General Question

rojo's avatar

Are Buddhists atheists?

Asked by rojo (15626 points ) October 18th, 2012

As far as I can tell they do not believe in a god so…..........?

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32 Answers

Jeruba's avatar

It’s a-THE-ists, the “the” part meaning “God” (the same root as in the word theology) and the “a” meaning “without” (just as in atonal and asymptomatic). The “ist” ending is the same as you see in many words pertaining to a belief or persuasion or practice, such as economist, pacifist, feminist, and artist.

Buddhism as practiced in the West is not generally seen as a religion. Buddhism does not require you either to subscribe or not to subscribe to any religious system or dogma.

I have known Zen Buddhist practitioners of various religions, including Jewish Buddhists, Christian Buddhists, and a Jesuit brother who was also an ordained Zen monk. I have also known Buddhist atheists. I happen to be an atheist myself, and if I have any spiritual practice it is more Buddhist than otherwise. There is no incompatibility there, and neither is there any religious mandate, pro or con.

LostInParadise's avatar

Many Buddhists believe in reincarnation. If you mess up in this life, you come back as some type of animal. They also believe that life is suffering created by desire and that the ultimate reward for separating oneself from one’s desires (animal instincts) is not having to return, and instead dwelling in a state of Nirvana, which is a kind of Heaven. Technically they are atheists, but I think it is a quibble as to whether or not retribution is determined by God.

poisonedantidote's avatar

Some of them do believe in a god.

My girlfriend is a Buddhist, and after seeing all I have seen, I could not bring my self to call a Buddhist an atheist, even if they do not believe in a god. They still have loads of insane rituals and potions and other stupid ideas, that to me, puts them in the theology ball park.

I love her so much, I just wish she was not half retarded and believed in ghosts and magic potions. At least we get a good laugh from our disagreements.

RareDenver's avatar

My father in law is a Buddhist and considers himself to be an atheist but I have pointed out that he still has a belief in the supernatural even if he does not believe in a deity. I suppose it really depends on if you define atheism to be a non belief in a deity or a non belief in the supernatural. For me it would be the later. For my father in law the former.

tom_g's avatar

There’s also secular buddhism.

thorninmud's avatar

When Buddhism came on the scene in the Indian subcontinent 2500 years ago, it was in a cultural context swarming with gods. The Buddha and his followers didn’t wage ideological warfare on the vedic gods—in fact, they appear as bit players in some of the Buddhist scriptures—but it was made clear that even if the gods exist, they’re irrelevant to the kind of awakening the Buddha proscribed as the cure for our spiritual ills. That awakening is a perfectly natural human capacity, and requires no divine intervention. The Buddha himself overtly denied being a god.

That’s still the stance of most forms of Buddhism, though some strands have taken an arguably theistic turn, treating a celestial buddha as a kind of savior figure. In my own branch of Buddhism, Zen, the stance is clear: “Outside us, no Buddhas”, as Hakuin put it. Zen practitioners are free to believe in God or gods if they like, but those gods will be of no use to them in the work of Zen.

thorninmud's avatar

edit: “prescribed”, not “proscribed”

elbanditoroso's avatar

I’m not sure it matters what WE think.

It’s what the Buddhists think that counts.

Blackberry's avatar

No, look them up and you will see the massive differences between them.

ucme's avatar

I’m not really qualified to answer…..so I won’t.

wundayatta's avatar

To summarize what I’ve learned here: Buddhism is a spiritual path that can coexist with belief in God or lack thereof. It is not necessary to have a god concept in order to be a Buddhist, nor does having a god concept keep you from following the Buddhist path.

Personally, I think of Buddhist techniques as spiritual technologies. These technologies help you think differently and help you activate or pacify various parts of your mind. They are techniques that help you cope with a wide variety of problems we face in life. Anyone can learn to use these techniques if you allow yourself to employ the Buddhist spiritual technologies.

Of course, being technologies, there are other brands that do the same thing. Like iPhone and Samsung. There are many other groups that have developed spiritual technologies that do the same thing that the Buddhist technology helps you do. None of them require a belief in God to work, either.

nikipedia's avatar

Some of them.

thorninmud's avatar

@wundayatta Yes, most of those technologies were already old when the Buddha took up his search for truth, and variations on them are routinely used in other spiritual traditions and secular disciplines. The technologies, no matter how they’re “branded”, will tend to progressively reveal the same landmarks in the journey, as delusions fall away.

What varies is mainly the matter of how far to pursue the journey. Those first landmarks—the tranquility, the joy, the connectedness—can be such an amazing relief that this can feel like having “arrived”, and the temptation is to just bask in that new clarity. But this is the low-hanging fruit of contemplative practice.

