Home » Features » Are Buddhists Atheists?

According to online dictionary m-w.com, an “atheist” is “one who believes that there is no deity” and a “deity” is “the rank or essential nature of a god/ a god or goddess/ one exalted or revered as supremely good or powerful.” Many theists, be they monotheists (those who believe in one God) or polytheists (those who believe in multiple gods), see Buddhists as atheists – because there is no god as the central refuge in its teachings. But how true is this?

Buddhists take refuge in the Triple Gem (Three Jewels) – the Buddhas (there are countless Buddhas), the (Buddha)Dharma (the Buddhas’ teachings that lead to enlightenment), and the Sangha (the community of Dharma practitioners, which includes humans and gods, who have attained at least stream-entry, which is the first spiritual fruit on the path to enlightenment). It is important to note that the Sangha consists of some gods (devas) too, of whom are regarded as celestial (heavenly) Bodhisattvas such as the well-known Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas can manifest as some gods out of skilful means too, though Bodhisattvas are never manifestations of ordinary gods. In this sense, Buddhists do take refuge in some, but not all gods, as not all are of the Sangha. However, many gods take refuge in the Triple Gem.

Traditionally, Buddhists take refuge in all three aspects of the Triple Gem collectively. This is true, other than the Buddha’s several first five disciples, who took refuge only in the Buddha and the Dharma he taught – in the absence of the Sangha, which was formed shortly after – when they Arhathood at the end of the Buddha’s second sermon. Yet in a way, the Buddha himself was already the perfect embodiment of all three aspects of the Triple Gem. The Buddha is living Dharma and the perfect Sangha member.

The (historical) Buddha as a spiritual refuge is obviously not an ordinary god or a creator God (which Buddhism does not subscribe to – as it believes we collectively create and re-create the world continually through cause and effect). But one of the traditional titles of the Buddha is “Teacher of humans and gods”. He declared himself to be wholly spiritually purified and perfected, to be faultless, to have transcended both human and godly limitations. In the spiritual and physical sense, every Buddha is as equally supreme as one another, and is thus “God-like” – in a very loose sense of the word.

Are Buddhas divine? According to the same dictionary, “divine” refers to that “of, relating to, or proceeding directly from God or a god/ being a deity/ directed to a deity/ supremely good”. We need to note that the “divine” is usually related to the godly only. As the Buddha clearly said he is not an incarnation of any god or any god’s messenger, and that he had transcended all gods, he is nevertheless “divine” as he is “supremely good”. The goodness of the Buddha is so supreme that it is called “pure”, which transcends both worldly and godly goodness.

So, are Buddhists really atheists, monotheists or polytheists? There is no clear-cut answer, since many use these terms differently. A complete answer to the question would resemble one of at least this length. However, Buddhism explains how theism evolved throughout history, and it is from this that we can see how Buddhism sees itself in comparison. In the ancient days of lack in understanding of nature, when humans experienced the wrath of nature, they instinctively assumed there to be gods of nature who were angry with them. Thus arose belief in earth gods (who create earthquakes), mountain gods (who create landslides), river gods (who create floods), lightning gods (who create storms)… This is probably the birth of polytheism. Some time later, it occurred to humans that these myriad gods should be under the control of a supreme God who created and governs them, without which there would be total chaos. This is the birth of monotheism.

With the coming of Buddhism, no gods were taken as spiritual refuges, as the Buddha’s complete awakening to the reality of life and the universe clarified the earlier misunderstanding on the nature of gods. But this is not to say no gods exist at all. In fact, in Buddhist cosmology, there are 26 intricately defined heavenly planes among its 31 planes of existence. The inhabitants of the heavens are of course, gods. And anyone who had created sufficient good karma can be reborn as a god, though a godly rebirth is not Buddhism’s final aim. Its final aim is to urge all to become Buddhas – ones who have realised total freedom from the rounds of life and death, who help others to be likewise free.

It is interesting to note that in the Buddhist scriptures, there is at least one god described, who seriously mistaken himself to have created the universe, though the creation and destruction of the universe occurs naturally in cycles. A very senior god (Brahma Sahampati; not Maha Brahma, as sometimes mistaken) also invited the Buddha to teach after his enlightenment. (For the sake of religious harmony, it would not be appropriate to claim or argue if this god/God is that of any other religion.)

As described above, according to Buddhism, the rise of a religion which is not god-centric is seen as part of the process of the evolution of religion. The Buddha taught that, given enough efforts of spiritual cultivation, every single being could become spiritually evolved (be it in this life or another) to be perfect like him in compassion and wisdom. His goal was to teach the path to “True Happiness” for all beings, which is synonymous with the attainment of Enlightenment, the realisation of the truth of all things.

