Is the Buddha a god?

“…because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent [Obama] wins, for a variety of reasons,” [Rev. Arnold] Conrad said.

The quotation above is from a recent political rally in Minnesota by a Christian priest. Politics aside, this notion of “praying to Buddha” is a charge I’ve seen leveled at Buddhists before, and always in a negative context. Back when I lived in Seattle, I had a masochistic desire to watch the local fundamentalist TV channel, and I remember seeing at a particular rally, a pastor there also said something to the effect that “Buddha can’t save you, no mantra can save you”, etc. etc.

The problem here lies in the misunderstanding about the Buddha and who he was, and how we Buddhists relate to him. Critics argue that we pray to Buddha as a form of idol worship. Meanwhile, modern, Western Buddhists try to downplay the Buddha’s role as nothing more than a person and a teacher.

I think the best approach to understanding the Buddha was to look at his life and the teachings he embodied. In the Pali Canon* there are stories about the Buddha’s life. Sometimes, he’s telling other people about his own life, and how he came to the truth. In other examples though, we can see some of the great deeds he committed:

  • He confronted the murderer Angulimala, alone, and convinced him to give up his ways. He then protected Angulimala from punishment, and in time Angulimala became Enlightened as well.
  • He ventured out alone and stopped a war between two rival armies over access to a river.
  • He saved a woman who was mentally ill over the loss of her son, and helped her reach balance in her life. She became one of his first nuns, and reached Enlightenment as well.
  • He never took the generosity of the laity for granted, and many of the monastic rules (the Vinaya) were intended to intrude upon lay people as little as possible.
  • He lived an exemplary, moral life and never gave anyone cause for slander.
  • He never harmed anyone, verbally or physically, in his time as the Buddha.
  • He was patient, and taught those who sought knowledge, and carefully corrected those who had misunderstood. The stubborn and confused both came around and attained awakening.
  • He saw the value of all beings, likening them to “lotus flowers”, some who were near to bloom, others who had a ways to go.

And so on. People then often wonder why in Asian cultures some pray to the Buddha for things like winning the lottery or curing disease. There’s two ways to look at this. First, not all followers of an organized religion are mature followers. One can quickly point out the Christian followers who pray to angels for good luck (which has no part in the Bible), or pray to be wealthy, even though Jesus exhorted his followers to give up what they had and walk with him.

One should never judge a religion by its weakest or worst followers because all beings come to religion imperfect. Only some choose to make the hard choices that ultimately lead to spiritual growth.

Speaking from experience, I do know people in Asia who are definitely spiritually mature, so there’s a silent majority in Asian Buddhism who do a lot more than just pray for good lottery numbers. One could say the same thing in the US among Christians, or other religions elsewhere. If an organized religion reaches a certain size, you’ll see a wide spectrum between the spiritually mature, and those who are not.

Second, in Mahayana Buddhism in particular is the notion of upaya or expedient means which is a term first coined in the Lotus Sutra. Upaya is a doctrine whereby the Buddha and Bodhisattvas use various means to lead people who aren’t yet spiritually mature along the path, even when they’re not really aware of it. So, in this context, if a person in Asia does pray for lottery numbers, this is not necessarily discouraged either, because it helps build up a relationship between that person and the figure they pray to. In time, that relationship may move beyond mundane prayers to something deeper. Since we don’t walk in that person’s shoes, we can’t really judge how they’ll turn out say 10 or 20 years later.

So, no, the Buddha is not a god,** but I like to think he’s more than a mere teacher or philosopher. He embodied very deep and profound truths, not just with his words and doctrine, but also with his life and his efforts to help all beings. Buddhism is praxis, doing stuff, first and foremost. Not empty philosophizing.***

In later Buddhism, you see the emphasis shift away from the historical Buddha to the eternal Buddha, or Dharmakaya, but this concept is also an embodiment of the teachings and life of the man who lived 2,500 years ago, without getting hung up on the historical details.

So when one prays to the Buddha this is a gesture of gratitude for pointing the way to the Truth, but also a praise of the exemplary life he lived, and that we too can live that life. It is also a reminder that the truth, though obscure and difficult, can be brought to light nevertheless.


P.S. People who don’t understand Buddhism have a funny habit of always calling the Buddha just “Buddha”, as if its his name. That’s like calling the President just “President” or the Pope just “Pope”. The term “Buddha” is a title, not a name.

