Open Forum ~ Can Buddhism be completely atheistic?

From Mark Vernon’s Review of “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist”

Reincarnation and karma are rejected as Indian accretions: his study of the historical Siddhartha Gautama – one element in the new book – suggests the Buddha himself was probably indifferent to these doctrines. What Batchelor believes the Buddha did preach were four essentials. First, the conditioned nature of existence, which is to say everything continually comes and goes. Second, the practice of mindfulness, as the way to be awake to what is and what is not. Third, the tasks of knowing suffering, letting go of craving, experiencing cessation and the “noble path”. Fourth, the self-reliance of the individual, so that nothing is taken on authority, and everything is found through experience.

This topic has, in the past and surely in the future, will bring up plenty of contention from those that insist upon an atheistic approach to Buddhist practice and those that prefer more transcendent schools.  What it seems to me is a fantastic approach to introduce the Dharma to secular and rational minded individuals (although to assume that it is strictly a “western” approach needs to read more about B._R._Ambedkar or read my post).

Despite the movement of Buddhist practice towards a completely atheistic POV, Buddhism is generally painted with a very broad brush in that an approach to the Dharma can span from atheistic to non-theistic to theistic but two things remain true:  (1) The is no creator God or direct salavation in Buddhist practice  (2) The practice portrayed by the Buddha and expanded and applied by the many, many different sects is always meant to be pragmatic.  (3)  The difficulty of “pinning down” Buddhism into a cozy category is a strength and not a weakness.

From Here:

Considering the arguments that scholars provide on whether Buddhism is theistic, atheistic or non-theistic, compatible explanations could be provided for all these three philosophical positions. Buddhism has been argued as perfectly theistic simply because it is based on the notion of nirvana and dharma and is thus guided by a moral law, and a focus on moral law is the basis of all religions. Morality is about doing what is right and ethical for the sake of spiritual evolution and in so far as Buddhism emphasizes attaining enlightenment and teaching the same to others…

… However the distinct and intentional avoidance of a creator God, perhaps to dodge the God related questions, brings out the more pragmatic and almost political approach of Buddhism. By denying or de-emphasizing the role of God, Buddha has managed to make religion less deterministic and infused a sense of responsibility in the karmic contribution of the individual. The no-God formula definitely makes Buddhism atheistic in a certain way and it is compatible with Buddha’s emphasis on individual striving for enlightenment by following the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold path of righteousness.

 …many scholars try to maintain a balance and remain non-committal to either side of the debate suggesting that Buddhism is neither theistic nor atheistic but simply non-theistic. Non-theism is the in-between position between atheism and theism. It does not carry all the negative implications of atheism and yet carries with it the theistic emphasis on moral value.

Maybe, non-theism is a more moderate and better word to describe Buddhism yet it is also inadequate as Buddhism does embody not just a part of theism or atheism that non-theism would imply, but Buddhism seems to encompass nearly all or most of theism and atheism. This is the problem in trying to define, categorize or pin down Buddhism, it seems to be both theistic and atheistic at the same time. Of course, in a way, the different schools or divisions of Buddhism adds to this confusion as Mahayana is more theistic and Theravada is atheistic. Yet, it can be said that Buddhism is theistic in its essence and atheistic in its approach, theistic in theory and atheistic in practice and even theistic in its goal and atheistic in its philosophical position.

So the best I can honestly say about Stephen Batchelor’s working of the Dharma is:

  1. It is easily accessable to those with little or no Dharma experience.  A good basics intro.
  2. The framing of practice as completely atheistic appeals to “rationalist” and provides a good base for growth.
  3. At this point in time, it is removed from dogmatic, ritualistic or political organizations, thus appeals to home-practitioners like myself.
  4. Is not “destroying Buddhism”, just opening a new door.
  5. Is boring and dull (I found Buddhism w/o Beliefs very bland)
  6. You can attach to an atheistic approach just as much as a dogmatic one. 
  7. There is no “True Buddhism” just approaches to a path

What do you think?  

Cheers,

John

As a post-script I will also recommend “Spiritual Atheism” by Steve Antinoff and leave with this quote by Richard DeMartino which formed the core of atheist spirituality…

It is not that the ego has a problem.  The ego is the problem.

With words like that is it any surprise that some Buddhists are going in this direction or newbies discovering the Dharma through a completely atheistic presentation?

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37 thoughts on “Open Forum ~ Can Buddhism be completely atheistic?

  1. What do you mean by “complete atheism?”

    It’s totally clear to me that Buddhism is compatible with atheism, since a personal creator-God (theos) is entirely absent from its core philosophy.

    It’s also pretty clear to me that many varieties of Buddhism are compatible with a rejection of supernaturalism, e.g. beliefs about the concrete existence of spirits, heavens, hells, or other similar stuff, even if these figure fairly importantly in some other varieties of Buddhism. (Pure Land, for example, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you lack belief in rebirth after death or, well, the Pure Land.)

