Buddhism as an Atheistic Religion


images (5)

If atheism is the absence of belief in gods, then many Buddhists are, indeed, atheists.

Buddhism is not about either believing or not believing in God or gods. Rather, the historical Buddha taught that believing in gods was not useful for those seeking to realize enlightenment. In other words, God is unnecessary in Buddhism. For this reason, Buddhism is more accurately called nontheistic than atheistic.

The Buddha also plainly said that he was not a god, but “awakened.” Yet throughout Asia it is common to find people praying to the Buddha or to the many clearly mythical figures that populate Buddhist iconography. Pilgrims flock to stupas that are said to hold relics of the Buddha. Some schools of Buddhism are deeply devotional. Even in the nondevotional schools, such as Theravada or Zen, there are rituals that involve bowing and offering food, flowers and incense to a Buddha figure on an altar.

Philosophy or Religion?

Some in the West dismiss these devotional and worshipful aspects of Buddhism as corruptions of the original teachings of the Buddha. For example, Sam Harris, a self-identified atheist who has expressed admiration for Buddhism, has said Buddhism should be taken away from Buddhists. Buddhism would be so much better, Harris wrote, if it could be cleansed of the “naive, petitionary, and superstitious” trappings of religion altogether.

I have addressed the question of whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion elsewhere. I argue that it is both philosophy and religion, and the whole “philosophy versus religion” argument amounts to shoving Buddhism into ill-fitting conceptual packaging. But what about the “naïve, petitionary, and superstitious” trappings? Are these corruptions of the Buddha’s teachings? Sometimes, perhaps, they are, but sometimes they aren’t. Understanding the difference requires looking deeply beneath the surface of Buddhist teaching and practice.

Not Believing in Beliefs

It’s not just belief in gods that are irrelevant to Buddhism. Beliefs play a different role in Buddhism than in many other religions.

Buddhism is a path to “waking up,” or being enlightened, to a reality that is not consciously perceived by most of us. In most schools of Buddhism it is understood that enlightenment and nirvana cannot be conceptualized or explained with words. They must be intimately experienced to be understood. Merely “believing in” enlightenment and nirvana is pointless.

In Buddhism, all doctrines are provisional and are judged by their skillfulness. The Sanskrit word for this is upaya, or “skillful means.” Any doctrine or practice that enables realization is a upaya. Whether the doctrine is factual or not is not the point.

The Role of Devotion

No gods, no beliefs, yet Buddhism encourages devotion. How can that be?

The Buddha taught that the biggest barrier to realization is the notion that “I” am a permanent, integral, autonomous entity. It is by seeing through the delusion of ego that realization blooms. Devotion is a upaya for breaking the bonds of ego.

For this reason, the Buddha taught his disciples to cultivate devotional and reverential habits of mind. Thus, devotion is not a “corruption” of Buddhism, but an expression of it.

Of course, devotion requires an object. To what is the Buddhist devoted? This is a question that may be clarified and re-clarified and answered in different ways at different times as one’s understanding of the teachings deepens.

If Buddha was not a god, why bow to Buddha-figures? One might bow just to show gratitude for the Buddha’s life and practice. But the Buddha figure also represents enlightenment itself and the unconditioned nature of all things.

In the Zen monastery where I first learned about Buddhism, the monks liked to point to the Buddha on the altar and say, “That’s you up there. When you bow, you are bowing to yourself.” What did they mean? How do you understand it? Who are you? Where do you find the self? Working with those questions is not a corruption of Buddhism; it is Buddhism.

See also the essay “Devotion in Buddhism” by Nyanaponika Thera.

All Mythological Creatures, Great and Small

The many mythological creatures and beings that populate Mahayana Buddhism art and literature are often called “gods” or “deities.” But, again, just believing in them is not the point.

Most of the time, it’s more accurate in western terms to think of the iconographic devas and bodhisattvas as archetypes rather than as supernatural beings. For example, a Buddhist might evoke the Bodhisattva of compassion in order to become more compassionate.

Do Buddhists believe these creatures exist? Certainly, in practice Buddhism has many of the same “literal versus allegorical” issues one finds in other religions. But the nature of existence is something Buddhism looks at deeply and in a different way from the way people ordinarily understand “existence.”

To Be, or Not To Be?

Usually, when we ask if something exists we are asking if it is “real,” as opposed to being a fantasy. But Buddhism begins with the premise that the way we understand the phenomenal world is delusional. The quest is to realize, or perceive, delusions as delusions.

