Buddhism as an "Atheistic Religion": a Western Fantasy

Too often, I find that atheists are reluctant to criticize Buddhism.  Atheists who would otherwise have no problems ripping apart Christianity, Islam, shamanism, cargo cults and the like... somehow falter when it comes time to deliver that final blow to ALL belief systems based on faith and superstition.  They somehow cannot find anything bad to say about Buddhism.

In the West, Buddhism has been built up as an idealistic belief system.  It's perfect and nonviolent and -- and it's atheist!  But it's also a religion, so the theists can't complain either!  It's perfect!  Uh... no.  I hate to pop anyone's bubble (who am I kidding?  I love popping bubbles), but this "atheist religion" thing is such a baldfaced LIE that I'm ashamed to admit that it's the liberal academics that are the most to blame for spreading it.  And now it's gotten so pervasive, and it's such an alluring concept, that many atheists just nod and accept it as fact because the lie was told to them by other atheists, and because they want to believe it.  Confirmation bias and all that.  I think they need a crash course in Buddhism as it's practiced.

Buddhists are NOT atheists.  When I say "Buddhist" here, I don't mean the "philosophical Buddhists" that many atheists claim to be - I'll get to that later - I mean the types of Buddhists you'll find in Buddhist-majority populations.  The ones who grew up Buddhist.  The ones who visit Buddhist temples.  They are not atheists, and they're not not-atheists because they're "doin' it wrong" when it comes to their own religion.  There is no "right" way to do Buddhism, and if there were, wouldn't it be the lifelong Buddhists who would best be able to argue that point rather than American converts coming from a Christian majority nation?

At its best, Buddhism is deist.  At its worst, Buddhism is polytheistic.  There are gods and goddesses, bodhisattvas and devas, for just about everything.  Basically, in those sects, it's fat-free Hinduism.  (Hinduism Light?  Diet Hinduism?)  You just take away that nasty stuff about castes, limit the powers of the gods, add some stuff about a human prophet (who may or may not have been Jesus Christ Mohammed a messianic figure sent by Dharmakaya/the universe/"the force" to teach us all about Truth), and voila!  Buddhism.

How can a religion that purports to be vehemently non-theist actually be polytheist?  Well, it can.  Of course the scriptures will be quick to say that the bodhisattvas are fallible beings themselves, but the fact is that followers of the religion still believe these mystical beings live on a "higher plane of existence" and sometimes listen to human prayers.  I don't care what they're called, but when people pray to "higher beings" in the hopes that those prayers will be answered by benevolent powers that exist in some spiritual lala-land, that is worship of a deity.  When there are more than one of those deities, that's freakin' polytheism.

And then there is, like in Hinduism, also a somewhat monotheistic middle ground.  Brahma has many faces but is one god, and apparently so is the Buddha.  He's, like, everything, even the other gods.  We are god, man.  It's real trippy, though one thing it is not... is atheistic.

When Asian atheists say they're Buddhist, it might not mean what you think it means.  Because you can drop the superstitious faith and still carry out traditional rites.  Giving up god(s) doesn't mean giving up Christmas dinners or visiting shrines on New Year's.  Being "Buddhist", for some, is like being a reform Jew.  Many aspects of secular Jewish culture have nothing to do with the violent tantrums of some stupid sky-god.  Secular Buddhism is the same.  It's basically a "yeah, I'm descended from a long line of people who believed in such-and-such" identity marker.  In truth, atheism is much more prevalent in East Asia than statistics often show because those polls are asking the wrong questions.  For example, records stating what percentage of people in Japan are of this or that faith come from associating one's family line with a local temple or shrine.  They don't even ask anyone.  (The picture is very different when people are asked.)

I recently read a translated version of a trashy gay Japanese romance novel (don't judge me, lol) and there was a quote that stuck out to me.

"Are you a practicing Christian, Satsuki?" Edward asked with concern.

"No, I'm a Buddhist," Satsuki replied.

Actually, he was an atheist, but foreigners didn't really understand that, so he had prepared this response.

THIS.  OMG THIS -- is why so many Westerners think Buddhism is/can be an "atheistic religion".  Atheistic religion?  That's an oxymoron.  If you take away the superstition and mysticism, all that's left is a philosophy and a set of cultural practices, NOT a religion.

Religious people tend to respect other religions more than they respect nontheists.  "I'm an atheist" is practically evangelical bait.  "I'm a Buddhist" has become the standard response for non-confrontational, non-religious East Asians.  It's code for "please don't try to convert me", and it works. 

There are many ideas in Buddhism that atheists can agree with, just as many atheists also feel that "love thy neighbor" and "thou shalt not kill" are generally good ideas.  Can one be a Christian who doesn't believe Jesus Christ was the son of god?  Can one be a Buddhist who doesn't believe the Buddha had reached a state of perfect enlightenment?  Agreeing only with the nice, neutral talking points makes you about as Buddhist as it makes you Christian.

Dudes, admit to cherrypicking or GTFO.  The accusation of cherrypicking is often leveled at confused theists who insist that their holy text of choice is perfect, yet throw away the parts they don't like.  Why, then, do these atheists not point out the crap in Buddhist scriptures?  Instead, they pick out the most profound-sounding quotes and recite them as if to say, "Look here!  The Asians are wise."  This exoticism and idealism of the "mysterious East" strips away the humanity from the cultures they're exalting.  (And I could run at the mouth forever and a day about the objectification of Asian women that results from this, but I'll restrain myself.)

Practicing Buddhists engage in (scripture-supported!) activities as irrational as those found in any other religion.  Maybe they don't throw acid on people's faces, but still.  Arbitrary restrictions abound!

