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.