    However, things start to get problematic if you try to reject something you might call “the transcendent,” because that would pretty much throw out stuff like awakening, True Self, bodhicitta, dharmakaya, and all that commotion. This is an inherently religious goal, and it’s getting a bit tough to argue that it’s still Buddhism if you throw out Buddha and only leave in dharma and sangha.

    My personal take is that Buddhism is more compatible with skepticism and agnosticism than theism or atheism. Existential claims about metaphysical objects just aren’t all that important, regardless of whether the assertion is “X exists” or “X doesn’t exist.” It’s more like, “what difference does it make if X exists or doesn’t exist?”

    • I think I mentioned that “complete atheism” is the rejection of all transcendental notions, which I think you addressed nicely in your comment.

      The aspect of “Great Doubt” is central to my practice but “great” does not mean “complete” so I don’t really tend towards the atheistic approach that tosses everything transcendent from Buddhism.

      Cheers,
      John

      • POST-ATHEISM?

        Hey, has anyone heard about this ‘Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis’? It’s by some Australian Philosopher called Timb Hoswell. It’s meant to put an end to the Religion vs Atheist debate by like beginning some sort of new age of Post-Atheism.

        Does anyone know how you get a copy?

        • Here you go! But from the looks of it, I wouldn’t expect much.

          Cheers,
          John

          ps. I don’t tend to trust anything that promises to end a debate thathas gone on since the dawn or time (or at least the beginning of the written record)

        • So you’ve read it?

          Is it any good? The only reference I could find in the Stanford was to this ‘Feyerabend’ guy. Apparently he destroyed the ‘rationalist’ approach to the scientific method back in the 70s.

          “In 1970, he published a long article entitled “Against Method” in which he attacked several prominent accounts of scientific methodology. In their correspondence, he and Lakatos subsequently planned the construction of a debate volume, to be entitled For and Against Method, in which Lakatos would put forward the “rationalist” case that there was an identifiable set of rules of scientific method which make all good science science, and Feyerabend would attack it.”

          “Against Method explicitly drew the “epistemological anarchist” conclusion that there are no useful and exceptionless methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge. The history of science is so complex that if we insist on a general methodology which will not inhibit progress the only “rule” it will contain will be the useless suggestion: “anything goes”. In particular, logical empiricist methodologies and Popper’s Critical Rationalism would inhibit scientific progress by enforcing restrictive conditions on new theories.”

          http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feyerabend/

  2. I had walked away from Christianity and became what could be labeled a very angry atheist. When I began moving toward Buddhism I was attracted to the non-theistic philosophies of Buddhism, but later moved to a place of apathy. It doesn’t bother me either way, though I appreciate that Buddhism puts the responsibility of awakening squarely in my hands, as opposed being in the “palm of His hands.”

    And thank you (!!!) for your comment on Batchelor’s book. I thought the same exact thing. At the time there was a lot of hype how wonderful his book was and his text would be the key to reaching rationalists in the West. My reply after reading the book was simply, “meh”. It still sits on my shelf, but honestly I wouldn’t recommend it to any of my rationalist friends who wanted just one book from me to read about Buddhism.

  3. Good thoughts here. Batchelor’s approach does resonate for me, somewhat, in that I don’t necessarily believe in reincarnation, etc. I don’t believe the Buddha taught reincarnation. When I hear about rebirth, I think of it in terms of anatta. I don’t exist as a fixed, separate, permanent thing, but am rather reborn in instant after instant. I am not the person I was five years ago, or even five seconds ago.

    I don’t call myself an atheist, though, even though I don’t believe in a creator god, in the traditional sense, or in the most of the more supernatural aspects of certain sects of Buddhism. When I say I don’t believe in god, though, what I mean is I don’t believe in some surly bearded dude in the sky who arranges things to suit some specific group of people he has decided he loves more than all of the other less-worthy (and usually brown) people he created. I do, however, believe in something kind of like god. I believe that all things are part of something scared and transcendent. Everything. From “the yew tree in the garden” to “dried shit stick” to my computer to the asshole who tail-gaited me on the way to work this morning. All of it is part of what Unmon called “the unborn” and what liberal Christian theologian Paul Tillich called “the ground of all being.”

    To me, atheism seems to deny sacredness and transcendence, and that doesn’t really jibe with the path I find myself on. When I say I don’t believe in a creator god, I mean I don’t believe in a creator god as a separate entity from creation. Though I don’t call myself this, because I tend to just say “I practice Zen Buddhism,” I guess you could classify me as a pantheist or panentheist.

    Also, I find value, from a mythopoeic point of view, in venerating or appealing to bodhisattva figures, like Kannon or Jizo or Manjushri. Do I believe that they are real people, floating around in some lotus land, somewhere? No. But personifying compassion, wisdom, and other attributes as individuals who I can call upon when I need to draw on those qualities in myself helps me in my practice in ways that I can’t really explain (though I’m sure Carl Jung could).

