Buddhas and bodhisattvas, deities, gods and God

The word Buddha ‘enlightened one’ can have different meanings. In Theravada Buddhism it refers predominantly to the historical person who lived roughly 2,500 years ago, but also to the rare enlightened beings who lived in previous aeons and the one who will come next (Maitreya/Metteya). Once passed into parinibbana a Buddha has no contact with those still stuck in samsara. In Mahayana Buddhism, the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is one of many Buddhas past, present and future. These can and do have contact with those still in samsara. Advanced level bodhisattvas are similarly available to help struggling beings. Thus, functionally, Buddhas and bodhisattvas resemble deities, gods/goddesses or saints in other religions as they can be pictured and prayed to. The difference is that they are not ultimately real or separate from the devotee. Even Theravada Buddhists may in practice pray to the Buddha, whom they know (see Gombrich, 1971:5), ‘cognitively’ to be ‘human’ but feel ‘affectively’ as ‘divine’.

A further meaning of the term ‘Buddha’ is to refer to the underlying Buddha-nature within all, rather than to an individual being. Some forms of Mahayana Buddhism use the concept of the trikaya or ‘three bodies’ of Buddha. Buddha can appear in earthly form, as for example in Gautama, or in heavenly form, as the glorious beings called Buddhas (like Amitabha) or bodhisattvas (like Avalokiteshvara) who may appear in visions and can be prayed to, or the Dharmakaya or true form, the reality within or behind everything.

Many gods and goddesses and other categories of ‘supernatural’ beings appear in Buddhist texts, temples and practices, including Indian deities. However, these are best understood as another lifeform, inhabitants of the complex multidimensional universe in which we live. They may have limited powers to help (or hinder) humans with worldly things so can be prayed to. One can be reborn as a goddess or spirit being, but this is still rebirth into samsara and impermanent.

The Mahayana understanding of Buddha, especially ideas of the Dharmakaya, or the Buddha-nature within, can begin to sound a little like the concept of God in Christianity, if God is thought of as ‘being’ rather than ‘a being’, or like Brahman in some forms of Hinduism. However, there is no concept of a personal monotheistic God, transcendent and separate from the material world and humanity, which is his creation. A passage in the Pali Canon gently mocks the idea of a creator God, in a story about the god Brahma, who woke up just as a particular world cycle was beginning and imagined he was the cause of it. Even in Mahayana, the Dharmakaya form of Buddha is not a separate, transcendent being.

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