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The Creation and the Enlightenment by Robert Ellis


This is a short paper originally written with an audience of Western Buddhists from the FWBO (now Triratna Buddhist Community) in mind. It may be of interest to Western Buddhists or to others (including Christians) as long as they bear this context in mind.


“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” says the Bible (Genesis 1:1). It then goes on to describe how God created the earth, the heavenly bodies, and all life in six days, resting on the seventh. If this account is put together with the account of the rest of history found in other parts of the Bible, it occurred about 6000 years ago. Apparently 53% of Americans believe that this story is literally true, despite the huge conflict between it and the results of astronomy, geology and biology, which draw on a massive amount of evidence supporting the view that the universe is billions of years old and the world millions, and that plants and animals have developed into their current form through evolution.


Nothing to do with us, you might think: a shame that naïve fundamentalist American Christians are so deluded, but Western Buddhists are more sensible and hold a doctrine which is compatible with evidence and experience. Unfortunately this is not the case. Western Buddhists pay lip-service to evidence and experience, but then so do Creationists. In the meantime both groups are happy to adhere to beliefs which are not compatible with evidence and experience, and insist that such beliefs are central to the whole meaning of their lives and the practice of their religion. In the case of Western Buddhists, the parallel belief is a literal belief in the Enlightenment of the Buddha.


In the Buddhist account of the Enlightenment of the Buddha, an individual man sat under a Bodhi tree about 2500 years ago, and within a limited period of a few hours moved from an ordinary human state to one of Enlightenment (Bodhi or Nirvana). In this new state the Buddha understood the whole process of conditionality, karma and rebirth, and completely overcame all greed, hatred and ignorance. His teachings thereafter had a revelatory authority which means that Buddhists today still use supposed records of them as the starting point for nearly all discussions of religious truth, and see themselves as following the authoritative teachings of this historical individual.


The parallels are rather striking between the literal Creationist belief and the literal Buddhist one. Both of them are based on scriptures which are around 2000 years old and consist in a written record of stories that were passed on orally for many hundreds of years previously. Both of them are mythically and psychologically very powerful stories, giving rise to no end of artistic and liturgical inspiration. Both of them are often taken to be the cornerstones of their respective beliefs. How could Christians find meaning in the world if they did not believe God created it, and how could they believe in God without a consistent belief that God communicates the truth through the Bible? And how could Buddhists make spiritual progress if there was no historical demonstration that Enlightenment is possible?


I have no comparable statistic for the number of members of the Western Buddhist Order, or of the wider FWBO, or the wider Buddhist community of other schools, who take Enlightenment literally, to set beside the 53% of Americans who are Creationists. However, my guess is that probably about 80% of the Western Buddhist Order take Enlightenment literally. My strongest piece of evidence for this recently comes from that fact that one of the most widely-known public preceptors of the WBO, Subhuti, who presumably knows the Order very well, takes this belief to be definitive of Buddhism and essential for membership of the Order. I quote Subhuti’s paper “There are limits”:


It is possible, without much controversy, to list the most basic beliefs that constitute the essentials of right view. First are those concerning the Buddha. If one is to follow the Buddha as one’s teacher one must believe that
1. a state of Awakening is possible in which one has a direct experience of the true nature of things, which liberates one from all craving and hatred and thereby from all suffering;
2. the human historical Buddha attained that state;
3. having attained it, he understood the Path to its attainment and, out of compassion, taught the Dharma to the world so that others might tread it;
4. it is possible for each of us to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps and to attain what he attained.
In maintaining these beliefs about the Buddha, one establishes meaning and direction for one’s life and opens oneself to the guidance of the Buddha as Teacher. Without these convictions one’s life has no meaning and direction – or a different, non-Buddhist, meaning and direction.

Presumably Subhuti would not take a belief as definitive of the Order which he did not think the vast majority of Order members actually subscribe to. My own experience of discussing this question in the past with senior members of the Order supports a similar conclusion: it was taken as self-evident that Buddhists must believe that there was a historical Enlightenment, and the idea that it might be otherwise was met with incomprehension. Of course, it was admitted that we cannot know for sure that the Buddha attained Enlightenment historically, but it is assumed that we must have faith that he did in order to practise Buddhism. I take it that these opinions would have been highly influential on a large number of other Order members.


I want to argue three points in relation to this:

1. A belief that the Buddha historically attained Enlightenment is no better supported than the belief that God created the world, and the overwhelming evidence against the belief in both cases is similar.

2. A literal belief in the Buddha’s Enlightenment is no more essential to Buddhism than the belief that God created the world in six days is essential to Christianity.

3. Holding a literal belief in the Buddha’s Enlightenment is just as much of an impediment to Buddhists as Creationism is to Christians.


Firstly, literal belief in a historical Enlightenment is no better supported than literal Creationism. As I have already mentioned, both these beliefs are based on accounts in ancient scriptures which were in turn based on oral accounts. I am not going to go into details of ways in which the authenticity of these accounts can be defended, except to ask those who want to defend the historicity of the Buddha’s Enlightenment whether they have read the similar accounts offered by Fundamentalist Christians for the historicity of the Bible. In both cases highly selective use of evidence is used in order to defend special interests, and the strength of the case rests on giving traditional beliefs the benefit of a great many doubts.


In both cases, too, there is a tremendous weight of evidence against the historical belief. In the case of Creation in six days, we have the huge weight of scientific evidence supporting the gradual evolution of organisms over millions of years, the laying down of geological strata over a similar period, and the existence of stars for billions of years. All this evidence contradicts creation in six days because it is factually incompatible with it. In the case of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, rather than scientific evidence we have the benefit of a huge weight of individual human experience. All of this experience suggests that greed, hatred and ignorance are part of the human condition, and are forces that can be weakened and reduced but not altogether eliminated. It also suggests that spiritual progress is possible as we gradually overcome different manifestations of greed, hatred and ignorance, not through an entire switching off of these conditions. It also suggests that claims to have broken through to some absolute revelatory state giving complete instructions for all humanity tend to be mistaken and are subsequently shown to have neglected important conditions. All of this experience is incompatible with the belief that one individual switched off all these conditions on one occasion, and by doing so provided a source of revelatory knowledge.  


