Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “atheist and theist aspects of buddhism” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Appendix 5 - The atheist and theist aspects of buddhism

(Note: see the stanzas of chapter IV part 11)

By affirming that the gods are false and without reality, that the wise man does not believe in the gods, these stanzas depart somewhat from Buddhist tolerance.

1) Atheist aspect of Buddhism.

Buddhism is atheistic in the sense that its entire system rests on karma and retribution. All beings transmigrate as a result of their actions: these are their past deeds which determine their good or unfortunate destiny. Action takes the place of fate. There is no place for a creator distributing good and evil among his creatures. Buddhism has always opposed theistic systems (aiśvarika) that make out of their god a Lord (Īśvara) creator and controller of everything.

– Aṅguttara, I, p. 174 (= Tchong a han, T 26 (no. 13), k. 3, p. 435b): Those who reduce everything to creation of the Lord (issaranimmāna) no longer have any inclination to act, make no effort to do this and avoid it.

Śāntideva in Bodhicaryāvatāra, IX, v. 119–126 (tr. LAV., p. 135–137): “God is the cause of the world.”

– What do you mean by ‘God’? The elements? Then it’s not worth the trouble for a matter of words (nāmamātra) to take so many pains to prove the existence of God.

– Are you saying that God is too great for us to be able to understand him? His qualities also transcend the mind and how can the quality of maker of the world be attributed to him? Moreover, we will ask what he wishes to create (sraṣṭum). Would it be the ātman, the ‘self’ of the creatures? But this is eternal. Would it be the elements? They are eternal. Would God create himself? He is eternal. Besides, consciousness is not created by God since, at all times, it comes from the object; suffering and pleasure proceed from action. Then what is it that God has created?

– If God acts without wishing, he is evidently subject to another; if he acts by wishing, he is subject to desire. Therefore if he acts, he is not sovereign (īśa).

– The debate in Kośa, II, p. 311–313: V, p. 19, continues as follows: That things are produced by a single cause, by God, Mahādeva or Vāsudeva, is inadmissible for many reasons: (i) If things were produced by a single immutable cause, they would all arise at the same time; but everyone knows that they arise successively. If the order of their production depended on causes external to God, God would no longer be the sole cause. (ii) God creates out of his own satisfaction or for that of his creatures. If he creates for his own satisfaction, he has something to gain and he is not God. If he creates for the satisfaction of beings, how can you explain that the latter are victims of all the sufferings? (iii) To affirm the creative activity of God is to unwarrantedly posit an invisible and uncontrollable Cause and to neglect the visible causes the efficacy of which can be proven.

[On Buddhist atheism, LAV., Atheism, ERE, p. 183; Morale, P. 12–14; Oltramare, Théosophie, p. 228–231].

2) Theistic aspect of Buddhism.

Atheistic insofar as Buddhism rejects any belief in a Supreme Being, it is theistic insofar as it welcomes gods of all kinds into its pantheon. The threefold world is populated with gods. Theologically speaking, it is understood that the deity has but a temporary nature, for the gods are subject to transmigration: an animal can be reborn in a divine form just as a god can reincarnate in the world of humans or animals. But with this exception, Buddhism, the connections of which with popular religions are many, seems to be very favorable towards gods. In his previous existence, the Buddha Śākyamuni was king of the Tuśita gods. It was at the request of Brahmā Sahāṃpati that he agreed to preach the Dharma. During his ministry, he dwelt for three months among the gods in order to preach the Abhidharma to his mother. A quick reading of the Lalitavistara allows one to appreciate the importance of the rôle played by the devas and the devatās in the biography of the Buddha. They form a backdrop in front of which the heroic achievement of the Buddha is played out. From the beginning, they are represented on religious monuments where the faithful offer them worship. For the Buddhist pantheon, see A. Getty, The Gods of Northern Buddhism, Oxford, 1928; Rh. D., Buddhist India, p. 210 sq.; LAV., Dogme et Philosophie, p. 173); but the oldest texts insist on the existence of the gods and their beneficence to the faithful.

Majjhima. II, p. 212–213: Saṅgārava asks the Buddha: Do the gods exist? “I know with certainty, O Bhāradvāja, that the gods exist” (ṭhānnaso me taṃviditaṃ yaditaṃ atthi devā). Why did you not say that at the beginning? “Because everybody knows very well (ucce saṃmataṃ lokasmim) that the gods exist.”

Dīgha, II, p. 88 (cf. Tch’ang a han, T 1, k. 2, p. 12c): Where man has established his dwellings, he supports with his gifts good men who know how to control their senses; he brings offerings to all the gods of that place. The gods, revered and honored by him, honor and revere him in turn. They surround him with their tenderness like a mother to the child born from her womb. The man who enjoys the favor of the gods sees only happiness around himself.

– Aṅguttara, III, p. 77: The son of good family with his wealth… honors, respects, reveres and pays homage to the deities who are worthy of his offerings (balipaṭiggāhikā devatā). Thus honored, these very kind deities have compassion for him and say: “Long life to you. May your long life be protected.” The son of good family, pitied by the gods, can attain prosperity and not decline.

– The good deities are all converted to Buddhism. They serve as the messengers of the Buddha (cf. Dīgha, III, p. 14; Majjhima, I, p. 497), and often go to recommend his doctrine to people. Thus they went to find the householder Ugga to tell him: “The Dharma has been well-preached by the Buddha.” (svākhāta, gahapati, Bhagavatā dhamma); Ugga answered them ironically: “O deities, whether you recognize it or not, the Dharma has been well-preached by the Blessed One.” [This episode is given by Aṅguttara, IV, p. 211, and the Chinese version of the Madhyamāgama, T 26 (no. 38), k. 9, p. 481a)

– In a passage from the Kṣitigarbhasūtra cited in the Śikṣāsamuccaya, p. 89, all the gods, from the devas to the piśācas, give the following assurance to the Buddha: Whoever will observe the holy doctrine and bring fame to the Three Jewels, we will protect him, we will preserve him and make him prosperous in ten ways. We will prolong his life and will always dispel the obstacles that threaten him. We will increase his health, his position, his wealth, his enjoyment and his pleasures, his sovereignty, his glory, his good friendships and the perfection of his wisdom.

We must bear in mind the whole Buddhist tradition in order to appreciate the exact extent of the attacks directed at the gods “of painting, sculpture, tradition and hymns.” It is not the deities attacked here by Nāgārjuna, it is the foolishness of their sectarians who claim to raise them to the rank of a supreme Being.