Was Buddha God or Human? Are there gods in Buddhism?

[This article is part of the 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism series]

Buddhism is known in the West as an “atheistic religion” in that, unlike the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it does not recognize a single creative deity. However, it should not be deduced from this that Buddhism does not have gods. He doesn’t have one, but several.

In traditional Buddhist cosmology, the gods – or deva in Sanskrit, a cognate of “deity” – are distributed among 27 heavens (svarga): six are located in the realm of the senses (kamadhatu) along the slopes, atop, and in the air above Mount Sumeru, the mountain at the center of the world; 17 in the meditating heavens of the realm of subtle materiality (rupadhatu); and four are in the intangible domain (arupyadhatu), where there is no form, only consciousness. Because each of these heavens is located in samsara, the realm of rebirth, none of these heavens is a permanent abode of the gods who live there, and none of the gods is eternal.

Related: The Meaning Of Nirvana In Buddhism Explained

Rebirth as a god is based on virtuous actions performed in a previous life, and when the life of the god is over, the being is reborn elsewhere. Thus, no god in Buddhism has the omniscience, omnipotence or omnipresence of God in the Abrahamic religions. This does not mean, however, that the gods do not have powers. They have powers far beyond those of humans. And over the long history of Buddhism, Buddhists, including monks and nuns, have appeased various gods for blessings and blessings. A substantial part of Tantric practice, for example, is devoted to inviting gods into his presence, making offerings to them, and then requesting the granting of various powers (siddhi).

What then is the status of the Buddha? Technically, he’s a human, among the five other rebirth fates (sad) in samsara: gods, demigods, animals, ghosts and inhabitants of hell. But he is unlike any other human, both in his relationship with the gods and in his physical and mental qualities.

In his penultimate life, the future Buddha was a permanent god, where all future Buddhas dwell, in the sky of Tushita. It was from there that he surveyed the world, and chose the place of his last birth, his caste, his clan and his parents. After his enlightenment, the Buddha spent 49 days in contemplation near the Bodhi tree, concluding, the story tells, that what he understood was too deep for others to understand, and therefore futile to understand. try to teach it to anyone.

Related: Who is the Buddha?

The most powerful of the gods, Brahma, came down from his heaven to implore the Buddha to teach, arguing that although many may not be able to understand, there were some with “a little dust in their eyes” who would. This is an important moment because it clearly shows that the Buddha knew something that the gods did not know, and that the gods were waiting for a new Buddha to appear in the world to teach them the path of liberation from rebirth, even of rebirth in paradise. For this reason, one of the Buddha’s epithets is devatideva– “god above the gods.” “

Although human, the Buddha has a body like no other. It is adorned with the 32 marks of a superman (mahapurusalaksana), such as images of wheels on the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet, a bump on the top of his head, 40 teeth, and a circle of hair between his eyes that emits beams of light. Some of the marks are features found in animals rather than humans: webbed fingers and toes like a duck’s, arms that extend below the knees like a monkey’s, and a penis that sticks out. retracts into the body like that of a horse. His mind knows all of his past lives and the past lives of all beings in the universe. In fact, he is omniscient (although different Buddhist schools have different ideas on what exactly that means).

Even in ancient tradition, it is said that he can live an aeon or until the end of the aeon, if asked to do so. And in the Lotus Sutra he says its lifespan is immeasurable. He can go anywhere in the universe. He can perform all kinds of miracles.

Did he create the universe? No. Is he omniscient? Yes. Is he almighty? It depends on what you mean. Is he everlasting? Kind of. Is he god? You decide.

[This story was first published in 2014]

Receive daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a new perspective

a photo of a meditating Buddhist

Explore the timeless teachings using modern methods.

With Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Andrew Olendzki, and more

See our courses

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a non-profit organization, we depend on readers like you to make Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.