  • Buddhism is vegetarian... except when it's not.  Mahayana Buddhism allows fish and eggs to be consumed, but forbids:
    • garlic
    • onions
    • shallots
    • chives
    • leeks
    • asofoetida (a spice often found in curries)
  • Some sects also forbid roots and tubers from being eaten because they kill the plant when harvested, which means no:
    • radishes
    • potatoes
    • carrots
    • beets
    • do I have to go on?

They make up a lot of excuses for this, such as "those foods make people angry/lustful" or "gods will stay far away from [people who eat pungent foods] because they smell bad, and hungry ghosts will hover around and kiss their lips".  Today's lesson is: the Buddha will judge you for your halitosis.  Oh, and Italians get lots of lurve from hungry ghosts.

Strip away the excuses, though, and you'll find that the basic justification for the ban on onions and garlic is simply that IT TASTES TOO GOOD.  Life is suffering.  Attachment is suffering.  Therefore, one must seek to make oneself as miserable as possible by never indulging in the glory that is garlic bread.  For you see, if eating is pleasurable, you'll want to eat more, and you'll actually enjoy life.  If you enjoy this life, how on earth will you be convinced of a perfect afterlife in nirvana?

This is exactly the same type of BS the Abrahamic religions try to pull on their followers.  You're a poor, uneducated peasant farmer/laborer and your life is already pretty damn tough, but now you can't have alcohol, you can't have sex, and you can't eat anything that actually tastes good.  It takes away all the hope you might have of making this life better, and thus keeps you in your "rightful place", subservient to the priesthood class.  Now throw yourself into prayer for a better afterlife!  (BTW, make sure to pay lip service to, uh, fighting poverty by embracing poverty... or something.  Whatever.  Just make it sound esoterically profound!)

Buddhist monks are the Catholic priests of the East.  You want sex scandals?  We got sex scandals.  "Do as I say, not as I do" should be the mantra of religious leaders everywhere.  We all know about the Catholic priests and their sex crimes.  The same abuse of power occurs in Buddhist monasteries.  They claim celibacy while molesting their young apprentices.  Everyone knows it happens.  It's been the subject of crude jokes for hundreds of years, but word doesn't often get out because the children sent to monasteries have much less contact with the outside world compared to, say, an altar boy.

Speaking of abuses of power...  You know what?  I can't even stomach the thought of typing up this shit.  Let's just say that the Shaolin monks have become Hollywood celebrities (their faith is as fake and materialistic as that of televangelists), and Tibetan Buddhism makes me very, very angry. 

It makes me angry that the anti-Chinese political climate of the US makes it so that anyone who doesn't buy into the CIA's propaganda that China is responsible for every horrid thing that ever happened to Tibet is labeled as a secret communist plant sent by the Chinese government.  It makes me angry that they play linguistic games in order to tie religious Tibet to the "noble struggle" and atheist China to "human rights abuses".  These games do nothing but obscure the issue while preying on ignorant American fears of Chinese world domination.  (Mwahahahaha!  Evil commies!)  And I am angry that to criticize Tibetan Buddhism makes me somehow a "Chinese oppressor".  I am angry that I'm told again and again that I can't possibly be for a free Tibet if I hate the cruel practices of Tibetan Buddhism as much as I do.  I am NOT a "pinko" if I believe, based on facts, that China did some good for the Tibetan people, and that the average Tibetan people are better off now than they ever were under the old theocracy.  Oh, it makes me SO ANGRY. 


If you've read my rambling blog post this far, then read that, please, and help stop the spread of the myths about Buddhism.  No matter how peaceful the teachings may seem, the religion is still, to put it bluntly, hella fucked up.

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Comment by Sharon Bennett on November 25, 2013 at 11:37am

Then again there is also the more advanced meditative practice of koans, which are purposefully illogical questions that people meditate on with a Zen teacher. (It doesn't work the same way if you try to do it without a teacher). It is a question that cannot be reasoned through using philosophy, but it can only be understood by experience. The faith comes in because you have to have faith that there is an answer.

It is kind of like if you had a blind person who couldn't see and then you asked them a question that only a person who has vision could answer. Once the person is able to see (or has vision) the answer becomes obvious, but before that, no matter how much the blind person tries to reason it out the answer will not come or be correct.

Usually a Zen teacher will have you focus on a breath meditate practice before saying you are ready to work on a koan, because koans are harder. But again I am explaining this to show you that Zen anyway doesn't really fit into the philosophical category either.

Haha Ruth that is funny. :) Nice pun. :)

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on November 25, 2013 at 4:03am

Thanks for sharing. This is enlightening.

Comment by Sharon Bennett on November 25, 2013 at 12:49am

Again a lot of this is all a matter of semantics, but I would say that Buddhism is not really in the head. It's actually a very physical practice, in a sense. As far as philosophers, I do remember from school that there were many many philosophers who got things wrong because they didn't base their ideas on reality. I remember thinking in philosophy class (as well as in science class) how philosophers often got things wrong because they based things on assumptions about the world, instead of determining if their assumptions were valid or not.

At least in Zen, thinking is not what is it about. I have a great shirt that says "meditation is not what you think" and it doesn't just mean "it's not what you believe it to be" (which is also true) but it also means that it is not about what you do or don't think about. The realm of thought cannot go where Zen Buddhists go, in meditation. It is really very hard to describe this without experiencing it. 

So for example the whole idea of "I think therefore I am" is sort of thrown out in Zen. We are not are thoughts. Our thoughts do not make us who we are, and this becomes obvious the more your practice Zen. That doesn't mean thoughts are bad, they are a very useful tool to get things done, it just means that we don't believe we are our thoughts. 

