I personally don’t share that view and thought it would be enjoyable to review some of the statements in which he appears to acknowledge a belief in God – well, not a belief really, as we think of it, because Buddha would have experienced God directly and profoundly and passed beyond belief.
Far from being a non-believer in God, the Buddha acknowledged “one common essence” (1) which he, with his deeply-penetrating spiritual insight, was able to see and know. As far as I can see, this “one common essence” was God, as he implies in this further statement:
“If we examine the origin of anything in all the universe, we find that it is but a manifestation of some primal essence. Even the tiny leaves of herbs, knots of threads, everything, if we examine them carefully we find that there is some essence in its originality. Even open space is not nothingness. How can it be then that the wonderful, pure, tranquil and enlightened Mind, which is the source of all conceptions of manifested phenomena, should have no essence of itself?” (2)
In my view, the phrases “one common essence” and “primal essence” suggest knowledge of God.
To the best of my knowledge, the Buddha used Vipassana meditation to look ever more deeply into the structure of his own mind, and, when he reached the point where no wave (or vritti) arose in it, he saw his own “essence” or “nature.” Having seen it, he could declare:
“The Essential Intuitive Mind [possesses] its own mysterious Enlightening Nature, and … the attainment to this Essential Intuitive Mind unveils this mysterious Enlightening Nature.” (3)
I take this “mysterious enlightening nature” again to be God.
According to him, were there no God, “primal essence” or “mysterious enlightening nature,” there could be no possible escape from the self with its threefold suffering of sickness, old age, and death. He describes that “essence” with negatives.
“Monks, there is a not-born, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded. Monks, if that unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this, here, that is born, become, made, compounded.” (4)
Keep in mind that the Buddha, by the time he left for the forest, had already studied with great Hindu saints. He had by then achieved Brahmajnana, the enlightenment that comes with the rise of the kundalini to the Seventh or Crown Chakra. Yet he still detected movement in the mind and remained unsatisfied.
He turned down the offer of his guru to become his successor and inherit the ashram, preferring instead to become a mendicant and finish the work of enlightenment.
During his sojourn in the forest, he set out to eliminate all waves in the mind and, when he did so, he achieved a level of enlightenment which I believe to have been sahaja samadhi (although I could be wrong). It is a permanent state of enlightenment. It occurs when the kundalini passes beyond the Seventh Chakra and comes to rest in the spiritual heart or hridayam (not the Fourth or Heart Chakra).
In my opinion, other achievers of sahaja include Sri Ramana Mahasrshi, Bernadette Roberts, Franklin Merrell-Woolf, and Adyashanti.
The Buddha could now say “I have obtained deliverance by the extinction of self.” (5)
If he had only attained Brahmajnana, the “self” he extinguished would be the “lower self” or ego. But the self he transcended was more than that. He had extinguished the Higher “Self” and attained what Bernadette Roberts called the “No-Self.” This the Buddha referred to as “supreme Enlightenment.” (6)
Referring to her own experiences, Bernadette Roberts, another modern-day Buddha, explains that level of enlightenment this way:
“I came upon a permanent state in which there was no self, not even a higher self, a true self, or anything that could be called a self. Clearly, I had fallen outside my own, as well as the traditional, frame of reference when I came upon a path that seemed to begin where the writers on the contemplative life had left off.” (7)
The Buddha’s guru was unable to take him past Brahmajnana so the Buddha needed to go off into the forest to complete his journey. Two millennia later, Bernadette Roberts was unable to find a teacher who could help her complete the journey, and, like the Buddha before her, went off into the forest and finished the task herself. (8)
(1) The Buddha in Dwight Goddard, A Buddhist Bible. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966; c1938, 283.
(2) Ibid., 126.
(3) Ibid., 182.
(4) The Buddha in Trevor Ling, The Buddha’s Philosophy of Man. Early Indian Buddhist Dialogues. London, etc.: Dent, 1981, xiii. (Hereafter BPM.)
(5) The Buddha to Upaka, the first monk he met after enlightenment, in Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha According to Old Records. Tucson: Omen Press, 1972, 37.
(6) The Buddha in BPM, 154.
(7) Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self. A Contemplative Journey. Boston and London: Shamballa, 1985, 10. (Hereafter ENS.)
(8) See Bernadette Roberts, ENS and Path to No-Self. Boston and London: Shamballa, 1985.