Is Buddhism Atheistic?

It is often said, especially by Buddhists, that Buddhism is ‘atheistic’ or ‘nontheistic’. Often this is said in order to promote Buddhism as a sensible religious or spiritual alternative to the monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam with which many Westerners have become disillusioned.

Before addressing the question of whether Buddhism is ‘atheistic’ or ‘nontheistic’ one must bear in mind that there are as many, if not more, different denominations, sects and schools of and in Buddhism as there are in Christianity. There are enormous differences between Theravada Buddhism, of which there are a number of different schools, on the one hand, and Mahayana Buddhism, of which there are almost countless schools and sects, on the other.

In some schools or sects of Buddhism you will find ‘gods’ of various kinds as well as notions and concepts that, we will see, are very similar to notions and concepts of God that can be readily found in progressive Christianity including but not limited to Unitarian Christianity.

We also need to be careful with this word ‘atheistic’. Atheism simply refers to the lack or absence of theistic belief. Atheism may be strong or weak, philosophical or practical, and so forth, but atheism does not require actual denial of the existence of God or the possibility of there being any such existence. Atheism is simply the lack or absence of theistic belief. Please note that, for present purposes, the word ‘God’ is used in its fairly traditional monotheistic sense to refer to some sort of supernatural personal or superpersonal being who is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (everywhere present) and omnibenevolent (all-loving, notwithstanding the presence of evil and suffering in the world of which God does not approve but which God allows, whether as part of his active or passive will or otherwise), and with whom we can make contact by means of prayer and meditation. Now that is a fairly conservative definition or description of God, and progressive Christianity often sees or describes God in other ways, such as ‘Love, ‘the ground of all being’ or even ‘Being’ itself. The latter is not a new development in theology.

True, the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, was quite agnostic as to the existence of God or gods in general. However, in looking at Buddhism as a whole, or any religion for that matter, we must always remember the sound advice of Jiddu Krishnamurti who often said, ‘The word is not the thing.’ The word ‘God’ is not God, and the question, ‘Do you believe in God?’, is next to meaningless unless and until one defines or at least describes what one means by the word ‘God’. The fact that a religion, or some school or sect within that religion, does not use the word ‘God’ does not necessarily mean that there is no God or equivalent figure or concept in that religion. For starters, it is not at all hard to find ‘gods’ in Buddhist cosmology even if those gods are, for the most part, said to be subject to the same laws that bind most, if not all, other sentient beings.

Buddhism, with its cosmology, is essentially cyclical in nature, with sentient beings contingent in nature, whereas the cosmology of the traditional monotheistic religions is essentially linear, that is, there is a definite beginning to all life and further all life will come to an end at some as yet unknown (or known only to God) endpoint in the future. True, it is, that one finds no creator God in Buddhism, at least not in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic sense of ‘creation’. However, one can easily find in many of the Mahayana schools concepts of the Buddha as pre-existing, and existing for the sake of all other sentient beings, as well as the existence of many semi-divine beings who are very similar to Hindu gods.

There are many concepts and ideas, and even beings or ‘Being’ itself, in Buddhism that are similar to broad Christian notions of God or the Divine nature.

First, there is Dharmakaya, which is the Truth Body of the Buddha, and the true nature of final Buddhahood or the perfected state of our existence. Although not a Divine Being as such, or even some absolutely existent permanent entity, this body is said to be ‘empty’, and I will have more to say about the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’ shortly. The Dharmakaya is Ultimate Truth itself, transcending space, time and form. Dharmakaya is atemporal and infinite. Being boundless, it is said to be beyond all conceptual elaboration. Dharmakaya is said to be even beyond existence and non-existence, unknown and unknowable, if you like.’ In short, Dharmakaya is not at all dissimilar to the ‘God beyond God’ of Paul Tillich. Thus, in The Heart Sutra we read:

‘Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form; the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. Here, O Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete. Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness.’

Secondly, one finds in the oldest texts of Buddhism Lord Buddha himself referring to Brahmanic concepts such as Brahmayana (the so-called path to Brahman or the Absolute) and ‘Brahmanhood’ (said to be the Noble Eightfold Path), and speaking of that which is ‘an unborn, unbecome, unmade world’ that is ‘incomposite’. Buddha even denied that an Arahant (an enlightened being) ‘is not’ after death, and it cannot be said that Buddha ever affirmed that ‘there is no Self’. The further one goes back, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish early Buddhism from Brahmanism. This should not come as a surprise, as the earliest Christians were Jews and retained much of their Jewish identity and beliefs.

Thirdly, some assert, with considerable justification, that the closest thing to ‘God’ in Buddhism are the previous Buddhas themselves. Theravada Buddhism, the oldest (subject to the early ‘Aryan Buddhism’ referred to above) and most naturalistic form of Buddhism, is sometimes practised with an emphasis on venerating or even worshipping Arahants and folk gods. Further, in some streams of Mahayana Buddhism the historical Buddha himself, although he never claimed to be divine, is venerated, and in some places even worshipped, as an omnipotent divinity who is said to be endowed with various supernatural attributes and qualities.

Fourthly, some commentators say that the closest thing to God in Buddhism is karma, from the perspective that Buddhism affirms that there are certain immutable laws of the universe that involve the evolution of matter through various natural cycles by means of rebirth.