    Rationality is a good thing. It is a useful tool that helps us to survive and to not burn other people at the stake because they are different from us or because our crops didn’t grow this year. I appreciate rationality, and I think that, yes, there is much in the Buddhist path that appeals to rationality. But I also think that rationality only goes so far. I think that our culture celebrates rationality to the exclusion of emotion and intuition. I think there are parts of our brains that respond to and benefit from collective myth and ritual, even if our rational minds don’t believe a word of it. For instance, I like “feeding the hungry ghosts” after oriyoki, not because I really believe there are beings in the woods behind my Zen center with tiny mouths and giant stomachs, but because I recognize the hungry ghost in myself. Taking that pause to recognize the part of myself that is never satisfied, to look at it and nurture it, is important.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t see atheist Buddhists as fellow travelers on the path, or that I don’t think they’re “doing it right.” These are just the reasons I don’t consider myself one.

    • Jaime, amazing – thanks for articulating my own beliefs pretty much exactly, better than I’ve been able to. I hope you don’t mind I’m copy/pasting this for personal reference. (I assume no relation to Ken McL?)

      • Glad you enjoyed it, benjalo. No, no relation that I know of. (If only the name were enough to get me a job at the Sun …)

  4. I have noticed that when people say Buddhism is atheistic, what they really mean is it is not monotheistic. When they say it has no creator god, they mean it has no absolute supreme being who created the universe once and for all. It does not posit a relationship with any deity as the ultimate condition of salvation/liberation/happiness.

    As a Tibetan Buddhist, I can tell you that my tradition of Buddhism accepts the existence of gods such as Indra, Brahma, and Ishvara; it acknowledges Brahma as the creator who creates the cosmos anew at the beginning of each kalpa; it sometimes makes offerings to deities and spirits. At the same time, it recognizes that none of those deities or spirits is enlightened, and Shakyamuni is; none of them has taught the path to liberation; none of them is a refuge superior to the Three Jewels. In that sense, you could call Buddhism polytheistic, except that very few Western scholars take polytheism seriously.

    • I have noticed that when people say Buddhism is atheistic, what they really mean is it is not monotheistic. When they say it has no creator god, they mean it has no absolute supreme being who created the universe once and for all. It does not posit a relationship with any deity as the ultimate condition of salvation/liberation/happiness.

      YES! But interestingly, one can have a legitimate practice without ever even considering any deity. For me one of the beauties of Buddhist practice is that knocks the gods down to our “level” (well not exactly “our” level but not supreme in any stretch of the imagination).

      Cheers,
      John

  5. Great post. One thing I’d like to point out: This atheism and non-theism distinction is redundant. True atheism is exactly that, the lack of theistic belief. There is no denial of the existence of a God or gods in atheism’s base form. Whatever your personal reasoning for not believing in God doesn’t factor into atheism at all.

    That very common negative conception is what I’m struggling to help people understand about my own atheistic beliefs. I don’t deny there is a God, but I can’t assert there is one either. Contrary to what you might be thinking, that isn’t agnosticism either, it’s plain atheism. Agnosticism doesn’t exist as a middle ground, but merely a branch of theistic or atheistic belief.

    I guess my point is, non-theism is atheism. There’s no difference. It may sound cleaner and friendlier, maybe a little more “PC”, but it’s the same thing.

    I do believe Buddhism is completely compatible with atheism. That’s the beautiful thing about the dharma, you can pull from it what will improve your life and the lives of others. You don’t need to take a fundamentalist stance and subscribe to every ideology that it asserts. I consider it more of a philosophy or state of mind than a religion. It’s absolutely beautiful.

  6. from my very newbie Buddhist perspective, and as I have mentioned elsewhere, I say Buddhism is at once by definition atheistic and yet more spiritual and transcendent than anything I have encountered in my 40+ yrs on the planet…

    and the reference to Buddhism being “theistic” because it has a moral code?
    hmmm…morality
    many religions have moral codes which they scarcely follow, and to follow a moral code does not make one “religious”…

    I do not think this book will be on my reading list…

    • Thanks for the comment but let me clarrify that the quote above is NOT from Stephen Batchelor’s book. It came from an essay on the topic.

      But I still think the difficulty with the term “atheistic” is that some utilize it to reference only the lack in the belief of a creator god while others utilize it to include a complete rejection of anything that can not be explained rationally.

      For example if I went to an atheist meeting at a local bar and mentioned that I believe in the Pure Land or Nirvana then they would hardly consider me an atheist.

  7. Atheism is tricky to pin down now ‘a days. There is the “extreme” atheism that denies the existence of anything supernatural whatsoever, including karma and rebirth. And then there are those that identify as atheists simply because they don’t believe in god/gods.

    I believe Buddhism to be largely apatheistic in it’s approach to deities. It doesn’t really matter if god/gods do exist, because they obviously don’t care about ending our suffering. It falls upon us to end the cycle of samsara (though we may call upon the bodhishatvahs to aid us).

    But as for “complete” atheism, no, I don’t think it’s really compatible with what the Buddha taught. The Buddha spoke for kalpas upon kalpas about karma and rebirth. It’s kind of hard to deny this, isn’t it?

