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Most historians understand that Buddhism has probably changed dramatically since Gautama Buddha founded his Faith 2500 years ago. Passed down through unreliable oral histories and built on understandings based on those histories, modern Buddhism may or may not bear any resemblance to what Buddha originally taught.

Nevertheless, what we do know about Buddha’s teachings, given originally to largely illiterate societies, came in the form of structures that would make memorization easier. For example, there are:

  • One dharma: teaching.
  • Two spiritual pathways: one for lay-people and one for monks.
  • Three baskets of scripture: one for the rules for monks, one for the discourses, and one commentary (the Abhidhamma).
  • Three dharma seals: the teachings on impermanence, non-self, and nirvana.
  • Four noble truths: life is full of suffering, the cause of suffering is attachment, suffering can end, the way to end it is the Buddha’s way.

Buddhism also has five mental formations and five remembrances; six types of consciousness, seven factors of enlightenment, an eightfold path, twelve links of dependent origination, eighteen realms (dhatus) and many, many other associations built on numbers. These simple mnemonics give us reason to believe that the basics of the Buddha’s teachings have been preserved.

However — the immensity of Buddhist scripture, the different versions in different languages, the different interpretations, and the widely different practices have led to many different forms of Buddhism. The current primary distinction, between Theraveda and Mahayana Buddhism, doesn’t begin to describe the many divisions and schools in each major form. Further, both Theraveda and Mahayana Buddhism arose hundreds of years after the Buddha and continued to evolve. Given this, it is hard to categorically characterize differences, save to say that the Theraveda branch is more conservative in that it accepts fewer scriptures, but includes the whole of the Pali canon; while the Mahayana branch accepts a few more scriptures, including some very well known sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra and Amitabha Sutra. In addition, Mahayana Buddhists in general also revere more Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who take on the task of saving humanity). Countries to the South and East of where the Buddha taught in northeast India, tend to have more Theravedists; countries to the north and far east have more Mahayana Buddhists. And of course many contemporary Buddhists, regardless of their sect, now see their faith very differently than it was originally intended:

Mahāyāna Buddhist triad

Mahāyāna Buddhist triad 2nd–3rd century CE in Gandhāra, Pakistan

The founder of Buddhism was a wonderful soul. He established the Oneness of God, but later the original principles of His doctrines gradually disappeared, and ignorant customs and ceremonials arose and increased until they finally ended in the worship of statues and images. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 165.

Understanding a few of the problems in Buddhist history and scripture, we can now examine the questions before us, starting with the most basic: Is Buddhism theistic, i.e. does it believe in God? To answer that question, the Buddha’s ministry should be seen in historic perspective. When Buddha appeared the Vedic religion in India was in a period of decline. The Buddhist narrative says that the privileged caste of priests, the brahmins, had become corrupt, knowing little of the true spirit of religion, which made them unable to teach others the path to God. A disciple of the Buddha, Vasettha, commented on this situation to the Buddha, who replied:

Then you say, too, Vasettha, that the brahmins [priests] bear anger and malice in their hearts, and are sinful and uncontrolled, whilst Brahman [God] is free from anger and malice, and sinless, and has selfmastery. Now can there, then, be concord and likeness between the brahmins and Brahman?

Note that the Buddha does talk about God (Brahman) and is concerned about correctly reflecting God’s light. But the Buddha lived at a time when people were drowning in a sea of different doctrines about God and the different rights of priests as intermediaries. He saw clearly that adding to the intellectual and religious fray would not help rescue humanity from their suffering. Instead, his beautiful and profoundly spiritual Faith asks its followers, and all of us, to focus on our inner spiritual journey.

