Buddhism and Atheism
I got a tricky question in a recent email. I told my correspondent that I'd happily tell her what I think I know on the topic, but that I wasn't sure I could do it justice. I suggested that maybe I could put my answer here on FM and you guys could add your clarifications, and meanwhile she'd be able to lurk and watch the show. That way she and I might both find something out.
Here's her question:
"Is Atheism compatible with Buddhism? Can one be an Atheist AND a Buddhist? I ask this because my understanding tells me the answer is yes. However, another who is far more advanced in his practice than I am, told me I am mistaken."
Absolutely, there's no contradiction between Buddhism and atheism. You're not mistaken. Buddhism has no God.
But like most Buddhist things, the answer more complex than that, and slippery, and possibly self-contradictory. I do not have it all figured out, but here's my understanding.
When people asked the Buddha about a Supreme Being, a Creator behind it all, he said, "Wrong question. The answer will not help you liberate yourselves from suffering. Skip it." So, early Buddhism is atheistic in the practical sense: God has nothing to do with anything. But it's agnostic in the literal sense: it has no doctrine concerning the subject. It doesn't know.
But you could sort of almost call it polytheistic, too, but ... not really. Like this: there are zillions of gods and demigods in Buddhism, early and late, local and universal, good and bad. They are venerated and supplicated just like any other religion's gods. So polytheism, right? Well, no, because they're no different than humans; in fact, they used to be humans. Humans can earn rebirth as gods; but gods have a lifespan and at the end of that, they can be reborn as humans. Or bugs. So in a practical sense, yes, you might call Buddhism polytheistic, but its gods aren't what we in the West mean by the word. Hmm.
Pantheistic? Well, yeah, it's sort of that, too. There's that "no self" thing: no single thing can be defined without reference to other things, and those have to be defined with reference to still other things ... and pretty soon, you can't define anything without defining it as everything. Thus, my car keys aren't really things, they're not even parts of everything, they're just one of the ways in which I percieve the one thing, which is everything, which is the Buddha Nature -- pantheism. Sort of. Not really, but close.
There are those who have ignored the Buddha's disclaimers that he was an enlightened man who was going to die and enter nirvana, that is, utter cessation. They have simply deified him and worship him as the supreme being, so you have a Buddhism that's essentially monotheist. Not precisely what the West means by monotheism, because of the different conception of "supreme being," but again, not so far off.
And some Buddhists have just appropriated one or more gods from Brahminism, including Brahma himself -- and so you're off and running with poly- or monotheism again....
So as usual in Buddhism, simple questions aren't. But I think when pressed hard with the Western notion of God, most Buddhists would say, "No, we don't have one of those." (I can't swear it.) Certainly if you want to be an atheist Buddhist, you can, especially in Zen. And certainly if you want to believe in a god, or gods, or even God, and still be a Buddhist, you can, especially in Zen.
Local zendo is a million-dollar house loaned by a Zennie who's also a devout, orthodox, practicing Catholic. So hey, whatever.