    I think the Buddha addressed skeptics when he states that it takes a noble version of right view to correctly see how karma and rebirth work. So for us, it takes practice, and a little faith. Yes, faith. It takes a bit of faith that yes, we walking a path that results in liberation. It takes a bit of faith to plop down on that zafu for the first time. It takes a bit of faith that the Buddha and the teachers that followed him knew what it was they were talking about. It takes a bit of faith to get us on our path (and sometimes to keep us going) because we aren’t fully enlightend. We are unable to see reality as it truly is. But we work towards it, strive towards it.

    However, if one wishes to remain skeptical towards karma and rebirth, I think that is healthy. It isn’t taking something on blind faith, it is remaining skeptical while working through it in your practice. Though I think a strong disbelief in either is a form of aversion and craving/attachment. It seems like a thick wall to put up in front of you and your practice.

  8. Pingback: Atheism vs(?) Buddhism « Home Brew Dharma

  9. Really like @Petteri’s response, as it echoes my own approach to Buddhism: maybe a god exists, maybe not. It doesn’t make a bit of difference in how I relate to the world or how I act toward others.

    Also liked @Kyle’s explanation/clarification of agnosticism and atheism. Given his explanation, I’d say, sure — atheism and Buddhism are compatible (or certain schools of Buddhism, at least).

    I like David Loy’s explanation of karma and rebirth where he notes that those concepts need to be examined in the religious context of Buddha’s time. These were concepts that existed in Hinduism and culturally worked their way into Buddhism, but they don’t necessarily have to have the same meaning (or any meaning) now. It’s perfectly reasonable to accept the idea of karma not as some cosmic bank of good deeds but as a result of our interdependent nature (anything you do will have repercussions for everyone else in one way or another).

  10. Ah, yes, two subjects near and dear to my heart: Buddhism & atheism. I think the answer to the question of whether Buddhism is essentially an atheistic practice or not was answered by the Buddha himself: Yes. And no. (Ha! I love that inscrutable old bastard!)

    Seriously, if you want to know the answer you need look no further than the Buddha’s own summation of his teachings and what he did NOT claim. All too often, students of Buddhism fall into the same trap Christians, Jews and Muslims fall into: They interpret the teachings according to their own worldview and ignore the context within which a belief system evolved. Of course, unlike the patriarchs of Islamo-Judeo-Xianism, the Buddha recognized this danger and warned his students against it on many occasions, including his famous story of the blind men and the elephant and his sermon to the Kalamas.

    The Buddha was a crafty teacher, and made a point of telling his students that he wasn’t telling them everything. He specifically refused to answer certain metaphysical questions, explaining, “Forget that stuff: It’s all just mental masturbation.” Okay, he probably didn’t say it like THAT, but you get the idea. What he was basically telling everyone was that it didn’t matter how many angels could dance on the head of a pin or how the elephantine Ganesh was able to ride a tiny rat without crushing the poor thing.

    In other words, external metaphysical concepts weren’t necessary to obtaining an end to suffering. Which brings up another trap Buddhists fall into: Thinking nibbana/nirvana is a transcendental concept. The Buddha never said any such thing. In fact, he refused to characterize nibbana as anything other than an “unbinding” from suffering by mastering sensual cravings, i.e. equanimity. All that supernatural hoo-ha–along with the Buddha’s own virgin birth, etc.– came later.

    What the Buddha taught was a radical departure from the status quo, but not too radical. He understood human psychology. So, unlike some of his less successful peers, who also taught an atheistic philosophy of detachment, he also offered people the one thing a moral practice needs to be successful: hope. Simply teaching people that death was annihilation, and there was no grand cosmic meaning to existence, he took the familiar trappings of the religion of his time–karma, reincarnation (well, sort of reincarnation), transcendentalism, etc.–and crafted an essentially nontheistic moral system dressed up in a way his students could easily relate to.

    By not offering direct answers to questions such as what happened to a Buddha after death or if there was a soul or not, he avoided contradicting much of what his students had been taught, while leaving just enough room for them to realize what he was really teaching them. That is, to think for themselves and find there own path to awakening. No gods were needed for that. And no buddhas as well. Unless, of course, you needed them. 🙂

    • Thanks for the commentary, Mister Yojmbo, I think you summed it up rather nicely. To put into a well-worn visual – I think the Buddha realized that a square peg will never go through a round hole. So rather than chisel away at the peg, he created a hole that everyone could go through…

      …hmmm. I think I am going to stop this narrative before someone declares me irreverent. But I think you get what I am saying.

      Cheers,

      John

  11. This discussion is 100% about definition and not substance. One can define God very narrowly or so broadly that believing in God it’s pretty much the same as believing in morality. (And even most committed atheists believe in morality, so by this definition, they believe in God, too.)

    I wrote a very short piece about this that’s so relevant I’m going to take the liberty of just copying it here:

    “God or Reason–Does It Really Make Any Difference?”