As far as it being a religion, if you don't believe me that it is, I'd suggest going to an actual Zen Buddhist center, even if you have no intent of joining. Unfortunately, there aren't that many of them around, and certainly not many that I would say are pretty good, except in many California. But if you are a student and you are interested in learning more about it, there are several places on the east coast that let you stay there for a few days (if you are coming from another town, city or even state. I have known many people who have done this). Of course it is up to you you don't have to do this. But I think if you went to one, you might think it seems pretty religious, the way things look. To me if it walks like a talk, quacks like a duck, etc it is. But to other people, it might be "oh it has no magic and no god so therefore it is no religion". You know what? If that makes you more comfortable with it then that's ok. I still wouldn't call it a philosophy though but I have come to the point where there is nothing more I can say that would explain why I say that. You'd have to visit a place and if you still want to call it a philosophy, then it's just a matter of how we are defining the terms. But I guess, I see something as communism (for which people could be very dedicated to) as a philosophy, or being a liberal as a philosophy (I am very liberal though not communist) and Zen Buddhism just isn't in the same boat let alone the same country as that kind of thing.

There really aren't a lot of places in the U.S. where you can really learn about Zen Buddhism, but on the East coast one of the best places (ok I am biased) is the Rochester Zen Center.

Actually what is really neat there is that you can even go to their website at www.rzc.org and listen to their podcast talks about Zen. (I usually avoid the ones that say sesshin though because they are hard for me to follow unless I am in sesshin.) Another thing you could do is read the book "The Three Pillars of Zen" which explains stuff too. I don't know, if you think it still sounds like a philosophy after checking that out, then I guess its just a way of defining it. i.e. its just semantics. (btw if you feel I am proselytizing by putting this up let me know I will take it down or out of my post. )

Heh we are kind of anti-proselytizing I think, and I have a tendency to forget this. But I'm like this with the other things I care about too. For example I could tell you about the awesomeness of the martial art called kendo and how you should try it because it is awesome.... look up kendo in youtube it is pure fun...in a crazy way. I guess I get a thrill from it. Please don't judge me if you youtube it lol).

Hmm maybe I should start a forum topic or blog....

Oh also, just to ask you, what would you say is the difference between a philosophy based on observation and a science based on observation (or with a lot of observation in it?) I am specifically thinking about biology here. I'm taking a course in it (back in college again!) and a lot of the theories about the cell, for example, are based on simply looking at the cell through a microscope or other instrument. I wouldn't call the whole cell structure a philosophy.

To me philosophy is just playing with ideas. Or believing in something. In philosophy, as I understood it from when I took the class it goes something like "I noticed this, so this and this and this must be true. Oh and this and this." But it doesn't involve say, chanting or burning incense or bowing, or meditation, or ceremonies, or taking the precepts (the precepts are like moral guides like to not kill, to not steal, etc. they are just a promise to do the right thing and you "take the precepts" with a lot of other people present).

A philosophy is not a DOING thing, it is a belief system and thinking thing. I guess it is the difference between a practicing Buddhist and one who just believes in Buddhism. There is a reason why we do what we do (chanting is a type of meditation that helps you reorient yourself to what you are trying to do, burning incense is a symbolic way of expressing something like gratitude)

People may be put off by a lot of the things like bowing or incense burning or whatever, but if you go with it it can really move you in a way that isn't just about logic and thinking. It can move you emotionally I guess you could say. For example, sometimes we put up pictures of loved ones who have died (around thanksgiving time) and we chant for them. My own Dad died years ago so I do this for him sometimes. Sure they are dead, and many of us may believe it is permanent (no afterlife) but it is still a way to be grateful for having had them in our lives, and it is a way to remember them every year. It is also a way to honor their memory. That's not just a thinking thing, it's more than that. Some may call it "spiritual" but if you don't like that word you could also call it emotional. To me, philosophy doesn't cover that.

I also think that, more than likely, the non-ethnic Buddhists you have met have probably never been to a Buddhist Center. I have met many people (heh some on dating sites) who say they are Buddhist but have never been anywhere where people practice it. (that doesn't mean they aren't Buddhist but it means they really are more likely to be philosophical Buddhists- I'm not saying philisophical Buddhists don't exist, I'm just saying that just because a person doesn't believe in god or magical stuff doesn't mean they are automatically philisophical Buddhists).

If your dad knows Tai Chi you (hopefully know) that in martial arts, you can't really learn something from a youtube video or a book. The martial arts teachers who are completely book taught usually don't know what they are talking about or have many mistakes in their techniques even when they have the best intentions.

It's simply not something that can be learned from a book, at least not beyond the basics, but you CAN learn the philosophy behind the martial art. Just because you know the philosophy though, doesn't mean you really understand it, not until you practice the martial art under a teacher who has done it for years and who knows what he or she is talking about. Zen Buddhism is kind of like that. 

So if you don't want to call it a religion that's fine, but it's not a philosophy nor a lifestyle either. If the word religion makes you gag (I suspect it probably does!) then lets just put Buddhism or certain versions of it in "category x" because it doesn't really fit anywhere else. :)

Comment by Kacie Tsao on November 24, 2013 at 3:20pm

LOL.  If it's something that you feel so passionate about, maybe you should start a topic on the forums.  I'm sure you'll get more perspectives there than here on my page with the (so far) single blog post. XD

Anyway, I think there's some confusion here about definitions and such.  When you say "philosophical means that it is all in the head", I kind of want to agree, but only because I think everything is all in the head.  Why would it have no connection to reality?  When you think things, and then come to agree that certain ways of conduct as laid out in philosophies are correct, why would that not spill out to the way you act and react to events in the world?

And what do you mean when you say it has no connection to the heart/emotions?  Nothing can be completely disconnected from emotions.  The "heart" and emotions are also all in the mind.  It is all in the mind, everything that we are.  (Unless you want to get into the nitty gritty of embodied cognition, which is v. interesting and I will have to post about that someday...)  There are a lot of philosophies based on observation; Buddhism isn't "special" in that regard.  If you've ever had a debate with a philosopher, the LOGIC, it burnsssss~  Formal logic, I mean.  It's very rational and based on observations.

