Comments on Buddhism, Atheists and Amitabha.

From “The Message of the Buddha” by K.N Jayatilleke (via The Zennist)

What is the Buddhist answer to this question? What the Buddha a Theist, an Atheist, an Agnostic or a Positivist? The answer is fairly clear. Given the above definition of God [in The Book of Common Prayer] in its usual interpretation, the Buddha is an atheist and Buddhism in both its Theravada and Mahayana forms is atheism.


Atheism here is defined as the denial of the existence of God with a big “G”. Usually when defined by the captital “G”, the God we are talking about is a creator god. One that made everything we see around us including us and anything else we may stumble across. Most consider this to be the Judeo-Christian “God” when referenced as such but it can also include Islam, Hinduism, or any religion with a set and organized creation myth that involves supernatural creation of the world.


I agree with The Zennist when he asserts that Buddhism, in general (there may be sects or practices that I am not familiar with) does not fall in line with a standard Deist outlook. Being an atheist can also vary from no belief in a creator God to no belief in anything of a supernatural/transcendental origin or belief. Even with the most extreme of Atheist views, Buddhism still barely falls outside of its realm.


Some assert that the Amitabha Buddha takes the place of a creator God and is thus the Pure Land Sects are a Deistic religion. Again, I think this in part due to a fallacy of viewing an Eastern Religion through Western, Christian eyes. “We (Western Christians) have a creator God so they (Asian Buddhists) must have one as well”. Then you see people praying and making offerings to the Amitabha Buddha and you assume that Buddha is deified.


From my very basic understanding of Pure Land Buddhism, the Amitabha was once a human monk that transcended into a Buddha Realm and promised to grant liberation to any that recited his name. While supernatural and transcendental in nature, the Amitabha Buddha is far from a creator God and more or less provides another path to enlightenment. A method that requires an “other” power to help achieve it rather than focusing on just personal practice.


So, personally, I consider myself an agnostic. And, personally, I think Buddhism does not specifically deny a creator “God” but rather considers it unimportant in the grand scheme of things. The primary focus of Buddhism is not on higher powers but rather personal practice. That personal practice, however, can be a mixture of reliance upon the compassion of past Buddhas as well as personal striving to achieve enlightenment or liberation.


What is of prime importance to me is that the practice of Buddhism does not require the acceptance of higher powers or supernatural entities. You can practice perfectly well from a completely secular stance. The Buddha was a human and figured out a way to cease suffering and be happy. I wish to cease my own suffering and be happy.


Simple as that. From there you make your choice to follow the path and begin your practice. Your practice may always be strictly secular and atheistic or it may move in to more transcendental areas. Either way, it is fine. It is your practice and you need to use what works for you. Just don’t mistake choice with ease. Just because you have choice does not mean that your practice must be easy. There should always be a sense of striving in your practice.





6 thoughts on “Comments on Buddhism, Atheists and Amitabha.

  1. If we have to put an "-ist" on it, I'd say the Buddha was an apatheist, or as wikipedia claims, a dharmist.

  2. Oh yeah… One of the things that really annoyed the hell out of me when I was an Angry Atheist was that theists insisted that the definition of atheism was that atheists claimed to know that "God" didn't exist. No matter how slow I talked I couldn't convince the "true believers" that the general definition of atheism is simply lacking a belief in any deities. However, I never bought in to Dawkin's or Hitchin's saying that we are all atheists but that they just believed in one less god than the theists.

  3. I read recently a comment by a Rinpoche that in the end we may even see that Emptiness is a state where there may even be a God, but that God is beyond the capabilities of our comprehension and bears no similarity to the dogmatic apprehension of an entity as defined by the Theists. And what does it matter – once we are enlightened? I find that comforting and an encouragement to maintain my practices, wherever they may take me.

  4. My understanding is that it's not just that Buddhism does not fall in line – Buddhism asserts that the obsession with deism vs. non-deism is itself often counterproductive.

  5. @ Jamie G. – Oooo! Apatheist, I like it. I too have had many conversations with athiests and while I do not consider myself one I do enjoy the arguament that Hitchins and Dawkins put forward when they say that we are all atheist, it just depends where we direct it.

    Pretty much why I go with agnostic Buddhist when people insist on a label. However, I have found that if I simply say "Buddhist", fundies will leave me alone and atheists will accept it.

    @ moritheil – I agree. I would figure that the typical Buddhist answer to God is "So What?". Mine is usually "No Heaven and No Hell except that which you create for yourself in THIS moment". It will keep the door-knockers away for a week or two.

    @ Vajramate – To obsess over anything is probably counterproductive but at the same time it needs to be addressed when Buddhists attempt to make Buddhism exclusive by stating that it doesn't cater to atheists ("No Atheists Need Apply"). The same goes with the Zennists statement that those who believe in God need to look elsewhere ("No Theists Need Apply").

    In the end it needs to be inclusive and accepting of both viewpoints.

  6. I began my practice and was ordained as layperson with a Pure Land sangha connected with Eikyoji Buddhist Temple in Japan. But the more I learned, the more the whole “believe in me, I’ll get you there” thing didn’t work for me. Pure Land philosophy seems to relieve the practitioner of the *responsibility* of enlightenment.

    I continued my studies with a priest ordained with the San Francisco Zen Center and grew to embrace SotoZen (with a serious Taoist slant) in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. “Practice flows from the realization that *all beings* are Buddha, and that sitting in meditation is itself the realization of Buddha nature, or enlightenment.”

    Do no evil, do only good, and save all beings: belief in God/a god is not necessary to accomplish these things, so belief in God/a god is not important to one’s practice. Theist, atheist, agnostic: These are labels that distract us from enlightenment with unanswerable questions and inconclusive debate.

    End of SoapBox Moment.

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