Sacred Texts  Buddhism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at
Buy this Book on Kindle

Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, [1906], at

p. 22

p. 23


p. 24

p. 25


AMONG the many critical opinions which are passed upon Buddhism by Christian or Western scholars, there are two which stand out most conspicuously and most persistently. One of them declares that Buddhism is a religion which denies the existence of the soul, and the other that it is atheistic or at best pantheistic, which latter term implies what is practically tantamount to the rejection of a God, that is, a personal God as believed in by the Christians. The object of this discourse is to see to what extent the second criticism is, if at all, justifiable. In other words, I propose here to elucidate the Buddhist conception of God.

At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is

p. 26

not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience. Again, Buddhism is not pantheistic in the sense that it identifies the universe with God. On the other hand, the Buddhist God is absolute and transcendent; this world, being merely its manifestation, is necessarily fragmental and imperfect. To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, "panentheism," according to which God is πᾶν καὶ ἕν (all and one) and more than the totality of existence.

One of the most fundamental beliefs of Buddhism is that all the multitudinous and multifarious phenomena in the universe start from, and have their being in, one reality which itself has "no fixed abode," being above spatial and temporal limitations. However different and separate and irreducible things may appear to the senses, the most profound law of the human mind declares that they are all one in their hidden nature. In this world of relativity, or nânâtva as Buddhists call it, subject and object, thought and nature, are separate and distinct, and as far as our sense-experience goes, there is an impassable chasm between the two which no amount of philosophizing can bridge. But the very constitution of the mind demands a unifying principle which is an indispensable hypothesis for our conception of phenomenality; and this

p. 27

hypothesis is called "the gate of sameness," samatâ, in contradistinction to "the gate of difference," nânâtva; and Buddhism declares that no philosophy or religion is satisfactory which does not recognize these two gates. In some measure the "gate of sameness" may be considered to correspond to "God" and the "gate of difference" to the world of individual existence.

Now, the question is, "How does Buddhism conceive the relation between these two entrances to the abode of Supreme Knowledge (sambodhi)?" And the answer to this decides the Buddhist attitude towards pantheism, theism, atheism, and what not.

To state it more comprehensively, Buddhism recognizes the coexistence and identity of the two principles, sameness and difference. Things are many and yet one; they are one and yet many. I am not thou, and thou art not I; and yet we are all one in essence. When one slays another, there is an actor, an act, and a sufferer, all distinct and separate; and yet

"If the red slayer think he slays,
   Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
   I keep, and pass, and turn again."

[paragraph continues] Buddhism, therefore, says that while we have to acknowledge the world of particulars in which individuality predominates, we must not forget that looking through the gate of sameness all

p. 28

distinctions and contradictions vanish in a higher principle of unity. A Japanese poet thus sings:

"Rain and hail and ice and snow,
Neither like the other. So!
When they melt, however, lo,
See one stream of water flow!

Intellectually, the coexistence of the two mutually excluding thoughts is impossible, for the proposition, "Mine are not thine," cannot be made at the same time the proposition, "Mine are thine." But here Buddhism is speaking of our inmost religious experience, which deals directly with facts and not with their more or less distorted intellectual reflections. It is, therefore, really idle to say that Buddhism is pantheistic or atheistic or nihilistic. Buddhism is not a philosophical system, though it is the most rational and intellectual religion in the world. What it proposes is to make clear facts of the deepest spiritual life and to formulate a doctrine which leads its followers to the path of inward experience.

Thus, according to the proclamation of an enlightened mind, God or the principle of sameness is not transcendent, but immanent in the universe, and we sentient beings are manifesting the divine glory just as much as the lilies of the field. A God who, keeping aloof from his creations, sends down his words of command through specially favored personages, is rejected by Buddhists as against the constitution of human

p. 29

reason. God must be in us, who are made in his likeness. We cannot presume the duality of God and the world. Religion is not to go to God by forsaking the world, but to find him in it. Our faith is to believe in our essential oneness with him, and not in our sensual separateness. "God in us and we in him," must be made the most fundamental faith of all religion.

