Ask the Lama Lama Surya Das
If There's No God in Buddhism, Are Buddhists Atheists?
Our columnist explains why not.
Q: Is there a God in Buddhism? I read in a book by the pope that Buddhism is atheistic and life-denying.A: I read the same thing in the pope's book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," in a chapter called "Buddha?" But the pontiff should know better, or at least be better informed by his scholar-advisers.
Buddhism is neither atheistic nor life-denying. We can witness this in the great surge of socially activist Buddhists in the Western countries today, which includes the widespread movement of so-called "engaged Buddhism" founded in part by the Vietnamese Zen master, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. There is great affirmation and hope in Buddhist teaching, or Buddha-dharma, and great respect and reverence for life in all its forms, human and otherwise.
In fact, Buddhism is generally considered to be not atheistic but agnostic, in that, the Buddha himself did not deny the existence of God. The Indian teacher and social reformer teacher called Sakyamuni Buddha is reported to have either kept silent when asked whether God existed, or in other cases to have said that his Noble Eightfold path led to enlightenment and deathless peace, and did not require faith or belief in a divine being or supreme creator. "Buddhism Without Beliefs," by the former monk and Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor, offers a fine argument for the agnostic thinking of basic Buddhism.
Q: Do you believe in hell? And if not, what keeps you from sin?
A: I don't believe in eternal damnation or hell. Everything is impermanent, or so it seems to me. Transience and impermanence is also one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism, simply a fact of life from the Buddhist perspective. Of course, it does seem like some beings do live in and experience truly hellacious states of mind, due to their karma. That is probably enough suffering for anyone, and my heart goes out to them, wishing they may expiate their sins, exhaust their bad karma, and eventually evolve out of the darkness.
What keeps me from sin is a felt understanding about karmic cause and effect: that what goes around comes around, that as we sow, we shall reap. That, combined with my deep wish to do no harm. I am also trained in and committed to the five fundamental lay Buddhist ethical precepts of cherishing life, honesty, right action, non-intoxication, and sexual responsibility, which helps me stay grounded and balanced, experience spiritual wellness and wholeness, and keeps me in alignment with the universal law. This is Buddha's Middle Path, free of extremism, and it brings freedom, inner peace and harmony, wisdom, and joyous fulfillment.
Fear of hellfire is not necessary to motivate me to live a moral life, challenging as that may occasionally prove to be. I prefer to strive for virtue and to live a wholesome, happy, nonviolent, service-oriented life that contributes to the greater good. For I would rather be part of the solution to the world's woes than part of that problem.