8 Comments

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  • Nancy Cecil
    Nov 13, 2016
    This is very helpful. I am attracted to the Baha'i faith and the idea of progressive revelation that are all supposed to support the oneness of God; however, I have been distressed by recent readings that avow that Buddhists do not believe in God. How can this be? I have been searching for an answer so my heart is grateful.
  • Jun 11, 2016
    Brahmān in Buddhism is the name for a type of exalted passionless deity (deva), of which there are several in Buddhist cosmology.
    The name Brahmān originates in the historical Vedic religion, in which Brahmān appears as the creator of the universe. Early Buddhist texts describe several different Brahmāns coexisting in the same universe; some of them think they are "all powerful" creators of the world, but they are corrected by the Buddha. The myths, characters, and functions of these Brahmāns are distinct from those of the Vedic Brahmā. However, at least one of the Buddhist Brahmāns is identified as being ...the object of worship of pre-Buddhist brahmins. The Buddha described the Vedic Brahmān as a misunderstanding, or mistaken remembrance, of one or more of the Buddhist Brahmās, as explained in the Brahmajāla sutta (Digha Nikaya 1).
    There is no identity between the Buddhist Brahmāns and the Hindu conception of brahman as an all-encompassing divine force.
    There are at least four ways of interpreting the term Brahmān. It may refer to:
    Any of the deities of the Ārūpyadhātu or of the Rūpadhātu
    Any of the deities of the nine lowest worlds of the Rūpadhātu, from Śubhakṛtsna to Brahmapāriṣadya.
    Any of the deities of the three lowest worlds of the Rūpadhātu
    A Mahābrahmā, one of the highest deities of preceding group.
    In the sense of "a being of the Rūpadhātu", the term Brahmā may be related to Brahmavihāra, a term referring to the meditative states achieved through the four Rūpajhānas, which are shared by the inhabitants of the Rūpadhātu.
    The old Upanishads largely consider Brahman in the masculine gender (Brahmā in the nominative case, henceforth "Brahmā") to be a personal god, and Brahman in the neuter gender (Brahma in the nominative case, henceforth "Brahman") to be the impersonal world principle. They do not strictly distinguish between the two, however. The old Upanishads ascribe these characteristics to Brahmā: first, he has light and luster as his marks; second, he is invisible; third, he is unknowable, and it is impossible to know his nature; fourth, he is omniscient. The old Upanishads ascribe these characteristics to Brahman as well. In the Buddhist texts, there are many Brahmās. There they form a class of superhuman beings, and rebirth into the realm of Brahmās is possible by pursuing Buddhist practices. In the early texts, the Buddha gives arguments to refute the existence of a creator.
    In the Pāli scriptures, the neuter Brahman does not appear (though the word brahma is standardly used in compound words to mean "best", or "supreme"), however ideas are mentioned as held by various Brahmins in connection with Brahmā that match exactly with the concept of Brahman in the Upanishads. Brahmins who appear in the Tevijja-suttanta of the Digha Nikaya regard "union with Brahmā" as liberation, and earnestly seek it. In that text, Brahmins of the time are reported to assert: "Truly every Brahmin versed in the three Vedas has said thus: 'We shall expound the path for the sake of union with that which we do not know and do not see. This is the correct path. This path is the truth, and leads to liberation. If one practices it, he shall be able to enter into association with Brahmā." The early Upanishads frequently expound "association with Brahmā", and "that which we do not know and do not see" matches exactly with the early Upanishadic Brahman.
    In the earliest Upanishad, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Absolute, which came to be referred to as Brahman, is referred to as "the imperishable". The Pāli scriptures present a "pernicious view" that is set up as an absolute principle corresponding to Brahman: "O Bhikkhus! At that time Baka, the Brahmā, produced the following pernicious view: 'It is permanent. It is eternal. It is always existent. It is independent existence. It has the dharma of non-perishing. Truly it is not born, does not become old, does not die, does not disappear, and is not born again. Furthermore, no liberation superior to it exists elsewhere." The principle expounded here corresponds to the concept of Brahman laid out in the Upanishads. According to this text the Buddha criticized this notion: "Truly the Baka Brahmā is covered with unwisdom."
