My book: Buddha is an Atheist, a Spiritual Autopsy of Science and Religion is being published this June. Buy it. Read it. Or Whatever.
Anyway, here is the original essay that started the whole idea. The book evolved dramatically since then and is a heavily researched work. This article is not. It is more a work of inspiration.
Buddha is an atheist. His central doctrine is called shunyata. The most common translation is emptiness. It is the antidote to belief in anything, God, for instance, as being real. Yet the seeming opposite, a belief in nothingness, which is at first implied, holds no more truth. This is the Middle Way, free from any extreme.
I should address some things about Atheism first. I claim little understanding of it beyond what is obvious to all. It seems to me painful, the Atheist position. Why? Because the self-definition is someone who believes there is no God. It is a negation, not an affirmation. This is no criticism; truthful pain is an honest life. But Atheism, in most people’s minds, appears to be primarily a refutation of mono-theism, rather than a substantive, positivist set of principles in its own right. That may be inaccurate, but the mistake is understandable, and largely the fault of the first principle: God does not exist.
To a Buddhist, God is irrelevant. Why disprove him at all? No one has any evidence of his existence. Sit down, try to find him if you must. Not in books. Not in magazines. But in your own experience. Where is God in the world? No one can offer a shred of proof. To a Buddhist, it’s not worth discussing. Forget what isn’t; find out what is.
What does a Buddhist believe? In terms of God, we have a doctrine called non-theism. Non-theism says that nothing created all this; it simply is. Or, if some entity did create it, that being is not manifest, so it makes no practical difference. It cannot be proved. Buddhism is not without its scientific side.
The real issue is how do we work with what we have? Or, better – What is all this? What am I seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling, and thinking? What do the six senses tell me moment by moment, and is it accurate? A dog understands reality better than a human.
And how could they not, when their hearts are so true? This is a fundamental point: that of longing, or devotion. Without an aching heart, you cannot follow this way. But the smallest spark lights a fire that destroys a million acres. No one loses the spark of longing altogether. Longing burns away immense karma. Yearn for truth with all your heart and eventually, you will be free.
When I stumbled upon the American Atheist website, what I read echoed my own beliefs. Few people realize the humanist underpinning. Most believe that without God, there is no virtue, because virtue has no motive. Apparently, there are philosophers who have a dark view of the human spirit. Here the lie of God is preferable to the truth of meaninglessness because it protects society. But the logic is false, as both groups prove.To be fair, few, if any Christians believe this, though a few Popes probably have.
For my mind, Buddhism emphasizes generosity, self-reflection, strength of spirit, and above all, wisdom and compassion. It reaches for the highest goal for any and all beings. We call it buddhahood, but that is only a word. The state arises from one’s effort and is one’s utmost potential. It is self-caused, or beyond cause. Outside forces cannot create it, but can create awesome help or harm.
This potential is beyond words, thought and perception, thus it cannot be proved, thus it is not available to our quotidian mind. In a very real sense, buddhahood does not exist. Buddha did not believe in Buddha. He was an atheist to his own absolute truth.
It cannot be proven, yet is. Though it can never be found, it cannot be denied. This is the miracle of awareness, the fabric of mind itself. Mind cannot be separated from experience, yet where is it? Can you find your mind? If mind goes away, do you? If mind is here, are you? Can you say you are in any way different from your mind? What we call self and what we call mind are intuitively closest in identity. Yet not quite the same. One cannot exist without the other, can it? If you accept this logic, then self is two, not one. Thus there is no single self. There is the idea of a self, and there is the ineffable, continuous experience called mind.
I would like to make an uneasy substitution here, exchanging God for the self (more on this later). I leave it to the reader to adapt these arguments at the King of Heaven. Though to put it into atheist terminology, there can be no god, because the absolute identity of any god can be disproved. Start by defining God.