    Some of the ancient Yoga sages believed in a very personal God and others believed in an impersonal God, or God as simply the life-force of the universe.

    Many religious thinkers define God as “that which is unknowable, but which drives us towards love and goodness”.

    Given this commonly accepted definition, almost everyone believes in God. In the end what matters most is that we all agree there IS some universal drive toward making the world a better place, not where that drive comes from.

    The result is the same, whether one believes it comes from an unfathomable life-force or a personal divine being. Both are equally mysterious, both can legitimately be called “God”, and both lead us to love, goodness and morality.

    The sages who wrote the ancient Yoga texts were themselves in disagreement about God. Their debates are evident in the three major Yoga texts, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra, and the Upanishads.

    In the end the texts themselves allow for the entire spectrum from secularism to traditional religion. That’s one of the things that makes them so amazing and enduring.

    In the time of the Yoga Sutra (about 2400 years ago) the sages couldn’t agree on whether or not there was a God, and if there was a God, was it a personal God or an impersonal God. So Patanjali cleverly wrote the Yoga Sutra to appeal to all these sides.

    Yoga was itself a comparatively rational attempt to deal with all the irrational Gods and rituals of the Indian religious culture of the time. It was quite rebellious in that it wanted to learn about consciousness from direct experience rather than the ancient Vedic hymns and priests.

    The more scientifically-minded sages simply made everything they couldn’t accept as reality into a metaphor and moved on accordingly. That’s what they did with the entire pantheon of ancient Gods — they made them into powerful metaphors of our inner struggles.

    And that’s what each of us individually should do today when the texts challenge us with concepts we can’t accept as literally true — turn them into powerful metaphors. The essential message will remain the same.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.

  12. I still don’t claim that God didn’t exist, however, when It(!) came down to it, It still gave me a bad impression that I didn’t know, didn’t think, if I could explain to myself, unless The Corrupt WERE to get away with being Whatever Bunch of F. Faces, forever to be, meanwhile my own & relevant instinct is to myself & just a symbol & a repetition of the way that my Danish mother partly treats me, partly deserves that both can’t get away with, so that I can of course become & e.g. like yourselves believe in & as much as possible about, what my fate mission IS, all about & forever to be, why & when, to be continued, greetings, arentved@in.com, note: My labor situation is still a thing that I’m not under obligation that I can fail to rely on & mention to you & as a part of, who wants & deserves what from me, why & when, for now a total lack of selfishness.

  13. So you’ve read it?

    Is it any good? The only reference I could find in the Stanford was to this ‘Feyerabend’ guy. Apparently he destroyed the ‘rationalist’ approach to the scientific method back in the 70s.

    “In 1970, he published a long article entitled “Against Method” in which he attacked several prominent accounts of scientific methodology. In their correspondence, he and Lakatos subsequently planned the construction of a debate volume, to be entitled For and Against Method, in which Lakatos would put forward the “rationalist” case that there was an identifiable set of rules of scientific method which make all good science science, and Feyerabend would attack it.”

    “Against Method explicitly drew the “epistemological anarchist” conclusion that there are no useful and exceptionless methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge. The history of science is so complex that if we insist on a general methodology which will not inhibit progress the only “rule” it will contain will be the useless suggestion: “anything goes”. In particular, logical empiricist methodologies and Popper’s Critical Rationalism would inhibit scientific progress by enforcing restrictive conditions on new theories.”

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feyerabend/

    • Wow! Thank you so much for adding to this discussion! I’m really blown away by your insight here! It’s really incredible. I’d never thought about life this way before!

      Maybe you could attempt conversation rather than just spamming your lame ass site. I hate spam trolls.

  14. Hi,

    Just found this – best thing I’ve found so far on Batchelor. Brilliant, inspired even. Write me if you find this interesting (donsalmon7@gmail.com)

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/onecity/2010/06/stephen-batchelor-on-shunyata.html

    Jerry
    June 18, 2010 1:21 PM

    Is not this type of blather, mainly propagated by science-worshipping, atheistic, material-rationalist, elitist, intellectuals? Have they not commandeered and co-opted, certain elements of Buddhism to serve primarily as a “moral framework” and as a “guide to daily living” for the general purpose of adding something meaningful to and consoling to their sterile, empty, hollow, vapid, and nihilistic worldviews?

    Having said that, I actually see nothing wrong with this kind of phenomenon per se. But to consider nirvana/enlightenment, karma and rebirth, as nothing more than “useless baggage from the past” based on superstitious belief and the ignorance of ‘infallible and almighty Western-Science,’ makes it hard to call these people “Buddhist” in any sense of the word. I feel I know them reasonably well, as I used to travel in their circles and to be completely honest with myself- I’ll admit I was one myself, of the worst sort. One of the self-styled iconoclastic and progressive thinkers, who are all quite eerily similar to one another in thought, deed, education, schools attended, book collections, social class, etc.. They can frequently be observed entering Unitarian Universalist churches, humanist groups/meetings of various sorts, and Ethical Society meetings, often gloating, drooling, and reveling in their intellectual superiority over the masses and in their atheistic superiority over the religious and faithful amongst us.