Part of the benefit of associating with a tradition of practice is that not only does it introduce you to the technologies and provide some guidance in using them, but it keeps you from settling for the low-hanging fruit, sweet as it is. It will make you spit it out and keep on working.

ScottyMcGeester's avatar

When I took a religions of India course in college, I was taught that Buddhists were in a sense “atheists.” There were some conflicts with the Christians when they spread after the death of Christ and wanted to spread the gospel. Although, some of my friends were like “Wtf?” when the teacher said that Buddhists were atheist. I guess it depends on the sect or whatever? Essentially, Buddhists don’t believe in a higher power. When you die, nirvana is that sweet nothingness. They’re not afraid of it, unlike most people. But they can believe in supernatural things.

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Blondesjon's avatar

No. They are actually just super lazy Christians.

SavoirFaire's avatar

Just to give jargon to what @thorninmud said, Buddhists seem to be predominately apatheists.

LostInParadise's avatar

An important distinction among religions is the attitude toward the afterlife.

Traditional (what we now call Orthodox) Judaism is vague about what happens after death. The focus is on this life. There is an elaborate set of rules, which purportedly will lead, in all senses of the word, to a good life.

In Christianity, our life on Earth is okay, but mainly it is a tryout for the afterlife. You may be rewarded on Earth for behaving properly, but if not, don’t fret. All will work out after you die.

In traditional Buddhism, as practiced by the Dali Lama, life on Earth sucks. It leads to suffering. The only way out is to separate yourself from your animalistic desires. Until you completely succeed at separating spirit from body, you are going to keep coming back.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@LostInParadise First, the Dalai Lama does not practice traditional Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is one of the newer denominations, relatively speaking. Second, traditional Buddhism does not believe that there is any self to come back. That’s why reincarnation was rejected in favor of the alternative concept of rebirth (which is about one’s karma—and not oneself—moving forward and affecting the future). Third, it’s not life simpliciter that is the problem according to Buddhism. It’s a life dominated by ego, which leads to tanha (literally, “thirst”), which leads to dukkha (literally, “unsatisfactoriness”). Buddhism claims not that this is our natural state, but rather that it is the state we currently find ourselves in. Moreover, it is claimed that we can overcome it (and in this life, since that is all there is). Much depends on the particular sect, of course, but these are the original views underlying Buddhist practice.

I’m pretty sure we’ve been over this before.

LostInParadise's avatar

The Dalai Lama begs to differ with you.

With all due respect, I find this a lot of double talk. What exactly is one’s karma and how does it combine with non-karma to become a self?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@LostInParadise What, exactly, do you take the linked article to prove? I already acknowledged that the Dalai Lama’s beliefs are different than the doctrines I discussed above. That was the point of my first two sentences. Moreover, you have again misunderstood. Karma does not combine with non-karma to become a self. There is no such thing as the self in Buddhism (that is the anatta doctrine). Self, says the Buddhist, is just an illusion.

LostInParadise's avatar

@SavoirFaire , Okay, so at the very least we agree that one important group of Buddhists believe in reincarnation.

Who or what is it that has the illusion of self? Following the reasoning of Descartes, I define self as that which has thoughts. You have to either make the nonsensical claim that thoughts can be disembodied or agree that it is self-contradictory to say “I don’t exist.”

thorninmud's avatar

I’m pretty sure we’ve been over this before, too

@LostInParadise I can see why this looks like “double-talk” to you; in a sense, it is.

On the one hand, there’s this business of “no-self”. You said something earlier about “separating spirit from body”; but this is nonsense in light of the “no-self” teaching, which holds that there is no such thing as a fixed personal essence (which is what I assume you mean by “spirit”). In Buddhism, this is the bottom line, absolute truth.

On the other hand, it can be useful to think in terms of personal selves. Human reasoning wants to attribute an agent, a doer, behind all actions, so it posits a self. Buddhism acknowledges this use of the self as a semantic expedient, and admits that it has a limited, relative validity. It would be crippling to try to function in society without distinguishing one self from another.

So it simply wouldn’t do to adopt a position of denying either the absolute “no-self” or the relative “self”. Both have their place.

Karma operates in the relative sphere, where there is this provisional self acting in ways that have moral consequences. In the absolute sense, there is no such thing as karma; no one is acting, therefore no karma can accrue to that no one. To transcend karma isn’t a matter of leaving the body; it’s a matter of realizing the no-self.

Hence the double-talk. The alternative to double-talk in this matter is silence, arguably the best choice.

Take a look at this dialogue between the Buddha (Gotama) and a wanderer named Vacchagotta:

Vacchagotta comes to the Buddha and asks:

‘Venerable Gotama, is there an Ātman [this is the Sanskrit term for self]

The Buddha is silent.