There are a number of rigorous logical and meditative arguments. The argument of the one and the many, hinted at above, is a fairly simple example. The hand is made of five fingers. Is it singular or multiple? It cannot be both, because it is only one hand. How then is it also five fingers and a palm? Cut it in half. How can it be a single hand and still two pieces? It is impossible to be both one and two. No true hand exists. We can say it is the sum of its parts, but the same logic can be applied to each part without end. And still there is no hand.
The astute reader will realize that this applies to all phenomena, such as our favorite one – ‘Me!’. But here I am. How could this apply to something so obvious? We need a more precise definition of existence – true existence. True existence means a thing has properties of singularity, independence, and permanence. Without these a thing is multi-valent (made of parts), changeable (therefore different – ie, not the same thing), and subject to extinction. How could something truly existent become non-existent?
To extend the example: If I am one, what am I? The brain, the heart? But these are merely agglomerations of cells. Is it a single cell? The proposition is absurd. Is the person identical to the body? If so, which part? If pressed, most people would say they are not the body. Yet are we different from the body? If so, why is the body such a big deal? If different, where and what is the self? If it is the mind, is it the thoughts or that which perceives the thoughts? If it is that which perceives, where is that? What does it look like? What does it feel like?
Modern science is essentially doing this with particle physics and string theory. Strings go at about a trillion to a proton and every time one makes a random move, the opposite random move opens another dimension, and too many of the top scientists say it’s the only logical endpoint of quantum physics. But at some point, who cares? It isn’t going to end. Reality has no bottom, nor has it edges.
‘Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise,’ Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, said. This seems to assert non-existence of phenomena, but confusing emptiness with nihilism is a fatal mistake on the spiritual path. Buddhism is an amazingly positivist philosophy. From the relative standpoint, the individual devotes his life to release from suffering, first for himself, then as the heart opens, for all sentient beings, knowing it is an impossible goal. But, when the mind becomes absorbed in this active compassion, one eye upon the absolute nature, perfect happiness is inescapable. The only thing left is to help forever, liberating beings one at a time. That’s the teaching.
By seeing through the illusion of the self, peace is attained. Genuine mastery is when no situation disturbs the understanding, not even death and torment. Suffering arises as bliss. Which is to say, utter non-attachment is the goal. Why? Because all is impermanent in any event. It cannot be held onto. Whatever arises must fall; whatever is born will die. If it ceases, it cannot be Real. Non-attachment accords with truth.
What, then, is the actual reality? Do words apply? No, it is beyond terminology. No conceptual idea is able to capture the absolute reality. You cannot say it is something, you cannot say it is nothing. The key is mind alone, but the treasure is beyond mind. Mind implies a self, an entity. Awareness is the unconfused source of mind, beyond the self. And it is called awareness-emptiness, the originally undivided essence. Called awareness because it perceives, called emptiness because it cannot be found. It cannot be found, yet it appears. In the Buddha’s words, ‘Like a dream, like an illusion, like a gathering of spirits, that’s how birth, that’s how living, that’s how dying, are taught to be.’
The meditative argument is to find the thing itself, God, if you wish. Place your mind upon it and hold it there for hours, days, or even weeks. Learning to stably rest the mind on a chosen object is the first legitimate meditative practice. Without this aspect, it is not yet meditation. One should be careful, however. The skill must be attained gradually, or you will come to dislike it. Heroic persistence in that can damage the mind. To meditate skillfully is to work with mind directly, and, to hold a single aspect unwavering, no matter how profound or elusive. The experience is distinctly unlike ordinary activity. When this is informed by compassion, it becomes resilient.
To understand the essence of anything, which is to say, of everything, ask yourself, ‘What is it, absolutely?’ Mind, as the seed of all experience, is the ideal object. Find it if you can. Deny it if you can. It is experience without experiencer. No thing called mind exists, yet it creates the world. Truly realizing this is said to be amazing, as if all life were a magical display. While not existing, the phenomena of the realms of being appear. These realms are called samsara, the wheel of conditioned existence and are the counterpoint of nirvana, liberation from suffering by unwavering perception of the pristine reality.
