Buddhism Isn’t More Enlightened Than Other Faiths June 9, 2010

Buddhism Isn’t More Enlightened Than Other Faiths

Maybe certain religious beliefs are silly, but Buddhism’s ok, right?

I’ve heard that line several times before…

The problem is that Buddhism is still rife with superstition:

Just as with Jainism, we’re talking about a religion/philosophy that buys into karma and reincarnation. Neither one is violent, to be sure, but they’re still making up stories for what they don’t know and pretending that they’re true.

(via Atheist Cartoons)

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  • Aaron

    I agree. I like a lot of the very basic teachings of Buddhism, where it seems to be more of a form of self-administered psychotherapy than a religion, but the actual beliefs of Buddhists are just as weird an any other religion.
    The best thing Buddha ever (allegedly) said was that he might be lying to his followers to get them to behave a certain way, and that his teachings may be false, but expedient, and that once Buddhist teachings got your where you needed to be, you could abandon them.
    The funny thing is that Buddhism teaches that if there are gods, they are not important enough to pray to, so Buddhists pray to Buddha instead. It seems like there is a built in “religion = pray to somebody” rule in the human psyche.

  • I love how religious Buddhism is always thrown into the list of other religions. Have you even read Sam Harris’ view on Buddhism as a philosophy instead of a religion? And you don’t really pray, you send out positive energy to all sentient beings. It’s called “metta”. Better than praying to a space Jew.

  • Actually, Buddhism can be argued to have negative effects even beyond their promotion of superstition. When you put Buddhist dogma into context of the psuedo-serfdom that existed in Tibet, it suddenly takes on a more sinister edge. Buddhism seems almost taylor-made to make people feel okay about being on the low end of the caste system.

    If something bad happens to you, it’s because you deserve it due to Karma that you incurred in a former life. That’s okay, thou, because you should abandon attachment to material goods or ambitions. There are also people who are automatically born as more enlightened and of higher authority (reincarnated Lamas).

    Almost everything about Buddhism seems to be a marketing tool to keep the lower class in the caste system from rising up and rebelling.

  • Claudia

    While religious Buddhism is just as based in fact as any religion (which is to say, not at all) I think its not quite accurate to say that its less englightened, on the whole. I think Christianity is more enlightened than Islam. The extent to which a religion is enlightened I think is largely the extent to which its followers agree to ignore big pieces of it and/or the extent to which a religion requires the adherence to religious dogma over science and rational thought. I’m certainly not as educated about Buddhism as I could be, but my strong impression is that its one of the most benign and science-friendly of the major religions. That’s not to say that the religious and supernatural aspects aren’t just as absurd as transubstantiation or magic underwear, but its still significant.

  • Jude

    The only Buddhist I know well is an atheist.

  • Revyloution

    Buddhism isn’t violent?

    You should have mentioned that to the Emperors men in Japan during World War Two. The Buddhist Samurai would also have been surprised to learn that their religion prohibits violence.

    Don’t let anyone fool you. The Buddhist religion is just as filled with dogma, bigotry and violence as any other religion.

    I don’t know about Jainism, but since Hemant escaped from it, Ill take his word for it.

  • Peregrine

    Some Buddhists believe in God or gods in general. Some don’t. Some Buddhists pray. Some don’t. Some Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation. Some don’t.

    What’s your point?

    Yes, there’s plenty of superstition to go around. But we’re not asked to buy into any of it.

  • David D.G.

    Brandon wrote:

    I love how religious Buddhism is always thrown into the list of other religions. Have you even read Sam Harris’ view on Buddhism as a philosophy instead of a religion? And you don’t really pray, you send out positive energy to all sentient beings. It’s called “metta”. Better than praying to a space Jew.

    What is the nature of this “positive energy”? How is it transmitted? How is it received by sentient beings (and only them)? How is any of this detected, measured, or otherwise verified as factual?

    Until you have definitive answers for all of these questions and more, this “metta” is indistinguishable from “praying to a space Jew”; both are just mental exercises (to put it in the kindest possible terms).

    ~David D.G.

  • I’m a Buddhist and an atheist. Did a talk a couple of years back for the Liverpool Humanist Group entitled “Buddhism & Humanism: Common ground, not battleground” (title was given to me!). There were a few pretty hard-core atheists there, but we ended up having a really good two-way discussion that went on way longer than advertised. Maybe partly because the meetings are held in a pub, which frankly should be standard practice!

    Anyway, I think I surprised most of those attending by how much a modern, Western Buddhism can remain a rational, materialist way of being. Or religion, or whatever.

