhism posits that mundane deities such as Mahabrahma are misconstrued to be a creator. [1] 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.

A creator deity or creator god is a deity or god responsible for the creation of the Earth, world, and universe in human religion and mythology. In monotheism, the single God is often also the creator. A number of monolatristic traditions separate a secondary creator from a primary transcendent being, identified as a primary creator.

Saṃsāra (Buddhism)

Saṃsāra in Buddhism has part of the four ages birth, mundane existence and dying again. Samsara is considered to be dukkha, unsatisfactory and painful, perpetuated by desire and avidya (ignorance), and the resulting karma.

Brahmā (Buddhism) deva and heavenly king in Buddhism; lord of the heavenly realm Brahmaloka; not regarded as a creator deity (unlike the deity of the same name in Hinduism)

Brahmā is a leading god (deva) and heavenly king in Buddhism. He was adopted from other Indian religions such as Hinduism that considered him a protector of teachings (dharmapala), and he is never depicted in early Buddhist texts as a creator god. In Buddhist tradition, it was the deity Brahma Sahampati who appeared before the Buddha and urged him to teach, once the Buddha attained enlightenment but was unsure if he should teach his insights to anyone.


However, Mahayana Buddhism does believe in the doctrine of Sunyata(emptiness) or Tathata(thatness) out of which all things emerge. Furthermore, this ultimate reality is considered to be the Tathagatagarbha (Womb of all Buddhas) and the Adi Buddha (Primordial Buddha) who is worshipped differently in various Mahayana traditions as Vairocana or Amitabha and in the Vajrayana traditions as Samantabhadra or Vajradhara. Thus this concept of an ultimate reality which is the source of all things approximates the idea of a creator God.

Vairocana celestial Buddha embodying emptiness

Vairocana is a celestial buddha who is often interpreted, in texts like the Avatamsaka Sutra, as the dharmakāya of the historical Gautama Buddha. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhism, Vairocana is also seen as the embodiment of the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā. In the conception of the Five Tathagatas of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Vairocana is at the centre and is considered a Primordial Buddha.

Vajrayāna (वज्रयान), Mantrayāna, Tantrayāna, Tantric Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism are terms referring to the various Buddhist traditions of Tantra and "Secret Mantra", which developed in medieval India and spread to Tibet, Bhutan, and East Asia. In Tibet, Buddhist Tantra is termed Vajrayāna, while in China it is generally known as Tángmì Hanmi 漢密 or Mìzōng (密宗, "Esoteric Sect"), in Pali it is known as Pyitsayãna (ပစ္စယာန), and in Japan it is known as Mikkyō.

Samantabhadra Bodhisattva

Samantabhadra is a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism associated with practice and meditation. Together with Gautama Buddha and his fellow bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, he forms the Shakyamuni trinity in Buddhism. He is the patron of the Lotus Sutra and, according to the Avatamsaka Sutra, made the ten great vows which are the basis of a bodhisattva. In Chinese Buddhism, Samantabhadra is known as Pǔxián and is associated with action, whereas Mañjuśrī is associated with prajñā. In Japan, this bodhisattva is known as Fugen, and is often venerated in Tendai and Shingon Buddhism, and as the protector of the Lotus Sutra by Nichiren Buddhism. In the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, Samantabhadra is also the name of the Adi-Buddha – in indivisible Yab-Yum with his consort, Samantabhadrī.

Early Buddhist texts

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. [2]

Richard Hayes is an Emeritus professor of Buddhist philosophy at the University of New Mexico. He received his Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Toronto in 1982. Hayes moved to Canada in 1967 in order to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War.

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." [3]

The Pali Canon however also gives a different view. In the Nibbana Sutta of the Udana Nikaya, the Buddha says, "There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated. If there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born, become, made, fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn, unbecome unmade, unfabricated escape from the born, become, made, fabricated is discerned." Buddhism thus acknowledge an Ultimate that transcends the material world. This in Theravada is called Nibbana and in Mahayana it is called Sunyata and worshipped as Adi Buddha [4]

Theravada Branch of Buddhism

Theravāda is the oldest of Buddhism's extant schools. Theravadins have preserved their version of the Gautama Buddha's teaching in the Pāli Canon. The Pāli Canon is the only complete Buddhist canon surviving in a classical Indian language, Pāli, which serves as the school's sacred language and lingua franca. It contains a recension derived from the Tamrashatiya school.

Mahabrahma as a false creator

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" (MahaBrahma) such as in Digha Nikaya 1.18. [1] However "[w]hile being kind and compassionate, none of the brahmās are world-creators." [5]

In the Pali canon, Buddhism includes the concept of reborn gods. [6] 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. [6] Mahabrahma, states the Buddhist Canon, 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. [1] 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. [1]

According to Harvey, "[a]fter a long period, the three lowest form heavens appear, and a Streaming Radiance god dies and is reborn there as a Great Brahmā." [7] Then "other Streaming Radiance gods die and happen to be reborn, due to their karma, as his ministers and retinue." [8] The retinue erroneously believes Mahabrahma created them. [8] When one of these ministers "eventually dies and is reborn as a human, he develops the power to remember his previous life, and consequently teaches that Great Brahmā is the eternal creator of all beings." [5]

Medieval philosophers


The 5th-century Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu argued that a creator's singular identity is incompatible with creating the world in his Abhidharmakosha. [9]

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: [10]

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. [11]

Vajrayana Tantras

However later day texts such as the Kulayaraja Tantra speak explicitly of a deity, in this case Samantabhadra, who gives arise to the world in, "Oh all you sentient beings of this threefold world [i.e. the entire universe, both visible and invisible]! Because I, the All-Creating Sovereign, have created you, you are My children and equal to Me. Because you are not second to Me, I am present in you ... Oh all you sentient beings of this threefold world, if I were not, you would be non-existent. ... Because all things do not exist outside of Me, I firmly declare that I am all - the All-Creating One."


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. [12] Later Mahayana scholars such as Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla continued this tradition. [13]

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. [14]

In contemporary Indonesia, Indonesia Buddhism explicitly acknowledges a Creator deity- [Sanghyang Adi Buddha]

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 Harvey 2013, p. 36-8.
  2. Hayes, Richard P., "Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition", Journal of Indian Philosophy, 16:1 (1988:Mar) pgs 5-6, 8
  3. Hayes, Richard P., "Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition", Journal of Indian Philosophy, 16:1 (1988:Mar) pgs 9-10
  4. Bhikkhu, Thannissaro. "Nibbana Sutta: Unbinding (3)". Retrieved 25 June 2019.
  5. 1 2 Harvey 2013, p. 37.
  6. 1 2 Harvey 2013, p. 36-37.
  7. Harvey 2013, p. 36.
  8. 1 2 Harvey 2013, p. 36-7.
  9. Hayes, Richard P., "Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition", Journal of Indian Philosophy, 16:1 (1988:Mar.) pg 11-15.
  10. Cook, Francis, Chʿeng Wei Shih Lun (Three Texts on Consciousness Only), Numata Center, Berkeley, 1999, ISBN   978-1886439047, pp. 20-21.
  11. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research (January 1999). Chʿeng Wei Shih Lun. 仏教伝道協会. pp. 20–22. ISBN   978-1-886439-04-7.
  12. Hayes, Richard P., "Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition," Journal of Indian Philosophy, 16:1 (1988:Mar.) pg 12
  13. Hayes, Richard P., "Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition," Journal of Indian Philosophy, 16:1 (1988:Mar.) pg 14
  14. Parimal G. Patil. Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. pp. 3-4, 61-66 with footnotes, ISBN   978-0-231-14222-9.