Did the Buddha ignore God(s)?

One thing I find puzzling about the 10 Unanswered Questions and Poisoned Arrow parable in the Pali canon is that they seem to ignore the existence of devas and/or a personal/interactive creator God. If such beings exist, why can’t we just ask them for the answers to those questions? Why do we have to find the answers ourselves? Is Buddhism saying that such beings don’t exist, that such beings are inaccessible or unreliable for some reason (e.g., they live outside of time in a nirvana-type state, or they might not be truthful), or that the answers are beyond human comprehension? What experiences had the Buddha had that allowed him to make such an absolute “it’s useless to try to answer these questions” statement? Though a great achievement, if the Buddha only (re-)discovered, but did not create, nirvana, how could he be sure that he knew the full reality of nirvana (e.g., that nirvana is truly eternal or how nirvana compares with the rest of the universe)? Why did the Buddha not feel it appropriate or necessary to acknowledge whoever or whatever underlies, supports, etc. nirvana? Was, or is, God(s) offended by being ignored or taken for granted in this way?

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Giving customers what they want

If Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s are dependent on lay people, how much would they be willing (or need) to change Buddhism to suit the popular views and desires of lay people, in order for the Sangha to survive?

Is this how things like protective chants/icons, Buddha as God, softening or ignoring the Vinaya rules, the Advaita Vedanta-type views in Mahayana, the many nation and ethnicity specific versions of Buddhism, etc. have worked their way into Buddhist traditions over the millenia?

How do you know who you’re talking to?

A few questions for theists: How do you know to whom/what you pray? Even if you feel that some kind of God exists, how do you know He/She/It isn’t a malicious, malevolent being misrepresenting Itself as a kind, benevolent being? If everything is left to faith in traditions, institutions, prophets, etc., how can you confirm the identity, nature, agenda, extent, etc. of what you call “God(s)”? If there is an all-powerful creator God, shouldn’t that being be able to make all humans clearly understand Her/Him/It, and what might it say about God that all humans haven’t been made to clearly understand Her/Him/It (e.g., is God not all-powerful, not always loving, etc.)? If God changes (i.e., takes actions to create or affect this world or people), to what extent can God be eternal?

Is life “good”?

Perhaps the biggest difference I see between Buddhism and the world’s other largest religions (i.e., Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam) is whether or not they consider worldly life to be “good”.

The other big religions usually say that worldly life (i.e., mass production and consumption, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, cultivating attachments to people and things, developing a sense of self, etc.) is good, is connected to an eternal creator God and is itself spiritually meaningful, is worth spending all of one’s time and energy exploring and pursuing, etc.

However, Buddhism says that we are in an unfortunate state of existence (involving constant struggle and inevitable loss), that the physical details of this life are ultimately meaningless because they are very fleeting, that the only God-like beings one can see from here are trapped in impermanent lives like we are (they only live longer than we do), and that one should spend as much time as possible trying to permanently (i.e., without rebirth) escape from this prison. From a Buddhist perspective, perhaps the only things in life that are really good are people’s capacities to help themselves and others understand and undo their predicament.

O ye religious studies scholar, to what degree is Buddhism a religion?

First, what is “religion”? The word has many meanings around the world, far beyond how Americans often equate it with the three largest Abrahamic religions. People usually mean some kind of everyday/mundane expressions or representations of faith in, or past experience of, “numinous” (i.e., somehow going beyond everyday experience) things. The expressions often include traditional concepts, stories, institutions, rules, practices, rituals, relics, statues, images, talismans, etc. To the degree that one actually experiences numinous states of consciousness, it usually is not called religion, but instead is called spirituality, attainments, visions, feelings, trips (if drugs are involved), exploration, or just experience. Religious expressions often have as much to do with mundane things (nationality, culture, history, politics, etc.) as they do with numinous things, and experiences that people call numinous sometimes feature mundane religious elements (e.g., Christians sometimes see visions of Jesus or angels, Buddhists sometimes see visions of the Buddha, etc.). To what degree that back-and-forth is accurate, or is people’s brains/minds constructing what they want to see to some degree, is hard to say. Arguably, like much of science, the mundane vs. numinous distinction assumes a conventionally “normal” or “healthy” human perspective. Some people’s everyday experiences may include what others would consider numinous. Also, what humans call everyday experiences are the result of specific evolutionary processes in land-based environments only on this planet, so other species might consider different experiences normal.

Buddhism is often said by Western scholars to have a philosophical or psychological monastic core, which is similar to (and much more developed than) phenomenology in the West, as well as a more religious pop-culture periphery. People usually encounter the pop-culture periphery first, so get the impression that Buddhism is quite religious. Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s (monks and nuns) are the people who most often and seriously study, engage, and experiment with the Buddha’s theories and methods in empirical or intellectual ways. Lay (non-monastic) people can be anywhere on the spectrum of more experience- or knowledge-oriented to more faith-oriented. Whereas a monk might only deeply revere the Buddha, a lay person might worship and pray to the Buddha. Like many religions, the pop-culture periphery probably has become increasingly embellished with dramatic folklore, ornate artwork, etc., as non-monastic people have elaborated upon Buddhism over more than 2,500 years. There can be quite a stark difference between a spartan forest monastery, which can feel more like a psychology laboratory, and an ornate city temple, which can feel like a shrine or art gallery. Later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, etc.) seem to have drifted the monastic core in more religious of directions, with the Buddha(s) being made more god-like and salvation-oriented.

Spiritual metaphors: the mountain & the river

I am not sure where I heard this comparison — maybe in the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness book. He and Trappist Catholic monk Thomas Merton were friends. Merton’s description of the spiritual process, in books such as The Seven Storey Mountain, is one of going within oneself, away from the outside world, as if climbing a mountain. At the top, one is left with only oneself and very little of the world. One can only call to God and wait/hope to be raptured (rapture has the same word root as raptor and rape, meaning to overtake by force; the image is of God swooping down and carrying one away from the world into the heavens). At some point, there is nothing more a person can do on the spiritual journey, and it becomes all up to God.

By comparison, a similar Buddhist metaphor is that there are two shores (perhaps of a river or of two islands), which represent two different states of being: one shore is samsara and the other nirvana. It is not evident how the two shores came into being, but the two always exist side-by-side, and the shores are visible to/from each other, if one looks hard enough. Most people spend their lives just walking up and down this samsaric shore. Very few people abandon this shore, jump in the water, and make the effort to swim to the nirvanic shore, but the process is possible through personal effort alone. There also are “vehicles” (i.e., traditions of Buddhism; Mahā-yāna means great-vehicle) that can ease the crossing.