* – Or the Mahayana equivalent, the Sarvastivadin Canon or Agamas.

** – Buddhism does import the Hindu gods, or devas but they play a minor role at best as foolish, though well-meaning, protectors of Buddhism. Some even end up as gods in Japanese Shinto religion, though their names have changed quite a bit over time. I was quite surprised when I found out that the Hindu goddess, Saraswati, became a “luck goddess” in Shinto, not Buddhism, named Benzaiten.

*** – Something Buddhists still have a funny habit of doing. ;p

About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Is the Buddha a god?

  1. Marcus says:

    Hi Gerald,

    Great post….but I must admit that I’m uncomfortable with this idea of levels.

    Who is to decide them?

    Who is to say that the western college student reading his first book on Buddhism and discovering the concept of Sunyata is any more spiritually mature than the Thai grandmother who prays to the spirit of Buddha for sucess in her grandchildren’s lives?

    Practically speaking, Buddha – and especially Kannon etc – are treated as Gods in Asia in popular practice by millions of people. And not only am I not going to say they are wrong, I see in their practice something that is right.

    I call upon the name of Amida Buddha and Kwan Seum Bosal every day. I believe they wil welcome me into the Pure Land and that they provide me with the spiritual resources I need here in this life too. And when I see suffering or need I pray for help with that too. Am I treating Buddha as a God?

    Who is to decide and who gives them the right to decide?

    Finally, here is a quote from the Lankavatara sutra that shows how (the) Buddha himself dealt with this question;

    “They address me by different names not realizing that they are all names of the one Tathagata.

    Some recognize me as Sun, as Moon; some as a reincarnation of the ancient sages; some as one of “ten powers”; some as Rama, some as Indra, and some as Varuna. Still there are others who speak of me as The Un-born, as Emptiness, as “Suchness,” as Truth, as Reality, as Ultimate Principle; still there are others who see me as Dharmakaya, as Nirvana, as the Eternal; some speak of me as sameness, as non-duality, as un-dying, as formless; some think of me as the doctrine of Buddha-causation, or of Emancipation, or of the Noble Path; and some think of me as Divine Mind and Noble Wisdom.

    Thus in this world and in other worlds am I known by these uncounted names, but they all see me as the moon is seen in the water.”

    Cheers Gerald,

    Namu Amitabul,


  2. Jeannie says:

    I agree with Kusala Bhikshu:

    “I have met a lot of Buddhists who believe in God. I have met a lot of Buddhists who don’t believe in God… And a lot of Buddhists just don’t know. All three points of view are OK if you’re Buddhist because suffering is more important than God in Buddhism.”

  3. Gerald Ford says:

    Hi Marcus,

    Excellent quote from the Lankavatara. I’ll have to find its source and use it sometime. :)

    As for levels and such, I assume you’re referring to upaya. That’s just what is taught in Mahayana Buddism. Read the Lotus Sutra or the Sutra of Ten Stages among othres. I read the same teachings out of Master Yin-Shun’s book as well, so it’s something fundamental to Mahayana. I wrestled with it for a while, but now I see why it’s important. The levels of understanding are just that. In any given Buddhist community, some have advanced to a deeper level of understanding and have really come to live the moral life, some are still new at it and will before long. Some just like to hover at the edges.

    But the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas embrace them all. That’s from the Flower Garland Sutra.

    The notion of levels offends our Western sense of egalitarianism, but then are we not again imposing our Western beliefs on another culture? :)

    P.S. Love your Japan trip posts.

  4. Gerald Ford says:

    Jeannie: Sorry but spam filter got your post. I set it free. :)

  5. Yueheng says:

    Just prior to his passing, the Buddha told his last convert Subhadda:

    In whatsoever Dhamma and Discipline, Subhadda, there is not found the Noble Eightfold Path, neither is there found a true ascetic of the first, second, third, or fourth degree of saintliness. But in whatsoever Dhamma and Discipline there is found the Noble Eightfold Path, there is found a true ascetic of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness. Now in this Dhamma and Discipline, Subhadda, is found the Noble Eightfold Path; and in it alone are also found true ascetics of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness. Devoid of true ascetics are the systems of other teachers. But if, Subhadda, the bhikkhus live righteously, the world will not be destitute of arahats. – Maha-parinibbana Sutta

    We modern Buddhists are confronted with a huge diversity of Buddhism in the world. But we cannot accept all the different practices contained in the diversity as equal. They are lower and higher levels of Buddhism (as explicitly stated in the above passage) and there are many practices accepted by Buddhist culture which are incompatible with the original spirit of Buddhism. While I think a student who is merely studying about sunyata may not be necessarily wiser or more mature than the Thai Grandmother that Marcus spoke of, but someone who has grasped the teaching of sunyata and knows how to apply this into daily life is certainly more spiritually mature than one who prays to the bodhisattvas for material prosperity, because the former person is closer to the spirit of Shakyamuni than the latter person.

