Atheism vs(?) Buddhism

Over on Sweep the Dust, John asks “Can Buddhism be completely atheistic?” I replied in the comments there, but I’d like to elaborate a bit here as well.

Atheism is tricky to pin down now ‘a days. There is the “extreme” atheism that denies the existence of anything supernatural whatsoever, including karma and rebirth. And then there are those that identify as atheists simply because they don’t believe in god/gods. Either one is fine by me. I can embrace the atheistic idea of no deities, but I choose not to define myself by what I don’t believe in.

I believe Buddhism to be largely apatheistic in its approach to deities. It doesn’t really matter if god/gods do exist, because they obviously don’t care about ending our suffering. It falls upon us to end the cycle of samsara (though we may call upon the bodhisattvas to aid us).

But as for “complete” atheism, no, I don’t think it’s really compatible with what the Buddha taught. The Buddha spoke for kalpas upon kalpas about karma and rebirth. It’s kind of hard to deny this, isn’t it?

I think the Buddha addressed skeptics when he states that it takes a noble version of right view to correctly see how karma and rebirth work. So for us, it takes practice, and a little faith. Yes, faith. It takes a bit of faith that yes, we walking a path that results in liberation. It takes a bit of faith to plop down on that zafu for the first time. It takes a bit of faith that the Buddha and the teachers that followed him knew what it was they were talking about. It takes a bith of faith to put into practice the teaching of the Lotus Sutra before you see any real change. It takes a bit of faith to get us on our path (and sometimes to keep us going) because we aren’t fully enlightened. We are unable to see reality as it truly is. But we work towards it, strive towards it.

Now, before you start quoting the Kalama sutra, hold on. First, he was speaking to a particular group of people about a particular set of circumstances. Much of what he said there rings true today and should be applied to one’s teaching. However, no where did he say that one shouldn’t trust wise teachers, or that one shouldn’t trust in (what later became) the sutras. Remember the 3 jewels? It takes trust and faith to walk this Buddhist path. If not, how on earth did first you come to practice Buddhism? You had to have a little faith and trust before you started practicing. You had no direct experience beforehand.

If one wishes to remain skeptical towards karma and rebirth, I think that is healthy. It isn’t taking something on blind faith, it is remaining skeptical while working through it in your practice. Though I think a strong disbelief in either is a form of aversion and craving/attachment. It seems like a thick wall to put up in front of you and your practice. Some may say that Buddhism requires no belief in karma and rebirth. That may be true. Your average practitioner doesn’t have to believe in either. But if we are to believe what the Buddha had to say, and that what he achieved was real, then we also should accept that when we get to that point, we won’t need to believe in either, we will be able to discern it for ourselves.

Karma and rebirth are still tricky for me, as I’ve posted before. But thanks to some helpful dharma bums here on the interwebs, I’ve read a little more, and things are starting to almost make sense for me. I suppose I’ll just not worry too much about it, and focus on what set me on this path in the first place; becoming more mindful, attaining a “quieter” mind, breaking habits, and living more compassionately.

Cheers.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Atheism vs(?) Buddhism

  1. aforcier

    atheism… to me… is simply the removing from our consciousness the mind clothings of the past. the removing of the teachers (with reverence and without conceit) as well as their vocabularies that we are asked to wear as appendages, as garments: “Buddha”, Yhwh” Jesus” “Arjuna”, Allah”, “sin”, “saved”, “karma”, “intercession”, “divine grace”, “repentance”… etc…

    if feel no guilt, no shame, no repentance, no dues… to the gods, teachers, and teachings of yesterday.

    i like to walk in this moment… as if it was completely new, completely whole. a moment that is its own definition. it defines me and i define it…

    http://www.ANaturalPhilosophy.com

  2. GuruDas

    Well Adam, I think Jesus was atheist because afocier is bat shit crazy and I’m bored here in a software conference in Florida…errr running a cult in PA.

    Hugs n Kisses,
    Saggy

  3. Just began reading “The Buddha in Your Mirror” which mentions the Gohonzon, so a-Googling I went to find a picture, which led me to your blog.

    And these words stood out:

    “It doesn’t really matter if god/gods do exist, because they obviously don’t care about ending our suffering. It falls upon us to end the cycle of samsara (though we may call upon the bodhisattvas to aid us).”

    Thank you!!! I’m NOT the only one. 🙂

  4. I’m chafing a bit at the expansion of “atheism” to encompass anything supernatural, not simply to gods. Do people actually use the word this way? If so, then it might follow that believing in, say, ESP is necessarily ‘theism’ and that doesn’t make sense to me.

    Last night, I was chanting the name of Kwan Seum Bosal in my garage. I don’t relate to the bodhisattvas as gods or supernatural beings. There is meaning and practicality to the activity; what it achieves is not because of magic. So is that theistic? Is it atheistic? Neither seems to make any sense in the context of simple practice.

    Then there’s the whole problem of ‘supernatural.’ If I think something is ‘supernatural,’ and it turns out to exist after all, does it not at this point become ‘natural?’ I’ve always had a problem with that.

    • Yeah, it does get used this way. I don’t know if it’s the right label to use for such a belief/non belief, but that’s how some use it for themselves.

      I agree that ESP, ghosts, karma, are not “theism”, but by the new atheists it all seems to get thrown under the same tent. I am by no means a real theist (see my post “a few of my isms and ists”) and couldn’t lump those ideas in with monotheism.

      “Then there’s the whole problem of ’supernatural.’ If I think something is ’supernatural,’ and it turns out to exist after all, does it not at this point become ‘natural?’ I’ve always had a problem with that.”

      I absolutely agree with that. So much of what we know now of the world was at one time considered “supernatural” because we simply didn’t have a better explanation at the time. I don’t doubt that at some point, the things we now consider “supernatural” may one day have a reasonable explanation. I for one, am pretty damn sure that ghosts exist, after having seen them, and expereinced them. Now what they are, I have no idea. I don’t think they are the conventional “trapped souls” or whatever. There may be a perfectly good explanation one day, and I’m fine with that. But I’m also fine with calling it the “supernatural” for now.

      Good points.

      Cheers.

  5. I too liked this part: ““It doesn’t really matter if god/gods do exist, because they obviously don’t care about ending our suffering. It falls upon us to end the cycle of samsara.”

    I don’t believe in a “Creator God” so in a sense I’m an atheist but in another sense I’m also not because I believe in karma and rebirth. I believe it in a literal sense.

    I see it evidenced in scientific principles such as “cause and effect” or energy never dies, but simply changes form. I don’t see how our the energy of our body and mind would be any different. We are either reborn as plant food or in another life. Either form is rebirth.

    However, I would think all Buddhists (whether leaning atheistic or not) can believe in karma and rebirth. Karma can be seen in this life as the law of cause and effect. If you hang out with the wrong crowd you’re liking to end up in prison.

    And rebirth can be seen occurring in every moment. Each new moment we are reborn a new. We are never the same being as we were the moment prior.

    Others yet, like myself, believe that both happen. Micr0-karma, and Macro-karma. Micro-rebirth and Macro-rebirth.

    Great post.