    I myself came to Buddhism from this background- an atheism and science background (I’m an engineer for what it’s worth), and like many others, for many years I could not accept the karma/rebirth model of existence. However, rather than my universally proposing that Buddhism be reworked and re-tooled for the ‘modern rational age,’ I simply adopted certain Buddhist beliefs that I could accept at the time, and worked these into my life. Batchelor is somewhat my doppelganger- he has moved in a polar opposite direction from me, yet in some strange way I feel he is quite similar to me. If I understand correctly, he rushed out whilst barely out of his teens, to become ordained as a Tibetan monk, lived in India, studied Zen in Korea, etc. In contrast- It took me 20 years of studying Buddhism before even deciding to become a lay Buddhist, unaffiliated with any Buddhist school, order or movement. Batchelor appears to have been a hastily ordained Tibetan monk, soon after a disrobed Tibetan monk, tried Zen on for size, decided that didn’t fit, and was eventually drawn to the scientific/atheistic worldview model, over many years of thought and consideration.

    As for me, I came from an atheistic science worldview model to begin with. It’s where I started from. After many years of study, questioning, and searching, I gradually accepted Buddhism and all its foundational thought, including rebirth, enlightenment/nirvana and karmic law. This was a gradual process for me, and this also appears the same in Batchelor’s case; albeit us moving in polar opposite directions. “Opposite journeys” towards truth and liberation as it were.

    I sincerely hope I am wrong in stating this, but it seems to me as if there is a good deal of Western, intellectual elitism at work here. By all means, adopt Buddhist teachings into your scientific/atheist worldview, but please, don’t make the claim “My Buddhism is better than your Buddhism. “My Buddhism is based on rationality and science, whilst yours is based on ancient superstition and an outmoded worldview.” “My Buddhism is pure in nature and entirely based on cold rationality and reason, unsullied by superstition, whilst your Buddhism has ‘folk beliefs’ mixed in and is therefore diluted, corrupted, and inferior.” “My Buddha is Bigger than your Buddha!!!” Is this not that what this group of misguided people, is actually saying here? Does not all this boil down to: “The Buddha was a victim of living in a culture/society that brain-washed him into believing in a karma/rebirth model he could not shake off?” “The Buddha’s mind was not intelligent, advanced, or enlightened enough to shake off the concepts/trappings of karma and rebirth?” Whilst conveniently ignoring the fact that the Buddha discarded many other such “sacred cow” beliefs without hesitation. Anatma(no soul) being one key example. The Buddha also discarded the caste system when it comes to Buddhism, no easy feat for that culture and time period.

    Does Batchelor, with all his surety and confidence, ever stop to think for one micro-second, that maybe it is *he* who is the product of his environment, social conditioning, schooling, Western academia, British culture and its legacy of racism and colonialism, Western thought, and the paradigmatic group-think, common amongst Western intellectuals? Or is he a special being who is somehow entirely immune from paradigmatic thinking and all environmental conditioning? Did the thought ever arise even once in his mind, that perhaps it is *he* who needs to change his solidly embedded, Western, rationalist worldview? Or is he so intent on shaving off the corners of Buddhism so it then fits into his nice and tidy, little Round-Hole of Atheism and Science? Am I wrong in stating that many believe that Buddhism is a buffet or smorgasbord of ideas, wisdom and teachings, where you pick and choose the concepts that you happen to you like, agree with, give you warm fuzzy feelings or are compatible with your pre-existing worldviews?

    I find it somewhat interesting that Batchelor hails from Britain, which at one time not so long ago, colonized and ruled vast parts of the globe.. Mr. Batchelor, is this simply a case of us white, European, western-educated, rationalists and men of science, needing to teach these backwards Asians how “real Buddhism” actually works and how it needs to be implemented? After all, many of them even hail from Tibetan backwater villages and such, grew up in impoverished conditions, lack proper schooling, academic degrees, knowledge of rationalist philosophy, quantum physics, and beyond that, they are superstitious, believe in spirits, ghosts, fortune tellers, pray, bow to statues, and other non-scientific nonsense. It’s our job to educate them about pure/genuine/original/rational Buddhism, and save them from their backward ways of practicing Buddhism, isn’t it? Is there more truth in my comments than you would care to admit, my good Mr. Batchelor? Is your current quest, some type of modern, Buddhist based “White Man’s Burden?” Those Asians who have been studying, practicing, refining, and perfecting Buddhism over the last 2,500 years, could not have possibly got things right without us modern, science-based, Westerners to improve upon it for them. Is that what you are saying Mr. Batchelor?

