Feb. 13, 2016—Are all Buddhists atheists?
This was the question that came up after a Spiritual Edge broadcast about a Berkeley librarian who identifies as a “Zen Atheist.” The profile was part of a TSE series called “Some, Done or None” and is meant to illuminate how people are thinking about, and practicing, religion and spirituality in the 21st century.
The question “Are all Buddhists atheists?” is straightforward, but the search for an answer has been more elusive, like a treasure hunt that takes you to interesting places, but you’re never sure if you’re going to arrive at the object of desire. Readers and listeners wrote us. Scholars weighed in. With so much discussion, we thought we’d give you a taste of what’s been going on behind the scenes.
In the profile, Heather Hernandez speaks about how how she came to designate herself as a “Zen Atheist.” Atheism came first. At a young age, Hernandez realized that though surrounded by people who believed in God, she did not. Later, after reading books by philosopher Alan Watts, she began to incorporate ideas of Zen into her daily life. As described by Watts, she understood Zen as not a spiritual practice, but a means for becoming more conscientious in her life.
After the broadcast, an online discussion began about the relationship between Buddhism and atheism, and whether one naturally followed from the other. We weren’t sure about the answer so we asked John Nelson, a religion scholar at University of San Francisco and a member of TSE’s advisory committee to weigh in.
Nelson pointed out that the idea of deities is actually quite common in Buddhism. He wrote:
Since there is no such thing as ‘Buddhism’ in a singular, monolithic sense, we can find numerous examples in diverse cultural settings where a dizzying array of deities is valued, venerated, and absolutely central to religious practice.
Nelson’s use of the term deity provoked a reader named Karl Young to write us, asking for clarity:
The term theism, as I understand it, is typically defined as belief in an all powerful creator of the universe who has a personal relationship with believers. None of the numerous deities encountered in the various branches of Buddhism could be considered omnipotent, omniscient creators of the universe. While some may be thought of as having personal relationships with practitioners, that’s certainly the exception.
In other words — as we understood it — he questioned whether Buddhist deities were relevant at all to the discussion. The deities of Buddhism, he said, are not all powerful creators, which is the way God is most often perceived.
Scott Mitchell, the dean of student and faculty affairs at the Institute of Buddhist Studies agrees. The term deity is a Christian one, he says. Dictionary.com defines it as “a supernatural being, like a god or goddess, that is worshiped by people who believe it controls or exerts force over some aspect of the world.”
But according to Mitchell, this definition may not be appropriate or accurate outside European or Christian contexts. The following is excerpted from an email he wrote to TSE.
The term ‘deity’ — like ‘theism’ evokes a particular kind of being or god who has specific powers and a specific relationship to humans. The historical Buddha may have been a very unique and extraordinary man, but he was still a man…(and) in Indian and Buddhist cosmologies, whatever powers Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and gods may have, they did not create the world and only sometimes care about human beings.
He says Buddhist practices or rituals that are directed toward an “unseen” deity might look like the worshiping of a God. But, he points out, the nature of the relationship is fundamentally different than the relationship between humans and God in a Christian context.
The original comment from Professor Nelson also mentioned the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, a temple belonging to Japan’s largest Buddhist sect, the school of Pure Land, also known as Shin Buddhism. Shin’s main practice is to the recite the name of the Amida Buddha.
But what is the Amida Buddha and how can reciting the name get you closer to enlightenment? This, it turns out, was not an easy question to answer, at least for me, a reporter with a Western mind.
In my reporting for a radio story about the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, I spent at least half an hour on the phone with Reverend Ronald Kobata of BCSF, trying to understand who and what is the Amida Buddhia.
Kobata told me the Amida Buddha is not the historical personage of the Buddha. He also said that Shin Buddhism, like other Buddhisms, does not include the concept of an omniscient God. However, he said, an appropriate analogy of the Amida Buddha might be that of a “higher power.”
In an email, he elaborated:
There’s a story about Sakyamuni (the historic Sage of the Sakya clan) Buddha’s response to a question about whether he was a deity. To which he replied, ‘I’m awake.’ For me it’s not a matter of belief or non-belief in some thing, entity, power outside our notion of ‘self,’ but an appreciation or awareness of ‘I am,’ and all of the innumerable causes and conditions that make our finite life possible. In the Shin Buddhist tradition, this is affirmed in the expression, ‘Namo Amida Butsu’ (Namo (I take refuge), in (Amida Buddha) the formless spirit/heart; Immeasurable Light (Wisdom) Life (Compassion), the Source, Ground of Being, Godhead, Buddha Nature.
Kobata’s descriptions, both on the phone and in writing would seem to bring the Amida Buddhia closer to that of God. But here again, Mitchell of the Institute of Buddhist Studies says that’s not quite right.
He says the Amida Buddhia, are described by Buddhist texts as a “a cosmic Buddha,” who exists in a non-human realm. The texts also outline a series of practices that to help practitioners be re-born in that realm after death, where they can contact that Buddha, learn from him, and, he says, “in some stories, be reborn here as a bodhisattva to help others.” The Amida Buddha may exist in a non-earthly realm, but Mitchell says the relationship between he and his followers is different than that of believers with the Judeo-Christian God.
The question of whether or not Amida is a deity who goes around saving people is irrelevant because the question of belief is not the focus of the (Buddhist) tradition or its teachings. The focus on the Amida Buddha is an act of gratitude, of cultivating an awareness of how the world is interconnected and being grateful for the opportunity to come into contact with the teachings of the Buddhas.
How this is expressed often takes the form of rituals or practices that might look like petitionary prayer. But the underlying motives and the larger mythopoetic and doctrinal contexts are fundamentally different. By relying on Christian terms to describe these acts, we often get in our own way for coming to a deeper understanding and respect for other religious and cultural traditions.
So there you have it. It’s not always possible to translate to directly translate terms or philosophies when two traditions start from different worldviews. Language gets in the way of understanding. It’s a dilemma many romantic couples might understand.