Creator in Buddhism

Buddhist beliefs regarding a creator deity are varied.

Hinayana Buddhism, consistently rejects the notion of a creator deity.[1][2] It teaches the concept of gods, heavens and rebirths in its Saṃsāra doctrine, but it considers none of these gods as a creator. Buddhism posits that mundane deities such as Mahabrahma are misconstrued to be a creator.[3] Buddhist ontology follows the doctrine of Dependent Origination, whereby all phenomena arise in dependence on other phenomena, hence no primal unmoved mover could be acknowledged or discerned.

However, Mahayana Buddhism does believe in the doctrine of Sunyata (emptiness) or Tathata (thatness) out of which all things emerge. Furthermore, this ultimate reality is considered to be the Tathagatagarbha (Womb of all Buddhas) and the Adi Buddha (Primordial Buddha) who is worshipped differently in various Mahayana traditions as Vairocana or Amitabha and in the Vajrayana traditions as Samantabhadra or Vajradhara. Thus this concept of an ultimate reality which is the source of all things approximates the idea of a creator God.

Early Buddhist texts

According to Buddhologist Richard Hayes, the early Buddhist Nikaya literature treats the question of the existence of a creator god "primarily from either an epistemological point of view or a moral point of view". In these texts the Buddha is portrayed not as a creator-denying atheist who claims to be able to prove such a God's nonexistence, but rather his focus is other teachers' claims that their teachings lead to the highest good.[4]

Citing the Devadaha Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 101), Hayes states, "while the reader is left to conclude that it is attachment rather than God, actions in past lives, fate, type of birth or efforts in this life that is responsible for our experiences of sorrow, no systematic argument is given in an attempt to disprove the existence of God."[5]

The Pali Canon however also gives a different view. In the Nibbana Sutta of the Udana Nikaya, the Buddha says, "There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated. If there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born, become, made, fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn, unbecome unmade, unfabricated escape from the born, become, made, fabricated is discerned." Buddhism thus acknowledges an Ultimate that transcends the material world. This in Theravada is called Nibbana and in Mahayana it is called Sunyata and worshipped as Adi Buddha.[6]

Mahabrahma as a false creator

According to Peter Harvey, Buddhism assumes that the universe has no ultimate beginning to it, and thus sees no need for a creator God. In the early texts of Buddhism, the nearest term to this concept is "Great Brahma" (MahaBrahma) such as in Digha Nikaya 1.18.[3] However "[w]hile being kind and compassionate, none of the brahmās are world-creators."[7]

In the Pali canon, Buddhism includes the concept of reborn gods.[8] According to this theory, periodically the physical world system ends and beings of that world system are reborn as gods in lower heavens. This too ends, according to Buddhist cosmology, and god Mahabrahma is then born, who is alone. He longs for the presence of others, and the others gods are reborn as his ministers and companions.[8] Mahabrahma, states the Buddhist Canon, forgets his past lives, and falsely believes himself to be the Creator, Maker, All-seeing, the Lord. This belief, state the Buddhist texts, is then shared by other gods. Eventually, however one of the gods die and is reborn as human with the power to remember his previous life.[3] He teaches what he remembers from his previous life in lower heaven, that Mahabrahma is the Creator. It is this that leads to the human belief in Creator, according to the Pali Canon.[3]

According to Harvey, "[a]fter a long period, the three lowest form heavens appear, and a Streaming Radiance god dies and is reborn there as a Great Brahmā."[9] Then "other Streaming Radiance gods die and happen to be reborn, due to their karma, as his ministers and retinue."[10] The retinue erroneously believes Mahabrahma created them.[10] When one of these ministers "eventually dies and is reborn as a human, he develops the power to remember his previous life, and consequently teaches that Great Brahmā is the eternal creator of all beings."[7]