Fifthly, others, such as Joseph Goldstein, have written that the closest thing to God in Buddhism is the Dharma (or Dhamma), the Truth, Wisdom and Love which enfolds the entire universe, the very Ground of Being itself, or, in the words of the eminent Thich Nhat Hanh, the ground of ‘Inter-Being’, the latter being a field of dynamic energy within which we live and move and have our being (cf Acts 17:28).

Sixthly, we have the familiar so-called ‘Buddhist Trinity’ in either or both of the following:

(i) the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sanga – the ‘Triple Gem’ (or the ‘Three Jewels’), being the three things that every Buddhist takes ‘refuge’ in, that is, holds on to, commits to spiritual discipline and practice, and constantly ‘returns’ to and ‘comes home’ to;

(ii) the Trikaya theory, comprising Dharmakaya (already referred to above, being the true nature of final Buddhahood), Samhogakaya (an intermediate state consisting of the Buddha’s embodiment in the form of a subtle energy), and Nirmanakaya (the full embodiment of the Buddha in the form of a physical, tangible body, that is, a Buddha body of perfect emanation, of which Shakyamuni Buddha is said to be a supreme example).

Seventhly, there is in various Mahayana schools including but not limited to Zen and Shinnyo-en the concept of ‘buddha nature’, a concept very similar to St Paul’s concepts of ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col 1:27) and ‘one God above all things, through all things, and in all things’ (Eph 4:6). Our ‘Buddha nature’ is that ‘divine spark’ within each of us which, when nurtured and cultivated, enables us to manifest as gods (cf Ps 82:6, Jn 10:34).

Eighthly, one also finds in in the Pure Land sect, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism practised mainly in East Asia, the god-like Amitabha (also called Amita, Amida Buddha, and Amitabha Buddha), which is the principal Buddha in that sect. Amitabha is translatable as 'Infinite Light,' hence Amitabha is also called 'The Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Light,' that is, the source of spiritual light. Amitabha is said to confer enlightenment which ultimately leads to Nirvana. Amitabha is also said to be omnipresent and eternal and is often revered as such. There are also the associated ideas of Amitabha giving reality to all existence and being the prototype (a veritable living symbol) of truth.

Ninthly, one finds in the Buddhist concept of Nirvana elements and attributes of the Divine in esoteric Christianity. In that regard, the Buddhist scholar Edward Conze wrote, 'When we compare the attributes of the Godhead as they are understood by the more mystical tradition of Christian thought with those of Nirvana, we find no difference at all.'

Finally (but not really finally, as I could go further and refer to other ‘God’ concepts and thought forms), we have the notion of shunyata. Shunyata is a reference to the ‘emptiness’ of true existence. It is not, as so many ignorant conservative Christian apologists continue to assert, a state of annihilation---they say the same thing about Nirvana---but a supramundane state which is, quoting from the Vaipulya Sutra, ‘neither existing nor extinct, neither permanent nor annihilated, neither identical nor differentiated, neither coming nor going’. It is Ultimate Reality, ‘not defiled, not pure, not increasing and not decreasing’. It is the voidness of all things and manifests itself as infinite compassion and loving kindness (cf the Christian concept of God as Love, cf 1 Jn 4:8).

We have a wonderful example, or personification, of this supramundane state of shunyata in the figure of Quan Yin, the Mother of Mercy, which is one of the most universally beloved of deities in the Buddhist tradition. Also known as Kwan Yin, Kuan Yin, Quan'Am (Vietnam), Kannon (Japan), and Kanin (Bali), she is the embodiment of compassionate loving kindness. As the Bodhisattva of Compassion, she hears the cries of all beings. Quan Yin enjoys a strong resonance with the Christian Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Tibetan goddess Tara. The word ‘quan’ means to hear. Normally, when we hear anything it gets mixed up with our ongoing mental and emotional activities and attachments. However, when Quan Yin hears the cries and sufferings of the world she does so out of a state of emptiness (shunyata). Only when there is this state of emptiness in us can there be compassionate loving kindness. The essence of emptiness is compassion, and this is the Buddhist view of the Sacred, the Holy, or, if you like, the Divine (‘God’).

The historical Buddha is said to have exclaimed, ‘he who sees me sees the Dhamma.’ Likewise, Jesus is quoted as having said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14:9) and ‘He who sees me sees the One who sent me’ (Jn 12:45). Both Buddha and Jesus taught a ‘Way’ to be followed. Let me finish with two quotations. The first quotation is from the Third Karmapa, a Tibetan master of the 14th century. He is writing about the ‘buddha nature’ and the relationship between what has been variously referred to as both Dharmakaya and shunyata, on the one hand, and the earthly, physical, manifest world on the other:

‘The cause is beginningless mind as such.
Though it is neither confined nor biased,
Due to the unimpeded play of that very [mind],
Empty in essence, lucid in nature,
And unimpeded in manifestation, it appears as everything.’

The second quotation comes from the great 20th century Protestant theologian Professor Paul Tillich, who wrote: ‘It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God does not exist as a being. God is the ground and power of being, and as such is the answer to the question of being generally. Everything that is has both its origin and its power to be in God.’

Note. This article is a revised version of an article entitled ‘God in Buddhism’ published online on SlideShare.