God in Buddhism

Check this out.

Several interesting points.

1) The Judeo-Christian God of the Old Testament fits the description of Brahman, the highest entity in charge of governing our sphere of reality. But in contrast to theistic traditions, this being is not described as a “creator God.” Instead, this entity seems to be just another entity in the infinite sea of reality. He just happens to hold the power here, right now, over us, for simple causal reasons (due to its past good karma). Eventually he will die. Worse, this entity is profoundly deluded. He thinks that he is God, the supreme creator of everything. Sir Charles Eliot explains:

“There comes a time when this world system passes away and then certain beings are reborn in the “World of Radiance” and remain there a long time. Sooner or later, the world system begins to evolve again and the palace of Brahma appears, but it is empty. Then some being whose time is up falls from the “World of Radiance” and comes to life in the palace and remains there alone. At last he wishes for company, and it so happens that other beings whose time is up fall from the “World of Radiance” and join him. And the first being thinks that he is Great Brahma, the Creator, because when he felt lonely and wished for companions other beings appeared. And the other beings accept this view. And at last one of Brahma’s retinue falls from that state and is born in the human world and, if he can remember his previous birth, he reflects that he is transitory but that Brahma still remains and from this he draws the erroneous conclusion that Brahma is eternal.”

2) Even though Buddhist schools have disagreements on whether “Primordial Buddhas” exist, their nature, and their status as ‘the ground of all being’, one thing seems to be agreed upon: The universe has no beginning; thus no entity can be described as the primordial creator of the universe. As an example of the kind of arguments given for the impossibility of such being, here is a 7th century dialogue by the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang, as he critiques the Indian doctrine of the great Eternal Self:

“According to one doctrine, there is a great, self-existent deity whose substance is real and who is all-pervading, eternal, and the producer of all phenomena. This doctrine is unreasonable. If something produces something, it is not eternal, the non-eternal is not all-pervading, and what is not all-pervading is not real. If the deity’s substance is all-pervading and eternal, it must contain all powers and be able to produce all phenomena everywhere, at all times, and simultaneously. If he produces phenomena when a desire arises, or according to conditions, this contradicts the doctrine of a single cause. Or else, desires and conditions would arise spontaneously since the cause is eternal. Other doctrines claim that there is a great Brahma, a Time, a Space, a Starting Point, a Nature, an Ether, a Self, etc., that is eternal and really exists, is endowed with all powers, and is able to produce all phenomena. We refute all these in the same way we did the concept of the Great Lord.”

In brief, the very act of creating something is itself a mark of impermanence. That’s an interesting take on theology I’d never heard before. This, however, does not preclude an eternal God that exists in Plato’s world of forms, does it? It just means such God is causally ineffective. Perhaps the power of God come from logical implication rather than causation. I.e. God matters, not because He can do anything to us, but because his existence implies certain facts that are causally relevant for our life. Or not.

3) I find the idea of Bodhisattvas and Primordial Buddhas to resonate a lot with my core ethical views. Unlike the Gods of other traditions, these Gods are genuine negative utilitarians who would rather “cancel existence” than allow a mouse to suffer a heat stroke (to give a random example).

Who knew Great Negative Utilitarian entities were so highly revered in this worlds? It is almost unbelievable once you consider the fascination with Hell and damnation that many people have in this society.

Practical metaphysics

If Rudolph Steiner’s account of the life of the soul after death is correct, then there would be a good reason to avoid hedonic recalibration above the proverbial ‘hedonic zero.’

He claims that between rebirths, a period that will last for at least a few months, the soul experiences a tremendous sense of loss and craving for the body it once had. Worse, whatever things the person used to enjoy, look forward to, or be addicted to in life, will be things the soul will now intensely crave.

If such craving does not subside enough after a certain number of days, the soul will look around desperately to find a place where reincarnating might allow it to satisfy its cravings. The only way to be reborn in a higher plane is to either forgone those cravings or, well, be super-mindful as you die.

I don’t know what the probability of this is. But it does comes to bear on matters of policy. If we were to modify our brains to be in a perpetual state of hedonic bliss, the cravings of the soul upon death would be much worse and thus the fate at the point of reincarnation would be disastrous.

If it so happens that Steiner is right about the causal web that unites the body and the soul, and the rules the determine reincarnation, then we would have to reconsider the methods used to achieve the Abolitionist Project. The philosophical, ethical and normative justifications for carrying out the Abolitionist Project would still hold, no problem. But it would add an extra layer of complexity and unintended consequences to our actions.

Perhaps in that case the project should stop once we achieve sustainable hedonic zero, rather than going after higher and higher levels of bliss.

Alternatively, as Steiner believes, some forms of bliss (specifically the encompassing loving-kindness) may not cause craving after death. In that case, developing technologies that enable those kinds of experiences and inhibit the mundane craving-prone forms of pleasure might be the way to go.

What I am pointing out here is that the particular *details* of the ultimate solution to the mind-body problem, and the causal web within which this interaction takes place, can have important policy consequences.

In that case, allocating more resources to the *investigation* of this relationship is paramount before committing ourselves to particular courses of action.

The focus on cultivating a universal desire to relieve all sentients from the burden of their suffering, though, shall remain immutable for the rest of eternity. Amen.