Is Buddhism Atheistic?

Sometimes people claim that Buddhism is “atheistic.” I have also answered with this term, sometimes, in certain situations, when asked. But I have never been comfortable with this answer, even while giving it. It has always felt too hard-edged, too deterministic, too defined in an area that Buddhism has no place to be so defined. Why should the insights of this practice be described in terms of a completely illusory “theism/not-theism” dichotomy created and defined entirely by the monotheistic mentalities? And why should it be “defined” with a negative: a-theistic, meaning not theistic. Why is it a not?

So, I never felt comfortable about this handy expression — atheism — even while completely recognizing that Buddhism is clearly not the kind of belief in a Creator or omniscient being as is claimed by the major religions we hear about everyday making interesting stories in the news with all of their explosive new innovations. As Sam Harris says, ““Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.” This needing to answer whether Buddhism is a “non-” something has never felt comfortable, though I have answered within that negative-paradigm while wincing a little inside. Yet this is the terminology that people have some referent for, so I have done it, never happy about that.

In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.

Sam Harris

Listening to Robert Thurman’s current 12-week long series of talks on The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, I heard something from him which just went BAM! in the mind, and just felt exactly like the best way I could ever conceive of this. His description was like the phrasing I have always been looking for, like something which was dim in the mind: great midwife that he is, he brought the baby forward into the light:

“When people say that Buddhism is atheistic, that’s wrong. They should only say that Buddhism is non-monotheistic, or non-creator-theistic. I like to say that Buddhism is infinity-istic, because the clear energy of the clear-light of the void [emptiness] – – which is pure love in the sense that it is there in exhaustively to fulfill every need of every sense in being every sensitive entity (that’s what love is!), to fulfill every need — is infinite.”

Teacher and Student in Dharamsala, 1970s.

In another context, Professor Thurman has said, “Buddhism is less a religion than a method for fulfilling human potential, a method as empirical in its way as science.”

These words — and Sam Harris’s — completely sync with the way I think about things. And so, going forward, this is how I will express the point, thanks to them, with greater care and innovation, not accepting the “acceptable” terms of debate. They already frame the matter in a box which Buddhism never belonged, in the first place. And nor do I belong there, either.