    As someone who lives in a country where Buddhism is prevalent, I have witnessed many Buddhists who flock to temples to pray for “good luck” and seek prosperity. Buddha amulets that are said to protect the wearer from disaster are immensely popular and many devotees worship the Buddha with little idea of his teaching. I think it is ludicrous to even entertain the possibility that such Buddhists are in the same league as those who study the sutras and attempt to practice them in daily life. There is a world of difference between the two.

  6. Jishin says:

    Hi GF, Glad you got back home safely.

    The Buddha is not God or a god but he does have some qualities, enumerated in the Mahayana Sutras, that are attributed in other religions to God which is maybe why things can sometimes get confused.

  7. Gerald Ford says:

    Yueheng: Excellent comments all, thanks for the quotation too. :D It’s always really appreciated to hear the Asian perspective on Buddhism, and I think you’ve elucidated it well.

    Jishin: An excellent point (and thanks for bring us back on topic ;) ). People tend to confuse the attributes of the Buddha with something god-like. There’s not much we can do about that, other than educate people about what the Buddha is. Westerners who deny these attributes are missing the point, I think.

  8. Gerald Ford says:

    P.S. Also, even in Pure Land Buddhism, it’s understood that there are different levels of followers and practices (see Larger Sutra or the Contemplation Sutra), but in spite of this Amida brings all of them to the Pure Land, which is where Pure Land Buddhism gains a reputation for egalitarianism. :)

  9. dougrogers says:

    Levels. Hmmm… Does the practice make you a good person?, a compassionate person? You can have all the knowledge in the world and not care. You can have any number of philosophy and divinity degrees and not care. You can be an illiterate rice farmer and understand.

  10. Marcus says:


    Thanks Gerald and Yueheng for your comments on levels, but I agree with Dougrogers…..I’ll leave the Buddhas to decide on what level I might be at and refrain from making judgements myself regarding other people.

    Who is to say what the person in front of me in the line for amulets does, where her spiritual practice is at and what level of attainment she has reached? Just because she is putting her faith in an amulet (which probably 99% of Asian temples sell) does not give me the right to look down upon her or dismiss her practice.

    I have a Thai amulet which I always wear, a ‘magic’ Thai Buddhist tattoo over half my back, a number of Japanese amulets and various stuff from Korea too….I place a good deal of trust in these. Does that mean I’m at a lower level? Who is to decide?

    If they remind me of my path, of my vows and precepts, if they increase my faith in the Buddha and the Boddhisattvas, if they provide spiritual nourishment in a very real sense, then they aid my practice. A lot more than an intellectual discussion on emptiness ever could!

    Anyway, I’ll shut up now! And thanks Gerald for your great comments on my Japan trip blog posts. Just two days left now.

    All the best,

    Hail to Amida Buddha!


    Yes, I agree with that.

  11. Pablo Antuna says:

    This is an interesting post, and an interesting question. Is the Buddha a god? Buddhism has become so diverse that it is a little tricky to answer it. I’ll try to give my opinion. In the Pali Canon, Shakyamuni Buddha said that he wasn’t a god and that he didn’t want to be venerated as such.

    Anyway, after his death, the lay followers in the early community started to worship the relics of his cremation, later building great Shrines where they will held the relics and venerate them. The goal of this worship was to attain good karma. The Buddha wasn’t there anymore, but they believed that he left a sustaining power in the relics that would help them. This is still practiced by Theravada Buddhists, specially lay followers. Monks and nuns largely avoid this, and try to cultivate the virtue of wisdom. They still venerate the Buddha, but as a way of remembering his teaching. Here, monks are considered to be in a superior level, higher than lay followers and even than nuns.

    In Mahayana Buddhism, devotion is in many ways more important than wisdom. You can’t attain Nirvana by yourself, you have to rely in the power of some bodhisattva. The best example of this is Pure Land Buddhism. Here, you don’t worship Shakyamuni Buddha, but Amitabha, a Buddha that is considered much greater and powerful than any god. Here, in contrast with the Theravada tradition, all followers are at the same level, as you said in another comment. There aren’t advanced practitioners.