    Batchelor also states something to the effect of- “I find rebirth hard to believe in and accept.” Well great, so your solution is to change Buddhism so that several fundamental building-blocks of it, are abesnt and no longer bothersome to our western-trained, modern, rationalist minds? I find many things hard to believe as well- I find it hard to believe I am sitting here at my work-desk and traveling at approx. 800mph.(Earth’s rotation) Or that my body is 99.9999999 empty space(spacial structure of the Atom) and that the solid feeling earth that I stand on, is also such empty space. However, all these things happen to be true.

    I’ll share an experience of mine- One nice, warm, summer evening, about ten years ago, I was strolling down one of the back-streets of Chinatown in NYC, away from the crowds and traffic, and I was passing by a storefront. Behind the front glass window of the small shop, sat a statue of the Buddha. An elderly Asian woman seemed to appear out of nowhere. She was approx 60 years of age, pencil thin to the point of emaciation, and very haggard and impoverished looking. She quickly stood facing the window, clasped her hands together as if in prayer, and quickly bowed three times to the Buddha’s image, before quickly disappearing once again, into the urban jungle of NYC’s Chinatown.

    This occurred during the time I fancied myself somewhat of an Atheist-Scientist-Rationalist-Buddhist and for about ten minutes I thought to myself- How far superior is my understanding to her understanding. Did she study the sciences and have an engineering degree? Did she have a huge book collection of western philosophers, eastern philosophers, advanced physics, and did she understand where Buddhism intersects and stands within that great pantheon? Did she understand particle theory? Dark matter? String theory? Plato? Descartes? Sartre? All the great thinkers and philosophers of the ages? All the intricacies of interdependent origination? How dare she degrade and insult Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings by merely bowing to his image as if he were a common God of some sort, to be prayed to, revered and worshipped. How dare this vile, tired, haggard, and skinny, old Asian woman, corrupt MY Buddhism with her primitive folk beliefs and her irrational superstition? At that very moment, I was Stephen Batchelor, I became Stephen Batchelor, or even worse!

    After ten minutes of such thought, I became literally nauseated, sick to my stomach, and ill because of myself and my big, fat, ego and proud sense of self. And I had somewhat of an epiphany, regarding my own shallowness, egotism, ignorance, and lack of compassion- With all my stone-cold reason, hard science, rational facts, and intellectual B.S., who was it for me to question, cast doubt upon, consider more ignorant or less informed, any person’s beliefs or practice? Maybe that old, skinny, woman, knows more about Buddhism than I do. Perhaps her practice and application of it is far superior or purer than mine. Perhaps she has developed more positive karma in her life than I have or ever will. Perhaps she could teach me many things about life and Buddhism. Perhaps she is a kinder person than I. Perhaps she is more compassionate than I. Perhaps she has helped others more than I. Perhaps she is further down ‘the path’ than I am. At this point, I decided that I am not one to judge others in their beliefs and practices. I can only say what is right for me, and my path, and my beliefs. I am not here to denigrate anyone else’s path or write books claiming “mine is superior” for such and such reason…

    “Cherry picking” Buddhism for certain agreeable concepts, whilst rejecting certain main foundational concepts, and still calling it ‘Buddhism’ can be quite insulting to the Sangha and Buddhist community. Call it for what it is- Make up a new term for it- “Atheistic-Buddhism” perhaps, or “Scientific-Buddhism.”. I could accept those terms being used to describe it. Referring to it as simply ‘Buddhism’ and presenting it as having anything to do with traditional or historic Buddhism, is quite foolish and erroneous..

    Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/onecity/2010/06/stephen-batchelor-on-shunyata.html#ixzz0sBulWC2b

    • An interesting opinion, to be sure, but this one line irks me…

      but it seems to me as if there is a good deal of Western, intellectual elitism at work here.

      Hasn’t this Ivory Tower argument been put to rest yet? Everytime, it seems, that Buddhism breaths someone blames the Western, intellectual elite. As if in some board room there is a group of people just plotting the downfall of Buddhism. For my part, most of the atheistic Buddhists (whatever you wish to call them) practice with the rest of us religious folk. They meditate, prostrate, bow and gassho. But it is up to the individual to internalize the Dharma in ways which fit their lives and decisions.

      I don’t really agree with Batchelor but I respect that he is blazing his own path and interpreting the Dharma. Whether we like it or not, we all interpret the teachings. None of us hold a “True” view (as much as we wish we did). I never read anything insulting in Batchelor’s works. Nothing elitist although definitely an academic flavor. Gils Fronsdal provides very similar teachings.

      The whole paragraph on Batchelor’s certainty of his viewpoint seemed more an attack than anything else. One of the strengths of Buddhist practice is that it can be applied to different world-views. It can be applied to an atheistic, theistic or agnostic view. The “cherry-picking” is part of the process. The Zen schools chose which sutra to give priority, the Pure-Land did the same, the Vajrayana as well. The Nichiren, Shambhala, Hosso and Tendai all cherry-picked aspect of the practice to fit cultural and societal needs. It is the process of moving the Dharma into a new environment.

