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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Buddhism and Atheism

As a Buddhist (if you are) do you also consider yourself an Atheist as well? I guess it depends on how technical you want to get.

Technically Buddhists are Atheists because we do not believe in a God or Savior--we are our own Saviors. The Buddha was not a God but rather was a highly intelligent man who mapped out a path to great and everlasting peace whether in good times or bad.

Being a Buddhist Atheist, however, does NOT--I repeat--does NOT mean that Buddhists are nihilistic (and I do not meant to imply that non-Buddhist Atheists are all nihilists either). Yes we believe that all things are empty but that simply means empty of any independent existence. It is a concept that propels us to act in a benevolent way toward others, animals and non-living things as our happiness is directly connected to the happiness of others and non-living things.

Some Buddhists believe in Amitabha Buddha who is said to be able to save followers and bring them to a Heaven like existence called, "The Pure Land"--Thus the name "Pure Land Buddhism." Do Pure Land Buddhists believe in a type of "God??" In a way they do as the belief isn't about working out one's own liberation but praying to and relying upon a sort of deity to liberate and "save" them. It is a very "faith based" school relying upon their faith that Amitabha will bring them salvation through his grace. Sounds to me like a similar role to that of Jesus Christ. Of course I certainly am not a scholar in Buddhism so I welcome other views and opinions on this matter. I would love to hear from adherents of the Pure Land school on this matter.

Personally I would call my myself an "Atheist Buddhist" If I have to throw dualistic labels around as I do not believe in a personal God. However, I can not prove or say that a form of "God" absolutely does not exist--no one knows for sure.

This dove-tails into Richard Dawkins De Facto Atheist definition (which is where he says he sits--as do I):

There is a very low probability that a personal "God" exists but short of zero. I can not know for certain but I think "God" is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.

The only way that I believe in a "God" is to say that we are all "God." Because, again, understanding the interdependent, interconnected nature of True Reality I believe that if there is a "God" it seems that it would be a force rather then a person. This is because such a force would be so Enlightened that it would have to be beyond all form and definition.

I also believe in a type of "heaven" but I believe it is a state of being--or enlightenment to use that awkward phrase. In other words, heaven is what we make of the present moment and place--not a place outside ourselves. I believe that together we can create a heaven on Earth.

In the end, however, I just do not concern myself with the question too much as I think practicing the middle-way is the most important use of our energy. Nevertheless, I just felt like discussing it a bit today. I hope my ramblings made some sense.

~Peace to all beings~

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awouldbehipster said...

Hi James,

Have you ever read Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Bachelor? Based on your thoughts in this post, I think that you would enjoy it immensely.

Morex said...

Hola James

I am Morex from Mexico and I loved this post. Lately I've been involved in several arguments about why I, as a Buddhist, am an atheist and skeptic. People can't seem to understand that basically Buddhists are atheists at the same time. And that's mainly because the misconception they have about the Buddha.

Thanks for this post.

alison said...

a very good read on such subject i would recommend is from Gregg Braden, a pioneer in bridging science and spirituality, his latest book (nov 2006) "The Divine Matrix: Bridging Time, Space, Miracles and Belief" is really worth checking out! and his other book "God Code". he talks about this "god" not as a being, more like a massive consciouness computer. very interesting.

They call him James Ure said...


Yes I have read that book (in fact I'm re-reading it a bit right now) and it truly is enlightening. I would join you in recommending it to anyone.


How wonderful that you found this post helpful. Buddhism is rather unique in that is it often labeled a religion and yet it is Atheistic.

Many do misunderstand that the Buddha is/was not a "God."


Thank-you for the recommendation. I'm always on the prowl for new books. :) I like that idea of "God" being more of like a massive consciousness. It jives very well I think with Buddhist thought.

Anonymous said...

Hi James,

In fact iam a strong believer of the Law of Karma. I always tell ppl that the Law of Karma is like the 'Law of Gravity'. Whether you like it or not or whether you believe in it or not or choose or refuse to believe in it, we as human being just cannot escape from the Law of Karma. Even Lord Buddha said once that he himself cannot escape from it too.


david said...

