July 2024 Worldview Series Origins Buddhism

Worldview Comparison Series: Our Origin According to Buddhism

Written by Daniel J. McCoy, contributing writer

Where did we come from according to Buddhism? For the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the answer is straightforward. We came from God! God created us, and even though we have fallen from God, these religions teach us how to reconcile with our Creator. Yet in Buddhism, God doesn’t play a part in our origin story. So, what is Buddhism? Let’s tell the story of Buddhism using the word BUDDHA as an acronym. What you’ll find is that, although a few gods are mentioned along the way, Buddhism doesn’t center on God. In Buddhism, God isn’t the explanation for our origin—or for our salvation.

Banquet

In the 6th century B.C., Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince. It was prophesied that this baby would be either a great king or a great religious monk. His father wanted his son to become a great king, so he kept his son furnished with a life of luxury.

Upset Stomach

Gautama asked to see the outside world. So, to steer his son away from monkhood, his father arranged for a chariot ride through the city—purged of all religious content. The gods intervened, and on his chariot ride, Gautama saw an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a tranquil monk. Tranquility! 

Departure

Gautama left his beautiful wife and his son (named Rahula, which means “chain” or “fetter”) to find enlightenment. He tried studying under other teachers, but even though he mastered their meditative techniques, he still didn’t find enlightenment. He tried extreme asceticism (down to one grain of rice per day!), but he still didn’t find enlightenment.

Discovery

Gautama decided to sit under a fig tree until he either found enlightenment or died of starvation. Even though he was tempted mercilessly by the evil Mara (the god of desire), by morning Gautama found enlightenment. Now Gautama was the Buddha (Buddha = “awakened one”)! When he died, now he would enter “nirvana.”

Hopelessness

Gautama summarized his discoveries in the “Four Noble Truths.” Truth #1 – To live is to suffer. Even if you have a good life, it ends in death, futility, and rebirth into the same process, a never-ending merry-go-round called “samsara” (the wheel of rebirths). Truth #2 – Suffering is caused by desire.

Awakening

Here are the last two of the Four Noble Truths: Truth #3 – One can eliminate suffering by eliminating desire. Truth #4 – One can eliminate desire by the “noble eightfold path,” having the right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Then you too will enter nirvana.

Review

So where did we come from according to Buddhism? Not God. Instead, we come from a never-ending merry-go-round of rebirths called “samsara.” And where did samsara come from?

Buddhism’s Creation Story: Buddhism teaches that each of us is born into a never-ending merry-go-round of rebirths called “samsara.” But where did this tangle of rebirths come from? The Buddhist answer is a belief called “dependent co-arising” (pratitya-samutpada). Dependent co-arising is Buddhism’s creation story. 

Dependent Co-arising: What is “dependent co-arising” (also called “dependent origination”)? It’s the idea that everything that exists arises in dependence on everything else that exists. There are 12 “links” or “causes” (nidanas) in this chain starting with our ignorance and ending with our aging and death. But again, all 12 exist because all 12 exist. 

The 12 Causes: Aging and death are caused by birth, birth is caused by becoming, and so on through clinging, craving, feeling, contact, the six faculties of sense, mentality-materiality, consciousness, formations, and back to the root cause: ignorance.1

The Buddha Learns Dependent Co-arising: Where did the Buddha learn about dependent co-arising? Once enlightened, Gautama sat there enjoying the “bliss of emancipation.”2 He kept sitting in the shade of the Bodhi tree for seven days, dwelling on how “this” leads to “that.” In the process, he discovered 12 causes that make up dependent co-arising.

The Root Cause: The Buddha emerged from this absorption ready to teach the 12 steps of dependent co-arising. He was able to trace “this entire mass of stress and suffering” back through the other steps to an original “requisite” condition: ignorance. 

Buddhism’s Alpha & Omega: In Christianity, the one on the throne says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6a). What is Buddhism’s beginning and end? Again, the closest equivalent to a beginning in Buddhism is called dependent co-arising. Its end can be found only in escaping the cycle of rebirths. 

What of God? In Buddhism, everything exists in dependence on everything else that exists, such that, “The Buddha intentionally or by implication replaced any talk of God with that of causal dependence.”3

    The Million Dollar Question

    So, when considering Buddhism, a massive question is which origin story has better evidence. Is there more evidence that all that exists arises from co-dependent causes rooted in ignorance? Or is there more evidence for a Creator outside time and space?


    Daniel J. McCoy is the author of Buddhism or Christianity: Which Is Better for the World? McCoy is an adjunct instructor at Ozark Christian College with advanced degrees in apologetics and theology.


    References:

    1. Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, “Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification,” translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Buddhist Publication Society, 2010, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/PathofPurification2011.pdf (accessed October 11, 2014), 623. 
      ↩︎
    2. See “Sources on the Buddha’s Life and Death,” Fordham University, 1998, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/india/buddha-life.asp (accessed September 27, 2014). ↩︎
    3. Paul Williams, Anthony Tribe, and Alexander Wynne, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (London: Routledge, 2012), 47. ↩︎

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