      Cheers,
      John

  15. Pingback: On atheism, the buddha, and the church « on the precipice

  16. In the spirit of “keeping it simple” it seems to me that athiesm is a product of context; a simple rejection of the anthropomorphised creator god that infuses all the cultures influenced by the “desert” religions. To self-identify as an athiest is really an act of defiance against the instituionalized cruelty and madness perpetuated in “his” name. From an existentialist perspective atheism is the supreme statement of no; the rebel’s validation of existence in the face of the absurd. I understand Bakunin’s statement that “even if god did exist it would be man’s duty to destroy him.”

    Ultimately, we have to be present to bear full responsibility. Buddhism offers us a method and a rational approach to the absurdity of existence. A means to an end that validates us all by instilling compassion. From what I have experienced, those religions fixated on the figure and existence of god only offer subjegation, division and pain.

    Thank you for the wonderful site!
    H.

  17. Christians have told me to ask Jesus to save me and I will get to go to heaven. Then later they say now Jesus is not enough. Give us your money, volunteer your time free of charge, con others into this place, so that our building may be filled. ‘And our bellies’. Sheep/Wolf syndrome. Sheep lure you in, wolves devour you. They are ‘blesphemers of the Holy Ghost’. They call psychics the ‘devil’, ET, Star Wars, The Force, Hindus, Buddhists are all wrong and in league with Satan. Blaphemy of the Holy Ghost has no forgiveness. I Guess a lot of Christians are going to hell. I’ll stay clear.
    There was this one church in Santa Rosa, California. Berkeley Psychic Institute, Church of Divine Man. They were Christians. A lady was doing short psychic readings. Michael says to me, “you’re on the ‘hot seat’ “. Lady with her eyes closed says, “I know what he knows. I can’t control him.: (holy word, cross, church). This shows what some Christian leaders are into. It is not their abilities. THEY are the problem. Liars and leeches. And as far as thieir version of God is concerned. Curse God.

  18. Pingback: Atheism vs(?) Buddhism « Fly Like a Crow

  19. THE RIGHT UNDERSTANDING OF THE CAUSE AND EFFECT LAW

    I think all of you know about this law. Why do I write this article? You will find the answer.

    We all beings live in the cause and effect environment. So human beings or any beings in this planet are influenced by this law.

    1. Let’s look at a tree. When we put a seed into the earth, the tree grows up and has flowers, fruits. How many fruits we will get? A lot’s of fruits. So everything we do, speak or think, it has its effects. A lot‘s of effects from one cause, not one effect from one cause.

    For example: When someone stole something, that one was chased, arrested, beaten, in custody, tortured, despised, and so on. So you see one cause has many effects.

    When one died, that one’s karma will instanly reincarnated, no time in between. There are many people will be reborn to this world from one karma.

    2. One fruit has a lot’s of seeds. So every effect has many causes to create more and more effect. Be careful.

    3. When we did something bad, that karma will rebirth right away, not waiting to the end of one’s life.

    Let’s look at a tree. When we put one seed in the earth, the tree grows up, has fruits. In each fruit has a lot’s of seeds, if these seeds were put into the earth, there would be a lot’s more trees growing up, but the first mother tree has not died yet.

    Therefore, if someone eats chicken, his or her karma of eating chicken will rebirth to many chickens (not one chicken) right away everywhere in the world, and that one will get sickness or accident from unwholesome deeds-eating chicken. Why? If one does not respect the life of any beings, that one won’t be able to save their life. That is a justice of the cause and effect law. All beings like to live and be afraid of death, so why do we support our life by other being’s life? The cause and effect law does not forgive us.

    Nobody know why they are sick? They think that is natural or the devil did. When they are healed, they think that is a miracle from God. But all things happen around us are the cause and effect law which is a justice, no one can buy over or pray. If people can buy over or pray, this society would be fully criminal and chaotic.

    The cause and effect law is not a fate or unchanged, it can be changed by wholesome deeds. It looks like when we put a fertilizer, water into the tree or trim some bad branches or leaves we will get sweet fruits or beautiful flowers.
    All wholesome deeds are started with loving kindness. Without loving kindness we can not do anything.

    Loving kindness help us to live without anger or hatred.
    Loving kindness help us to forgive and forget.
    Loving kindness help us to seek our fault, not others fault.
    Loving kindness help us to eliminate, abandon all desires and unwholesome deeds.
    Loving kindness help us to live without suffering oneself nor others and sentient beings.
    Loving kindness help us to change the cause and effect law from suffering into happiness.
    Loving kindness help a mind become unmovable, calm and peaceful.
    Loving kindness help us to get the four steps to rddhi or supernatural powers, right concentration and the threefold knowledge.
    Loving kindness help us to achieve enlightenment without any force and difficulty.

    Therefore, one seed has a lot’s of fruits. One fruit has a lot’s of seeds, each of those seeds would be a new tree, while the first mother tree has not died yet.

    While we live, how much karma rebirth?

    Have a good karma

    __________________________________________________________________________

  20. Pingback: Creationists, please provide evidence - Page 129 - Religious Education Forum

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