Secondly, belief that the Buddha attained Enlightenment is no more essential to Buddhism than the belief that God created the world in six days is essential to Christianity. As liberal Christians have been discovering, the Genesis story is much more powerful as a myth than it is as a historical account. Taken as such, it represents the Christian belief that the world was created by God, with the subsequent story of Adam and Eve representing human guilt and sinfulness. The Christian can look at the world of experience and at the people around him/her, and see the values of those stories embodied both in the divinely created nature of people and in their sinfulness. Obviously, this is not a view of the world compatible with Buddhism, but it illustrates the point that a religious doctrine does not have to be based on a literal interpretation of scripture to be powerfully realised.


In the case of the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment, we find similarly that the story is much more powerful as a myth than as a historical event. The process of experimentation and effort by which the Buddha is said to have attained Enlightenment, and his hitting upon the Middle Way, powerfully symbolises how any spiritual advance takes place in any human experience. The sense of making a breakthrough, awakening, and of understanding things which were previously obscure, is also a universal experience, even if for most people such breakthroughs are far less dramatic than the Buddha’s. The Buddha’s Enlightenment thus provides a symbol which can be related to our experience every day.


Many Buddhists, however, appear to think that there is some causal dependency between the belief in the Buddha’s Enlightenment as a historical event and individual spiritual progress. Again, everyday human experience contradicts any such belief. If belief in the Buddha’s Enlightenment was essential for spiritual progress, nobody would be able to make spiritual progress without it. Yet every day people around the world make both large and small advances against greed, hatred, and ignorance, and the vast majority of them are not Buddhists and do not believe in the Buddha’s Enlightenment. All that is required is that they develop awareness, by one means or another, and sustain that awareness so as not to slip back. Perhaps the use of the Buddha’s Enlightenment as a symbol plays a causal role in a small minority of these cases of spiritual advance, that occur to Buddhists – but here the Buddha’s Enlightenment as a symbol is what provides inspiration for the Buddhist, not the Buddha’s Enlightenment as a historical event.


Indeed, the strongest reason for thinking that there is no such causal dependency is the ways in which the traditional belief contradicts itself. “The Buddha was human, as we are human,” (so the Threefold Puja goes in its more politically correct version), “What the Buddha attained, we too can attain.” Yet how did the Buddha attain it without the prior example of himself to make it possible, if belief in the Buddha’s Enlightenment is required to make spiritual progress? Was the Buddha’s progress not proper “Buddhist” progress? Did it not go far enough? If we can allegedly do what the Buddha did, we can also do it whether or not the Buddha in fact did it.


There is also an error of reasoning involved in the assumption that belief in the complete realisation of a process to an absolute point is required to support belief in the relative occurrence of that process. Take the comparison with evolution. We do not need to believe in an absolute product of evolution in the form of a perfect superman, which it is impossible to evolve beyond, to believe that evolution takes place. There is plenty of evidence that “relative evolution” takes place in organisms genetically mutating and proving better or worse adapted to new circumstances, even, in some cases, within one human lifetime (as in the case of moths that became darker to camouflage themselves against darkened polluted buildings, and then lighter again after a clean-up). Evidence for “absolute evolution”, on the other hand, is totally non-existent. Why should “relative enlightenment” cause any more problems than “relative evolution”, and why should it be necessary to appeal to an absolute form in either case?


My final point is that belief in the literal Enlightenment of the Buddha is just as much of an impediment to Buddhists as belief in the literal Creation is to Christians. Whenever we peg our identity and our sense of meaning on a belief that lies beyond our experience, it becomes a magnet for dogmatism, with resulting contempt for evidence, conflict and hypocrisy. All this can be seen easily by Buddhists when applied to Christianity. Creationism is creating conflict in the school system of the United States, and, where it succeeds in influencing people, a widespread contempt for scientific method and for the openness to evidence and the possibility of falsification of one’s theory that it requires. The hypocrisy of those who take for granted the many benefits of science, such as those of modern medical treatments and technology, yet have such contempt for one of its most basic tenets, is also fairly clear.


If we turn to Buddhism, the effects of a dogmatic clinging to a literal belief in the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and to its use as a source of revelation, can be readily seen in the rigidities of the Theravada. In the WBO, too, the beginnings of conflict, contempt for evidence, and hypocrisy can also be seen in Subhuti’s appeal to this doctrine as an essential belief for Order membership. Subhuti’s appeal flies in the face of evidence that many people’s spiritual progress, both in the FWBO and beyond it, has not relied on any such belief. Only an attachment to a particular formulation of theory, rather than a deduction from the experience of practice, appears to be behind it. The claim that people who do not believe it (such as myself) should leave the Order is a recipe for conflict, and any who choose to accede to that demand and subscribe to these beliefs, without being fully comfortable with them, will avoid conflict but sow the seeds of hypocrisy in its place.


The comparison between the Creation and the Enlightenment, like any comparison, is a selective one. I’m sure that many important differences can also be found between the two beliefs and the way they are held. However, I have chosen to pick out certain similarities in an attempt to help Buddhists wake up from their dogmatic slumbers. We should not be adopting double standards in criticising Christian beliefs for a dogmatism that we also follow ourselves, and if we are going to criticise Christianity we should set our own house in order first and get rather clearer about our own beliefs and their basis.


Robert Ellis (Upeksacitta)  2/12/07


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