Buddhism was not designed to be a theistic religion, but rather an alternative to the belief that gods and goddesses existed ‘unseen’ in the material universe. The Buddha did not critique ‘monotheism’, simply because such a notion did not exist in the India of his day. However, this does not mean that the Buddha would have allowed monotheism whilst rejecting polytheism. The Buddha rejected any and all notions of theism, and every possible interpretation of theism. A logical question to this assertion is that if this is true, then why does the Buddhist system of philosophy maintain a bewildering array of divine-beings, living within multi-dimensional realms? This is a valid question which requires an in-depth knowledge of Buddhist teaching to answer correctly. The Buddha lived at a time in Indian history where it was common-place for ordinary and high status people to accept a religious mythology as an explanation of reality. The material world was ignored, and an imagined interpretation of reality superimposed upon it. When an entire culture behaves in this manner, an imagined reality is thought to exist through consensus. In other words, if enough people believe a myth is true, then the material world will be interpreted to justify this belief. Things are assumed to exist that do not, and things that are known to exist will be ignored. This is the mind-set the Buddha inherited from his family and community, and the mind-set he abandoned during his meditative journey. However, even though the Buddha abandoned mythology in his own mind, it was an obvious reality that the majority of those who came to him for instruction still existed in a mythological interpretation of reality. As a consequence, the Buddha carefully used the myths of theism, karma and rebirth to teach his disciples, and in so doing subtly ‘changed’ how these concepts should be understood. He did this as a transitory stage toward the final abandonment of these mythological ideas.
The Buddha states that if a disciple ‘believes’ in mythology, then mythology will appear ‘real’ and ‘self-evident’ in the mind of that disciple. For the Buddha, this blinkered view of reality constitutes what he termed the state of ‘delusion’. One of the bases of delusion is the holding of ‘false views’, which includes a belief in an eternal soul (atma), and any theistic system premised upon this construct. The Buddha demolishes belief in theistic religion by deconstructing its central premise of an ‘eternal soul’ (atma), which is believed to link each human to an imaginary god-construct, and to justify any and all theologically based political, social, cultural and economic systems (in the Buddha’s day, this viewpoint constituted a comprehensive rejection of Brahmanism and its racially derived caste system). What the Buddha did was radical and revolutionary – but to the modern mind it seems like common-sense. The Buddha changed the emphasis of the human mind from a focus upon imagination, to a logical and rational assessment of the material world, and humanity’s perception of it. Indeed, the Buddha even ascribes various function of the mind to be included in the material world and avoided the mind-body, or body-spirit dichotomy prevalent within Brahmanism (and any theistic system). With the rise of modern science in the West, the Buddha’s premise of directing the mind to correctly assess the perception of the inner (material) world that is the mind and body, and the outer (material) world that is the external, evolutionary environment, has mainstreamed for society and today just seems ‘normal’. Of course, the Buddha pushed things further by claiming that all human suffering could be reduced and then eradicated by using the mind in this way. His method was to focus his attention upon the functioning of the mind processes, so that he could become ‘aware’ of how the mind worked. Although subjective from a modern viewpoint, the Buddha was of the opinion that the external world, and its subjective reflection in the mind, were in reality two-sides of the same reality that transcended the subject-object dichotomy.
The Buddha used the method of clearly reflecting the viewpoints and opinions of others as they came into his presence. Although often presented as a ‘mystical’ power by others (but never by the Buddha), this was nothing of the kind. In the modern world, this is nothing but basic communication skills found in various ‘listening’ disciplines. A person within a particular culture will generally ‘present’ a basic blueprint of that cultural conditioning when expressing their view of the world. All that is required is the working-out of the unique experiences of an individual that ‘contextualize’ the general cultural conditioning. This can be seen within modern therapies, including psychology and psychiatry. By appearing to ‘relate’ to his disciples (although not necessarily ‘agreeing’), the Buddha was able to ‘lead’ their perception out of its cultural conditioning and into a new view of the world. It is within this ‘leading’ process that the idea of gods and goddesses appear and are considered (before being finally ‘rejected’ as unreal). The point is that the Buddha refused to reject things ‘point blank’, or in a one-sided or brutal manner, instead he used logical argument and persuasion. He would use a precise logic to explain the existing viewpoint, and then accurately deconstruct it, showing clearly where it was wrong, and how the disciple should or could change their thinking processes. Despite this patient approach, when confronted with a particularly billigerent enquirer, the Buddha could be ‘cutting’ in his criticism. The Buddha deployed a system which he thought was perfect for the time within which he lived.