POLYTHEISM, MONOTHEISM, AND NONTHEISM IN BUDDHIST TEACHING
Newsletter - No. 46, June 1985
Lecture delivered by Master Sheng-yen on Sunday, December 23, 1984
I often run into Christians who complain about Buddhist teaching. One Chinese Christian I met said this: "I have some understanding of Buddhism, but it seems like a muddle to me. There are so many Bodhisattvas, Arhats, and deities, how do you decide which one or ones to deal with? It's like figuring out who to call when you're ill --- there's a pediatrician for children, a cardiologists for heart disease, and so on for eyes, ears, internal problems, women. It's just as confusing for a Buddhist -- there's Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, Manjusri, the embodiment of Wisdom, Amitabha Buddha in the West, and the Medicine Buddha in the East. It must be very difficult for your to decide who to pray to every time you have a problem. Being a Christian is very simple -- whatever the problem you have, you just seek help from one God. Pray, hand it over to Him, and then forget about it. In this modern world, the simpler things are, the better. If you could reduce all these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas down to one, then even I would consider becoming a Buddhist."
Certainly there is some confusion here. From this Christian's point of view Buddhism seems to be a polytheistic religion. We will see that in other ways Buddhist teaching may seem to be monotheistic, and in some ways even non-theistic or atheistic. These various characteristics and viewpoints, at least on a superficial level, appear to be contradictions. Some of you may have already resolved these problems for yourselves, but I will take the time today to go over these matters carefully.
First we must understand and affirm that the sentient beings referred to in the Dharma, all sentient beings, are equal with Sakyamuni Buddha and all Buddhas. And all Buddhas are equal to all sentient beings. This is a fundamental principle of Buddhism.
It is not to be understood that some Buddhas are higher than others. Or that Buddha dwell at the top of the hierarchy, and are followed by Bodhisattvas, Arhats, deities, beings in heaven, human beings, animals big and small, and so on. In Buddhism, all beings, including the Buddha, are equal. This is not to say they are identical: each being has a different level of ability; each will put forth a varying degree of effort. For example, we are all standing on the same floor, a completely level floor. But some of us are taller than others, some smaller, some fatter, some thinner. We are all human beings, and equal in that respect, yet we are all different.
One being may achieve more than another by exerting greater effort. In Dharma practice, we can say that someone started earlier and worked harder than another. He will be the one who achieves greater merit, power and wisdom, and will be closer to attaining Buddhahood. Those who work hard become Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhats or deities. Those who do not work as hard remain ordinary sentient beings. The beings with more wisdom and strength can help those who are weaker. Such is the case in a family. The parents take care of the whole family; brothers and sisters help, too. The youngest will look up to everyone, but even the parents must defer to those of greater power; a boss, or the President. So it is through the whole universe, beings of greater ability help those with lesser ability. Deities and heavenly beings help humankind, while they are in turn helped by Arhats, and so on through Bodhisattvas up to the Buddhas.
Notice that we do not talk about any one being as the sovereign, all-powerful God or the Lord of the Universe. So it would seem that we have a kind of polytheistic view. But let's look deeper into this. Polytheism is generally understood to be an ordering of the universe where control of various elements is divided among greater and lesser gods and deities. Each god has his or her rank and sovereignty. The god of fire has the highest power over fire, and so it is with the gods of water, winds, and mountains. Each god rules supreme in his domain. According to certain beliefs in Greece, India, and China, you may find a god or deity associated with every river, mountain, and tree. There may be one god who is highest or several gods who contend for supremacy. But Buddhist teaching is really quite different from this.
Buddhist culture and society do show signs of what may appear to be polytheism. In China, if a woman does not bear a child after many years of marriage, especially a son, she may pray to a specific manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, "Son Giving Avalokitesvara," so that she may become pregnant. When I went to Japan I found that a Japanese woman in similar circumstances might pray to the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbharaja -- portraits and statues show him as bald, so that he looks like an infant. Thus Chinese and Japanese pray to different Bodhisattvas for the same purpose.
But the sutras show that any Bodhisattva can help with any problem, all Buddhas have the same wisdom and power. It doesn't have to be Avalokitesvara, it doesn't have to be Ksitigarbharaja, any Bodhisattva can help us with a problem. There is no need to go to one for a particular problem and then to another for some other problem. These beings may manifest different characteristics, but that is because of the vows they have made during the course of their practice. Thus Ksitigarbharaja is known for his great vow to liberate all sentient beings. Avalokitesvara is known for his great compassion, Manjusri for his great wisdom. But there is no need to pick a particular Bodhisattva for a particular problem.