Atheism is also often lumped together with nihilism, which is in turn linked to the total lack of morals. Not that Buddhists are “atheist” in the strictest sense of the word (as explained above), but if one examines the Buddhist code of ethics, one will discover that Buddhism has perhaps the world’s most comprehensive and compassionate moral system, which even takes into consideration of plants and the smallest sentient beings (e.g. insects). Buddhism is conscious not only about human welfare in terms of promoting anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-casteism, anti-dogmatism, anti-religious intolerance… it is also mindful of ecological and animal welfare (e.g. environmentalism and anti-speciesism). Thus is the first impression of the Buddha for many that of the embodiment of all-rounded and balanced compassion and wisdom.

7 Responses to “Are Buddhists Atheists?”

  1. Buddhist are definitely not atheist. I would call them Honorary Deist. There is actually a Primodial Buddha: Samantabadra which is the closest thing to God but it is only mention in the Tibetan Nyingma tradition as the source of Samsara and Nirvana.

  2. Here is something related to Adi-Buddha idea which is not the same as the God idea.

    A NOTE ON SRISTIKANTA LOKESHVARA
    by Min Bahadu Shakya

    …Among the many forms of Avalokiteshvara Sristikanta Likeshvara is the one derived from the text Gunakarandavyuha Sutra. This sutra is basically composed in 3/4 century. This was the time lord Maitreya transmitted the teachings of Buddha nature to Acarya Asanga Circa 350 A. D.).

    The Sutra says that when this Universe was empty except Prabhashvara, there were no physical elements like earth, water, air, and fire. Adi Buddha appeared in the first place. He meditated on a samadhi called lokasansarjana with a view to create the Universe, first of all the emanated Aryavalokiteshvara. He in turn meditated deeply on samadhi called Lokotbhava thereby creating moon from his right eye, sun from his left eye, then the system of day and night evolved.

    He then created Mahadva from his forehead, Brhama for his shoulders, Narayana from his heart, sarasvari from his upper and lower teeth, Vayu deva from his mouth, Varyna Nagaraja from his abdomen, Mahalaxmi from his left knee, Agnideva from his navel, Kuvera from his right knee, the Prithivi for this sole, In this way he emanated many to the important deva, and assign tem characteristic duties as per each.

    These emanated deities gladly accepted their duties and promised to keep them forever.

    They also promised to practice Bodhisattva path for the sake of all sentient beings. Avalokiteshvara told them that if they kept their promises and worked for the benefit of sentient. beings they would then attain Buddhood in future.

    Now the problem arises as why Avalokiteshvara is depicted as the God of creation which is obviously and unacceptable tenet for all forms of Buddhism. The concept of Adi-Buddha or Primordial Buddha seems to have developed fully around 10th century in Nalanda and in Nepal and in germ stage around third/fourth century during the time of Arya Asanga. Arya Asanga in his Mahayana Sutralamkara tries to refute this concept of Adi-Buddha in the following line.

    “Buddha is without beginning from the point of view of division of gotra, without purpose and integrated in the immaculate foundation, because of non differentiatedness.”

    He says that no one can become a Buddha without two accumulations of merit and wisdom. Such an equipment can only be attained from a previous Buddha. There fore, there can be no first Buddha. (Skt: Adi-Buddha). It would b e a complete misconception to consider the Adi Buddha as just another version of the Createo God. THat would be and absolute reversal of the Buddhist point of view which essentially and fundamentally denies the notion of create God. Adi-Buddha never meant here the first Buddha. It must be understood that “Prabhasavara is rendered as Clear light or in other words it is called Shunyata-prabhasvara. It is same as three nature of mind. The nature of our mind is empty is essence yet it can cognize everything. This principle is constant throughout three divisions of time. This nature being inherent in all sentient beings. They are called primordially pure or Buddha nature or Tathagatagarbha.

    When one realizes that one’s mind is empty and yet congnizant, one realizes Buddhahood. When one’s veil of obscuration are removed, one’s Buddhanature is reveiled or manifested simultaneously.

    To communi8cate this idea., the sutra describes it in theistic sense that there appeared firsts a Buddha when nothing was there. Therefore the concept of the Adi-Buddha should rather be regarded as an attempt to express the nature of mind, that is empty but cognizant which is shunyata-prabhashvara it self.

    In Nepal, this Adi-Buddha theory first appeared in this Surta, then came later on in the text Swayambhu purana. According to the text of Swayambhu Purana, the Adi-Buddha first appeared; in Nepal in the shape of a flame and in order to shelter it, Manjusheree raised a shrine above in and hence it has been known since as Swayambhu or Self-existing primordial awareness.