    So, is the Buddha a god? I think that for many Buddhists is god-like, with god-like powers. The Buddha said he wasn’t, but Buddhism has changed so much over time that even his teachings are considered secondary.

  12. Yueheng says:


    Absolutely no respect intended, but I think it is a cop-out to “leave it to the Buddhas” and not judge. Of course the Buddha didn’t tell us to go around being moral/spiritual police poking our noses into other people’s practices and legislating how they go about their lives. But he did leave behind certain guidelines by which we can and should discriminate between his teaching and superstitions that are perpetuated in the name of his teaching.

    Regarding Buddha amulets, I actually have a few and see them more as ornaments/accessories rather than amulets that possess magical properties. Admittedly, the idea of them offering protection is a nice thought. But in my heart of hearts, I know that the Buddha’s teaching is incompatible with depending on amulets for any form of protection. Of course one can use these amulets as reminders of the Buddha’s teaching, but unfortunately that is not the common perception of Buddha amulets by many so-called Buddhists in Asia. One just has to look at the Buddha amulet industry (which sells like hot cakes in Singapore) to know how antithetical to Buddhism it is: the amulets are widely advertised and devotees are promised that these amulets can protect them from disasters, accidents, illness, etc. People can pay up to a few hundred dollars for an amulet that has been blessed by some famous monk. I think anyone with an adequate grasp of Buddhist teaching will see that the Buddha amulet industry as one that is corrupted by materialism and many who buy/wear amulets are engaged in something that has little to do with the original intent of Shakyamuni’s mission.

    I remember reading somewhere that a general once visited the great Ajahn Chah for a buddha amulet to protect against bullets. Ajahn Chah refused, but the general was very persistent and finally Ajahn Chah pointed to the huge Buddha statue in the temple and said: “Only a Buddha like that can protect you from bullets.” In this exchange, Ajahn Chah seemed to be mocking the traditional Thai reliance on Buddha amulets for protection against accidents.

    So who is to judge? We should. It’s not a matter of “looking down” at another’s practice. It’s quite possible to make an informed judgment that a certain practice that has been absorbed into Buddhism is merely inherited superstition. The Buddha expected us to judge for ourselves the conditions that lead one to Truth and those that do not. The Dhammapada reminds us: “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.”

  13. Gerald Ford says:

    Dougrogers, Marcus: I think you’re missing the point. My understanding of “levels” in Buddhism is very much to do with whether you are a good person, whether you have cultivated wisdom, etc, etc. Not the dry philosophical stuff. One comes to Buddhism a selfish and ignorant person, but grows and develops emotional maturity as they follow the Dharma and put it in to practice. We all know this is true, so why the concern?

    All of this is found in the Buddhists sutras, both Mahayana and Theravada, as well, so if you don’t believe me, please check into it when you have the chance. :)

    Pablo: Welcome to the L8B! It should be noted that even in the Pali Canon and orthodox Theravada texts that the Buddha does preach on certain transcendental powers that he has, not to mention his time spent in the Tushita Heaven in a past life. (Majjhima Nikaya 123 among others, I think). Buddhism has indeed changed, like you said, but it’s not always for the worse. We didn’t live in the early times of Buddhism, so we don’t know what it was like, or why they changed or added texts the way they did. Still, as noted, it has accumulated some things that are problematic, as Yueheng has noted. Dharma Decline is alive and well I guess.

    As for devotion to the Buddha, this too is covered even in the orthodox texts, so it’s definitely not a unique Mahayana phenomenon. I blogged about it in an earlier post I think (or maybe that was the previous blog, can’t recall).

    The differences between Mahayana and Theravada are smaller than what academics lead us to believe. ;)

  14. arunlikhati says:

    I’m inclined to Gerald’s view that the habit of getting amulets and bracelets at the very least binds laypeople to the Mahasangha, which is why I still receive them — but I think Yueheng has a good point. The amulet industry has gone too far. Even among devout Buddhist practitioners, these non-Buddhist rituals/customs/objects take on an overly materialistic and even contentious dimension. I was once told by someone at my temple that I should be ashamed to be wearing my old and worn Buddhist bracelet. For me this meant that the community-binding function of the bracelet had ceased to exist entirely.

