GOD & the Gods: Buddhism

Up until recently, I’ve always held that Buddhism was a religion and that Buddha was a god. Or, at least I believed he was worshiped or adored as a god. However, now I’ve come to the understanding that Buddhism can also be viewed as a philosophy and not just a religion—contrary to Buddhists’ outward expressions of worship that I’ve had opportunity to witness on several occasions. In theory, Buddhism may be a philosophy and/or psychology but in practice it has all the appearances of a religion.

Bulguksa Temple Buddha
Figure 1. Bulguksa Temple Buddha

I’ve also come to the realization that the word “Buddha” is actually a title meaning “awakened one” or “the enlightened one.” In most Buddhist traditions the first awakened one was Siddhartha Gautama who was born in 623 B.C. in the sacred area of Lumbini located in the plains of southern Nepal, according to most scholars. Today, when people refer to the Buddha, they are actually referring to Siddhartha Gautama, the Supreme Buddha.

Interestingly, Siddhartha Gautama never claimed to be a prophet or a god (deity). This is the argument adherents use to excuse their beliefs as not being pertaining to a religion because Buddhists don’t believe in a supreme being. Since Buddhists don’t believe in a supreme or higher being, it follows that when Buddha spoke, he spoke of himself and not of any other person or deity.

While the Buddha ‘preached’ doctrine to his followers (disciples) he wasn’t dogmatic concerning his teachings. Buddhism isn’t truth, to the contrary, it is the search for truth. Buddhists are required to come to the truth (enlightenment) through their own efforts in order to arrive at what they themselves understand to be the truth.

As it stands, the ultimate goal of all Buddhists is to achieve enlightenment which is arriving at the truth that frees one from suffering. According to Ian Tuhovsky in his Kindle book, Buddhism Beginner’s Guide: Bringing Peace and Happiness to Your Everyday Life, we are the cause of our own suffering1 and that suffering can be overcome by simply having the right view or right perspective of reality.2 This is an integral part of Dharma. But what is Dharma?

Permit me to define Dharma using an analogy with Christianity. If Dharma is considered to be the “right way” then Dharma is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6 NASB) for Buddhists.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of research to learn that Siddhartha Gautama is credited with achieving “full realization”3 of reality or truth which elevated him to the status or title of Buddha. Most sites that discuss this achieving “full realization” concept do so in esoteric terms. That is, they tend to imply that in order for the traveler on the Path to Enlightenment to reach Nirvana, the traveler must first have reached Nirvana. Or, put simply, “You’ll know it when you get there.”

But what is truth? The ancient world was preoccupied with its search for truth; we know this was true in biblical times because Jesus, during His trial, claimed that He came into this world “to testify to the truth.” Pilate’s response to Jesus was “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38). Of course, Jesus was referring to the truth that is GOD. For the Christian, the only path to enlightenment is to know GOD.

While it may be true that Buddhists don’t believe in a supreme being, their philosophy does allow for belief in some minor deities. For example, the story of the demon Mara who tempted Siddhartha Guatama before he attained enlightenment.4 And then there are the Four Heavenly Kings.

If you happen to visit Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, South Korea, you will have an opportunity to meet these Four Heavenly Kings as you pass through the Gate of the Heavenly Kings on your way to the temple. since they are considered to be protectors of the temple, the monks, the worshippers, and Buddhism itself.5 First time visitors may be taken aback by their somewhat fierce countenance but upon closer examination they seem to take on a more softer appearance as shown below.

Figure 2. Kings of the West & North
Figure 2. Kings of the West & North
Figure 3. Kings of the East & South
Figure 3. Kings of the East & South

In Korean Buddhism, the Four Heavenly Kings are named as follows:

  • Gwangmok-cheonwang – King of the West
  • Damun-cheonwang – King of the North
  • Jigook-cheonwang – King of the East
  • Jeungjang-cheonwang – King of the South

Damun is the protector of the north and the ruler of rain (or wealth); Jeungjang is the ruler of the wind and protector of the Dharma; Jigook uses music to convert people to Buddhism; Gwangmok is one who sees all and who converts unbelievers to Buddhism.6

Even though the Four Heavenly Kings have specific powers over the natural world they are still subservient to the Buddha, even Gwangmok who is attributed with the attribute of being omnipresent.

Since these deities or supernatural beings were not the creators of Dharma, they can’t be considered supreme in the spirit world—that title is reserved for the Buddha.

In contrast, Christians believe that GOD is the supreme being who created all things and Who is sovereign over all His creation. In Christianity, all beings are subservient to GOD; GOD is subservient to no one.

Buddhists don’t believe in a supreme being, yet the minor deities are protectors of Buddhism. If the Four Heavenly Kings are protecting Buddhism they are indirectly protecting the “enlightened one.” That is, the Four Heavenly Kings are serving the Buddha not the other way around. How then is Buddha not considered a supreme deity?

In my opinion, if a belief system includes supernatural beings who dwell in the spirit world, then that belief system is considered a religion. If one practices Buddhism as either philosophy or psychology, it follows that by identification, that person also subscribes to all of the Buddhist practices and beliefs. As in Christianity, a person who follows Christ’s teachings is thereby identified with all of Christ’s teachings. Otherwise, that person’s belief system is ambiguous.

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Copyright 2018 Gerard Sczepura

  1. Ian Tuhovsky. Buddhism: Beginner’s Guide: Bring Peace and Happiness To Your Everyday Life (Positive Psychology Coaching Series Book 5) (p. 25). Kindle Edition. 

  2. Ibid., pp. 28-29 

  3. Reginald Ray, “What is Dharma?,” December 26, 2017, https://www.lionsroar.com/in-a-word-dharma/

  4. Prof. Geller, “Mara,” accessed April 2, 2018, https://mythology.net/demons/mara/

  5. Khan Academy, “Guardian King of the West (Gwangmok cheonwang),” accessed April 03, 2018, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/korea-japan/korean-art/a/guardian-king-of-the-west-gwangmok-cheonwang

  6. Wikipedia, “Four Heavenly Kings,” accessed April, 04, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Heavenly_Kings