Amida Sutra

Part 4 -The Occurrence of G(g)od(s) in Buddhist Sutras
As we were saying the occurrence of deities and other spiritual beings in the Buddhist literature is confusing for those who maintain that Buddhism is atheistic idol worship. On one hand the sutras have not been read and on the other idol worshippers are not atheists, nor are atheists idol worshippers. Buddhists are neither. The matter is subtler than the simplistic either/or.

The absence of a Creator God as a centralizing figure in Buddhism lent it a kind of theological flexibility. There was no reason for Buddhists to enter another culture and destroy existing faiths. Those inclined towards religion could explore the Divine with a great deal of freedom. Buddhism could also adopt and adapt as long as the core teaching was held intact.

The appearance of strict, exclusive monotheism was the beginning of a new chapter in human spirituality. It also posed a great threat to religions like Buddhism.

Monotheism was used, arguably abused, to support cookie cutter societies with vertical class structures based on submission and obedience. Such societies are engines of suffering.

As human beings become more powerful their limitations also reflect that power. In other words, the spiritual, moral and ethical factors of life grow exponentially with the growth of power. Most of those who have been granted power to run human society assume that the powerful are free of any moral, ethical responsibilities. They operate under the delusion that power means freedom from all encumbrances. They simply are ignorant of the role of entropy (duhkha) within their own minds and bodies.

They may surround themselves with a bureaucracy to protect themselves from their weaknesses. But the bureaucracy becomes an inhuman, remorseless engine of irrational policy.

The society then becomes itself a generator of suffering as expressed in such acts as war, ethnic cleansing, thought control and the ridged control of sexual energy.

These societies believe that if everything fit their plan exactly and there were no mistakes the world would be perfect, perfectly one with the Divine Word. This requires the elimination of the 'other, and the elimination of those who make mistakes. Political and ideological variance is treated, at best, as neuroses.

All this terror and repression, however, undermines the very stability it is designed to promote. It destroys creativity and variety. Eventually the society needs the very things it has repressed. There is a wonderful image in Buddhism for this situation: It is like wearing burning clothes!

The absence of a Creator God who acted as judge, prosecutor and executioner was experienced as a great liberation to those who 'heard' its message. Others, however, reviled it for this very reason. Buddhism experienced serious persecutions in India and China. It underwent periodic persecutions in Japan, notably during the last World War. These persecutions met with considerable success in India where Buddhism had championed the untouchables. Many untouchables remain Buddhist to this day.

As a matter of historical fact, there were several assassination attempts against Shakyamuni himself. Furthermore, his whole tribe, the Shakyans, were exterminated during Shakyamuni's lifetime.

One of his princely relatives, following the Buddha Dharma, married an untouchable woman. Their daughter was beautiful. She was desired by the princes of the neighboring kingdoms. The Shakyans used this situation to try to seal peace for themselves by marrying this daughter to a powerful neighbor who was not follower of the Dharma. This bridegroom discovered the untouchable connection. He was morally outraged and could only cleanse himself by declaring war on the Shakyans and exterminated them. The only ones left alive were those in the Sangha.

The wonderful Indian film BANDIT QUEEN describes the life of a Buddhist untouchable woman in modern India. It is a difficult film to watch because of the relentless prejudice against her. All the Brahmin men of her village raped her. She joined an outlaw group and eventually killed all of her rapists. She was so shaken by these experiences that she turned to the Buddha Dharma. She eventually became a leading political leader of her province. This modern true story reflects attitudes that were in operation during Shakyamuni's lifetime 2600 years ago!

The destruction of Tibet in recent history was carried our in the name of dialectical materialism, communism. This was state atheism. It would inhabit the extreme right on a scale of zero G(g)od(s) and strict, exclusive monotheism. Buddhism is the Middle Way. It respects the G(g)od(s) and maintains a friendly relationship. It witnesses for the fact, however, that there is a valid alternate route to salvation and grace besides the way of the G(g)od(s). It would also point out that believing G(g)od(s) exist and believing in G(o)d(s) are not the same thing.

But what of the arrival of Buddhism in North America? How is it to exist in a culture that equates religion itself with the belief in the Christian Deity?

This will be the subject of our next installment.

Blessings Be,
Sensei Ulrich

November 28, 1999

Next: Part 5 - G(g)od(s) in Buddhism