Qualifications of the divine and the nature of supreme reality are core concepts of any religious tradition. Hinduism and Buddhism conceptualize the divine and the nature of reality in complementary yet distinct ways. Buddhism emerged from Hinduism, in a manner not wholly unlike the way Christianity emerged from Judaism. Therefore, there are several core similarities in the cosmologies and the conceptualizations of divine reality between these two faiths. Moreover, the religious practices and philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism tend to be more similar than they are different. These similarities should not obscure the real and practical differences in the ways Hindus and Buddhists conceptualize and communicate matters related to the nature of the divine, and the nature of supreme reality. In particular, Buddhism avoids distinctions between a divine and a profane realm; there are no actual Buddhist deities or gods. Hinduism boasts a plethora of gods and goddesses, although the religion retains a monotheistic core that belies its colorful pantheon. Supreme reality is, for both Hindus and Buddhists, a state of mind, and ultimately a state of being for the collectivity of human consciousness. This is why Hindu and Buddhist meditation practices share in common the encouragement of the practitioner to achieve a state of mind conducive to existence in the supreme reality not after death but in this lifetime, here and now.
Hinduism: Concepts of the Divine and Supreme Reality
Hinduism is complex and diverse; there is no authority on what constitutes Hindu belief, thought, and practice as there is a papacy in Catholicism. All Hindu beliefs, however, are rooted in the Vedas -- the Hindu sacred texts, and enhanced by the Upanishads, also Hindu sacred texts. In spite of the diversity within Hindu thought, belief, practice, and culture, it is possible to refer to the general beliefs that Hindus share in common related to the nature of the divine and the supreme reality. The most fundamental of these beliefs is that there is a Supreme Being, Brahman, which is also the term given to Supreme Reality. Supreme Reality and Supreme Being are therefore interchangeable concepts in Hinduism. Hindus also conceptualize Brahman as having both a personal and an impersonal aspect. The impersonal, or Nirguna Brahman has no characteristics as such; it is not anthropomorphized or thought of in terms of having qualities like kindness or wrath ("Religions and Religious Thoughts of India"). Nirguna Brahman can be known through direct experience in meditation, but "this aspect of the Ultimate Reality is beyond conception, beyond reasoning and beyond thought," ("Religions and Religious Thoughts of India"). Although Ultimate Reality cannot be known through intellectual or conscious thought, it can be known via direct experience in meditation -- when the personal mind and ego melt into the Brahman. Unifying the individual consciousness with the Absolute consciousness of the universal mind, as Nirguna Brahman, is one of the goals of Hindu practice.
The personal aspect of Brahman does have attributes, and those attributes correspond with a Creator god. Personal Brahman, or Saguna Brahman, has both male and female manifestations. When referred to as a female, Brahman manifests as the Divine Mother, Durga, or Kali; as male Brahman is known by various Sanskrit names including Purusha and Ishvara ("Religions and Religious Thoughts of India"). All manifestations of Brahman are as "creator, sustainer and controller" of the universe ("Religions and Religious Thoughts of India"). Considered as Saguna Brahman, god is conceptualized as a holy trinity. In addition to Saguna Brahman, there is also Vishnu and Shiva. Whereas Brahman occupies the role of creator, Vishnu "represents the eternal principle of preservation," ("Religions and Religious Thoughts of India"). Thus, Vishnu is the sustainer of the universe. Shiva is known as the destroyer; the force that naturally creates "dissolution and re-creation," ("Religions and Religious Thoughts of India"). These three core manifestations of Hindu Supreme Deity are conceived of as falling under one divine umbrella.
