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Buddhist beliefs regarding a creator deity are varied. Theravāda Buddhism, consistently rejects the notion of a creator deity. It teaches the concept of gods, heavens and rebirths in its Saṃsāra doctrine, but it considers none of these gods as a creator. Buddhism posits that mundane deities such as Mahabrahma are misconstrued to be a creator. Buddhist ontology follows the doctrine of Dependent Origination, whereby all phenomena arise in dependence on other phenomena, hence no primal unmoved mover could be acknowledged or discerned.
However, Mahayana Buddhism does believe in the doctrine of Sunyata (emptiness) or Tathata (thatness) out of which all things emerge. Furthermore, this ultimate reality is considered to be the Tathagatagarbha (Womb of all Buddhas) and the Adi Buddha (Primordial Buddha) who is worshipped differently in various Mahayana traditions as Vairocana or Amitabha and in the Vajrayana traditions as Samantabhadra or Vajradhara. Thus this concept of an ultimate reality which is the source of all things approximates the idea of a creator God.
According to Buddhologist Richard Hayes, the early Buddhist Nikaya literature treats the question of the existence of a creator god "primarily from either an epistemological point of view or a moral point of view". In these texts the Buddha is portrayed not as a creator-denying atheist who claims to be able to prove such a God's nonexistence, but rather his focus is other teachers' claims that their teachings lead to the highest good.
Citing the Devadaha Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 101), Hayes states, "while the reader is left to conclude that it is attachment rather than God, actions in past lives, fate, type of birth or efforts in this life that is responsible for our experiences of sorrow, no systematic argument is given in an attempt to disprove the existence of God."
The Pali Canon however also gives a different view. In the Nibbana Sutta of the Udana Nikaya, the Buddha says, "There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated. If there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born, become, made, fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn, unbecome unmade, unfabricated escape from the born, become, made, fabricated is discerned." Buddhism thus acknowledges an Ultimate that transcends the material world. This in Theravada is called Nibbana and in Mahayana it is called Sunyata and worshipped as Adi Buddha.
According to Peter Harvey, Buddhism assumes that the universe has no ultimate beginning to it, and thus sees no need for a creator God. In the early texts of Buddhism, the nearest term to this concept is "Great Brahma" (MahaBrahma) such as in Digha Nikaya 1.18. However "[w]hile being kind and compassionate, none of the brahmās are world-creators."
In the Pali canon, Buddhism includes the concept of reborn gods. According to this theory, periodically the physical world system ends and beings of that world system are reborn as gods in lower heavens. This too ends, according to Buddhist cosmology, and god Mahabrahma is then born, who is alone. He longs for the presence of others, and the others gods are reborn as his ministers and companions. Mahabrahma, states the Buddhist Canon, forgets his past lives, and falsely believes himself to be the Creator, Maker, All-seeing, the Lord. This belief, state the Buddhist texts, is then shared by other gods. Eventually, however one of the gods die and is reborn as human with the power to remember his previous life. He teaches what he remembers from his previous life in lower heaven, that Mahabrahma is the Creator. It is this that leads to the human belief in Creator, according to the Pali Canon.
According to Harvey, "[a]fter a long period, the three lowest form heavens appear, and a Streaming Radiance god dies and is reborn there as a Great Brahmā." Then "other Streaming Radiance gods die and happen to be reborn, due to their karma, as his ministers and retinue." The retinue erroneously believes Mahabrahma created them. When one of these ministers "eventually dies and is reborn as a human, he develops the power to remember his previous life, and consequently teaches that Great Brahmā is the eternal creator of all beings."
The Chinese monk Xuanzang (fl. c. 602–664) studied Buddhism in India during the seventh century, staying at Nalanda. There, he studied the Yogacara teachings passed down from Asanga and Vasubandhu and taught to him by the abbot Śīlabhadra. In his work Cheng Weishi Lun (Skt. Vijñāptimātratāsiddhi śāstra), Xuanzang refutes a "Great Lord" or Great Brahmā doctrine:
According to one doctrine, there is a great, self-existent deity whose substance is real and who is all-pervading, eternal, and the producer of all phenomena. This doctrine is unreasonable. If something produces something, it is not eternal, the non-eternal is not all-pervading, and what is not all-pervading is not real. If the deity's substance is all-pervading and eternal, it must contain all powers and be able to produce all dharmas everywhere, at all times, and simultaneously. If he produces dharma when a desire arises, or according to conditions, this contradicts the doctrine of a single cause. Or else, desires and conditions would arise spontaneously since the cause is eternal. Other doctrines claim that there is a great Brahma, a Time, a Space, a Starting Point, a Nature, an Ether, a Self, etc., that is eternal and really exists, is endowed with all powers, and is able to produce all dharmas. We refute all these in the same way we did the concept of the Great Lord.
The 7th-century Buddhist scholar Dharmakīrti advances a number of arguments against the existence of a creator god in his Pramāṇavārtika, following in the footsteps of Vasubandhu. Later Mahayana scholars such as Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla continued this tradition.
The 11th-century Buddhist philosopher Ratnakīrti at the then university at Vikramashila (now Bhagalpur, Bihar) criticized the arguments for the existence of God-like being called Isvara, that emerged in the Navya-Nyaya sub-school of Hinduism, in his “Refutation of Arguments Establishing Īśvara” (Īśvara-sādhana-dūṣaṇa). These arguments are similar to those used by other sub-schools of Hinduism and Jainism that questioned the Navya-Nyaya theory of dualistic creator.