Basics, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism

Does Zen Buddhism Believes in God?

As we delve into the world of spirituality and religious beliefs, we often encounter the universal question, “Does God exist”?

While many religious doctrines are founded on the belief in a supreme deity, Zen Buddhism takes a different path. This intriguing branch of Buddhism, known for its meditation-centric approach, does not emphasize a divine figure. But does this mean that Zen Buddhism doesn’t believe in God? 

In this article, I invite you to explore Zen Buddhism’s unique perspective on the mysteries of life through thr concept of “Inmo,” or Ineffable. We will unravel how the teachings of Zen illuminate the path to enlightenment, emphasizing mindfulness, individual responsibility, and harmony with the universe instead of relying on a central deity. So, let’s embark on this journey to understand better Zen Buddhism’s stance on the concept of God.

What Did the Buddha Say About God?

In Buddhism, the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, the historical figure known as the Buddha, do not extensively address the existence or nature of a supreme deity. The Buddha’s primary focus was on the causes of suffering and the path to liberation, known as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

One particular teaching by the Buddha, the Arrow Allegory, provides important context to his perspective on questions such as the existence of God. The allegory narrates a man shot by an arrow who refuses treatment until he knows the shooter’s identity and the arrow’s nature that struck him. The man’s fixation on these details results in his death before receiving the necessary treatment. In this allegory, Buddha compares the arrow to suffering and the man’s inquiries to metaphysical speculations. He suggests focusing on the immediate problem —suffering — and finding a solution should be the priority rather than being consumed by existential questions.

Regarding the concept of God, the Buddha’s teachings can be summarized as follows:

  • Practical Agnosticism: The Buddha maintained an agnostic stance on the existence of a supreme being. He discouraged speculative metaphysical inquiries unrelated to the goal of liberation. Instead, he focused his teachings on practical observations of human suffering and the means to alleviate it.
  • Rejecting the Creator Deity: The Buddha explicitly rejected the notion of a creator God responsible for the creation and control of the universe. Instead, he taught that the universe operates according to natural laws and interdependent causes and conditions, known as dependent origination.
  • Focus on Individual Responsibility: The Buddha stressed the individual’s role in their liberation. He emphasized that one’s actions (karma) have consequences, and through understanding and skillful actions, individuals can transform themselves and attain liberation.

As you can see, the Buddha’s teachings were very practical and concerned with human suffering and the path to liberation rather than philosophical speculations on the nature of God. 

What is Zen Buddhism’s Stance on the Concept of God?

Zen Buddhism aligns closely with the broader Buddhist stance on the concept of God. However, due to its historical interaction with Daoism, Zen incorporated the notion of cosmic order. 

This perspective emphasizes the integration of individual existence into the seamless fabric of reality, highlighting the interplay of various elements and the inherent balance in the natural world.

Why Zen Buddhism Does Not Emphasize God?

Understanding the principles of Zen Buddhism involves exploring why this branch of Buddhism does not emphasize the concept of God. This aspect of Zen philosophy may be intriguing, even confusing, to those raised in traditions where higher power is a fundamental part of religious and spiritual understanding. However, the absence of a deity-centric view within Zen is a significant characteristic that shapes its teachings and practices.

  • Personal Realization Over Belief in a Higher Power: In Zen Buddhism, the journey toward enlightenment is deeply personal and intrinsic. It focuses on self-realization rather than the belief in an external higher power. This does not necessarily equate to atheism or agnosticism but rather indicates a distinctive focus on the innate human capacity for spiritual awakening. The objective is cultivating personal insight, or Satori (Nirvana), which requires introspection and self-awareness, not necessarily divine intervention or blessings from an external deity.
  • Focus on Self-Reliance and Self-Discovery: The non-emphasis on God in Zen Buddhism underlines a critical element of its teachings: self-reliance and self-discovery. Zen practitioners believe enlightenment is attainable within oneself rather than something a deity bestows. This approach fosters a sense of spiritual autonomy, encouraging individuals to seek their paths to awakening. It embodies the Buddhist teaching that we all have the Buddha Nature; we must recognize this inherent potential within ourselves.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation for Enlightenment: Another pillar of Zen practice that redirects focus away from a deity is the importance of mindfulness and meditation. Zen meditation, or Zazen, is a practice designed to quiet the mind, allowing practitioners to concentrate deeply and achieve a state of enlightenment. This mindfulness and clarity of thought are seen as a way to grasp the essential nature of the universe and oneself rather than seeking answers from an external divine being.
  • Emphasis on the Present Moment: In Zen Buddhism, the emphasis is heavily placed on the present moment, reflecting the transience and impermanence of life, known as ‘mujo’ in Zen terminology. Practitioners are encouraged to live in the now, fully aware and attentive. This perspective allows individuals to perceive the world as it is, unobstructed by thoughts of a divine being or the afterlife. This focus on the present leads to an understanding of the true nature of existence.
  • Individual Responsibility Over-Reliance on a Deity: Lastly, Zen Buddhism teaches that individuals are responsible for their actions and spiritual development. Karma, the law of moral causation, is a central concept in Buddhism. According to this principle, our past actions affect our present circumstances, and our current actions will influence our future. This focus on personal responsibility underscores the importance of individual moral and ethical conduct and reduces reliance on a deity for guidance or forgiveness.