Thus Buddhism is not polytheistic at all. A practitioner develops according to his karmic roots, causes and conditions, and method of practice. He may pray to Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, or Ksitigarbharaja, but it is as a method of practice. He does not regard each Bodhisattvas as a separate deity and therefore pray to them all for maximum benefits -- that would be polytheism. Not everyone fully realizes this. There are people at the Center who come in and prostrate first to the statue of the Buddha, then to the statues of Avalokitesvara and Manjusri on either side of the Buddha. Then they will think to themselves, "The Buddha is the biggest statue, so I should prostrate one more time to him." This is really polytheism.
Now let us consider Buddha and monotheism. It is useful to classify sentient beings among various levels according to whom we can look to for help: Arhats, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. The highest goal we set for ourselves is the Buddha, but our foundation, our essence, is the same as the Buddha. In sentient beings, including all animals, this is called Buddha Nature. In non-sentient beings, this essence is called Dharma-Nature. In someone who has attained Buddhahood, Buddha Nature and Dharma Nature evolve into Dharma Body. This Dharma Body exists throughout all sentient beings and non-sentient beings. But only sentient beings may attain Buddhahood. With the foundation of all beings the same, the whole universe is in unity.
The Buddha sees all sentient beings as his children. He knows that all sentient beings will eventually be Buddhas, so in a sense they are like his offspring. Buddha is the most perfect being, but Buddha is not the being with the greatest authority. One who had the greatest authority would be the one who would be able to direct and control anybody and anything. The Buddha is the most perfect being, but is not considered the ultimate controlling authority. In this respect Buddhist teachings is different from monotheistic doctrine. But if all sentient beings are not separate from the Buddha and are part of the Buddha's Dharma Body, why can't the Buddha direct the actions and fates of all beings? The reason is that each sentient being has his own karma. Even though all sentient beings are part of the Dharma Body, Buddha doesn't have the authority to dictate or direct what can or cannot take place in the world.
In Christianity, believers often speak of themselves and other believers as, "brothers within the Lord." I once asked a group of Christians that if they view the Lord or God as creator of the whole universe, how can anybody be outside of the Lord? One member of the group replied, "Yes, from a theological standpoint, everyone is within the Lord, but those who do not believe do not return to the Lord." So in a sense there are brothers who are not within the Lord. I am just trying to point out that even in traditional monotheistic beliefs, there can be problems and contradictions.
I often meet people of different faiths or beliefs who will say to me, "Since I'm not a Buddhist, from your point of view, I am a man standing outside the door." But I always say that in Buddhism there is no door. Every sentient being has Buddha Nature, every sentient being will become a Buddha in the future. We are never separate from the Buddha, so it makes no sense to speak of a door or someone outside the door. It may be possible to be outside of an organization, but you can't be outside of the Buddha or Dharma.
Other religions emphasize faith and conversion. But in Buddhism we emphasize causes and conditions: if you do not accept the Dharma now, in the future you will. And in the future you will become a Buddha. Many people object to what I say. They argue, "I don't believe in your religion and still you insist that I will become a Buddha -- what kind of person are you?" But I say, "There is an important difference to think about; I am not a follower of your religion and consequently you may consider me to be a disciple of Satan, but even though you don't follow my religion, I still consider you a future Buddha."
I will now consider Buddhism and non-theism, or atheism. Each term can be taken in two different ways. First, these terms may be used in reference to people who believe in nothing outside of matter. Such people do not believe in spirit or any great power, guiding or otherwise, in the universe. Nor do they believe in any realms that transcend this material world. A person with such beliefs is an atheist or a non-theist.
A second meaning of non-theism is that the universe does not contain only one unique, all-powerful God who can direct all events in the universe. Yes, there are gods, but not one unique God, who controls the universe. This form of non-theism is found only in Buddhism.
The first form of non-theism can be terribly costly to life and society. People with such views have no concern for anything other than their bodies and personal goals. They believe that once the body dies, life ends, and there is no continuation anywhere. Non-theists are not necessarily bad -- they may have ethical principles and be concerned about people of later generations. But there are many others who don't share these concerns, and who have no fear about the consequences of their actions.
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