    Concerning the origin of all important devasa, the Adi-Buddha, should be regarded as the personification of the ultimate reality of nature of mind or Buddhanature. From the realization of Buddhanature, the great compassion arises in the mind. Thus in the Sutra Adi-Buddha seems to have emanated Aryavalokiteshvara, the embodiment of Great compassion. From the great compassion comes the act of benefitting sentient beings. which is no other that emanating different deities namely Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshvara and others who do specific duties for the sake of sentient beings.

    It would be wroth to note that Buddhist sutras bear two meanings: one is definitive and the other conventional. The conventional meaning of the sutra appears much in the manner of theistic genre to contend with contemporary situations. It is possible that it represents alast effort to contened with Moslims, which instead of denying the bases of Mohammad’s teaching. Tried to show monotheism could be found is Buddhism. But the definitive meaning is however non-contradictory to Buddha’s basic teachings.

    Iconographically, Sristikant Lokeshvara is red in color. He holds a lotus flower with his lift have and displays varadamudra with his right hand. He is generally depicted in standing posture with a dozed of important deities emanating, His image can be found engraved in Golden window of Patan Durbar Square.

  3. Interesting that there is a Mahayana Sutra that feature Adi – Buddha , any idea what is its Chinese name ? The author is correct to say that this is a problem for the Mahayanist especially if this Sutra is part of the Mahayana Tripitaka. But I would not agree with the assumption that it being a overture to Islam.

  4. Why would any Buddha create Samsara when all Buddhas work towards ending it? The sutra, if authentic, seem easy to misunderstand? This from the 2nd last para of http://buddhim.20m.com/8-6.htm seems plausible: ‘It would be worth to note that Buddhist sutras bear two meanings: one is definitive and the other conventional. The conventional meaning of the sutra appears much in the manner of theistic genre to contend with contemporary situations.’

  5. that would implied that the Sutra is a piece of creative writing.

  6. Not necessarily… Good to re-read the article @ http://buddhim.20m.com/8-6.htm to see what the author meant? The author presented a reconciliation that seems fair. The Buddha is known to preach in the context of his times.

  7. Humanist-Buddhist November 16, 2010

    This is amazing news:

    http://www.americanhumanist.org/news/details/2010-11-humanists-launch-largest-national-advertising-campai

    Humanists Launch Largest National Advertising Campaign Critical of Religious Scripture

    Washington, D.C., November 9, 2010

    A national multimedia ad campaign – the largest, most extensive ever by a godless organization – launches today and will include a spot on NBC Dateline on Friday, November 12, as well as other television ads, that directly challenge biblical morality and fundamentalist Christianity. The campaign, sponsored by the American Humanist Association, also features ads in major national and regional newspapers and magazines demonstrating that secular humanist values are consistent with mainstream America and that fundamentalist religion has no right to claim the moral high ground.

    The ads juxtapose notable humanist quotes with passages from religious texts, including the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran. The ads then ask the audience to “Consider Humanism.” One example is the following pairing: The Bible: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” I Timothy 2 (New International Version) Humanism: “The rights of men and women should be equal and sacred—marriage should be a perfect partnership.” Robert G. Ingersoll, in a letter dated April 13, 1878. Another pairing is: The Bible: “The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” God, Hosea 13:16 (New International Version) Humanism: “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.” Albert Einstein, column for The New York Times, Nov. 9, 1930

    To see images and videos of the ads and find more information about the campaign please visit: http://www.considerhumanism.org

    “Humanist values are mainstream American values, and this campaign will help many people realize that they are already humanists and just did not know the term,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Humanists believe in and value love, equality, peace, freedom and reason – values that are comparable to those of moderate and liberal religious people.”

    In addition to the television ad on NBC, ads will also be displayed on cable channels. Print ads will appear in major newspapers, including USA Today, the Seattle Times, the Village Voice, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Independent Triangle, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and magazines, including Reason and The Progressive. Ads will also appear on Metro trains in Washington, D.C., on billboards on I-95 near Philadelphia and in Moscow, Idaho, and on buses in select cities.

    “We want to reach people in every corner of the U.S., from all walks of life, to raise the flag for humanists and show others that they have more in common with us than with biblical literalists,” said Speckhardt.

    “It’s important that people recognize that a literal reading of religious texts is completely out of touch with mainstream America,” Speckhardt added. “Although religious texts can teach good lessons, they also advocate fear, intolerance, hate and ignorance. It’s time for all moderate people to stand up against conservative religion’s claim on a moral monopoly.”

    All quotes from religious texts were checked by scripture scholars to ensure accuracy, context and proper translation.

    The Stiefel Freethought Foundation was the primary sponsor of the Consider Humanism campaign with a $150,000 donation. Another $50,000 was raised from supporters of the American Humanist Association for the launch of this campaign, bringing the total ad buy to $200,000 so far.

    The American Humanist Association (www.americanhumanist.org) advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through over 140 local chapters and affiliates across America. Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a belief in God.

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