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.