Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Buddhist View of Gods and Spirits

A ceremony in a Buddhist monastery

When it comes to the topic of deity and spirit worship, some people who are general followers of traditional Chinese religion (also known as popular folk religion) may not have a clear understanding of Buddhist vs. non-Buddhist ideas of deity veneration. For uninformed followers, they do not distinguish between praying to popular deities and venerating the enlightened deities of the Buddhist tradition. And oftentimes as a consequence, many miscellaneous practices of popular spirit and deity worship are misclassified under the label of Buddhism. This discussion is certainly not meant to be a statement about which tradition is correct or superior. Instead, it is only meant to be an explanation of the proper doctrinal view from an orthodox Buddhist standpoint. This is necessary because even though Buddhism is one of the three great spiritual traditions of ancient China, it is often misunderstood by many of its nominal practitioners and non-practitioners alike.

From a Buddhist perspective, it should be clarified that Buddhist practitioners do not worship gods and spirits. While Buddhists certainly do believe in the existence of gods and spirits - since they are also part of the samsaric realms - Buddhists do not accept them as their objects of spiritual refuge because they are not considered enlightened beings. Gods and spirits have not transcended all their negative mental habits and defilements nor have they conquered their desires (although it is possible that some gods are probably farther advanced than human beings if they are also spiritual cultivators). Because they have not completely overcome their unwholesome mental afflictions, they can still experience to certain degrees all the various negative temperaments and emotions such as anger, hatred, jealousy, pride, and attachment. Therefore, from the Buddhist viewpoint, they are still bound by samsara (the endless cycle of death and rebirth) because they have not perfectly transformed their minds to attain spiritual awakening. In Buddhism, beings that are still bound by samsara are not qualified to be the objects of refuge. A good analogy would be a man that does not have his eyesight cannot lead other blind people out of darkness, or a man that cannot swim is incapable of saving others from the ocean. So, despite the fact that Buddhists do not venerate or worship ordinary gods and spirits, their proper attitude towards them is still one of distant respect. Buddhism even teaches its followers to show respect and equanimity towards fellow human beings, so how much more so for gods and spirits? Therefore, it is not uncommon to see a Buddhist monk or layman stop before a shrine dedicated to a deity of another spiritual tradition and bow as a simple gesture of respect. This is not to be confused with a Buddhist practicing the worship of ordinary gods and spirits. As an interesting note, it is even said that a god or spirit, upon seeing a nod from a good Buddhist cultivator, will also stand and humbly return the bow as a mark of mutual respect.

Since Buddhists only accept as their objects of refuge those beings that have achieved, or are on the verge of achieving complete and unsurpassable enlightenment, they solely venerate those beings that have attained liberation from samsara like the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and arhats. In addition, it is also acceptable to venerate - but not to take refuge in - the Dharmapalas (Dharma defenders and protectors) and higher gods that act as guardians and/or supporters of the Buddhist teachings, as well as the ancestral patriarchs, realized masters, and teachers of the Buddhist lineage as a sign of respect.

Enlightened Beings from Chinese Pure Land Buddhism
Amitabha Buddha (阿彌陀佛 Amituofo) (center)
Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta (大勢至菩薩 Dashizhi Pusa) (left)
Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (觀世音菩薩 Guanshiyin Pusa) (right)
(Image: Source unknown)

On another level, the Buddhist practitioner, when venerating and prostrating to the enlightened deities, is actually also prostrating to his own inner Buddha nature. All sentient beings possess the same potential to achieve enlightenment just like the Buddhas. Thus, he takes them as his own spiritual goal, hoping one day to also become just like them.

Text © 2011 Harry Leong


  1. Could you comment on how this connects to the Tantric tradition? - Don

  2. Hello Don,
    This would apply equally to both the Tantric and common traditions. An interesting note is that in the Tantric tradition, there are many practices for Dharmapalas, but many of the Dharmapalas are also emanations of enlightened beings (for example, Mahakala is popularly regarded as a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara/Guanyin). Refuge is always taken under enlightened beings only, with veneration of non-enlightened protectors being only a secondary observance.