Is Buddhism Atheistic?

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Yesterday I published a piece in the magazine arguing that atheists should take up the 3 Faces of God practice from integral spirituality. I pointed to various atheist thinkers and writers advocating one or another of the Three Faces.

The atheism I describe in that piece is Western philosophical atheism. There is however a great scholarly debate on whether Buddhism constitutes an atheist worldview. I thought I would look into that important question in this sidepiece, particularly as it impacts the teaching of the Three Faces of God/Spirit. If you are unfamiliar with the Three Faces of God, please see my earlier piece which explains each in detail; I'm not going to retrace those steps here. This shorter piece will assume the reader is familiar with The Three Faces.

So there are certainly Buddhist traditions of all Three Faces. Mostly especially there is great emphasis on the 1st Face in meditation: mindfulness, Zen, Mahamudra, etc. The Third Face, particularly in Chinese forms of Buddhism where influenced by Taoism, shows sensitivity to the place of nature as a source of inspiration. And there are traditions like Pure Land Buddhism (Amitabha) which are centered on 2nd Person devotional practice. Tibetan Deity Yoga is another 2nd Face practice. Guru Yoga (also in the Tibetan tradition) where the Guru is seen as the Incarnation of the Buddha with its attendant practices of prostrations and purifications also belongs in this category.

So Buddhism (of various sorts) easily qualifies as including all Three Faces. The question then remains: Is Buddhism atheist? If so, then the question of atheist spirituality and The Three Faces is already solved--go be a Buddhist. And certainly, as mentioned in my earlier piece, there is in the West, particularly in North America a strong crossover of Buddhist mindfulness practices (1st person perspective) with neuroscience (3rd person perspective) and an atheistic worldview.

But I think the answer to Buddhism's status as a religion is much more complex. Buddhism is often identified both by those within and without the tradition as atheistic. My sense is The Buddha lived in a theological world. He strikes me not so much as an atheist, if by atheism we mean someone who adheres to the philosophical proposition that rational investigation has disproved the existence of divine being(s). The Buddha appears to me someone who simply located a spiritual practice (mindfulness) that does not rely on, nor assume, the existence of such a world of divinity. The Buddha, through mindfulness practice, did not need God in order to reach enlightenment. But that's different than believing God (or gods) to be proved to be non-existent. The Buddhist path does not disprove that one may reach enlightenment through connection with a Divinity--what the Buddha's teaching shows is that such a connection is not necessary. (Stephen Batchelor, author of Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist holds the same view by the way...see my two part review of his book, here and here.)


Relatedly the Buddha did not assume the need to believe in the existence of a spiritual reality within one's being (i.e. atman or soul) in order to reach enlightenment. He seems to be me pretty mum or rather uninterested in the whole subject, focused as he was on the practicality of freeing oneself from suffering through enlightenment. I think he saw a great deal of abstract theological debate which he believed distracted from the far more important matter of ending suffering through awakening. Fair enough.

Contemporary Buddhists might also hold an atheistic worldview. I think the evidence is strong that the Buddha simply sidestepped that question and was, as mentioned, on the whole uninterested in the existence of nonexistence of god(s).

But I do think the Buddha taught that the experience of nirvana revealed an Unconditioned Truth (The Unbegotten, The Uncaused). I realize this is a controversial point, but I think the evidence weighs in its favor. This Unconditioned Reality does not have to be understood as a god or God. In fact, I think the evidence is quite strong that the Buddha did not understand it in this manner. But it is hard for me to understand then how one could be both truly atheistic and Buddhist simultaneously. Unconditional Reality does not have to be God but is also hard to categorize as atheism, it seems to me.

Buddhas like Green Tara or Manjushri or Vairocana are more displays or manifestations (even personifications) of the inherent nature of this Uncreated Reality. That inherent Unconditioned nature includes things like transcendental wisdom, selfless compassion, loving-kindness, power, and so on. These heavenly Buddhas are not so much real beings as containers for those transcendental energies to manifest in form. But again the line between those two practically is quite fine. And the same argument is made for an awakened alive human as Guru. I do think those later developments of Buddhism are authentic ones--extrapolating from the Buddha's insight about an Unconditioned Reality which arises as one realizes that there is no substantial separate self.