‘Then Venerable Gotama, is there no Ātman?’

Again the Buddha is silent.

Vacchagotta gets up and goes away.

After the wanderer had left, Ānanda [the Buddha’s attendant) asks the Buddha why he did not answer Vacchagotta’s question. The Buddha explains his position:

‘Ānanda, when asked by Vacchagotta the Wanderer: “Is there a self?”, if I had answered: “There is a self”, then, Ānanda, that would be siding with those recluses and brāhmaṇas who hold the eternalist theory (sassata-vāda).

‘And, Ānanda, when asked by the Wanderer: “Is there no self?” if I had answered: “There is no self”, then that would be siding with those recluses and brāhmaṇas who hold the annihilationist theory

‘Again, Ānanda, when asked by Vacchagotta: “Is there a self?”, if I had answered: “There is a self”, would that be in accordance with my knowledge that all phenomena are without self?’

‘Surely not, Sir.’

‘And again, Ānanda, when asked by the Wanderer: “Is there no self?” if I had answered: “There is no self”, then that would have been a greater confusion to the already confused Vacchagotta. For he would have thought: Formerly indeed I had an Ātman (self), but now I haven’t got one.’

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise You’ve brought up this question of “who thinks the thoughts?” before, and you’re not alone in getting hung up on this. Let me ask another question: When the wind blows, who (or “what”, if you prefer) is doing the blowing? Semantically, you have a noun there—the wind—and you have a verb there—to blow—, but just a moment’s consideration and it becomes clear that “the wind” is not something different from the blowing. You can’t have wind without the blowing, and vice versa. It’s not one entity performing an action, even though that’s the semantic formulation. There really is no entity apart from the action.

That’s easy to see. But thinking is the same. When thinking is present, there’s this assumption that there must be an entity behind it, “doing” the thinking. And so the thinking thinks up a thinker . But the thinking and the thinker are just two ways of looking at a unified process. The error is in assuming that the one who does the thinking is something other than the thinking.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@LostInParadise There is no way that I could give a better answer than @thorninmud has; but if you need a parallel in Western philosophy, look to the bundle theory of identity (often associated with Hume) for the closest comparison. If you are really that committed to Cartesianism, then you might not agree with the view. Still, you should at least be able to understand it.

LostInParadise's avatar

@thorninmud , The wind is inanimate. It does whatever the forces acting on it compel it to do. We could equivalently ask what is doing the falling when a rock falls.

To have consciousness, on the other hand, is to be an agent of one’s actions. We might dispute what consciousness is, whether it is material or spiritual or even if our actions are predetermined. What we cannot dispute is the responsibility one has for one’s actions. As Sartre said, the essence of consciousness is choice. We cannot refrain from choosing (try, I dare you). Even if we knew for certain that everything we did was predetermined, it would make no difference, because we do not currently know what we are predetermined to do, and even if science could ever tell us what we were predetermined to do, we could still choose to act differently

@SavoirFaire , I will look into Hume’s bundle theory of identity. Thanks for the reference. It is a good thing to have a professional philosopher available.

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise You’ve just given a good description of what I description of what I called the provisional, relative self. I have no argument with this. It’s a valid point of view, but it’s incomplete. It doesn’t take into account the more comprehensive reality of no-self.

This is like restricting oneself to a Newtonian understanding of physics. It’s perfectly functional on a small scale, and can’t be called “untrue”. But it’s limited. It needs to be understood in the larger context of relativity and quantum mechanics.

LostInParadise's avatar

@thorninmud , I am a complete materialist. If it can’t be measured either directly or indirectly, then as far as I am concerned it does not exist. Given this, is there any evidence that you can provide to support the notion of a no-self? If that is not possible, can you provide an example of how belief in a no-self causes you to do things differently, out in the real world, than you otherwise would?

Bill1939's avatar

As particles are said to exist as excitations of quantum fields, I think that ‘self’ is a product of neurological activity. Neither actually exist, both having a virtual existence.

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise As a materialist, I’m surprised you aren’t demanding proof of self, rather than of no-self. Plenty of non-Buddhist materialists find the notion of a fixed personal self unsupportable.

As a materialist, I assume you reject the notion of God as well. Plenty of people point to the existence of the Universe as overwhelming proof in support of their belief in God. What measurable evidence supports your belief in no-god?

I’d bet that your belief in no-god makes you feel less beholden to the capricious demands of an over-bearing entity. Well, embracing no-self does exactly the same, only that entity is the self.

Bill1939's avatar

The concept of God as a human-like being began several millennia ago before people knew much about the physical reality of the scale and vastness of the universe at the micro and macro levels. God, the source of creation and the laws that govern it, exists, though God’s nature remains beyond human comprehension even with our relatively extensive knowledge today.

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