We must not, however, suppose that God is no more than the sum-total of individual existences. God exists even when all creations have been destroyed and reduced to a state of chaotic barrenness. God exists eternally, and he will create another universe out of the ruins of this one. To our limited intelligence there may be a beginning and an end of the worlds, but as God surveys them, being and becoming are one selfsame process. To him nothing changes, or, to state it rather paradoxically, he sees no change whatever in all the changes we have around us; all things are absolutely quiet in their eternal cycle of birth and death, growth and decay, combination and disintegration. This universe cannot exist outside of God, but God is more than the totality of individual existences; God is here as well as there, God is not only this but also that. As far as he is manifested in nature and mind, they glorify him, and we can have a glimpse of his image and feel, however imperfectly, his inner life. But it will be a grievous error,

p. 30

let us repeat, to think that he has exhausted his being in the manifestation of this universe, that he is absolutely identical with his creations, and that with the annihilation of the world he vanishes into eternal emptiness.

There is a favorite saying in Buddhism which declares that "sameness without difference is sameness wrongly conceived, while difference without sameness is difference wrongly conceived"; to express this in Christian terms, "God not in the world is a false God, and the world not in God is unreality." All things return to one, and one operates in all things; many in one and one in many; this is the Buddhist conception of God and the world. Billows and waves and ripples, all surging, swelling, and ebbing, and yet are they not so many different motions of the eternally selfsame body of water? The moon is serenely shining up in the sky, and she is alone in all the heavens and on the entire earth; but when she mirrors herself in the brilliant whiteness of the evening dews which appear like glittering pearls broadcast upon the earth from the hand of a fairy,--how wondrously numerous her images! And is not every one of them complete in its own fashion? This is the way in which an enlightened mind contemplates God and the world.

God is immanent in the world and not outside of it; therefore, when we comprehend the secret of the "little flower in the crannied wall," we

p. 31

know the reason of this universe. Reason is the inner life of all beings, it is the subjectivity of existence, it is the quickening spirit of all creation, it is a realization in our finite minds of infinite divinity. When we know ourselves, we know heaven and earth, we know God, we know everything and anything. We know his presence even in the most insignificant flower in the field which is trampled under foot by men and beasts carelessly and pitilessly, to say nothing about the starry heavens with their grandeur which is replete with suggestions, or about the huge mass of inert matter on which mountains rise, oceans roar, and sentient beings walk. When we come to realize this mysterious presence of the highest reason in all things, we are struck with the fact and there arise mingled feelings of awe, admiration, and helplessness, which latter is strangely tinged with a sense of self-exaltation. We are awe-stricken because it is beyond our human intelligence to grasp thoroughly the scheme of God. We admire it because of the wonderful beauty and harmony which are traceable in every step of his, though our imperfect minds are sometimes set against almost insurmountable difficulties in the reconciliation of contraries and opposites. We feel helpless because our fragmentary consciousness is unable to review the entire range of divine operation and thus to know the why of all these things, though the recognition of divinity in us lifts us above the wearisome condemnation

p. 32

piled upon humanity by some moralists and religionists.

*      *      *

Having thus expounded the Buddhist conception of God and his relation to us, I wish to proceed to explain some terms which. are generally used by Buddhists to designate the highest being in its various modes and phases.

As I mentioned before, Buddhists do not make use of the term God, which characteristically belongs to Christian terminology. An equivalent most commonly used is Dharmakâya, which word has been explained in one of the sermons herein collected, and it will not be necessary to enter again upon the discussion of its signification. Let us only see what other equivalents have been adopted.

When the Dharmakâya is most concretely conceived it becomes the Buddha, or Tathâgata, or Vairochana, or Amitâbha. Buddha means "the enlightened," and this may be understood to correspond to "God is wisdom." Vairochana is "coming from the sun," and Amitâbha, "infinite light," which reminds us of the Christian notion, "God is light." As to the correct meaning of Tathâgata, Buddhists do not give any definite and satisfactory explanation, and it is usually considered to be the combination of tathâ = "thus" and gata = "gone," but it is difficult to find out how "Thus Gone" came to be an appellation of the supreme being. There are,

p. 33

some scholars, however, who understand gata in the sense of "being in" or "situated in." If this be correct, Tathâgata meaning "being thus," or "being such," can be interpreted in the same sense as Tathâtâ or Bhûtatathâtâ or Tattva, as explained below. But in this case Tathâgata will lose its personification and become a metaphysical term like the others, though it has been so persistently used by Buddhists in connection with the historical Buddha that it always awakens in their minds something more concrete and personal than a mere ontological abstraction.

