Welcome Atheism > Religion & beliefs > About Buddhism

About Buddhism

It's hard to get worked up about Buddhism – OK, I've not studied its texts in any great detail, but I have a reasonable working knowledge of it and as far as I can see it's pretty inoffensive stuff. It is either agnostic about the existence of god/s, or, in some traditional forms, there are gods, but they are just a different form of existence – beings with power and long, comfortable lives in Heavenly realms – and we can be reincarnated as one if we're lucky. However, these Buddhists say, it is not really as lucky as being human, because, their lives being so easy, they may not feel enough dissatisfaction to seek the exit door to real bliss, which is Nirvana by practising Buddhism (itself something for which it seems you never get a really satisfying explanation, the equivalent of "ineffable" mysteries in Christianity like the Trinity).

On the whole the Buddha sounds like he was a pretty nice guy – assuming he existed and we can find some historical character there among the added myths – he did NOT say you were saved by certain beliefs, but said you should work on yourself to be pure and selfless (and perform certain meditative techniques to help you master your mind etc), which sounds like good stuff. He also said you didn't have to take anything he said on faith and should try it for yourself and see if it worked for you. No burning at the stake then. And the best-known modern Buddhist, the Dalai Lama seems a genuinely pure, caring and forgiving guy. All well and good.

But some things about Buddhism still irritate me – adherents like to claim their religion is more logical than other we could name, but there is still not much proof of some central tenets, like reincarnation – which, in its Buddhist form is very convoluted, as, they say, there is no actual soul that is transmitted, just that somehow the fact of you dying still having worldly attachments and passions sparks off another human birth, like a candle lighting another candle. So does Buddhism involve eternal life or not?? However getting a new life is not the GOAL in Buddhism, it's the problem. The real goal is this ineffable, inexplicable thing called Nirvana (which I have read translated as blowing out or extinction) which means the end of all individuality/ego/selfishness and somehow becoming "one" with everything, which apparently is a really groovy feeling. You can achieve this enlightenment even in life, although the full effect takes place on death (parinirvana). But none of this can be proved to be true, and no one ever even seems to claim to have done it (although the Buddha supposedly did). It's just a goal people are always working towards – even the Dalai Lama has written that he sometimes regrets being so busy he does not have enough time for spiritual practice and can't progress as much as he'd like to – why would he need to if, as Tibetan tradition claims, he is a living Buddah (a fully enlightened being – of which his tradition claims a number of examples existed before the Buddha of history) who merely reincarnates to help the world?

I also fear that Buddhism, while it should, in theory make for peaceful, kind people, is a bit nihilistic about life – its core starting point is that life is suffering and Buddhism is a way to escape this – and this is done by selflessness etc, including aiming for a sense of serene detachment and indifference to either pain or pleasure (a bit along the lines of Kipling's "If" – the bit about "meeting with Triumph and Disaster and treating those two imposters just the same") – and it seems to me this could potentially take away from developing a down-to-earth acceptance of life's realities and getting the most out of it – yes, nothing's ever perfect, but we might as well enjoy the good bits while we can, because there's no proof there's something better to look forward to instead. So from this respect Buddhism seems to invite a criticism that can be aimed at most religions – they give fanciful explanations about the meaning of life and stop you just taking it for what it is. Also, although it claims to be a "middle way" between asceticism and self-indulgence, it seems, like some other religions, to have a downer on enjoying sensual pleasures, which are among the things that can make the life we have more fun.

I have not even got on to the many heavens and hells, gods and demi-gods and ghosts and oracles and so on in some traditional forms of the faith, or the superstitious way many ordinary Buddhists in the East (as far as I can see) seem to pray to Buddha as if he was a god (which he seems specifically NOT to have wanted), or the off-shoots that developed like Pure Land, in which you try to get to a kind of Heaven instead of aiming for Nirvana. Then there are quirky versions like the Sokka-Gakkai, a popular Japanese version with roots back in the Middle Ages, which says all you have to do is chant a lot and this will miraculously give you a lovely life…

All in all the, I'd say, yes, it's a lot better than some religions and has some good ideas (such as meditative practices aimed at developing kind and loving thoughts and, for example, both feeling compassion for suffering and feeling gladness for others' happiness and success), but it's not some sacred cow that can't be criticised. I think this view comes about partly because the Dalai Lama seems so nice – as if, for example, the only well-known Catholics were the Abbι Pierre and St Francis of Assisi instead of all the other loonies that history and experience can offer us, or the only Muslims, people like the poet Rumi or the chivalrous medieval leader Saladin.

Oliver R. - July 7, 2007

Home atheism    -    Top of the page