    Sure, many – no, most Buddhists around the world wouldn’t agree with my stance on, for example, karma (psychosocial cause-and-effect) and rebirth (strictly, Buddhism doesn’t believe in reincarnation but rebirth… and even then I see it as functioning on a momentary rather than inter-life basis). But the essential tenets of Buddhism, the fundamentals, make fascinating reading: life is unsatisfactory; it is thus because we crave things to be other than they are; this unsatsifactoriness is not inevitable; a recipe for ridding ourselves of this unsatisfactoriness is by living an ethical, mindful and non-deluded life. That’s the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path in a materialist nutshell.

    I could go on (and on and on and on!), but I’ll end by recommending the writings of two British Buddhists – Stephen Batchelor (recently published Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist which I have yet to read, also cf Buddhism Without Beliefs and Susan Blackmore, who denies being a Buddhist though she practices Zen.

    Want me to say more, I will, otherwise I’ll leave it there…

  • I consider myself a quasi-Buddhist. I agree with a lot of the psychology of it, as written in Western books. I don’t believe in any of the supernatural parts or superstitions (I’m still an atheist) and I don’t care about it’s history but what use it can be in the present.

  • Kimpatsu

    You need to make a distinction between Northern and Southern Buddhism, Hemant. Southern Buddhism is esoteric, with prayers and reincarnation (e.g., Tibetan Buddhism, as exemplified by the Dalai Lhama), whereas Northern Buddhism is a deontological ethical code best exemplified by the Four Noble Truths; it has nothing to say regarding an afterlife or the supernatural. and, contrary to what Branson wrote, there’s no “projecting of positive energy”; at least, not in the Northern Zen schools here in Japan. That sounds more like the Southern (Indian) schools to me.

  • Peregrine

    Metta meditation is an interesting concept. It’s certainly the closest many Buddhist traditions come to prayer. But not all of them practice Metta. Zen doesn’t tend to make a big deal of it, as I understand.

    I’ve heard it described as more of a psychological effect; developing the intention to demonstrate kindness toward others. So it’s not so much a case of mystical “energy”, but your own psychological conditioning. Whether it works or not might be a matter of opinion.

    I’ve been thinking on and off of getting into Metta myself, but never really took the initiative. I’ve tried it once or twice, but never made the habit. One day perhaps, when I’m more inclined.

  • Scootah

    The buddhist stance on lots of things annoys me – but agitprop Tracts that would make Jack Chick warm and fuzzy inside? Seriously?

    Buddhists for the most part don’t pray. Implying that they do is at best a lost in translation moment and is at worst deliberately misleading.

    Japanese buddhists who believe in Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light chant Amida’s name in a form of prayer, but that’s an isolated sect and describing all buddhists based on that is a bit like describing all Americans as being like Westboro Baptists.

    Tibetan mantra’s might seem like prayer – in that there are strings of words or sounds that are repeated – but that practice is much closer to meditation than prayer. It’s a practice that might even be described as akin to self hypnosis – but there’s no prayer involved.

    The meditation and chants of other buddhist groups might also seem like prayers – but if they’re prayers, so is talking to yourself or thinking quietly.

    On a side note – most of the western buddhists that I know are in no way being manipulated by a caste system. For the most part they’re people with higher education who’ve found a happier way of life in Buddhism and only share their beliefs if directly asked. Teachers and Lecturers, software engineers, business people and senior civil servants. It’s a mistake to associate the ecconomic circumstances in so many buddhist nations with buddhism as much as to associate sound economic governance with Christianity.

  • Mana

    This post and cartoon strike me as magnificently ignorant, up there with accusing Buddhists of being idol worshippers. While branches of Buddhism (i.e. Pure Lands) have acquired religious trappings through adaptation into multiple cultures, the central tenets merely describe the way to absolve suffering and acquire happiness. That is the core function – a philosophy of how best to live. Anything else, including karma and reincarnation, is a function of the denomination and not essential to Buddhism.

    I am not aware of Buddha ever having made a claim as to the existance of a god or knowledge of the afterlife, and in fact there is a fable where he states that he does NOT know (The Poisoned Arrow). Stories of any supernatural accomplishments such as walking on water are understood to be parables and metaphors, not literal truth.

    Buddhism is not immune to fundamentalism, and you run into terrible trouble when you start trying to codify nonattachment or ideal Buddhist practices into law, but I do think it’s far less vulnerable to such than the “invisible sky fairy” dogmas. To the best of my understanding, most branches are self-critical and encourage the pursuit of knowledge rather than willful ignorance.

    Even the Dalai Lama defers to science, and is quite happy to acknowledge a discovered truth that contradicts traditional Buddhist teachings (such as our modern model of astronomy).

    I’m an atheist Buddhist. If “Friendly Atheist” is happy to lump Buddhism in with beliefs that require endorsement of the supernatural without bothering to learn the facts, I’ll be just as happy to take it off my reading list.

  • American Buddhism is almost a totally different animal than the traditional Asian varieties. Traditionalists might be shocked and offended to learn just who is practicing it here in the US – my local Zen teacher is gay, and the Zen master is (gasp) a woman.

    I quizzed Zen Teacher Jim quite a bit about history, and he was loath to diverge from the warm, fuzzy version of Buddhism that his group practiced. At the end, I told him I was an atheist, and he brightened. Atheism, American atheism anyway, was in his comfort zone.

    When I was in China, I mentioned to my guide that American Buddhism was almost entirely free of idol imagery. We might have the occasional little gold fat-Buddha statue, but that was just for ambiance. I wondered to her if American Buddhists were afraid that having statues all around would anger the Christians.

    “That is very strange,” was all she had to say.

  • Shatterface

    The Dali Lama is even more sexually repressed than the pope as, along with the usual homophobia and general aversion to fun, he also opposes sex during the day time.

    The Catholic church has never insisted on waiting till after dark, especially on school nights.

  • Evilspud

    I’ve hardly heard a bad thing about Buddhists, my gut reaction is to pair them with mainstream Christians: They accept me, they aren’t assholes, just pay attention to who they’re voting for.

    I’m also gonna go with my gut, and hold off on accusations until I’ve pondered and researched the subject more thouroughly. Honestly, meditating and praying to a statue isn’t all that bad if it doesn’t get in the way of your responsibilities.

  • I’d recommend “Confessions of a Budddhist Atheist” or better, “Buddhism Without Beliefs” – both by Stephen Batchelor – for a reasonable form of Buddhism based on what the original Buddha actually taught. What happened to Buddhism seems straight out of “Life of Brian,” with desperate followers praying to sandals and gourds.

    A good summary of Batchelor’s views: http://bit.ly/aPvr1G

    Mainly, it’s hard to object to the basics of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, which make no reference to Gods at all.

  • Citizen Z

    I’d be willing to say Buddhism is more enlightened than other faiths, if only because there’s no reason we can’t argue that certain faiths are better or worse than others. For example, I certainly have never heard of Jesus or Mohammed saying something like: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Now if that was just applied to reincarnation…

  • Sellers_as_Quilty

    Some religions ARE better than others. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is note-perfect on this when she says that there is such a thing as a “better” religion, just as one idea is better than another, just as one way of organizing a society can be said to be better than another (e.g., democracy is better than fascism), just as gender equality is better than misogyny. It’s not always an easy call when one thing is better than another—but sometimes it is. And Ali’s point is, Why is it so often seen as improper or politically incorrect to point out when one thing is clearly better than another?

    In the case of religions, I don’t even use the word “better.” I just say that one religion is “less problematic” than another. In the present day, Buddhism (as it is practiced by the majority of its adherents) is less problematic than Islam (as it is practiced by the majority of its adherents).

  • I usually despise it when people comment with “go look at this link,” but I actually recently talked a lot about naturalism and Buddhism in my blog, and about getting down to the core of what all Buddhisms have in common (the differences between the sects are certainly as great as the Catholic/Protestant divide; and some might say greater. It’s quite a mistake to lump them all in together).

    If you’re interested, check out:
    “What is Buddhism?”:

    And “Buddhism Demystified”:

  • chris

    i self identify as an atheist buddhist and i don’t see anything wrong with it. i guess it doesn’t hurt that i fuckin’ love incense and bowing, though…

  • I love when people make claims about the beliefs of a group of people while completely ignoring the billions of people who practice those beliefs in favor of a bunch of intellectual poachers seeking profits and warm fuzzies. Cultural promiscuity, however exciting and cool, does not grant one the authority to overrule the historical practices of a religion. If it did, I could still be a Christian and define the whole of Christianity by my own opinions and interpretations.

  • Trixie

    Stephen Batchelor is a very cool Buddhist atheist (and endorsed by Hitchens).

  • JoeBuddha

    Meh. Buddhism is what you make of it. It’s not a belief, but a practice. I know Buddhists who are atheists and pragmatists (I put myself more into that category) and Buddhists who are into crystals and spirit guides. Thing is, no one tells me what to believe and who or what to worship. I take the teachings provisionally and accept what works for me. Shakyamuni was not interested in what he couldn’t prove or experience, and neither am I. I AM, however, a Buddhist.

  • Mary

    I love much of the philosophy of Buddhism, but I could never be a Buddhist because of all the religion involved. Many Buddhist teachings encourage people to be more thoughtful, responsible, caring and appreciative, without insisting that one believe in a god (or in anything) unless one comes to that belief on his own. Buddhism is very much like humanism in that it has a positive view of man, or at least maintains openness to new possibilities in every moment, instead of tying people down to guilt and sin.

    There are so many philosophical gems in Buddhism that can lead a person to a happier and more peaceful life. It is too bad that it makes so many random claims about reality that can never be proven. If I were forced to choose the modern religion that does the least harm, I would definitely go with the way Buddhism is presented in the west. My life has been changed by the teaching of interconnectedness of all things. I will never bake a cake the same way. I think of the cow that gave the milk, the chickens that lay the eggs, the wheat plants and the people who planted and picked them. It is such a “whole” view of the world and my place in it. Thinking that way slows me down and just makes life more enjoyable.