    The Buddha confined himself to what is empirically given. This empiricism is based broadly on both ordinary sense experience and extrasensory perception enabled by high degrees of mental concentration. (However it should be noted that amongst the customary epithets of the Buddha are the Pali terms 'lokuttara', meaning 'world-transcending', and also 'lokavidu', meaning 'knower of worlds' which are both quite incompatible with the notion of 'empiricism' as generally understood in current philosophy.)
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  • Jun 11, 2016
    The quote of the Buddha doesn't give a source for the quote. Wikiquote, for example, as a policy only lists quotes that can be linked to a speicifc sutra in the authentic quote section. It also has a dubious quotes section for quotes from sources that allegedly contain quotes from sutras without identifying where they originate from. The Gospel of the Buddha by Paul Carsus is the biggest source of dubious quotes in that section as Paul Carsus didn't follow the protocols of his job and there are nothing showing where anything in the book actually comes from.
  • Feb 13, 2016
    This is a very interesting and well researched article on Buddhism. But with the deepest respect, it misunderstands the nature of Buddhism. That misunderstanding is easy to make when the person making it is coming from a Theistic, Abrahamic position. To understand Buddhism you must understand Non-Duality, the core teaching of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual experience. There is only one thing in existence ! A single process. One action taking place. A commonly used analogy is the ocean. Every wave appears to have a separate form and destiny but is always part of the ...whole, a single thing undertaking one complex action. Buddhism doesn\'t have any central authority. What the Buddha said or thought is ultimately unimportant. The only authority is our own experience. Buddha\'s dying instructions to his followers were, to be alight unto your won self, seek no other refuge than yourself, truth be your guide. Buddhist practitioners over the millennia contribute their insight and techniques for others to try. But all authority lies with the individual. Think of Darwin, He is respected for explaining his perspective on Evolution, but he is of no importance to evolution. this is the way Buddhists regard The Buddha. He was an ordinary man who was able to awake from delusion through his own efforts and is an example to every other seeker. But his path is not our path, we must undertake our own journey. It does no service to Buddhism to try and approximate it to the Abrahamic tradition as they are fundamentally different.
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    • Badi Villar
      Dec 27, 2017
      I have talked to Buddhists and they definitely do not look at Buddha as a mere enlightened man. For them Buddha is the first reference to understand the experience.
    • Badi Villar
      Dec 27, 2017
      To say that Buddhism completely lacks a central authority is also problematic. That is an understanding more in keeping with secular Buddhism, but not with the millenarian traditions of Buddhism in the East. Some forms of Buddhism can even be compared to Christian churches.
  • Maya Bohnhoff
    Feb 05, 2014
    I recently gave a talk to a senior citizens group about the Bahá'í Faith and mentioned prominently the oneness of religion, quoting Buddha as well as Krishna, Christ, Muhammad and Bahá'u'lláh. An Asian woman who was a Buddhist took exception to this and sought to impress me with the fact that Buddhists did not believe in God. Since time was limited, I wasn't able to take my usual tack of saying, "Let's see what Buddha says about God". Instead, I simply noted that Buddha did speak about Brahman in a rather positive way and noted that when the subject of ...God came up with an acquaintance who was a Buddhist monk, I asked him to describe what he believed was not-God. When he had finished, I said, "Well, that's the way I would define God."
    The Buddhist woman's face broke into a wide smile and she said, "Yes, yes! The transcendent reality; the great life force."
    I've had this issue of Buddhist atheism come up repeatedly and it almost always resolves itself in a setting aside of semantics and looking at what we can agree Buddha said. I discovered, too, that the sutra that most people have claimed says God doesn't exist actually says that the question of whether God exists is irrelevant (I believe that's a fairly precise wording). That, is an entirely different proposition ... with which I, as a Bahá'í, agree.
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    • Badi Villar
      Dec 27, 2017
      Several years ago a Japanese Buddhist told me that Buddhism does not oppose belief in a God, but that Buddhism does not require belief in a God.