Buddhism is the most speculative of all the existing religions in the world and abounds with many highly abstract terms which may sound empty to ordinary minds. Among them we have such words as Tathâtâ (or Tathâtva), Tattva, Bhûtatathâtâ, Bhûtakoti, Çûnyatâ, Alakshitam, Nirvâna, etc. These are all philosophical terms for Dharmakâya. To explain: Tathâtâ or tathâtva or tattva is "suchness," or "being such," and Buddhist scholars assert that, strictly speaking, these terms alone rightly designate the nature of the highest reality. When we speak of its absolute transcendentality, people are liable to take it for an empty nothing; while if we state that it is eternally true and real, they may consider it something concrete and particular. To avoid both extremes, or rather to synthesize them, the term "Suchness" has been coined; but in reality all human efforts are altogether

p. 34

insufficient to express the true nature of the Ultimate. Says Açvaghosha, "The Immortal Essence is absolutely beyond intellectual demonstrability, but we as rational beings need some words to express ourselves, and for that purpose the term 'suchness' has been selected, disposing of all others." The words in which Goethe makes Faust utter his feeling concerning God may here be quoted also as corroborating Açvaghosha's conception of Suchness:

"Who dare express Him?
And who profess Him,
Saying: I believe in Him!
Who, feeling, seeing,
Deny this being,
Saying: I believe Him not!
The All-enfolding,
The All-upholding,
Folds and upholds He not
Thee, me, Himself?
*      *      *
*      *      *
Vast as it is, fill with that force thy heart,
And when thou in the feeling wholly blessed art,
Call it, then, what thou wilt,--
Call it Bliss! Heart! Love! God!
I have no name to give it!
Feeling is all in all:
The name is sound and smoke,
Obscuring Heaven's clear glow."

When even this Tathâtva is found inadequate for certain purposes, Buddhists add Bhûta = reality thereto and coin the word Bhûtatathâtâ, which means "that which really exists as such." Suchness, being an abstract term, may breed

p. 35

some misconception, when the term is used alone, on the part of the uninitiated. To avoid this, "reality" has been prefixed, which purposes to make it clear that the ultimate reason is not an abstraction, not a mere subjective creation, but a real objective (or rather transcendental) existence. Bhûtakoti serves the same end, as it means the "highest point of reality," or "the real end of things."

Alakshitam, Çûnyatâ, and Nirvânam express the negative phase of the Dharmakâya. When affirmation alone is not sufficient, we frequently resort to the negative way of defining things, showing thereby at least what they are not. The human mind cannot have a positively adequate conception of things which are beyond the realm of conditionality, for it is bound up within spatial and temporal relations; and in order to give expression to these non-conditional objects, we use the negative method and say that they are not such and such. In innumerable ways, this negation is as effective in defining things as affirmation.

When Buddhists assert that the Dharmakâya is çûnya = empty, or alakshana, = devoid of particular marks, or nirvâna = emancipating, or nâçrava = faultless, they are following the inevitable course of mentation. All these and some other negative terms unfortunately have caused a great deal of misunderstanding on the part of unsympathetic critics who have either forgotten

p. 36

or ignored the peculiar proclivity of human reason to onesidedness and exclusiveness.

Lastly, Paramârtha and Satya are the terms used to designate the epistemological phase of the Dharmakâya. Paramârtha is the first or highest reason, and Satya is truth or that which truly is. And for the psychological aspect of the Dharmakâya, or as it is manifested in the human consciousness, we have Bodhi or Hridaya. Bodhi is the divine wisdom incarnated in our limited intelligence, or the divine love as reflected in our human sympathy and compassion. Hridaya is the inner life of existence which prompts and quickens us to do the will of the Dharmakâya, and which is awakened to its full dignity and glory when intelligence passes over the limits of relativity. The reason why we are able to have an insight into the nature of the ultimate being and to recognize the truth that sameness and difference are co-existent and really identical, is because our Bodhi or Hridaya is essentially one with the Dharmakâya. When the Bodhi comes to know itself, it also knows the inner being of Dharmakâya, however fragmentary the knowledge be, and we lie blissfully at rest in the bosom of eternal motherliness.


25:1 It may be interesting for our readers to read in connection with this article Dr. Paul Carus's Buddhist story entitled Amitâbha.

Next: Assertions and Denials