    I highly recommend that anyone interested in philosophy and ethics dive into some Buddhist teachings with an open mind. Some of them really are bizarre, and you wonder how people could possibly believe them. Others are brilliant teachings that are more insightful than any sermon or lecture I’ve ever heard. Many of the teachings are about practical ways to be happy – not prayer or God or anything like that. They make you feel “warm and fuzzy” because such simple thoughts and actions really can increase your happiness and the happiness of people around you. It’s refreshing to find a group of people who believe that happiness and the relief of suffering is a worthwhile goal in and of itself. I have to agree with them. And I am an atheist.

  • Ikkyu

    I love it when people (like palebluedot) lump a large group of people like western Buddhists of whom they clearly know little about. And try to paint them with a broad brush. There is an enormous diversity among Buddhists and even among western Buddhists.
    Buddhism is not a static entity that can never change. One of the fundamental ideas in Buddhism is that it has to change to adapt to local conditions.
    Buddhism changed when it went from India to China and it changed again when it got to Japan.
    In my view Buddhism is not a “religion”, In the sense that you need to “believe” in something separate from yourself. It is a practice. The goal of which is to alleviate suffering in yourself an others. Like others in this thread I am a Buddhist Atheist. And I know enough about the history of Buddhism to know that it is not perfect. But it allows for many differing opinions and interpretations to coexist.
    There are “spiritual tourists” out there that might fit your definition. And practitioners of “new age woo” that claim to be Buddhists. But there are plenty of teachers out there from well established Buddhist lineages that don’t fit your definition at all.

  • False Prophet

    Buddhism isn’t violent? News to me.

    Whenever people laud the greatness of Buddhism, I remember the final scene of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon: a merchant, a Buddhist monk, and a poor woodcutter, have been passing time during a terrible storm in a ruined temple. After sharing a sordid tale of betrayal, murder and cowardice, they discover an abandoned infant.

    The merchant selfishly takes the baby’s blanket, its only possession in the world, arguing the child will die soon anyway.

    The monk can only bemoan how evil and cruel the material world is.

    The woodcutter takes pity and brings the baby home, even though he is poor and has six mouths of his own to feed. “What’s one more?” he says.

    The metaphor is crystal clear to me.

  • Acitta

    While there is a lot of superstition in the way Buddhism is practiced in many countries, there is also a strong tradition of rationalism, especially in the philosophical schools, such as the Madhyamika school founded by Nagarjuna in the 2nd century CE. Nagarjuna’s writings are the most rigorously rational of all Buddhist literature. In the Twelve Gate Treatise, Nagarjuna demolishes the idea of a creator god by rational arguments, some of which are used by atheists today (e.g. the argument from infinite regression). A recent book by the Dalai Lama titled “The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason” discusses Nagarjuna’s philosophy. Buddhism started as a rational criticism of the prevailing religions of the time and asserted that human freedom from delusion is to be found through self-inquiry and meditation, not by appeal to supernatural entities.

  • SpencerDub

    False Prophet:
    Whenever people laud the greatness of Buddhism, I remember the final scene of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon…

    Oh man. I studied that film this year from an epistemological/philosophical bent, but never considered that interpretation. It makes perfect sense, though.

    Nice catch!

  • TheLoneIguana

    I think it was Harold Ramis who, when asked about religion, said he liked Buddhism, but was too lazy to really practice it.

    “I’m more Buddish.”

    I thought that was funny.

  • ihedenius

    but they’re still making up stories for what they don’t know and pretending that they’re true.

    Well duh …

    I don’t see the point in following any philosophy, instead think for yourself and evaluate each and every question individually.

  • It’s the same obfuscation for people who claim they’re “spiritual, not religious”. They believe in the same crap, just under a different name.

    I’ve also found that many Jewish atheists are reticent about lumping Judaism (as a religion) in with Christianity, as if Judaism (as a religion) is somehow more viable as a faith.

  • SickoftheUS

    False Prophet wrote:

    The monk can only bemoan how evil and cruel the material world is.

    The woodcutter takes pity and brings the baby home, even though he is poor and has six mouths of his own to feed. “What’s one more?” he says.

    The metaphor is crystal clear to me.

    Out with it. Are you saying that Buddhists are standoffish from real world suffering, as opposed to the poor man who is empathetic?

    And I wonder how true that is. Haven’t Buddhist monks taken an active lead in the fight against the repressive government in Myanmar, for example, and don’t they act as the glue for social causes in many Eastern cultures?

    “What’s one more” is redolent of the Catholic mindset – I wonder what that baby will be indoctrinated into in the poor man’s family, what will be expected of it, and how misery-filled its life will be.

  • Maliknant

    OneSTDV says… “It’s the same obfuscation for people who claim they’re “spiritual, not religious”. They believe in the same crap, just under a different name.”

    This kind of nonsense would make me quite angry, if I gave a monkey’s what an ignoramus had to say.

    I’ve read many comments on this site that equate spirituality with religion. Some definitions certainly embrace that viewpoint, but many of us take a very different view.

    Here is a definition I just found that expresses what I feel pretty well…

    Spirituality can refer to an ultimate reality or transcendent dimension of the world; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his or her being, or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live”.

    I am NOT religious. I DO believe in the value of developing your spiritual life.

    It can be done in many ways. An atheist Zen Buddhist may sit zazen to try and peel away the layers of conditioning to access his true, pure, inner self. A volunteer may work at a shelter, feeding and clothing the less fortunate, appreciating his loving connection to his fellow human beings. Or it may simply be a person taking a nature walk and feeling a love and appreciation for the incredibly beautiful world in which we live, sensing a connection to the planet, maybe even the universe, that cannot be quantified or logically explained.

    Pursuits such as these nurture the inner self. They make life richer, make it feel more meaningful. And they have NOTHING to do with believing in an all-powerful and vengeful being who wants to tell me what to think and do, take his 10% cut of my paycheque, and believe without question whatever his messengers on Earth tell me to.

    Do you “spiritual” haters get the difference now? Or would you rather keep lumping critical-thinking people like me in with the ignorant sheep who are tearing this world apart with their toxic, blindly-believed beliefs?

    Just curious. Like I said before, frankly, I don’t give a damn about your condemnation. I know what I am. And I know what I’m not.


  • Sue D. Nymme

    Buddhism isn’t violent. Except for, you know, things like the Khmer Rouge.

  • Buddhism often looks better than other religions because it talks a lot of truth about basic human psychology. Messages such as your thoughts direct your emotions, are very powerful and very useful. But Buddhism is filled with superstition – and all that stuff about reincarnation bothers me largely because being a woman means that you were a man in a previous life but your evil deeds meant you had to come back as a lower form of life.

  • Christine

    Well, I’m glad of this post for the comments leading me to resources about atheistic Buddhism, if nothing else.

    I have nothing against people who like to craft their own approach to life, but certainly there is a place for codified philosophies of life. Western Zen has more in common with secular humanism than with religion.

    The thing that makes Buddhism different is that its core beliefs don’t require supernaturalism (though supernaturalism has often been mixed with them). It’s pretty hard to say you’re a Christian without supernatural beliefs (Spong notwithstanding). But it is perfectly reasonable to say you’re a Buddhist without supernatural beliefs.

    As for metta, I was taught a practice in my (entirely secular) mindfulness class called “loving kindness meditation.” It sounds similar, and in the latter practice, it is all about the psychological effects on YOU, not on some mystical belief that the thoughts beam through the universe actually helping their objects.

  • Brian

    Like most others commenting, I disagree…strongly.
    In fact, I think this was such a silly statement, and was so poorly backed up, that I’m unsubscribing to the RSS feed for this site.

  • I agree with many of the commenters here that the comic was a bit unfair and mischaracterized the essence of Buddhism. I view Buddhism as ultimately some loose guidelines to develop a “do it yourself” strategy for personal discovery and development. Of course, with rampant cultural superstition and ignorance existing in the world, many adherents will choose to include superstition and ignorant beliefs as part of their practice but it isn’t required in Buddhism. At any rate, the “denomination” of atheistic (or naturalistic) Buddhism seems quite fine to me.

  • Steve

    Well – It’s been said already above, but Buddhism varies from sect to sect, organization to organization. Most Zen and Vipassana buddhists are Atheists (by my count – highly biased :P) Here is a quote attributed to Sidhartha Gotama (a.k.a The Buddha) – This could be a Humanist Manifesto:
    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

  • Jeff

    @Nymme: The Khmer Rouge? You’re really going to go there? You do realize they targeted Buddhists monks, don’t you? It’s a bit like claiming that atheism is the reason for communist atrocities in the Soviet Union, any “religious” association that the leaders had was no more than a shallow justification.

  • Ed

    @ Sue, The Khmer Rouge wasn’t Buddhist. In fact

    “As the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country, the prospects of Buddhism became increasingly doubtful. Pol Pot, who had once served in a Buddhist monastery, denounced Buddhist monks as useless pariah, and part of the feudalistic power structures of the past. Monks were viewed with suspicion and disdain as part of the intellectual class, and targeted for especially brutal treatment and “reeducation”.

    As part of the Khmer Rouge horrific Year Zero campaign, monks were systematically turned out of monasteries and forced to disrobe and become farming peasants, or were tortured and murdered outright. Some monks were forced to violate their vows at gunpoint. By the time the Khmer Rouge reign of terror ended, there were no monks alive in Cambodia, and most temples were in rubble.”

    I’ll also point out contrary to what Hemant wrote Buddhism doesn’t teach reincarnation, in fact the idea that there is some permanent unchanging soul that transmigrates through lifetimes is soundly disputed by the Buddha’s teaching on anatta or “no self”. This link lays it out quite well http://buddhism.about.com/od/karmaandrebirth/a/reincarnation.htm

  • Aric

    Wow. I’m amazed by the number of commenters who share my appreciation of Buddhism here. I think the new atheist buddhist sect that is growing in the west is a wonderful development in the history of Buddhism and for the world.

    I believe the title and comic of the post both mischaracterize Buddhism. First, to call Buddhism a ‘faith’ is not true in general. Unlike other religions that are based on holding certain beliefs, Buddhism is more about how one relates to oneself, others, and the world. The comic makes a common mistake made by Christians in projecting their own ideas onto Buddhist’s actions. As if a Buddhist ‘praying to Buddha’ is equivalent to a Christian praying to God. There are Buddhist sects that do act this way, but it is not true of Buddhism in general.

    I agree with those who hold Buddhism as religion, philosophy, psychology or self-help. They are all true. To me the core of Buddhism is not the dogma but the way of thinking and practicing. The way of thinking rings true to me, so I call myself a Buddhist. I think it’s also great when others take the parts that are useful to them and don’t call themselves Buddhist.

    I found the teachings of Buddhism to be very useful to me in dealing with my doubt, anger, and other emotions as a recovering Christian. Others on this site probably could too.

    Hemant, I will keep following this blog whatever you think about Buddhism. You and Richard are doing a great service to many people here. There is much suffering caused by religion, and you are working to alleviate it.

    I’ll leave with two suggested references that haven’t been mentioned yet.
    1. A recent interview with Stephen Batchelor on Buddhist Geeks: http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2010/06/bg-175-the-buddhist-atheist/
    2. The book ‘Everyday Zen’ by Charlotte Joko Beck

  • Ikkyu

    I second Aric in his feelings about this blog. I believe it is mostly a force for good. But making broad statements against diverse groups of people is a temptation that is hard to resist.
    Seeing the harm done by many aspects of religion it is sometimes too big of a temptation to paint every religious person with the same brush. But that is the same mistake made by those who discriminate against atheists. Resisting that temptation can only make the case made in this Blog stronger

  • Mark O’Leary

    Every culture in which Buddhism has taken root has put its own special flavor on it. Reincarnation is not a Buddhist idea–it is a Hindu one. The fact that it is so widely believed in non-Indian Asia is due simply to the fact that the first Buddhist missionaries were from a reincarnation-believing culture. The belief originates in the idea of the atman, a permanent self (comparable to the notion of a soul) that survives the death of the body and is reborn lifetime after lifetime. The Buddha taught “non-self,” anatman, that no such self exists, that everything we think of as ourselves is just a temporary constellation of conditions that s constantly changing and does not survive our death.

    The belief in reincarnation is merely a survivor–albeit a persistent one–of Buddhism’s original host culture, Hinduism. It is NOT a Buddhist idea.

    Every Asian culture adapted Buddhism to its pre-existing religious beliefs. In Japan, Buddhism is wrapped up in Shintoism. In Tibet, it was the animist religion known as Bon. China had Taoism. None of those things is Buddhism, but in the minds of the denizens of those cultures, the one is synonymous with the other.

    The Buddha (assuming he really existed–an utterly unimportant consideration to a Buddhist) would have been raised on the gods of India. But he taught no veneration for them, and recommended empirical investigation into even his own teachings, rather than blind faith.

    Many Buddhists pray (after a fashion), but prayer is not a Buddhist practice.

  • Steve

    I’ll Third Aric’s full comment. Honestly, I steer clear of the Buddhist religion, but I think Buddhism has a huge amount of wisdom to share…not exactly a Koan, but it may sound contradictory to some. In the pure form of Buddhism, there is no superstition, just a finger pointing at the moon of truth – which is basically asking the practitioner to answer the question “Who or What Am I?” in some form or another. “Know Thyself”

    And to Quote AC Grayling from a few days ago regarding the “Relgion Aspect of Buddhism:
    “An equally bad thing about the Dalai Lama’s article is that he calls Buddhism a religion‚ and indeed in the superstitious demon-ridden polytheistic Tibetan version of it that he leads, that is what it is. But original Buddhism is a philosophy, without gods or supernatural beings—all such explicitly rejected by Siddhartha Gautama in offering a quietist ethical teaching; but he has of course been subjected to the Brian’s Sandal phenomenon in the usual stupid way of time and the masses”

  • Angie

    As with any religious tradition, there will be good elements and bad elements. Buddhism is no exception, and nonbelievers should be as eager to call out Buddhism’s excesses as much as they do Christianity’s or Islam’s excesses.

    Buddhism’s role in war is discussed in BUDDHIST WARFARE:


    Sexual abuse is not unheard of in the Buddhist tradition, as THE RED THREAD demonstrates (specifically for Japanese forms of Buddhism):


    For a critique of misogyny and superstition in Tibetan Buddhism, here’s a link to THE SHADOW OF THE DALAI LAMA:

    http://www.iivs. de/~iivs01311/ SDLE/Contents. htm

    For a collection of links on violence, war, and sexual abuse in Buddhist history, visit:


  • It would be erroneous to lump all forms of Buddhism together. Certain branches of Zen are practically secular. Most of them don’t identify as atheist, but are in fact atheist. There are schools of Zen where they routinely burn their books so as to avoid dogma and tradition. I’m jus’ sayin’, these guys are more hardcore than most Atheists.

    So, yeah, there’s the highly religions Buddhism, then there isn’t. Really, Buddha was a kind of psychologist trying to provide a solution to the problem of human suffering. Its a methodology that predates modern science by over 1000 years and still evolves. The different branches got filtered through the various cultures into which it was introduced, and being pushed through China in the late Han period, it was heavily influenced by a secular sort of Taoism, and that became Ch’an. The stuff that was pushed through Tibet was particularly religious.

    Anyway, if you want an interesting perspective on Buddhism, listen to lectures by Alan Watts. I’m as atheist as anyone, and while I am not a Buddhist by any stretch, but there is serious wisdom to be had there (I concede most religions have nuggets of wisdom hidden within, I simply think certain forms of Buddhism is quite a bit more saturated than others).

  • False Prophet


    Out with it. Are you saying that Buddhists are standoffish from real world suffering, as opposed to the poor man who is empathetic?

    And I wonder how true that is. Haven’t Buddhist monks taken an active lead in the fight against the repressive government in Myanmar, for example, and don’t they act as the glue for social causes in many Eastern cultures?

    My main point is Buddhism is not essentially different from any other major world religion in terms of its impact on society. In the West, we often think it is, but I submit it’s because we’re not as familiar with how it operates in a culture where it’s a dominant social and cultural force.

    That scene in Rashomon, as well as other East Asian films I’ve watched, help shed light on how Buddhism is viewed by people who grew up in a culture where it was a dominant cultural and social institution. That’s when you realize that Buddhism, like any other religion, is a human institution led and adhered to by human beings, and when it is a potent social, political, legal or educational aspect of culture, it is as prone to corruption, incompetence and ossification as any other human institution. Dig into the history of Buddhist countries and you’ll learn how involved in war and politics (including the dirtier side of those arenas) Buddhist monks often were.

    [On a related note, if you look at the early history of three great missionary religions–Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism–they all started out often by empowering the powerless. All three often undermined the patriarchy of the societies they sprang from, and had a few women in positions of authority and respect at a time when women weren’t supposed to have any, and all tended to rise above the typical racism/classism of their day: ethnic minorities, slaves and the poor were brothers and sisters in the faith. After a couple of centuries, when the religion becomes the dominant ideology of the culture, all these progressive ideas are swept away, and the Christian/Muslim/Buddhist leaders become as patriarchial and tyrannical as those they replaced. Everything you said about Buddhist monks could be said about Christian and Muslim clergy as well, and in all three cases you’ll find there are plenty of clerics–if not the majority–who reinforce the status quo as well.]

    I don’t know Kurosawa’s motives or those of the author of the story upon which Rashomon is based, so I won’t speculate. But if Kurosawa had wanted to portray Buddhism in a positive light, he could have done so in that scene through the actions of the only character who clearly represents the faith in the film. It would have been a firm contrast to the non-clerical characters, all of whom–even the woodcutter–are either liars, murderers, rapists, thieves, cowards or sycophants. Instead, he makes the monk a coward too.

  • Aric

    False Prophet makes a good about the role of entrenched religions vs new ones.

    It’s funny. I just re-read the comic and I don’t really disagree with it anymore. I still think the work ‘pray’ is misused, but the point of the comic still stands. Some Buddhists are materialist, others are mystical. But now I don’t understand the point of the comic… What is it criticizing?

    Maybe the point is that atheist Buddhists shouldn’t call themselves Buddhist? If so, that’s a valid argument. But if the point is that Buddhism is the same as Christianity because it contains some strange beliefs then I disagree.

    As Daniel said, there are nuggets of wisdom in every religion. The difference to me is that in most religions the nuggets are scattered around incoherently. In some forms of Buddhism, they form a worldview that I find to be very true. There are many a long line of Buddhists who had profound understanding of life, and passed that understanding along through the religion. Not as an afterthought, but as the core teaching. That is why I choose to call myself Buddhist, even though that title has other meanings to other people.

  • maria

    I am also an Athiest/Buddhish kind of somethingy like that. I’m not into Tibetan Buddhism as I wasn’t impressed by some things I saw and experienced in Dharamshala, India. Stephen Batchelor is wonderful; it took him a long time to come full circle. He is right about the Pali texts being the most accurate and about what the Gutama really intended. Tibetan Buddhism missed the point; but then Tibetan Buddhism is a mostly just the old Bon Shamanic tradition and folk custom superstition and not pure Buddhism; far from it! Tibetan man Tenzin Wangyal wraps it all up nicely for the reader in his ‘Four Ignoble Truths of Tibetan Buddhism’; you may be interested in reading it?:


  • Jason

    I consider my self Buddhist and Atheist. I have been studying Buddhism and looking into it. It may be called a religion but it is more of a way of life. The great thing about Buddhism is that you can choose to believe any part if it you want to. Some buddhist believe ina god or higher power and some like me don’t. For that Japanese Buddhist that joebuddha said that is only a diffrent sect of Buddhism just like how Catholics or Baptist are a sect of christianity and each has their own rules and traditions that they follow.

  • Alfonz

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but Buddhists don’t pray to anybody.

  • Brandon said:

    I love how religious Buddhism is always thrown into the list of other religions. Have you even read Sam Harris’ view on Buddhism as a philosophy instead of a religion? And you don’t really pray, you send out positive energy to all sentient beings. It’s called “metta”. Better than praying to a space Jew.

    David D.G. said:

    What is the nature of this “positive energy”? How is it transmitted? How is it received by sentient beings (and only them)? How is any of this detected, measured, or otherwise verified as factual?

    When I’ve encountered Metta practice, it was for the purposes of training one’s own mind; encouraging empathy, kindness, compassion. I don’t believe that the people I’m, “sending out positive energy” toward are actually receiving energy from me — except through the way that I treat them. But do I think I can change my attitudes and behavior through this type of mental practice, and encourage myself to be more kind and compassionate? Yes, I do.

  • Davy

    I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of Asian Buddhists think of the Buddha as something akin to God: that by praying to him and making him offerings of flowers and incense, he’ll help you pass your exams and find a good spouse, etc. But they’re wrong. They, in fact, are ignorant of the history of their religion, the intention of its founder, and the philosophy and meditative methods developed by him and his followers, the monastic community.

    And this appallingly widespread ignorance should be the shame of Asian Buddhist monastics, because the vast majority of them know that the Buddha was just a human who taught a way of thinking and acting designed to end suffering. Although a very revered human. Like Marx. Or Dawkins.

    Why they allow the laity to keep on praying to “Buddha the God” is complicated. I think it has to do with the fact that Buddhism’s acquiescence with society and state entities meant telling the king, “If you patronize us, we can do magic to protect the state for you,” so the monastics got caught up in that nonsense. Also, the actual teachings of the Buddha are enormously subtle and complicated, just about as complicated as learning, say, chemistry, and that basically requires a lot of time, which poor people don’t have. So to learn about it, you basically have to become a monk. But amongst monks, a few might spend time teaching the laity, a lot will do magic tricks for the king, and the rest will lay around eating donated food and smoking donated cigarettes.

    In the West, on the other hand, Buddhism is for upper middle class white people with a lot of bourgeois neuroses and time on their hands, so they buy self-help books and are then lured into meditation retreats, then learn about the philosophy via slightly less self-helpy kinda books. But the ridiculous thing is, the majority of these Western Buddhists remain ignorant of how ignorant Asian Buddhist are about Buddhism!

  • lanka

    There is nothing superstitious or funny about the fact that natural selection does not de-select suffering. Ego and craving and pain were actually selected.

    Now think of Buddhism as a solution to this problem that Science (Charles Darwin my hero) has shown clearly. 4 Noble truths!

    Here is a Buddhist “prayer”
    “I take refuge in my own seeing-things-as-they-really-are wisdom.”
    No mention of god, no asking for things….
    Please meditate! – No. Meditation is not hocus-pocus.

  • lanka

    Also, please read the kalama sutta. It is so beautiful.

  • lanka

    Another thing I would like to say. I am an atheist. Number 6 in the Dawkins’ scale.

    (I think that all people who say that they are atheists should put their number of the Dawkins’ scale.)

    Any ways. I am also a Buddhist. I do not know about life after death nor do I know that this life is all a dream. All I know is that there is suffering. Pretty sure that this suffering came from evolution but what am I going to do about it. That is why I am a Buddhist.

  • I think we should go back to the core teachings of Buddha, leaving aside all sects, rituals, and later day additions …. !!! We also need to incorporates the modern day thinkings into Buddhism … !!! It may lead to Modern Buddhism ~

  • Justin Clodfelter

    The ritual stuff came later, found only within the laypeople. Most Monks only do the rituals because it brings comfort to the laity. That comic is actually pretty misleading to what true Buddhism says.

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