I always like to think that "God" is kind of a limiting concept, in that a god has some kind of self, even though it could be conceived as quite vast.

I always like a Tibetan notion where Buddhisattvas in "the between" stage of rebirth get together and play music for the gods they encounter. But the gods can't hear the music, all they hear is a mantra "impermanence".

Elightenment is the "other shore" and thus beyond our notions of what we might imagine the awakened buddha within to feel like. But I do like the idea, of "Unity Consciousness" as a way of explaining this notion.

Tim said...

I often think of the Buddha, like Jesus, as having arrived in a time wherin all life, for all within that society in which they (Jesus & Buddha) found themselves, was under the foot of the religious boot upon the people's neck.
Jesus stood out against the Law and introduced a new law of love. All Christian people should have the sermon on the mount (the beattitudes) on their walls, not the Ten Commandments.
The Buddha stood out against the religious leaders of his day as well. Monotheism was absent in India as their view of "Gods" was more abstract than the "do you believe in God" angle that is often pursued in this kind of discussion; Belief being the key word.
I don't believe in Buddha, or Jesus or God. But I do consider myself as being Buddhist, Christian, and that I am part of something that is greater than myself; Yet, I fail to see the need to name it.

They call him James Ure said...


I like your comparison between the law of karma and the law of gravity. So true.


Exactly. The idea of a "God" IS limiting.


All Christian people should have the sermon on the mount (the beatitudes) on their walls, not the Ten Commandments.

So true.

that I am part of something that is greater than myself; Yet, I fail to see the need to name it.

Yes, in the end, something so transcendent as a "God-force" doesn't really need to be named.

Ksitigarbha Girl said...

Hi James! Nice blog :) Have you read "No religion" by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu? It's a transcript from one of his talks. There is another one, "Handbook for Mankind," and they both beautifully illustrate the "middle way." Both of the transcripts are available (pdf) on the Free Dhamma Books web page.

They call him James Ure said...

Ksitigrabha Girl: Ooo thanks for the recommendations. Those sound like great reads.

Anonymous said...

Hi James, I am a buddhist in the Pure land school. There is a very good book "Buddhism of Wisdom and Faith" written by Thich Thien Tam that explains the Pure land Buddhism in details. Fundamentally, the primary meaning of Amitabha Buddha is the Infinite Wisdom, which is the name of everyone's self nature. In Pure land school, we know the fact: Self nature Amitabha, Mind only Pure land. According to Buddhism, all phenomea are created by the true mind or self nature. The earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the whole universe, are all created by the mind, nothing else. There is nothing outside of Self nature, or true mind. So, when we call for salvation from Amitabha Buddha, we actually call for salvation from our self nature or true mind. This is exactly self help, not from anything outside ourselves. It definitely is different than "God". It is similar to other Buddhist schools. For example, in Zen school, they actually are mindful of real mark Buddha, i.e., our self nature. Their target is: "know the true mind, see the self nature", i.e., enlightened. That's why they don's use any particular name or image of Buddha because real mark does not have any mark. In Pure land School, we are mindful of name or image of Amitabha Buddha which is name or symbol of our self nature. The cause is mindful of Amitabha Buddha(self nature), the effect is being enlightened,i.e., become a Buddha. It agees with the law of cause and effect. As you may see, although the approach is different, the target is the same, namely, Buddha (a enlightened being). Other buddhsit schools are similar, too.
I wish this comment may help you understand Pure land school a bit more. If you like to know more or like to have the above mentioned book, please email me at
Thanks! Namo Amitabha!

Eric Burkett said...

As a Pure Land Buddhist, and as a former practitioner of Soto Zen, I have to take you up on your invitation to respond to your statements about Pure Land Buddhism.