So what’s “real”? What’s “fantasy”? What “exists”?

Libraries have been filled with the answers to those questions.

Mahayana Buddhism, which is the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Tibet, Japan and Korea, all phenomena are empty of intrinsic existence. One school of Buddhist philosophy, Madhyamika, says that phenomena exist only in relation to other phenomena. Another, called Yogachara, teaches that things exist only as processes of knowing and have no intrinsic reality.

One might say that in Buddhism, the big question is not whether gods exist, but what is the nature of existence? And what is the self?

Some medieval Christian mystics argued that it is incorrect to say that God exists, because existence amounts to taking a particular form within a space of time. God has no particular form and is outside of time. Therefore, God does not exist. However, God is. That’s an argument that many of us atheistic Buddhists can appreciate.

Suggested Reading

Buddhism: Philosophy or Religion?

What Buddhists Believe

Four Noble Truths

Suggested Reading

Misunderstanding Buddhism

Secular Buddhism – Have Your Say About Secular Buddhism

The Four Dharma Seals — The Four Dharma Seals Define Buddhism

Suggested Reading

Stephen Batchelor’s Confession

Buddhism and Science – How Buddhism agrees with Science

Mount Meru – Mount Meru and the Buddhist Universe

Related Articles

Religion or Philosophy? – Buddhism

Buddha Versus Buddhism – Buddhism

Buddhism Basics — Start Here to Learn About Buddhism

Investigating Dharma — Working With Buddhism and Buddhist Doctrines

Are Beliefs like Buddhism Religion or Philosophies? Polls on Religion

via Atheism and Buddhism — Buddhism as an Atheistic Religion.

via Atheism and Buddhism — Buddhism as an Atheistic Religion.

Advertisements

About Old Boy

Love the past and the future but live in the present

Posted on May 28, 2013, in Religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Canadian Cinephile

"For me, cinema is a vice. I love it intimately." Fritz Lang

Dispatches from the Asylum

I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty ~ H.L. Mencken

Jacolette:

a gallery of Irish snapshot and vernacular photography.

lifesdailylessonsblog

Exploring life lessons though the Arts

Classic for a Reason

Reviews of Classic Films from the Golden Age of Hollywood

Burrello Submarine's Movie Blog

cinema esoterica obscura

Motion Picture Blog

Indie Film Reviews & Recommendations

First Night Design

Art, Design, Theatre, Literature, History, Food, Laughter ...

Paddy Healy's Blog

In defence of Education and the Public Services

shivashishspeaks

ALL U WANNA KNOW

Riding the High Country

Reviews and ramblings

Movies Tavern

Horror e Exploitation, B-Movies & Trash, Rarità e Capolavori. Insomma, ciò che mi piace.

CravenWild

The life and times of a filmmaker: fashion, beauty, books and life.

spearfruit

....................................it's my life

vinnieh

Movie reviews and anything else that comes to mind

renxkyoko's space

Just another WordPress.com site

TheMarckoguy

"TheMarckoguy" is the alternate name for Markus. Markus is a human who reviews stuff.

Tippity Tappin Away in the Coffee Shop

I write a lot, and I wanted a place to share my flash fiction stories.

/ EXPERIENCE OF THINKING / EXPÉRIENCE DE PENSÉE / ESPERIENZA DI PENSIERO /

The world is everything that is the case. --- Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Erin's Movie corner

Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn

Come Here To Me!

Dublin Life & Culture.

Ghost Dog

Notes From the Underground with Pictures

Karmic Reaction Blog

#Arts/#Culture/#History/#Music/#Politics/#Science/#Writing

Product of Half-glass.com

An average guy capable of discussing TV & film on a higher level but would rather do it from the couch.

Kate Bowyers Media Adventure

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” — Maya Angelou

Reel Realities

A blog about my love for movies

Silent-ology

Uncovering the silent era

American History-8th Block

Made by Alyssa Carlton

31 Horror Movies in 31 Days

Celebrating History and Horror Films

Gizmo February

The Literary Explorations of a Bulldog

Year of Horror

One full year of clammy hands and sweaty butt cheeks

Danyeti

Design as understood by Danielle

Bradley's Basement

Tim Bradley's Blog

Champagne for Lunch

"Only on special occasions."

Save Celluloid

Information on Film Preservation and Restoration

Media coursework

By George Milton

Ciryan

Crazy,Batty

Nitrate Diva

Old Movies. Fresh Takes.

Kid Slender

Let all the children boogie

%d bloggers like this: