EASTERN

Atheism in Buddhism


the Buddha

Believe nothing, o monks,
merely because you have been told it ...
or because it is traditional,
or because you yourselves have imagined it.

Do not believe what your teacher tells you
merely out of respect for the teacher.

But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis,
you find to be conducive to the good,
the benefit, the welfare of all beings
that doctrine believe and cling to,
and take it as your guide.

- Gautama Buddha


"Bear always in mind what it is that I have not elucidated, and what it is that I have elucidated. And what have I not elucidated? I have not elucidated that the world is eternal; I have not elucidated that the world is not eternal; ... I have not elucidated that the soul and the body are identical; I have not elucidated that the monk who has attained (the arahat) exists after death; I have not elucidated that the arahat does not exist after death; ... I have not elucidated that the arahat neither exists nor does not exist after death. And why have I not elucidated this? Because this profits not, nor has to do with the fundamentals of religion; therefore I have not elucidated this.

And what have I elucidated? Misery have I elucidated; the origin of misery have I elucidated; the cessation of misery have I elucidated; and the path leading to the cessation of misery have I elucidated. And why have I elucidated this? Because this does profit, has to do with the fundamentals of religion, and tends to absence of passion, to knowledge, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana." 23


Buddha also rejected religious devotion (bhakti) as a way of salvation. His position was the sort of atheism we have already noted in Mahavira. He believed that the universe abounded in gods, goddesses, demons, and other nonhuman powers and agencies; but all were without exception finite, subject to death and rebirth. In the absence, then, of some transcendent, eternal Being, older than the Creation, and the Maker of heaven and earth, who could direct men's destinies and hear and grant human wishes, prayer, to Buddha, was of no avail; he at least did not resort to it. For similar reasons he did not put any reliance on the Vedas, or on practice of their nature worship, or on the performance of their rituals as a way of redemption; now would he countenance going to the Brahmins as priests.

23 Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in translation (Harvard University Press 1922) p 122 (Majjhima Nikaya 63)
- in John B. Noss, Man's religions (Macmillan: NY 1956) p 166


Religion without God in Indian philosophy by Shlomo Biderman

Speaking of the religious activity of the believer, Wittgenstein described him as "using a picture." If we adopt Wittgenstein's metaphor we shall probably have no difficulty in identifying, in most cases, the main subject of such pictures. By this I mean, of course, the concept of God. The existence of God in monotheistic western religions is regarded as inseparable from the very existence of those religions. It should, therefore, be of no surprise that common definitions of religion -- treading in the wake of the monotheistic trend, emphasize right from the beginning the belief in the existence of God as a necessary ingredient of religion.

There is no doubt that the monotheistic picture indeed represents a large number of religions. But one should not jump to the conclusion that the religious museum solely represents pictures of the monotheistic trend. On the contrary, one can find in the museum a great variety of religious pictures, in part of which God figures in the center of the picture, in others He figures only in the margins, and in some He does not figure at all.

The most prominent religious picture in which God does not figure at all is, of course, the Buddhist religion. This religion can be characterized not only as non-theistic but more so as atheistic; that is to say, not only does the Buddhist religion discard the notion of God as a religious term, but it vehemently rejects any use of this notion as meaningless. Buddhism is, therefore, a religion without God.

Monotheistic religions very often describe God as revealing himself in the world. God's revelation usually takes place in the succession of historical events that began at the moment of the creation of the world and continued throughout history. God's subsequent revelations in history have sometimes been direct, and sometimes by means of intermediaries, the prophets, sages and saints. In the context of God's revelation Scriptures play an especially important role. In the first place they give out invaluable information concerning God's revelation in history. Furthermore, they describe the exact nature of those revelations. The Scriptures are therefore conceived as directly springing from God who bestows upon them authority as well as infallibility.

It is thus plausible to assume that any atheistic religion which denies the existence of God would therefore try to the best of its ability to undermine the authority of Scriptures as well. And indeed Buddhist and Jainist philosophies in India have both attacked the intelligibility of the concept of God as well as the notion of s'abda - the World of Scriptures through which God is revealed. It is, therefore, strange to find out a religion which is totally in accord with the Buddhist religion in its refutation of God's existence but which,--at the same time, revers the Scriptures fullheartedly. This religion is represented by--the Mimamsa school of Hinduism. In what follows I shall dwell upon some interesting points of that religion.

First, a few words concerning the historical background of Mimamsa. The Mimamsa school is considered to be one of the most ancient of Hindu philosophical schools. The oldest text of it known to us today is the mimamsa sutra which, according to Indian tradition, was written by the somewhat mysterious Jaimini. It was in all probability composed in the third or second centuries B.C. However, there is room to suppose that the actual beginnings of the Mimamsa school can be dated even earlier; the mimamsa sutra is thus a systematic summary of some religious conceptions that existed in India up to the time of Ja'imini. Several commentaries were written on the mimamsa sutra, and the most important one known to us today is that of Sabara. According to most scholars this commentary was written in the first or second centuries A.D., that is, about five hundred years after Jaimini's lifetime.

As its name, 'Inquiry,' indicates, Mimamsa considers the interpretation of Scriptures to be its primary function. The Scriptures are the only source for knowing religious duties (dharma). They present religious duties within a set of laws, injunctions and prohibitions, to which the believer must strictly adhere to. Thus, the religious verses that can be found in the Scriptures have a single objective: to instruct man in the permitted paths of action and to block off those paths that are forbidden him. It follows that religious duty is not dependent either on some abstract articles of faith or on the existence of some mental state. In other words, religion obliges the believer only as a set of commands, that is, only insofar as religion impinges on his actions. Religion is not therefore intended to provide man with historical, cosmological, psychological or moral precepts; it certainly does not claim to preach a spiritual method of release by which man can attain the absolute Being. The sole legitimate aim of religion is to oblige man to perform certain activities and to refrain from others.

Dharma, then is expressed by the set of laws and injunctions which are presented to the believer in the Scriptures. Obviously, the infallibility of these Scriptures, is a necessary condition for accepting the religious imperatives as authoritative and binding. In other words, in order that the religious commands would be regarded as obligatory, the validity of Scriptures should be acknowledged beyond any reasonable doubt. In fact, the validity of Scriptures is accepted by the Mimamsa as axiomatic. Scriptures are authoritative, that is, everlasting, unchangeable and infallible; they do not stem from any external source, either divine or human.

- L. Wittgenstein, "Lectures on Religious Belief,"
in: Lecture and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, (ed. by C. Barrett), Oxford, 1970.

2 For a summary of Buddhist attitude towards God, revelation and Scriptures see K. N. Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, London, 1963, Chapter IV. See also K. N. Jayatilleke, The Message of the Buddha, London, 1975, Chapter IV.

- in Religious atheism? Apostel, Pinxten, et al.


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created 1jun1996, revised 20mar98     |     comments on this site? tpkunesh@atheisms.info