Of course not all Buddhists connect with the traditions of yantras, deity yoga, guru yoga, Sambhogakaya Buddha and the like. Certainly however the Buddhists who do work with these archetypal Buddhas are again not necessarily theistic--they don't have to believe such archetypes to be real entities or whatever--but I don't think they could legitimately be claimed as atheists either.

I would also point to the incorporation of shamanic or yogic traditions within Buddhism, particularly in Tantric forms of Buddhism. Again Buddhism understands those processes, experiences, and practices without a philosophical belief in a substantial self, but I think those practices have a great deal to teach us today. My concern is that many Western (more atheist or secular-oriented) Buddhists are coming to rely too heavily on research in brain states and so on, possibly losing these threads of subtler breath, energy, and feeling. While not needing to be theistic, those yogic Buddhist traditions raise some fundamental questions about the viability of contemporary atheism as a philosophical doctrine relying so heavily on human rationality.

As I stated earlier, even the mindfulness tradition for me culminates in an experience of Unconditional Truth and Reality and this for me grates precisely against contemporary atheism. Contemporary atheism does not simply advocate materialism as its ontology (which is a great strength of atheist thought) but argues that materialism disproves transcendental reality (that's where I get off the train). And by that lights, again I will say, I don't see how one can be a Buddhist and an atheist. But I"m interested to hear from Western Buddhist practicioners--how do you see this one?


My sense being an outsider sympathetic observer of Western Buddhism is that most of the folks arguing for mindfulness and a kind of atheist Buddhism are really more secular postmodern folks who are incorporating some meditation practices from Buddhism. As David Forbes noted in a previous piece on Beams there are some real question marks about that marriage--particularly around the loss of the teaching of ethics (sila), always tied in to meditation teaching in the Buddhist tradition.

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  • Comment Link David Marshall Wednesday, 30 January 2013 05:57 posted by David Marshall

    Hi, Chris. I've enjoyed your latest contributions.

    One more perspective to consider, I think, is the idea that the energetic dimension of emptiness or nonduality, what Wilber calls the "deeper psychic" and what Shunryu Suzuki called by various names, including "inmost request" and "inmost nature," is a relatively recent enactment. Perhaps it wasn't even possible to enact during the Buddha's time.

    In any case, that enactment should shake up some of the perspectival fixations of many of the first-face-of-spirit schools throughout the wisdom traditions, not just Buddhism. S. Suzuki didn't have that fixation or perspective avoidance. In the "God Giving" chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind he said,

    "According to Christianity, every existence in nature is something which was created for or given to us by God. That is the perfect idea of giving."

    Of course, his teachings were deeply paradoxical, and he would contradict that statement elsewhere, but they both stand in his teachings.

    Also, I don't identify as a Buddhist, but I went to see a prominent Vajrayana teacher (not a Westerner)last summer who said things like, "The only thing you can really do for enlightenment is prayer, aspiration, and supplication."

  • Comment Link David Marshall Wednesday, 30 January 2013 05:59 posted by David Marshall

    Suzuki also said that resting in Big Mind is a matter of faith, though people can interpret that in many different ways.

  • Comment Link Omar Von Gimbel Friday, 01 February 2013 07:28 posted by Omar Von Gimbel

    It is my understanding that the Buddha was saying that there is no permanent self or soul, not that it is not important.

    Also you mentioned a lot of Buddhist traditions, yet never the Theravada schools (south Asian). They are more interested in the orriginal Pali discourses.

    The Buddha made reference to gods. In that sense, even he was not athiest. He simply avoided discussing them most of the time, because his quest was to end human suffering in life.

    For this goal he felt that gods and what happened to us after we died was irrelevent.

    For that reason, I would say that Buddhism is most certainly NOT atheistic. He simply didn't care, because liberation from suffering could be attained without them.

    Liberation is attained through the noble eightfold path, and meditation is the key to that path.

  • Comment Link Omar Von Gimbel Friday, 01 February 2013 07:36 posted by Omar Von Gimbel

    The Buddha's take was that the gods were stuck in samsara just like we are.

  • Comment Link Ray Sunday, 03 February 2013 13:06 posted by Ray

    Too many leave critical reasoning at the door when it comes to things like guru devotion, or separating myth from skillful means. While its possible for elements of buddhism to be helpful on the whole I would say its not atheistic.

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