IDK, I don't see why it has to be belittling the dedication that some people have for their beliefs by calling it a philosophy, unless you've got some misconceptions about what philosophy means.  The beliefs part of Buddhism is a philosophy, and the rituals that accompany those beliefs, if one chooses to participate in them, are a lifestyle.  The combination of both these terms seems to fit, so when you say "it goes deeper than that", I have to wonder why you would say that.  Just because vegetarianism doesn't require as much dedication but can still be called a lifestyle doesn't cheapen the use of the word as applied to dedicated Buddhists.  It's like saying that everyone who says they love chocolate cheapens the meaning of love when applied to interpersonal love.  "Lifestyle" is a very broad range.

My gut reaction when I read "it goes deeper than that" was that you were unconsciously seeking recognition or special treatment due to your beliefs by labeling it as a religion, like you're not ready or are unwilling to give up the mysticism and the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club.  I'm not saying this is what you're doing, but it's what I think when I hear people say things like that.  Religion gets a lot of free passes in society, and it's an unspoken thing that it's impolite to question too deeply about someone's religion.  If you say "it's my religion" you get to opt out of a lot of things that would be otherwise required.  And there's a certain amount of reverence for religion and faith, no matter what kind.  And it's accepted by many people with religion that any religion is better than no religion...  With all this, it's no wonder that some Buddhists would want in on the religion bandwagon even if the label doesn't fit very well, what with the whole supernatural beliefs thing.  It's further compounded by too many people with too many different beliefs squeezing under the broad Buddhist label.  For some, Buddhism really is a religion with gods and all the trappings, and they would automatically get the religion freebies.  Others, who are atheist, would be all like, "but we're Buddhist, too!" and lump themselves in with the magical thinking ones to capitalize on the freebies.  

Then there's also Buddhists who want to distance themselves from the religious side, who feel more of a connection with rational thinkers than with the Buddhist label, and they'll say their version of Buddhism, practices and all - it's not a religion.  I guess it's about who you want to identify yourself with; who you'd rather associate with.  Call it hardcore vs. casual Buddhists to differentiate yourself from those who just like some of the ideas.  Or call it a religion, sure, if you feel a stronger connection to magical-thinking-Buddhists than you do to any non-Buddhist groups.  I think calling it a religion is a crutch used by those who still want the benefits society affords religions, so I don't have much respect for that position.

As for me, mostly I've just known Buddhists, both ethnic and Western, and done some research/taken some courses at the U that touched on the subject.  I minored in Asian languages and literature, and Buddhism was a big part of that.

I didn't grow up in a religious household.  I have a Christian grandfather and an aunt who's sorta-Buddhist but goes to Christian services for the social life.  My immediate family are mostly atheists, with the exception of my father who's on the fence about everything because he's an indecisive guy like that.  (I suppose he's sorta-Buddhist now.  He has resurgences of faith every now and then.)  I grew up without any religious pressures from my family.  There were Buddhist influences in a lot of the cultural things we did, like there were statues gathering dust around the house, but no one was forced to pray or anything.  But there were also Taoist and Confucian influences, too.  Not like I could tell which was which when I was growing up - it was just a big mash-up.  This is the kind of environment that most other Chinese-Americans I've met also grew up in.  Without any religious pressures, and with exposure to multiple religions, a lot of us turned out atheist.

On a related note, from my experience, it hasn't been practicing Buddhism or meditation that makes Buddhist-majority areas generally more peaceful than areas dominated by other religions.  I'm sure those things have an influence, since the cultures have absorbed a lot of Buddhist teachings, but another important component is shame culture and the emphasis on keeping face.  It's the overall culture/environment and not just the religion.  Why was Buddhism so successful in spreading to East Asia?  Because Buddhism was so easy to incorporate into their existing beliefs.  They were very receptive to Buddhism's message because they already shared a lot of the same values or could find ways to make them fit.

Comment by kathy: ky on November 23, 2013 at 2:21pm

Excellent.  I learned a lot from it.

Comment by Sharon Bennett on November 23, 2013 at 1:44pm

One thing I forgot to mention- boddhisattvas don't just have to be certain concepts or images (i.e. like kanon or compassion). Another synonym of the same word is any being who gives up complete enlightenment so as to help others come to enlightenment too. I just picked up the Diamond Sutra (scripture) and boddhisattva is used in that way right in the beginning of the text. Technically, anybody can be a boddhisattva, or have  moments where they act more like a boddhisattva- (moments where they act selfless).

Comment by Sharon Bennett on November 23, 2013 at 12:16am

Oh sorry about your gender!

Actually you are right, about which countries Kannon changed genders. Sorry about that. :)

Hmm, I think that most of us who practice at the place I go would disagree that we are philosophical Buddhists. Philosophical Buddhists, at least as I define it, are those that only read about Buddhism and say they agree with the beliefs, but do nothing beyond that. No practices or anything else. Philosophical means that it is all in the head, with no connection to reality (what you observe), no connection to the heart/emotions, and no connection to the body. That's how I define philosophy and if that's how you do too, then Buddhism doesn't fit.

 I would also say that Zen Buddhism is a religion, but I personally don't see why religion HAS to equal a belief in gods or a god. At the place I go, it is said that Buddhism is a religion because it has an aspect of faith (though not blind faith so much- you don't have to ignore certain realities to have this kind of faith). But it's  a faith in enlightenment as real.