    As for Lord Buddha being regarded as a god, in my daily prayers there is the line, sattha devamanussanam, “teacher of gods and men”. In temple, we were taught to understand this as Lord Buddha being greater than either gods or men. This carries over into how we were expected to treat statues of Lord Buddha, and also always referring to him respectfully (“Preah Buddh”). As with amulets, our customs of respect can also go overboard.

    I still support these customs, even though they can get out of hand, in part because I still feel the benefit of building bonds and respect for the Mahasangha is important. Granted, I probably also feel this way because I’m old school and I just like the traditions I grew up with :)

  15. Jishin says:

    The Contemplation Sutra sets out the 9 grades of aspirants for the Pure Land. As far as the Pure Land itself is concerned there no such grades exist there, it is a land of perfect equality. In this world however we can speak of there being 9 grades. This is the sutra’s way of describing the differing capabilities of practicers; but as Shan-tao clarifies each of these grades attains birth in the Pure Land through the nembutsu. In sum I think from a human perspective there are ‘levels’ from the viewpoint of Buddha there is perfect equality.

  16. dougrogers says:

    If one amulet that you hold changes your behaviour in a compassionate way, who cares if you believe in the amulet or not. Collecting many powerful amulets to protect you from bullets doesn’t change your behavior in a compassionate way.

    It’s on or off for me. I don’t see any value in discriminating between levels of understanding as long as the action is mindfulness and compassion.

    You might be able to make out levels of understanding in the Dharma. That’s why there are teachers and students. Fundamentalist Christianity – as in the example you offer in the post – thrives on discrimination.

  17. Gerald Ford says:

    Interesting comments all:

    Arun: Thanks for reminding us of the “Teacher of Gods and Men” title. I completely forgot that one, but it is a common title for the Buddha, and very telling too. :)

    Jishin: Exactly. The “levels” of understanding are all contemporary, not absolute. I think the point of the Lotus Sutra was just that: that there really is only one Vehicle, not three as some have held. The implication of course is that we’re all Buddhists, even when we attach labels, convenient as they are.

    Dougrogers: Yes, that’s why there are students and teachers. Teachers usually are ones who are (hopefully) more experienced and properly trained, and can lead the students, who may become teachers themselves someday to others. As stated in the comment above though, this is contemporary of course, not absolute. Your comment about fundamentalism is certainly true, but don’t think anything said here so far would lead to that level of discrimination.


  18. Chuck Beartrap says:

    I like the discussion about levels of understanding in the Dharma. However, as a Buddhist, I think would like to address a more pressing matter. Which is that this preacher not only said a crassly uneducated thing about Buddhism, he belittled our Moslem and Hindu brothers and sisters. There were so many things transparently wrong within his short prayer. Hinduism is a tradition, not a God. Buddha is a sage, not a God. And most ironically and saddest of all, Allah, whom he fears the most, is his OWN God.

    I think a Buddhist need not approach this as might a provincial and minor religion, by reactively clarifying technically silly things said about our spiritual path. Rather, we might contemplate how these carefully chosen and yet so patently silly words might have wounded our brothers and sisters of all paths, and with compassion, consider what could have motivated this preacher to say such a manipulative thing.

  19. Gerald Ford says:

    Thanks Chuck, and welcome to the L8B! My purpose in writing this post is an attempt to provide a helpful reference to others who want to know if the Buddha is a god or not. I wrote this after noticing some Google searches that came up with words like “Buddha is god” and other loaded terms. The quote above is nothing new to me. As stated in the post, I see this all the time on certain Christian fundamentalist channels I used to watch at home. As you pointed out, it’s an unfortunate statement, and highlights an “us vs. them” attitude that Dougrogers and others pointed out too.

    As I am one man who isn’t unable to change the Religious Right in the US, I prefer instead to set the record straight as much as I can. People look for this information on the Internet, and I like this blog to be available as a reference for those do. ;)

  20. Tornadoes28 says:

    I agree that I would not classify the Buddha as a God. I wonder what is meant about some of the stories I have read of the Buddha such as how he tamed an evil elephant and how he was confronted by an evil god and he prevailed. These stories would tell me that the Buddha may also be considered to have godlike qualities?

    Is there any place in Buddhism to pray to Buddha such as Amida or Ojizo to ask the Buddha for help?

  21. Gerald Ford says:

    Of course. Why wouldn’t there be? :)

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