Hinduism is not a strictly polytheistic religion in spite of there being a pantheon of gods in Hindu sacred texts. Rather, Hindus are "monotheists who worship various aspects of the divine rather than various divinities," (Cline). Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva are not so much different gods as they are different aspects of One God. However, Hindus tend to gravitate toward the worship of one of the specific manifestations of the divine in order to guide personal practice and consciousness. One Hindu man interviewed for this research claimed to be a "Vaishnavite," meaning he worships Vishnu. Yet he emphasized the fact that all Hindus worship the "same god, but in different ways." There are some differences in the ways different Hindus worship, and they do use different temples. The beliefs and practices seem different enough that "each can be considered a complete and independent religion," (Tiwary). Yet, each Hindu tradition shares in common "a vast heritage of culture and belief namely: karma, dharma, reincarnation, all-pervasive Divinity, temple worship, sacraments, manifold Deities, the many yogas, the guru-disciple tradition and a reliance on the Vedas as the final scriptural authority," (Tiwary).
Central to the Hindu concept of Absolute Reality is the concept of the Atman, which is the personal soul. The goal of Hinduism is unity between Atman and Brahman, between the individual consciousness and the consciousness of the Divine. This state of being is called different things, such as Samadhi or Nirvana. It is this emphasis on abstract metaphysical unity that introduces the primary way that Hinduism and Buddhism remain similar.
Buddhism: Concepts of the Divine and Supreme Reality
Perhaps the greatest misconception about Buddhism is that the Buddha is a god. Nothing could be farther from the truth; the Buddha is simply a man who attained the supreme level of consciousness, Nirvana. The term Buddha means "One Who Is Awake," (Samraj). Buddhism does not conceptualize a universe that was created at any one point in time, either. Creation is co-dependent and co-existent with absolute nothingness; the universe is in a continual state of being created but there is no Supreme Being orchestrating Creation or influencing human life.
The Buddha was not a hard atheist who denied that God could exist; but Buddha "taught that the worship of gods obstructed one's quest for nirvana. To him the gods inhabit the cosmos and are impermanent like all other living beings," ("Basics of Buddhism"). Buddhist sacred texts consist of the recorded teachings of Buddha in the Sutras. Various types of Buddhism place differential emphasis on different Buddhist texts to inform meditation, philosophy, and practice.
In most forms of Buddhism, there is no Supreme Being at all. There are, however, sects of Buddhism that have postulated the existence of an actual deity, but a belief in deity is inconsistent with the canon of Buddhist literature and philosophy (Freeman). There is, however, a Buddhist concept of Supreme Reality. Supreme Reality in Buddhism is a complex concept that is discussed in diverse ways throughout Buddhist scripture. Some forms of Buddhism emphasize nothingness and emptiness, which paradoxically suggest the absence of any reality, let alone a divine one.
At the same time, Buddhism can conceive of Absolute Reality that is nirvana or a state of mind. In this sense, there is a divine reality but that divine reality is a state of consciousness that can be and is attainable by human beings in this lifetime. Some types of Buddhism use colorful and poetic analogies that suggest the existence of an Absolute Reality, but these poetic devices are merely used as mental anchors rather than as representations of an actual dimension or place ("Sutra of the Buddha's Teaching on Amitabha Buddha"). Phrases like "Utmost Happiness" are the Divine Realities that are synonymous with nirvana ("Sutra of the Buddha's Teaching on Amitabha Buddha"). The Heart Sutra, one of the core texts of Buddhist study, exemplifies the concept of Nothingness as Supreme Reality: "Form is empty therefore no difficulties are to be discerned. Feeling is empty therefore no feeling. Thought is empty therefore no knowing."
The difference between having a deity and not is one that is both metaphysical and practical. Any perceived attributions of divinity on the Buddha or on various "divine kings," or "divine figures" signal a misunderstanding of Buddhist cosmology and metaphysics. Buddhism posits that Nirvana is a state of being that is inherently divine, in that it is free from human suffering or egotism. Persons who, like the historical Gautama Buddha, achieved this state of enlightenment can be referred to as divine given that they have transcended suffering and the wheel of karma. There are also beings who selflessly volunteer to return to an incarnate state in order to assist other sentient beings in achieving enlightenment. These beings are known as bodhisattvas, and they can be considered as divine without actually being objects of worship. Bodhisattvas can be objects of contemplation and meditation, as an ideal role model to aspire to in the regular practice of mindfulness meditation.
The Absolute Reality is coexistent with any other reality, even that which is perceived to be mundane. This makes Buddhism seem like…