Also, if you don't count the gods, or superstitious part, Buddhism as it is practiced even in the west is religious in every other way- we have ceremonies, rituals, chants, meditation, ethics, etc. We even bow. (I have heard some people, especially super anti-religious people, have had trouble with this.) But, It actually all comes down to how you define religion. I personally define religion as something that not only guides your life like a philosophy, but also affects your heart. It is something you have a deeper connection to and it is something that really changes you as a person. It's also a way of life, but not like say being a vegetarian is a way of life. It goes deeper than that.

And of course you are right, there are violent Buddhists they do exist. You also haven't mentioned I think it was Burma? Around that area, Muslims were/are being prosecuted by those who call themselves Buddhists. 

I am not going to say that Buddhism is better or not, but I do think that there is a higher rate of more peaceful Buddhists, percentage-wise. Now I could be wrong of course, but it just seems that way to me. Not all Buddhists are more peaceful, but maybe I see a higher percentage. I think though, that has a lot to do with meditation practices in general. In other words, if you saw the other religions meditating (like the Christian gnostics used to do, or if you saw more Sufi mystics in Islam) then I think the peacefulness of those religions would rise too. So I think it is actually more of a function of meditation then anything else. I think it has a calming affect on people, and when you do it for at least a half hour to an hour a day (like in Zen) it teaches you to let go of your anger. I think that if more people meditated even in a secular way, more people would be peaceful too. It's the process of letting go of things (in meditation) such as anger and greed that I think makes people more peaceful. But even that, even meditation, in any of its forms in any religion or secular version, is no guarantee a person or people will be peaceful either and its not even good for all people. 

The crazy thing is, though, I actually could feel more or less comfortable with any Buddhist group, even if I don't agree with everything they say. That's because the core of what makes Buddhism Buddhism doesn't really change from one place to another.

Mostly what happens with "ethnic Buddhists" is that the laypeople aren't really taught anything beyond merit-making and hoping for a good life in their next life. At least that's how I understand it. I think this has a lot to do with the strong monastic communities that exist in Asia, and the system whereby laypeople support the monks and nuns. 

Basically I think it was seen that laypeople wouldn't have the time or commitment to learn the deeper teachings of Buddhism, but I think a lot of that has changed these days. People in industrialized societies actually have more time then people centuries ago (just consider that the average person watches TV 4 hours a day in the U.S.!) where as back a long time ago you get up in the morning, work on the farm, or do chores, then go to bed. No time for anything else. The lack of technology meant basic survival took more time. Thus people really couldn't dedicate as much time to Buddhism if they were laypeople. 

If you look even at ethnic Buddhists, the monks/nuns either practice a lot of meditation every day, and/or study the sutras (scriptures), and for the most part what the monks and nuns do is try to realize enlightenment in their life. 

When I was in Thailand, as I told you I stayed at a Thai Buddhist temple. It was Theravada. There is a lot of superstition in Thailand relating to Theravada Buddhism, (omg merit making is big there!)  I did go to a temple that happened to focus a lot on meditation. And there were some weird cultural things (such as the social status of women having to be lower) but for the most part, the core of it didn't differ that much.

Also, when I was in Thailand, I was basically staying with other westerners/Americans (there were a couple of Europeans). It was part of an internship/volunteer program actually. As part of the cultural exchange a monk came and explained Buddhism to us. The monk said that Buddhism is not a religion because of the lack of a belief in god. So even ethnic Buddhists were saying this. (Of course as I explained, I don't think religion should be defined as only that. Even if that is how most people define the word religion, I personally just think we should expand the definition because Buddhism really does go beyond a mere philosophy or lifestyle. Philosophy is all in the head, not in the body or heart. If you do not expand the definition of religion, then Buddhism technically does not belong in any category because it does not fit as a philosophy very well either. You may not believe me on this, at least unless you actually try practicing it yourself)

I personally have tremendous respect for Tibetan Buddhists despite their magical thinking, and I do see more similarities in our beliefs than differences (because the magical thinking is only a small part of it all). I just didn't want to get into an argument over the whole Tibetan Buddhism thing. Even the Dalai Lama has said that if science shows that something in Buddhism is wrong, then it must be thrown out.

One thing about Buddhism is that it is based on observation- at least the core of it is.- (which also makes it not really a philosophy. I always imagine the great western philosophers as sitting in their homes thinking up what may seem to be logical concepts about reality, but then never testing them or observing reality to see if their philosophical ideas are true.) 

A big part of meditation is simply watching your mind, what it does, where it goes, etc. Then letting go of it (like if you notice your anger, you let it go). So I don't think that goes very well with philosophy either. Plus in all honesty, philosophy makes it sound like its not such a serious thing. Like "lets go have tea and discuss the sutras". This method is certainly not as good as say the scientific method, but there have been many scientific discoveries that have been discovered based on observation alone. And I always saw that the big thing about science was that, when the scientific method started getting used, it meant that philosophers were finally getting out of their head and looking at reality instead of imagining things based on what seemed like common sense (but often wasn't) such as the world being flat. I see Buddhism as the equivalent to that, but just in the realms of religion.

I'm just curious, btw, what is your experience with Buddhism? Did you grow up in an ethnic Buddhist household? Or do you only know Buddhists (ethnic or western)? Or have you just researched it? Or were you born Christian/some other religion, converted, found it distasteful and left? I'm just curious where you are coming from. If you did grow up in an immigrant/ethnic Buddhist household, what denomination/sect and country? I'm just curious. :)

I think that many times, when a religion or practice if forced on a child when it's not the right time, it could have a very negative affect because the child cannot relate to it. I cannot imagine forcing a child to meditate for a half hour a day, for example! I wouldn't force, and if they wanted to meditate I'd say five minutes max. But a lot of harm comes in when a child is say, made to kneel in a painful position for hours without understanding why everyone else is doing it, and without wanting to do it him or herself.

And btw,  I'm sorry if I come across as a bit preachy. I just feel pretty passionate about this stuff. So I apologize in advance if I have come across as that.