This understanding that things are neither nothing nor something, nor both nor neither, is central to the wisdom angle of the jewel. It is the great Middle Way, on which thousands of texts have been written, and two millennia of sharp monastic debate waged. The arguments are incisive, creative, and widely varied, tested for two thousand years in the only meaningful laboratory of truth, the mind itself.
There are a few fundamental high level points of consensus. Not-self, the primacy of mind, and compassion are three. The first two have been addressed, if briefly. Compassion, to my thinking, is universally regarded as a necessary virtue. If a doctrine dismisses the primal role of compassion, it is not Buddhism, and definitely not the higher paths. Compassion is seeking a release from suffering for all that lives. That goal is unattainable, but the goal of stabilizing the desire for it is not. It is, however, very ambitious and takes many lifetimes.
Reincarnation, of course, is handy here. Does the Buddha say that reincarnation exists? No, but again, it cannot be denied. To say that it exists would give it a reality that nothing possesses. A thorough discussion of reincarnation, or the karmic cycle is beyond this article. However, a few points might be helpful. Karma is said to be the most difficult of the Buddha’s teachings to truly understand, but briefly put, it is the tendency of mind to propel itself, seeking external happiness, using the fundamental emotions of grasping, aggression, and bewilderment as strategies of attainment.
They cannot work. No fundamental, lasting happiness is possible in that way, so the mind continues, latching onto the next thing. This process affirms the inner identity, the self, as that which grasps or rejects or willfully ignores. Sophisticated emotional and conceptual layers, the idea of God, for example, dramatically empower the illusion of self. These layers exist provisionally as an oceanic volume of latent karma, all interconnected with all else in samsara. To free oneself, all karma must be eliminated without renewal of the karmic tendency. Because we have been wandering since beginningless time, the amount of karma is incalculable, hence the difficulty of attaining buddhahood.
From an absolute perspective, karma does not exist, and this is an excellent formulation of the pith of this philosophy: fundamental existence can never be proved. Any claim of it can be disproved. Nothing can be said about the ultimate nature. If it is something, what is that something? Love, compassion, wisdom, Buddha, God, these are only words. Where is their reality?
Yet to say that it is nothing is a mere statement. It can be disproved. If you say that it is nothing, then who are you and I, and what is all this that we perceive? It cannot be nothing, for we have the rich variety of illusion that appears as our world. All feeling, experience, people, places, events, thoughts, all that passes like a dream. Illusion is not nothingness; it is illusion. A dream happens in some way, though the objects in it do not exist.
But we experience the dream of waking life as real, until we attain sufficient insight. It makes no difference how many lives it takes, because rebirth is perpetual until the individual finds their way out of it. We believe we go on, therefore we go on. But that does not prove our fundamental existence. If we have a fundamental existence, where is it? What is in the baby who has no grasp of language that also is in the thriving adult, busy in their occupation, which yet exists in the old man, sagging toward death? Which is really to say, what continues after the body is gone? You may say there is something, but where and what is it? Do you see the soul? The Buddha never said no self exists. He said, ‘Can you find it? I cannot.’
Karma is relative truth. A flea values its existence as highly as you value your own. To anything that lives, its own life is paramount, thus it suffers. However, the object of clinging, the unchanging self, cannot be attained, because it does not exist. It is only an idea, a notion. If analyzed, it cannot be proved. Try it. Find your ‘self.’ What is its shape, or color, or smell? Where is it? The question is straightforward: can you prove you have a single, independent, immutable self? Can you even find a changing existent which could be called the self? Or is it merely an assumption, a mirage?
We are attached to self, much as many are attached to God. The notion of not-self is gut-wrenching. It has terrified many, and deeply so. I know one, and I hope he finds peace. I have felt this fear myself. It is why we reach for something to confirm us, God, money, TV, family, fame, Buddhism, Atheism, food, work, whatever. It is all the same.
