I know Buddhism is often called a religion, but the more I learn the less theistic it seems.

Karen Armstrong's (quite readable) biography of the Buddha claims that while he believed gods exist, he felt that their presence didn't matter when it came to one's own enlightenment. To me, this rings true. Buddhism feels more like an approach to life, an ethic, rather than a theistic religion.

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Many (perhaps most) Buddhists believe in god(s), but such belief is irrelevant to practice. I can recommend a book by Stephen Batchelor entitled "Buddhism Without Belief."
Yes. Buddhism without belief is a top read.
buddhism to me has two layers, and you can follow the deeper layer without following the upper layer, the upper layer is with the buddhist temples and the stories of gotamas hair sprouting trees and all that jazz, and then the deeper layers is a man was thinking under a tree one day and was like holy shit ive got some great ideas! i follow the deeper layer, but not the upper layer
hmmm...expand on this deeper layer please...
there is the religion, the rituals, the myths, the practices. which i find interesting in a sort of cultural way but not in a belief way. then there is the philosophy. the philosophy of buddhism is very similar to existentialism. i found both to be very interesting and greatly value each. the deeper layer is the philosophy, it is the belief of do no harm, the belief of interconnectedness, its the belief of no self, its the belief of meditation. it is not the belief of Bishamonten
walking meditation is also cool...
I am new to this forum and to the Nexus. My name is Andrew, I am 29 (almost 30) and am a business owner on Kauai. I was born and raised in a Buddhist household.

To answer your question "Atheist AND Buddhist? Is that possible?" I have to answer "maybe".

For me the real question is whether or not you approach your practice and your life from a rational perspective as opposed to one coming from superstitious beliefs.

Whenever someone (particularly someone of faith/delusion) asks me if I believe in evolution I tell them "no, I don't *believe* in evolution. Rather, I *accept* the evidence that the theory of evolution is by far the best explanation of the origin of the species."

Likewise, if someone asks me do I believe in Buddhism, I tell then "no, I don't *believe* in Buddhism, but rather *accept* Buddhism as a valuable practice in my life."

To train yourself to look at the world in this rational way is similarly the Buddha way. Buddhism is about overcoming delusions/false perceptions that cloud our mind from seeing the world and ourselves as they truly are. Is this not the track to knowledge that a rationalist will take in science, in debate, in everyday life?

So yes, atheism (if you define this as rationalism) and Buddhism can go hand in hand. However, it is just as likely that a Buddhist can revert to treating her practice as superstition and therefore lose sight of the ultimate goal of buddhism which of course is enlightenment.
Enlightenment as I have been taught is best described as the fusion of subjective wisdom with objective reality. In simpler terms, this is you seeing the "world" exactly as it really is without delusions.

I have also heard it described that our "self" (our perception of individual identity) is made up of a number of beliefs that we have about ourselves and others in our lives. Many of these beliefs hold us back or bring us stress in our lives. The point of Buddhism is to weaken the hold our false beliefs have on us. We do this through meditation.

When we take the time to turn off the TV, the computer, the iPod, etc., and just sit quietly focusing your attention on your breath, in the absence of all other distractions you find out just how loud your mind really is.

When you meditate you find your mind firing off thoughts left an right stemming from your daily concerns, fears, frustrations, etc. In other words, you hear the bitching of your mind and realize that these thoughts are not really you. They are the sounds of the delusions (false beliefs or perceptions) that you hold on to because you have falsely developed the sense that you are what you think. In other words, over time we all develop our sense of self around these false beliefs. Some come from traumas (such as abuse), some come from what our parents taught us (like only God can solve our problems), etc.

To meditate you have to focus your attention on something else other than your mind such as your breath. When we meditate we train ourselves to disassociate our perceiving mind from our thoughts. When you do this every day, just like a body builder steadily getting stronger in the gym, you get stronger in your ability to not be swayed by your thoughts which include doubts, fears, and other traits that hold may hold you back or cause you suffering.

In essence, the practice of buddhism for me is to become a master of my mind and not to let my mind become my master.
I don't know Buddhism as well as I know Christianity, so I ask this with ignorance...

It seems to me that there is no (or little) conflict between Atheism and American Buddhism, but that the older institutionalized versions of Buddhism have tenets that do conflict. I believe these versions get a little mystical and authoritative.
A good question. Theism and other superstitions have always been allowed in Buddhism, but they are not central. Zen Buddhism, for example, in Japan has no theistic belief, and many consider it anti-theistic. This has been true for thousands of years. While you will always find people to argue about religion in any belief system, the same is true of politics and art. (When Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" debuted in Paris, it sparked a riot.)

At its core, Buddhist practice is far more important than Buddhist belief. But inevitably a culture will grow up around a religion, and all cultures contain & restrict behavior. Buddhism is less dictatory around cultural practices than many religions. For example, it has no stance on polygamy or polyandry. Some Buddhist cultures allow multiple marriages and others do not. When the chief person in a faith is a humble monk who must go begging for alms in order to eat, it's hard to see the faith as preaching an ideal of authoritarianism. (Tibet is, in fact, an exception here.)

Also it is important to recognize a fundamental difference between Eastern ideas of gods and the Judeo-Christo-Islamic ideas of God. In Buddhism, the gods are just as much in need of enlightenment as are the rest of sentient life. They also go through reincarnation. They are caught in the cycle of samsara (suffering).

Mysticism and superstition are not absent from even atheistic societies. Iceland and much of Scandinavia are largely atheistic but have a pervasive belief in fairies. Europeans who are non-theists have difficulty giving up on the idea of a "soul." And even within the Atheist Nexus, there is a lot of disagreement on the determinism/free will debate, with those who cling to free will insisting that there is an undiscovered part of the human brain that remains unaffected by genetics & environment. All of these ideas have mystic/supernatural qualities that are equally invasive to non-theistic thought as they are to Buddhist thinking.
The basic tenets of Buddhism hold true across all the versions, although the cultural background tends to necessitate a path dealing with commonly held beliefs and concepts. Stephan is correct about the two levels, but I see that in the basic Buddhist philosophy and the different schools to guide practitioners to realization. We are born with a dualistic concept of life that limits us. Moving into a different concept is not easy as our personalities are wrapped up in it. Meditation is definitely the key, but at the same time one must be guided through the changing of one's concept of life. Dualism is very hard to drop.

Atheism? There is no need for a first cause or an eternal supergod in Buddhist teaching. In fact, the concept of Emptiness shows that there can be no "God". So, what are these "deities", goddesses and demons of Tibetan Buddhism? They are more perfected sentient beings like ourselves and are representative of certain key concepts...compassion, loving kindness. We do that with sports figures like Tiger Woods. And if any American Buddhists hold onto a belief in something they call God, I warrant that they just can't be done with the brainwashing they had when they were young. That is okay as one doesn't have to dump any beliefs to meditate and start the path of realization. As Andrew pointed out, it is better to slowly take the wind out of those sails and deal with life in a more observant and aware fashion.
A Zen Master which hosted a retreat I was at a few weeks ago put it like this (paraphrased). When people see icons, like the statues of Buddha and the various deities like the Buddha of compassion, they represent a level of consciousness.

We bow to these images out of respect to ourselves, because they represent our enlightened selves, not a god to be worshiped.

So that may clear some things up, as to why Buddhists have so many icons and images of Buddhas and deities.

Seth

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