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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:
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.