Buddhism and the Other World Religions Regarding Ultimate Reality

The following has been extracted from ‘Outline of Buddhism’ by William Stoddart

Buddhism, at least in its Hinayana form, is virtually unique amongst the religions of the world, in that it envisages “Ultimate Reality”, not as a Supreme Being (Almighty God), but as a Supreme State (Nirvana). Because of this seeming absence of the concept of God, at least in the manner envisaged by the Semitic religions, some have gone so far as to call Buddhism an “atheistic religion” -a contradiction in terms- while others have alleged that it is not a religion at all, but a “philosophy”.

Both of these views are incorrect. The “Supreme State” in Buddhism and the “Supreme Being” in the other religions are each expressions of the same transcendent Reality: That which is absolute, infinite, and perfect. Thus, the apparent difference between Buddhism and the other religions is in fact a difference of point of view or angle of vision. The essence of the matter is that Buddhism, like the other religions, has both its origin and its goal in the Eternal, the Sovereign Good. This is the nature of Ultimate Reality, and it is with Ultimate Reality that religion as such is concerned.

Buddhism is neither “atheistic” (in the usual connotation of this term), nor a “philosophy” (in the sense of being manmade); it is a revealed religion, coming from Ultimate Reality and leading to Ultimate Reality.

There is no religion without revelation, that is to say: without revealed truth and without revealed sacramental means of liberation, deliverance, or salvation. These fundamentals are present in Buddhism, as in every other traditional and orthodox religion, and constitute its essence and its raison d’ etre (reason for being).

Every religion- be it Semitic, Hindu, Buddhist, or Shamanist- takes account of the two divine aspects of Transcendence and Immanence. These can be expressed by different pairs of terms: Height and Depth, Above and Within, Remoteness and Proximity , Transcendent Being and Immanent Self, Divine Object and Divine Subject. One could say that religious law pertains to Transcendence, whereas the voice of conscience pertains to Immanence.

Ultimate Reality is both Transcendence and Immanence, and every religion, in its theology and spirituality, expounds and has recourse to these two divine aspects in its own way. In the history of religions, and particularly in modern times, some heresies have had their origin in the neglect of one or other of these realities. In general terms, one might say that “transcendentism” without “immanentism” can lead to a kind of deism, whereas “immanentism” without “transcendentism” can lead to subjectivistic illusion. The majority of contemporary cults could be said to be “immanentist” heresies.

The Semitic religions-except occasionally in the context of their mysticism or spirituality-tend to emphasize the aspect of Transcendence (the Divine Being), whereas Buddhism tends to emphasize the aspect of Immanence (the Divine State). Nevertheless, the transcendentist- or “theistic”- perspective is also present in Buddhism, and characteristically comes to the fore in the Mahayana school. In his Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (chapter IX), D. T. Suzuki writes: “God, or the religious Object of Buddhism, is generally called Dharmakaya-Buddha and occasionally Vairochana-Dharmakaya-Buddha; still another name for it is Amitabha-Buddha or Amitayur-Buddha, the last two being mostly used by the followers of the Sukhavati (‘Pure Land’) sect of Japan and China.”

Suzuki states further: “The Dharmakaya assumes three essential aspects: intelligence (prajna), love (karuna), and will (pranidhanabala).”

Even in the Hinayana school, the theistic perspective is by no means absent. Moreover, it is an interesting and significant fact that, in several Theravada countries- Ceylon and Siam, amongst others- the nearness of Hinduism served to reinforce the theistic component in the prevailing spiritual climate.

In summary: whereas most religions emphasize the “transcendent” aspect of Ultimate Reality, namely the Supreme Being or God, Buddhism characteristically emphasizes the “immanent” aspect, namely the Supreme State or Nirvana.

Nevertheless, Buddhism, in its total breadth, contains both aspects, the immanent and the transcendent, recognizing Ultimate Reality either as a Supreme State (Nirvana) or as a Supreme Being (Dharmakaya). In either case, the essential nature of Ultimate Reality remains the same: it is absolute, infinite, and perfect. Thus, in its conception of Ultimate Reality, Buddhism is essentially in accord with every other world religion.

“There is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unconditioned.

If that Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unconditioned were not, there could be no escape from this that is born, originated, created, conditioned.

But because there is That which is Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unconditioned, an escape from this that is born, originated, created, conditioned can be proclaimed.”

Khuddaka-Nikaya, Udana, 80 f.

Note on the Terms Hinayana and Theravada:

Buddhism is divided into two great schools-the Southern school Hinayana (“small” or “narrow vehicle”) and the Northern school, Mahayana (“great” or “broad vehicle”).

The Hinayana school originally contained many branches, including Theravada, Mahasanghika, Vatsiputriya, and Sarvastrivada. Of these only Theravada (the “Doctrine of the Elders”) survives. The term Hinayana (“narrow vehicle”) refers to the original monastic or ascetic Way, and is not disparaging.

The Southern school, Hinayana (in fact, Theravada), comprises Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Cambodia, and Laos. The Northern school, Mahayana, comprises China, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Both schools and their many branches (past or present) are intrinsically orthodox.

There is also a third school, which developed within Mahayana and is known as Vajrayana (the diamond vehicle”). Also called Tantrayana (the vehicle of Tantra) and Mantrayana (the way of the invocation of a sacred formula), it is sometimes referred to as the Third “Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Law” (Dharmachakra Pravatana).