God is merely one of numerous means of reinforcing the illusion of self. The ego defines itself by other. God is permanent, thus I can have a permanent thing called a soul. Here, the self is a stand-in for God, and vice-versa. Because God exists and I believe it, I exist, too. One is reminded of Descarte’s dubious proof : ‘I think therefore I am.’ But as Nietszche countered, ‘I think therefore I think.’
By denying the self, these arguments may go too far for Atheistic tastes, but it seems worth contemplating. Most Buddhists would find them tiresome but correct.
The Buddhist ideal is to know what is. Truth will not forsake you, that is why it is truth. You may feel your own pain for wandering from the genuine; reality does not care. It is neither for you nor against you. Any of those are statements. Any could be a substitute for God, in this approach. Solid belief is a vitamin for the ego. All belief, even hatred, is a means of defining oneself against something else.
If you are truly an Atheist, this is the means to reduce God to his proper level. You need not disprove God anymore, that is a simple matter. God, as an actuality, is irrelevant. But the manipulated and sincere belief in him is, of course, significant.
But here we should examine our motivation, and not regard the simple Christian soul as an enemy, or a fool, even on a subtle level. Their beliefs are valid for them and if they wish no challenge, it is ugly to force the issue. Arrogance is a terrible poison, inappropriate for anyone trying to help the world. It is a particular trap of logicians and, as a small ‘A’ atheist, I fall into it myself. I want to prove the preacher wrong. But why polarize the situation? It’s indecent behavior, and will change no one’s mind.
But if a person with doubts seeks reasoned argument, offer it. Good debate is powerful. When someone sincerely questions, show them your proof.
God. Is he absolute, or does he change? Is he both the jealous god of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New? That is fine, I accept a God that grows. In fact, I love the idea.
Here is the rub. God is absolute truth in the Christian view. What is absolute is beyond change. According to the Bible, this god has changed, attaining compassion at the death of his son. What does change do? It makes things different. It is a different god. Has Yahweh disappeared? Is it one god, or two? Did a new god replace the old? Or, are they the same god? But if they are the same, how could they be different? God is not two and not one, therefore not truly existent.
There are numerous such proofs, and they are easy to create. Consider: did God need to learn the lesson of compassion? Then he is fallible. Did God need to grow, to change? Then he is not eternal. Eternity is the changeless and stretches to the past as well. To be Real, a thing must be eternal. It cannot alter. The Bible itself disproves both an eternal God, and an infallible God. These may seem to be word games, but contemplate them fully; they are not. This is among the many means of defeating fundamental conceptual belief. But, if the argument battles the more powerful god called the self, then this defeat will be superficial. Only meditation yields that fruit.
In sum, it seems that Buddhism and Atheism share immense common ground. Atheism is new, and I see one tremendous obstacle, mentioned in the beginning. It is defined as disbelief in something first, thus it will perpetually suffer from a polarized view. Atheism must always battle the followers of God, a difficult position. Buddhism says that mind creates reality, so if one believes in God, to that person, God is real. There is no problem. Believe as you like, and so will I.
Atheism is new, or not so old as a codified philosophy. Buddhism has the weight of history, but it once was new. It still is, in the West, where it manifests differently as it arrives, ancient, yet fresh. Historically, however, Buddhism ran against Hinduism, the prevailing religion, which believed in Atman, or the universal self. Buddha countered this by proclaiming anatman, or not-self. Buddha was an atheist, make no mistake. The arguments, both meditative and logical, overwhelm any belief in substantive existence, either God or the self. Contemplate the ideas. The truth is no one’s property, nor is the means to its discovery. Buddhism and Atheism share this fundamental concern: the search for truth through humanistic means. Buddhist and Atheist, one can certainly be both. I am. I could envision a new approach by combining them.
Call it buddhatheism.
 This is a bit inaccurate, depending upon the point of view. Nirvana can be said to be the realization of not-self and the cessation of the karmic movement, which does not necessarily include the unwavering perception mentioned here.