In conclusion, while Zen Buddhism does not entirely deny the existence of deities or higher powers, it does not centralize them in its practice. Instead, it supports the potential for self-realization, the power of the present moment, and the importance of individual responsibility, resulting in a unique spiritual path that champions self-reliance and mindfulness.

What Is the Concept of ‘Inmo’ in Zen Buddhism?

The term inmo is a term used by Dogen Zenji, a 13th-century Japanese Zen master, to refer to something that is ineffable or beyond conceptual understanding or impossible to understand. It’s often translated as “it” or “such,” and is used to point to the ultimate reality or the fundamental nature of existence that can’t be captured by words or intellectual understanding. In Dogen’s teachings, “inmo” is something to be experienced directly, often through the practice of zazen or seated meditation.

Inmo opens up a space that entertains the mysteries of existence, including concepts that are often encapsulated under the term “God” in other spiritual or religious traditions. The exploration of Inmo invites one into a realm where the ordinary distinctions, definitions, and conceptual frameworks may fall short, and where the ineffable dimensions of existence come into play.

The acknowledgment of life’s mystery is central to the exploration of Inmo. This mystery, often referred to as the ineffable, holds within it the vastness and complexity of life, the unseen forces, and the unknown dimensions that can be aligned with what many traditions would call the Divine or God. Inmo, by refusing to be pinned down to a specific conceptual definition, leaves room for the profound mystery that life is, thus incorporating an openness that can include a recognition of the divine mystery that is often associated with the concept of God.

“Inmo is a term used by Dogen Zenji, a 13th-century Japanese Zen master, to refer to something that is ineffable or beyond conceptual understanding or impossible to understand.

In his essay on Inmo, Zen Master Dogen navigates through the unknown and the unknowable, pointing towards an understanding that transcends the conventional boundaries of thought. This resonates with many spiritual teachings that emphasize the mysterious nature of the Divine. By engaging with Inmo, one is essentially stepping into a space of acknowledging and embracing the mystery that life and existence carry within them.

This Zen approach, through the lens of Inmo, allows for an exploration into the heart of existence, a journey that is both inward and outward. It’s a recognition of a larger reality, an acknowledgment of a divine presence that permeates through the fabric of existence. The term Inmo serves as a symbolic representation of this profound reality, a marker to the ineffable truth.

Dogen’s poetic exposition on Inmo serves as a gentle nudge towards the uncharted waters of existence, where the divine isn’t a mere concept but a lived experience. It’s a call to acknowledge the mystery, to honor the unknown, and to live in a space of continual exploration.

Inmo beckons one to step beyond the known, to venture into the realms of mystery with an open heart and an open mind. It’s a term that encapsulates the Zen spirit of inquiry, the boundless exploration into the heart of the divine mystery.

In essence, Zen Buddhism doesn’t necessarily reject the idea of God or a higher power; rather, it acknowledges the limitations of human understanding in grasping the mysteries of life.


While not centered on a personal God, Zen Buddhism offers a unique perspective on “that which that is beyond conceptual understanding”, often referred to as “inmo” in the teachings of Dogen Zenji. Through its emphasis on direct experience, meditation, and personal transformation, Zen provides a path for practitioners to deepen their understanding of themselves, the world, and this ultimate, indescribable reality.

As we saw, Zen Buddhism doesn’t outright reject the idea of God or a higher power; rather, it acknowledges the profound mysteries of life that elude intellectual understanding. This absence of a traditional notion of God in Zen does not diminish its spiritual depth. Rather, it invites individuals to explore their own intimate experience of “inmo,” encouraging them to engage fully in the present moment, beyond conceptual thinking.

By examining Zen Buddhism’s relationship with the concept of the divine, especially through the lens of “inmo,” we gain insight into a philosophy that encourages personal exploration and enlightenment, offering a rich and nuanced understanding of the ultimate nature of reality.