Comment by Kacie Tsao on November 22, 2013 at 8:32pm

Sharon, my post was not meant to say that Buddhism is horrible.  I'm sorry if I as unclear in my wording and that's all you got out of it.  The point was that, for the majority of religious Buddhists, the amount of woo involved is the same as that of any other religion.  That's it, and all the rest was some background info for people who might not have been familiar with the way in which Buddhism is practiced in Buddhist-majority areas.  Obviously there are liberal Christians/Muslims/Hindus who take a lot of their religious texts in a metaphorical light, and obviously there are Buddhists who do so, too.  I made the post because, at least in the liberal academic West, the most common portrayal of Buddhism is that of a religion that can do no wrong.  A lot of atheists are afraid to criticize Buddhism - that is, the superstitious kind with the magical thinking that you're not a fan of.

I don't "hate" Buddhism.  What I hate is the systematic spread of misinformation among atheists that all Buddhists are peace-loving enlightened folks who couldn't hurt a fly.  I've heard atheists say things like, "Yeah, Buddhism is the only religion that's really peaceful!", which simply isn't true.  (Monks killing each other in Sri Lanka?)  Basically, and I think we agree on this - there are flaws in all supernatural belief systems, and where there are power structures, they will be abused.  It's not like there would be no war if everyone were Buddhist, but that's the kind of thing that people in the West sometimes think.  This probably has a lot to do with Asians as "model minorities", but that's another topic for another day...

Anyway, Sharon, I think you are a philosophical Buddhist.  You believe the teachings in a psychological sense and use them as metaphors for the human condition.  Perhaps you don't like that label because there's more to it than just philosophy - there's also meditation and other practices.

However, my father practices tai chi.  He obtained master status a few years ago, actually.  It was the culmination of years of dedicated study and practice.  And if you were to ask him about tai chi, he would tell you that it's more mental than physical; he would tell you about the Taoist philosophies involved in the art.  But does practicing a Taoist art make him a religious Taoist instead of a philosophical one?  No.  He doesn't quite know what he is, religion-wise, but he's certain he's not Taoist.

If an atheist wants to practice a nonreligious form of Buddhism, like Zen because Zen is not a religion, I have no problem with it.  And if they were really into it, I'd applaud them for having the discipline.  In a previous comment Jonathan Chang mentioned the influence of nihilism/existentialism, and how coming to know that life has no greater purposes spawned many other philosophies that were all about how to deal with this knowledge without falling into depression.  IMO, Zen is one of those later Buddhist philosophies that came about as a result of the depressing knowledge of the cycle of suffering presented by earlier Buddhist philosophies.

That said, I do think there's a great deal of hubris in the Western Buddists' distinction between themselves and "ethnic Buddhists", as you put it.  Sometimes - not always, but sometimes - I get the feeling that they look down on ethnic Buddhists for their more-often-superstitious beliefs.  And I get that, but the way it's presented sometimes takes on a colonial tone, you know?  Like the ethnic Buddhists are so incompetent at even their own religion that only the Mighty Whitey can show them how it's done.  Eew.  (Again, not always, but sometimes it comes across as such.)

Also, a random nitpick: Kannon did not change genders from China to Japan,  It was India to China where the change occurred.  Avalokitesvara was male, but Guanyin went through a sex change because the Chinese thought it was more likely that a mother-figure would be the one hearing all the world's sorrows.  Kannon/Guanyin is also sometimes portrayed as androgynous or sexless.

BTW, I'm female too. ;)

Comment by Frankie Dapper on November 21, 2013 at 11:53pm

Just to let you know Sharon I read what you wrote and found it an interesting perspective.

Comment by Sharon Bennett on November 21, 2013 at 11:27pm

Ok, I read this and I really felt I needed to comment on it.

First of all, you are not 100% wrong, but neither are you 100% right. You can be atheist and Buddhist (of the practicing kind) without there being a problem.

Let me make an admission here before I continue: I am a practicing Buddhist. I have been a Buddhist for over 10 years (I converted from Christianity) and I belong to a very lively, very active (English speaking) community. I am not a "philosophical" Buddhist. I have met and practiced with Buddhist priests, and others whose main vocation is to work at the Buddhist center where I belong. The place I am a member of has several hundred, mostly American born, (mostly non-asian though there are some asian) members. Mostly converts, though some have parents who were converts. There is something going on every day of the week, most days of the year, and it is also possible to work there full time (for about 20 ish people). So we are not small. There are a few others that are the size of us (probably no more than 10 on the east coast, more on the west coast). I have moved a lot so I have visited others of the same sect, some smaller, some about the same size.

Before I continue, I want to define two terms that I will be using: Ethnic Buddhism and Western Buddhism. ethnic Buddhism is the Buddhism practiced by immigrants or children of immigrants, and western Buddhism is Buddhism practiced by westerners, most of which converted to it (or whose parents converted to it. Western Buddhism is quite new (came over in the 1960's) and it was usually the result of a monk or teacher or lama coming to the west to spread Buddhism, or a westerner going to Asia and than bringing Buddhism back with him. Most western Buddhists are non-asian (though there are some who are asian).

This distinction is important because ethnic Buddhists tend to be more superstitious, and many of the practices and teachings that western Buddhists do/learn about are only taught to monks and nuns in ethnic Buddhism.

Ok, but moving on to the REAL question, that most of you guys are probably thinking about... and that is, athiesm and Buddhism: Is Buddhism an athiest religion?

Let me put it this way: I once asked my Buddhist priest/teacher this question., He is a Zen teacher (kind of like a mentor) and has been practicing for over 30 years.  (I'd say he probably averages 3 hours a day. more during meditation retreats) He is also the head of one of the oldest, most respected Zen Centers in the U.S.- it started in the 1960's (for Americans- so it's western Buddhism.) So What did he say when I asked him if he believes in god? No, he doesn't believe in god.