Of any of the mainstream sects of Mahayana Buddhism, Pure Land is probably one of the most misunderstood. It’s not surprising: for the many years I was involved in Zen, I had very little understanding of the Pure Land school and what little information I encountered did even less to clear up my misconceptions. That’s not surprising: on a purely visual level, Pure Land is probably one of the most complicated teachings to come out of Buddhism. Ultimately, however, it is also the simplest. Eventually, through a man who became my first Pure Land teacher and a friend, I was introduced to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, a 13th century off-shoot of the Pure Land teachings of Honen Shonin. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism takes some radical departures from the Pure Land school, though, and this is key to what I’m about to write. The text that follows is based on my own experience with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.

If you don’t mind, I want to start with some of the misconceptions you expressed in your post.

“Do Pure Land Buddhists believe in a type of ‘God??’ In a way they do as the belief isn't about working out one's own liberation but praying to and relying upon a sort of deity to liberate and ‘save’ them.
Actually, Pure Land Buddhism does not embrace the idea of deity. Like just about any other Buddhist denomination, Pure Land Buddhists do not look to any outside source for what is often referred to as their “rebirth in the Pure Land”. As a point of fact, my denomination specifically teaches against such a thing: “Understanding fully the principle of causality, we shall not practice petitionary prayer and magic, and do not depend on astrology and superstition”.

Amida Buddha – or Amitabha - is not a god. Amida Buddha is a myth, and the personification of compassion. He – or she, or it, for that matter – is not a being. There is an elaborate story about Amida’s origins, of course. Needless to say, it involves endless kalpas of time, numberless worlds and universes, and a host of Buddhist entities but it is just that, a story. It is Amida’s role as a symbol of compassion where he – and I’ll stick with ‘he’ for convenience’s sake – is most important.

In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, just as in other Buddhist sects, compassion is the central force behind everything. Jodo Shinshu teaches that compassion “illumines everyone at all times”, and Amida Buddha symbolizes that. Amida Buddha is merely a symbol.

You also said “It is a very ‘faith based’school relying upon their faith that Amitabha will bring them salvation through his grace”.Having dispensed with the idea that Amida is some sort of tangible entity, there is little point in having faith in him. And therein lays another problem – that difficult word “faith”. It is a poor choice of words with which Pure Land Buddhism has been struggling ever since the Pure Land teachings first began appearing in English translations. To have faith suggests two things: trust in a being outside of oneself – which is completely counter to Buddhist teaching – and to place one’s self into a position of blind trust to another.

When you read books about Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, particularly older books, you’ll encounter the word “faith” repeatedly. It’s particularly ironic because Jodo Shinshu rejects just such a concept. What Shin Buddhism does teach is that many of us can only attain a state such as enlightenment by completely letting go of ego, which means letting go of any calculated efforts to achieve enlightenment. Calculated efforts include good works, meditation, acquiring merit, any sort of action that puts our ego, our karma-laden selves, into the forefront of our efforts. It is only by letting go completely of such efforts that we open ourselves to the all-embracing power of the dharma, of Amida Buddha, of compassion.

That experience, referred to as shinjin, is a state equal to but not the same as enlightenment. Having seen ourselves as the self-centered, self-absorbed beings we really are, we also see the all encompassing compassion of the dharma. We are suddenly free to live our lives as fully as we can, knowing that we don’t have to worry about struggling to achieve enlightenment or whether there’s an afterlife. We do not achieve this state through our own efforts – it is only by abandoning those efforts completely that we open ourselves to truth. At death, we are released completely from our karmic ropes; we’re free from the cycle of life and death. We are enlightened.

If anyone sees any errors I've made in my description, please post a clarification. My intent isn't confuse or argue points.

And thanks, James, for allowing my comments.


They call him James Ure said...


Correct me if I'm wrong but then why do Pure Land Buddhists recite Amitabha's name? And what about this explaination from wikipedia, which I've heard used in other places such as monks?:

By the power of his vows, Amitābha has made it possible for all who call upon him to be reborn into this land, there to undergo instruction by him in the dharma and ultimately become bodhisattvas and buddhas in their turn (the ultimate goal of Mahāyāna Buddhism).Who is being called upon then if Amitabha is but a myth?

