Buddhism is Monotheistic, God Optional…

Monotheism means ‘One God,’ right, as if that’s the solution to all our problems? No, well, maybe, but that’s only one of the problems, then. Because certainly just adding another god every time you have another challenge says more about you than the God or the challenge. This reminds me most of the Cargo Cults in Melanesia within the past century or so, in which the indigenous people made sense of their encounter with wealthy westerners—and their religion—by positing a belief in the delivery of merchandise with the aid of certain rituals, i.e. Christianity-Capitalism without all the pesky Commandments.

But as the cult aged, and the cargo became uncertain, given the prevarications of its masters, the Americans, then the locals had to resort to heightened measures to hopefully achieve the same results. The efforts were many and diverse: longer runways for the planes to land; higher towers to signal them in, American soldiers’ uniforms to get the ritual right, and/or parades and military drills to imitate the patterns of the successful entreaties, etc. You get the idea. The whole effort was designed to imitate the success that they had witnessed on the part of Japanese and American soldiers and the supplies they attracted.

In reality, of course, almost like another physical or spiritual dimension, what had happened is that World War II had ended and the soldiers that fought in that war no longer had need of the South Pacific Islands in which the Melanesians lived, and the trade that soldiers brought. It was nice while it lasted, though, and if the islanders wanted it to continue, then they must follow certain rituals, mostly based on sympathetic magic, in imitation of the soldiers that had presided over the original shipments, as advised by the Big Men leaders who had always managed local affairs.

Well, you can imagine how that all worked out. And it’s no secret that the efforts were flawed, even if the appearance was fraud. That’s why they kept it so well hidden in the outback, so as not to attract the attention of the colonizers who might quickly put an end to such dubious practices. Yet similar practices occur to this day in societies much more advanced, for example Thailand. There the village faithful wear specially prepared images of local saints, many antique, prepared to dangle around the neck in a show of obeisance to the worship of Buddha. I have one myself.

For better or worse, that simple obeisance gets weird quickly when true believers decide that more is better, and so proceed to get greedy with their prayers, adding more priest fetishes for increased protection—and reward. This is ridiculous, of course, when devotees string so many metal-and-glass-encased saints around their necks that they can barely move for all the clamor and weight. And so it was way back when. More gods were simply added when needed, such that none of them any longer conveyed any real meaning.

So Baal cults yielded to the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, and Hinduism yielded to Buddhism. And in the latter case, since there really are no gods, at least not originally, it’s easy to see that what we have obtained in the process is not a more familiar figurehead, since most monotheistic religions have no defined figurehead, but an enhanced doctrine, where perhaps none even existed before. Who remembers the Baal cults’ Ten Commandments? I doubt there were any. But I imagine that the Christian and Muslim ones are virtually identical, for that is the nature of the case.    

More interesting is that the Buddhist precepts are also virtually identical to the Christian Ten Commandments. Interestingly, none of the major religions has any prohibition on slavery. We moderns had to figure that out ourselves—painfully. And many religious devotees welcome the appellation as slave or servant of the Lord, or in Sanskrit ‘Das.’ Many are the Hindus and Buddhists both who proudly claim the name Das as their own, even though this same word was a curse levelled at the enemy in the Rg Veda.  

Such is devotional religion, in which images inspire the weak to find strength in submission. But as I see it monotheism is all about the replacement of deity with doctrine. Who knows what the Christian deity looks like? Ditto Jewish and Islamic. Who cares? But we clearly have the doctrines of eternal soul, eternal life, and infinite mind, to which Capitalism would add infinite resources and democracy would add unlimited rights, for the ultimate trifecta.

Buddhism goes one better, in my humble opinion, by dropping the fantasy of eternal life and concentrating on the present predicament, figureheads optional, and it is interesting to note that no images of the Buddha himself were utilized until after contact with the form-worshipping Greeks in Gandhara. Thus we have the Middle Path between luxury and lack, existence and non-existence, aggression and conciliation. And I see the Divine Feminine present in the Buddhist doctrine, though not described as such, for that would certainly have failed in an increasingly patriarchal world.

The Buddha was famous for his ‘skillful means.’ And that is the advantage of monotheism—and doctrine. We can concentrate on what is important and leave the gross superstitions to the less literate. Language is the most powerful weapon ever invented, for both good and bad, and it is only a question of how to utilize it most effectively. It is the brilliance of Buddhism to realize that sometimes it is most effective when held in check, in reserve, like money, or like the atom bomb. Sometimes to use it all is to lose it all. Thus meditation can serve both a personal and social function, of freedom from and freedom to (fill in the blank)…