Originally Posted by hairyheretic
I may well be showing my ignorance here, but what the heck ..
Here come another Buddhist lecture
, hope you are sitting comfortably. I am not the worlds best a writting these long explanations, but have done my best here. It refers to the term Gods in a general way and does not lock onto the name of any particular God. The explanation applies equally to the one you listed, which are not real gods but actors in moral plays and stories. With the exception of the Buddha they do not exist in their portrayed form but are modified to suit the time and age, or to emphasis their importance to the story. I might even recommend you grab a drink while you are at it, could come in useful.
Let us begin with history; I hated history in school.
When our ancestors began to think about the universe around them, they found that it contained countless mysteries they could not explain. Unpredictable events, such as eclipses, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and even sunshine, rain and snow were over time attributed to the incomprehensible workings of "god" or "gods". This was expanded to include good and bad fortune, good and bad luck, and eventually to just about any event one could hang a name on. Today, science has shown that these events are not proof of some supernatural good-will or bad-will of a God or Gods. We now know that they are due to the laws of nature, which do not normally change. Nevertheless, we are still unable to accurately predict all events, even with the aid of science, which is still helpless to do anything to keep them from occurring.
In Buddhism, we traditionally refer to these forces as good and bad "gods" as we did in our ancestor’s time. But the use of that word has nothing in common with a Creator God such as the God of the Christian faith, and these gods are not seen as supernatural—and my name is now probably on the hit list of all creationist/IDers. These Gods always function based on the ultimate law of the universe. Their bad or protective powers do not, like the power of the Christian God, exist by itself. Buddhist gods do not hold a controlling position like that of the Christian God. On the contrary, Buddhist gods come out of life itself. They do not punish and they do not give deliverance. They are said to respond to the sound of the True Invocation of the Law i.e. chanting and meditation. They are, so to speak, at the service of everyone who embraces and practices Buddhism, and every one of us can experience the functioning of the Buddhist gods if we make the right cause.
In the Christian view, people are powerless in the face of God in this lifetime and also in the next. By powerless I mean that Christians are at the mercy of their God (think heaven & Hell). They cannot change the existence of heaven and hell, but they do follow guidelines laid down by their God that enable them to chart their final destination. On the contrary, Buddhism teaches that we are not at the mercy of an arbitrary power and that natural forces can be made to protect or aid us by chanting and meditation. A Buddhist strives to become a Buddha in everyday life by living in complete harmony with the universe, and that also means that how the forces in the universe operate is directly linked to us. We believe that those who chant and fuse with the universe can definitely succeed in their endeavors in this lifetime; and they will be able to perceive and experience the beneficial existence of the forces in the universe as they function on our behalf.
According to tradition, when the Buddha revealed his enlightenment the gods, or as we now-I hope after this lecture- know to call them natural forces, were in attendance. The first chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which is the core teaching of my school of Buddhism, contains this line: "Present at the Ceremony (revealing of his enlightenment) were the God of the Moon, the God of the stars and the God of the Sun together with all the other Buddhist gods."
This is of course an allegory and what it is trying to say is that all natural forces of the universe were present. Allegory can be troublesome to most people in the west, not so here in Japan. They are freely incorporated into belief systems. We seem to live in a period of extreme rationalism and demand to understand concepts using the tools of science. But it is the nature of the truth of Buddhism that the tools of science are not enough to validate Buddhism.
As an example of how we incorporate these Gods:
Among the Buddhist gods (the forces of Nature remember), the most visible to us is the power of the Sun. It rises up out of the east, and its light makes all quarters of our environment clear. All things begin to stir in response to its great power, and there would be no life on this planet without it. Therefore, we perform a morning devotion (akin to Christian prayer) facing eastward and chanting in respect to this force of nature. And so on it goes throughout the entire pantheon of traditional Buddhist Gods.
Phew, that was a mouthful
Sorry about the length of this, Buddhism tends to require oceans of text to explain even the simplest of points. I hope it will give you some understanding of where gods fit in the Buddhist belief system. However, please bear in mind this is from the perspective of the school of Buddhism I follow. All the other school will have differing takes on certain aspects.