Are Buddhists Atheists?
Recently, I spoke at a Lutheran church in Twin Lakes to a group studying world religions. The question of whether Buddhists are atheists arose. I explained that this depended on one’s definition of atheist.
Buddhism does not have a God. Gautama Buddha, the historical figure from whom Buddhism has descended, was a human being. As such, Buddhists do not pray to, nor do they worship the Buddha. Buddhism is a belief system that recognizes that all human life has suffering. No one has ever lived that did not suffer. The teachings, or Dharma, are a guideline of how to overcome this suffering. The teachings also stress that individual suffering can not be fully overcome until all beings are freed from suffering. Therefore, our actions must not be for our benefit. They must be for the benefit of all beings.
Buddhism teaches Oneness. This means that all which exists is interrelated. An action as common as eating a meal is an expression of Oneness. From the person serving or cooking the meal, all the way back through the chain to the microorganisms providing nutrients to the plant and beyond, each is a component of Oneness. By expressing our gratitude to this Oneness we recognize how we are a part of universal life.
Buddhism speaks of an infinite wisdom and compassion in the universe. Our ignorance, driven by our ego, clouds our ability to draw upon this power. We cling to both the pleasant and unpleasant events in our lives. The pleasant we wish would never cease. The unpleasant we constantly revisit. Buddhism is about letting go both the pleasant and unpleasant. Accept that all things change. Live in the “eternal now.” Know that we cannot change the past and that our current actions affect the future. As we strip away our ignorance, the infinite wisdom and compassion fill our lives and we begin to overcome suffering.
Usually, we say that a person either believes in God, is an agnostic, or is an atheist. I like to say that Buddhists are “nontheists.” Buddhism deals with your human condition right now. Buddhism does not concern itself with creation or destruction of the physical world. Buddhism does not have a belief in an eternal soul. The idea of impermanence is fundamental to Buddhism. All things arise and all things pass away. Buddhism does not say there is or is not a God. Quite simply, it does not address the issue.
If your belief in God brings you joy, comfort and helps overcome suffering then you have found your path. Buddhists respect all faiths and all people of faith. The compassion in the universe, however you define it, exists for us all.