I have also heard it said (in a English Buddhist magazine) that if a person believes in a traditional god like they do in Christianity, it can be a barrier in their practice. Others have said you can't be Buddhist and believe in a monotheistic god. I have never heard someone say it was necessary to believe in a god or gods (though some Buddhists are nicer and say you can believe in a Christian like god if you are Buddhist). I personally don't think you can believe in a Christian type god and still be Buddhist. Not if you think he's a man on a throne kind of deal. But I think the big thing is if he is some entity that exists outside of you, then no that doesn't really go along well with Buddhism. 

So, what about the many deities and such that the writer of this blog mentioned?

Well, in traditional Buddhist mythology, there is something called "the six realms of unenlightened existence". There are six of them, and the general idea (in the traditional view) is that when a person dies, they are reborn in one of these realms. Unlike in Christianity, however, people are not eternally stuck there. One of the realms is hell and one is heaven. If a person is reborn in a heavenly realm, they could be potentially reborn as a deva- which is often roughly translated as a god. 

This view is much much much more likely to be believed in at the literal level with ethnic Buddhists. Also more likely with Tibetan Buddhists. However, you have to note, nobody PRAYS to these gods, NOBODY worships them... at worst, they want to be born in one of these heavenly realms and become them. So in a way, a god is probably not the best word for it.

However, that is the traditional view and many practicing Buddhists, especially western Buddhists (but also some in Asia too) don't believe in these realms in a literal sense. Instead they believe in them in a PSYCHOLOGICAL sense. So in other words, someone who is in a hell realm would be someone like, in Nazi Germany or someone whose entire lives were destroyed by the typoon or something. Or someone in the middle of a deep depression. 

Someone in a heavenly realm would be those super successful, rich people that have the perfect life. Buddhism just teaches that those are impermanent realms. I just listened to a couple of recorded talks by my Zen priest/teacher and he mentioned in the talks, directly mentioned something along the lines of how maybe most people don't believe that they are physical realms (some do) but everyone can kind of agree that they can be psychological realms. So this is not me just interpreting it the way I like- it came right out of my priests mouth. There are differing opinions on this of course- and a few years ago one of the Buddhist magazines- either Tricyle or Buddhadharma (I can't remember which) had an article comparing the different views- one guy wrote how he believed it was a literal thing, the other guy wrote how he thought it was only a psychological thing. Also there is a VERY VERY old Zen story that shows this psychology perspective as well.

Ultimately, though, nobody really cares what you believe on this issue- because it's not going to make or break your practice of the religion. At least it won't in Zen. It's just external stuff. To this day I still haven't figured out if my priest/teacher believes in the six realms and in rebirth, even though I have known him for 11 years. 

The next bit, is the "Bodhisattva"- which simply translated, is basically a being who gives up complete enlightenment so that he/she can first help all other beings towards enlightenment. The idea is that it is more noble to give up ones own selfish aims to first help others. Boddhisattvas are purely a Mahayana thing- so Theravada Buddhism (also I think known as Vipassina Buddhism or Insight meditation in the west) doesn't have them.

When I explain boddhisattvas to people, I often explain them as sort of being like saints. Actually they are not exactly saints, but many of them were people (like monks or whatever) that actually lived and were sort of made to represent something. The most well known (at least in my community) is Kannon- that's the Japanese name. (every culture renamed Kannon. Kannon even changed genders when he went from China to Japan... in Japan he is a she). And who cares about that? It's irrelevant.

Kannon is "the boddhisattva of compassion". It starts a look a heck of a lot like theism here, especially if it's not explained, but right in the beginning my priest/teacher explained it pretty well so I didn't have problems or misunderstand it: Basically, its just the concept of compassion. Kannon then, is just a symbolic representation of compassion. Nothing  more. 

Yeah it does look very theistic if you didn't know-like (there is technically a person statute  called  Kannon). But to be honest, it wouldn't matter if it was a heart shaped statute- or a blob or a ball or what- its the concept behind it. The statute is just a symbol. So it's not a deity per say, but a concept. Its the compassion in all of us. So yeah sometimes there are chants as well, like the Kannon sutra, that "invokes" kannon or whatever. However it's just invoking compassion that is in me and also in you. That's all.

Now do some people see it in a theistic way? I'm sure of it. And again not to keep going on the ethnic Buddhists, but they are more likely to see it in a literal way. Probably Tibetan Buddhists too, but hey I have  no problem with them the heart of what they believe in is the same as the core of what I believe in. And different strokes for different folks. I don't like magical thinking which is why I prefer Zen.

Now to go to the food bit- well, I am really wondering where he got that from- that forbidden food list. It was probably meant for monks and nuns, not laypeople, so unless you take vows to be a monk or nun, you can eat whatever the heck you want. And actually that forbidden food list doesn't hold for every monk or nun in every denomination of Buddhism either. There are Buddhists- even monks and nuns- who will eat anything given to them when they make alms (when laypeople offer them food). Oh yeah that's kind of how it works in Asia, (I've been to Thailand)- monks make alms, and laypeople offer food to the monks (the idea is that they get merit for it). We don't really have western monks and nuns here.  Anyway some will say that it's disrespectful to turn down food that is offered.

Personally, I am a pescetarian, but I don't have to be. My Zen center community encourages vegetarianism, not pescetarian, but its not like I'm going to go to hell (or be reborn in it) if I eat meat. I have also been to other large Zen centers where the priest eats meat. One version of the Buddhas death says that he died from a piece of rotten meat that someone gave him. I suspect that that is the most likely cause of death, since the only other story is that he died of eating a bad mushroom. It seems  more likely that the pro-vegetarian people would have changed it, but that's just my take on the thing.