Eric Burkett said...

Wow, that was fast.

Reciting the name is an act of gratitude. Again, this is where Jodo Shinshu differs from its Pure Land sisters.

"Namu Amida Buddha", often translated as "I take refuge in the Buddha", is an expression of gratitude. In its purest form, it is spontaneous. It can also be a meditation. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism does not teach that chanting the name will bring shinjin, but that chanting the name is an expression of gratitude to Amida Buddha.

In a sense, reciting the name can be seen as Amida Buddha expressing itself through the chanter. None of this is to say there aren't individuals who believe Amida Buddha is a substantial entity. I believe that's misguided, but then again, aren't we also taught there are 80,000 paths to enlightenment?

Calling upon Amida Buddha isn't calling upon a being. It's an expression of gratitude for compassion. Amida Buddha, Amitabha, is compassion. Amida Buddha is the dharma. When you see that, you also see see that you are Amida Buddha.

As for Wikipedia, well, hell, it's Wikipedia. What can I say?

14fields said...

Hi there!

I don't know too much about Buddhism, but I think it's a beautiful religion. I've always wondered though, why is it hard to simultaneously see the concept of God as personal and as a transcendent force at the same time? After all, dualities do exist, and I know that in Buddhism, we are supposed to transcend them and get past that illusion, but, then doesn't that mean God can be personal and impersonal and something beyond that all at the same time? I never believed that God sits on some sort of throne who judges us all, or anything, but certainly, I'm sure you have all felt this immanent sense of peace and love wherever you go. This sense is so powerful that I see it as a force, but lightning is a very powerful force and you can still see it. Sight may be an illusion, and we are all God who can create our own reality, but indeed, why is a concept of Self so limiting? Our true self is limitless. God may have a self too, but it is limitless also. Everything exists simultaneously, yet doesn't exist. There is potential for atheism in theism, and vice versa. There is the self, and there is the non-self. I do not believe any of this is negative. If we are all divine, why is the Self--expressed in its highest nature--so limiting?

Ok, now here's the time when you can all tell me how naive I am. I don't want to argue, I just want to hear your take on this. I just always thought that all religions are parts of a greater whole, and each is simultaneously true yet not true. I also believe that we are all God too. I'm just expressing my beliefs.

Jeremy said...

Hello there,
Recently I'd talked with a young Atheist about Buddhism. Or, I tried to talk with her. Then I started thinking that the reverence that Buddhists have for their heroes in buddhism, is the same kind of reverence(for most part) that atheists have for their atheist heroes. Only given enough time, these atheist heroes will have shrines dedicated to them as well. It's just a theory of human nature. So, the past few days I'd went into this subject a little more and just found your blog already adressing this subject of how Buddhism is Atheistic. There are many Atheists out there who think Buddhism is another "god religion." Many people think this anyway. It is my opinion that atheists who rule out buddhist thought completely, are shooting themselves in the foot and throwing away useful tools for inquiry based on misinterpretations and misunderstandings of what Buddhism really is. So, I'm trying to organize my thoughts to be of more service in the future, to open minded atheists. Very nice blog btw. peace, -jeremy

darwinisgreat said...

I am a Jodo Shin Buddhist and I do believe in God and an eternal soul. I would welcome the opportunity to have a mutually respectful dialogue with anyone about these two issues. If anyone on this webpage would be interested in such a dialogue, I welcome you to visit my webpage that can be found at that details my beliefs on these issues. George K

flamencoman said...

There is no god, absolutely! Never has been and never will be!! George Carlin. There is no god but there is the highest form of humanity which is the Buddha Nature or divine within each one of us!...

S.Emerald said...

I'm a Buddhist/ closeted Atheist.
Closeted in a sense, because barely anyone knows about it. I've gotten quite allot of people angry at me for being a Buddhist who didn't believe in "their god" so, you could probably imagine how angry people would be if they found out about the Atheist part.

I like your blog and I like this post. It was quite informative:)

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