I also eat just about everything on that list, as does everyone else at the Zen center I practice at. I have volunteered in the kitchen and I have personally cut up carrots, potatoes, chives, onions, radishes, beats, etc. (well I don't eat radishes or beats but that's because they taste nasty to me). I heard that the original reasoning behind the bans in the places where it did/does exist is that these things are believed by some people to create cravings or stir the passions. It's a bad understanding of nutrition and I'm pretty sure that even among ethnic Buddhist monks and nuns (where it's most likely to be practiced) if you convinced them that their information is wrong, they probably would eat it. But then again, when I stayed at a Buddhist temple in Thailand, I didn't see anyone avoiding those things.

Now as far as "the catholic priests of the east" thing- sure, it is true that there are some (not all) people who have abused their powers sexually but they are going literally against the teachings. (One of the teachings is to not abuse sexuality).

No religion is a perfect thing- its not going to make anyone 100% perfectly moral. It's just not- that's not realistic it's like saying one pill will cure every disease in existence. What Buddhism does do is get you to look at yourself, warts and all, and be more aware of the habit patterns that you have. But some people are still blind to things.

That being said, there are MANY MANY people who abuse their authority who shouldn't. I.e. psychologists, teachers, etc. Perhaps the only difference is that you would think that a religion (which is supposed to deal with ethics) would not have someone who is so "spiritually advanced" who also abuses things sexually. In western Buddhism, people aren't even celibate and it happens. But I've heard of psychologists having sexual relationships with their patients. And teachers having relationships (or molesting) students. If you take any large chunk of people, there will always be that deviant person who does something wrong and religion- including Buddhism- is not some special magically perfect thing that will make everyone perfect.

Oh I also want to say one other thing- relating back to the "garlic bread is amazing and that's why they can't eat garlic" thing- Buddhism is not designed to make people miserable! Quite the opposite actually. It just teachings that lasting long term happiness cannot be found externally- only internally.  However, if you talk to ethnic Buddhists I can see why you might say that: I once talked to a guy who grew up in an ethnic Buddhist household and he said he had to chant on his knees for five hours- basically until they hurt. I think I'd hate Buddhism too if I had to do that as a child!

However, in my experience, I have found that Buddhism- in particular Zen meditation- has made me happier than I've ever been in my life. After a good zen meditation, I have gone out on the deck, drank tea, and watched the moon, listened to the crickets... ok that all seems like normal stuff, big woop right? but meditation makes you more present in the NOW, and it is just, one of the most amazing things because you feel calm and content in a way that doesn't really compare to anything else. Just think of the thing that you do that you enjoy the most- and it's 100x better.You are in the moment.

 Another thing I enjoy about Buddhism, is that I don't have to just take people's word for stuff- I can see it working for myself. For example, throughout the day, what does my mind do? (that's how we practice somtimes- by observing our thoughts and emotions). I really do kind of go through different realms, for example. Sometimes I am happy and in a heavenly like place, sometimes I am angry and I'm not. Sometimes I cry if something super bad happens, like when my father died. and it's like hell. But it is all impermanent- always changing. Nothing stays the same. So there is the law of impermanence, which is another major teaching in Buddhism. Basically, all the law says is that everything changes, nothing stays the same. That's pretty easy to see in life too- with kids, how fast they grow- with our jobs, sometimes we get a promotion or are laid off or whatever- I could go on and on.

The only thing you do have to take on faith is the reality of enlightenment and that it can be realized. (in zen, we say in this lifetime, but not all sects say that). I have met people who have realized enlightenment, and yes I can say that there is something about them that you can't quite put your finger on. Enlightenment is- it is an understanding of the way things really work. It is going beyond yourself, and it is an experience of a sort- something you experience- and it is also an insight. It is one of those things that is hard to explain or put in words (like love, or describing the color blue to a blind person) but once you have experienced it, it changes you.

Everything I have experienced in Zen is real. And I have talked to others, and they have had similar experiences. I have not experienced enlightenment yet (it's not something that you can realize quickly or easily). But I have experienced things that made me realize yes there is is a lot of truth to this.

I mean, it's weird though, I guess you can't really take my word for it because Christians say the same thing and what they mean by real is like "oh god gave me a sign" or something weird like that. Or "this happened in my life so god must exist" and that's real to them. Or they see something that is a miracle and therefore believe in god. But how can a miracle make you believe in god? I don't get that. Actually miracles are not looked upon so highly in Zen. One old Zen monk said something along the lines of: "What is my miracle? Chopping wood and carrying water" but he was not referring to the way we ordinarily do that. He was referring more to a different way of doing it, of doing it in the present, again it's hard to explain and I'm not even describing enlightenment here. But actual miracles (like walking on water or whatever) are definitely looked down upon at least in Zen.

So I guess for those of you who think it's like how a Christian thinks it's real (miracles,weird coincidences, etc) then there is nothing I can say. And actually I will probably never convince the original author of this blog about what I am saying; if he hates Buddhism so much how can I change it? But I just hope that those of you who read this and are on the fence don't immediately assume it's some horrible thing. And don't assume you have to give up your athiesm either- you are in a better position to practice Buddhism (while remaining an athiest) than are those who are theists. 

I wish the author of this wasn't so sicked by Buddhism. It's possible his main contact with Buddhism was through ethnic Buddhism, in which case I wouldn't blame him for thinking what he does. It does tend to be more superstitious. It's just that it's not all like that. Some of it is beautiful.

And I am sorry for the long post, but it does bother me when someone says things and makes Buddhism out to be this horrible thing. Is it perfect? No. But nothing is perfect. And it certainly is not, at it's heart, a theistic religion, even if there are people who believe in such things.

Thanks for getting this far! :)



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