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I looked around and found a couple of questions and answers on the site that discuss atheism in Buddhism, What is the difference between learning the Buddhist way and simply learning from life? & Do Buddhists believe in gods? it looks like belief in a supreme being may not be a requirement for being a Buddhist. Strictly speaking it is possible for a person to identify as an agnostic or atheist and also identify with any mono or polytheistic church. Though most (all?) of those actual religions do not support disbelief in their God(s), so they are not actually compatible.

Are the concepts of agnostic or atheist believers compatible with Buddhism? Does the entire belief system or specific sects require the belief in any or a specific supreme being?

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Your question implies that Buddhism is in some way theistic (or at least deistic) in the first place; can you provide some background for why you might think it is so? – yuttadhammo Jul 8 '14 at 15:33
@yuttadhammo it is not so much what I think, but the perception of the English speaking world. Theist and deistic are generally considered in connection with religions, and most people (in my contact range) consider Buddhism to be a religion. – James Jenkins Jul 8 '14 at 15:58
To the best of my knowledge, it's an atheistic religion. I guess I just find it hard to answer this question; it's like the proverbial question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" asked of a man who has never hurt his spouse. – yuttadhammo Jul 8 '14 at 16:08
@yuttadhammo Completely understand; a few years ago I met someone who believed one of the proofs of their monotheistic deity's existence was that men have one less rib than women. Have you ever looked for references that explicitly state men and women have the same number of ribs? This Wikipedia article kind of speaks around the subject, but does not really define deity's in Buddhism from the perspective if my question. Maybe that can give you some incite for an answer? – James Jenkins Jul 8 '14 at 17:13
Okay, granted that some Mahayana schools might be somewhat theistic; not really my area of expertise. – yuttadhammo Jul 8 '14 at 20:32
up vote 10 down vote accepted

I would say compatible. There is a significant Secular Buddhism movement based on agnostic, humanist and skeptical values. Stephen Batchelor is a notable proponent of this school for instance in his book Buddhism without Beliefs.

I don't think you need to go the whole way to Secular Buddhism though to appreciate the Buddha's pragmatic approach to the Dharma. In the Cula-Malunkyovada sutta he refuses to answer a whole list of metaphysical questions regarding them as a distraction for instance

"Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, '[...] that 'The cosmos is eternal,' or 'The cosmos is not eternal,' or 'The cosmos is finite,' or 'The cosmos is infinite,' or 'The soul & the body are the same,' or 'The soul is one thing and the body another,' or 'After death a Tathagata exists,' or 'After death a Tathagata does not exist,' or 'After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,' or 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist'?"

"No, lord."

Also in the arrow sutta he insists that the thing to do is engage in the practice and not to be put off by useless questioning. To paraphase if you are struck by an arrow don't concern yourself about who made it, where it came from, what direction it was fired from - just pull it out. So if you are experiencing suffering, don't worry about rebirth, the gods, ritual etc.. just pull the arrow of suffering out. Engage with the Dharma as soon as you can.

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I think at least some of the Mahayana writers were self conscious atheists.

This is from the Fudo-Myo Sutra and is one of my favorite quotes:

He is the markless Dharmakaya, identical with [all-encompassing] space itself, thus he has no dwelling. His only dwelling is in the minds and thoughts of living beings.

ref: http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php?title=The_Sutra_Spoken_by_the_Buddha_on_Arya-Acalanatha

So even in a system of Bodhisattvas, there is a subset of people who are skeptical about all the supernatural and see the Bodhisattvas (and all the other being unsubstantiated by evidence) as role models, pedagogical tools, rhetorical devices and so on.

This does not change the fact that there is a huge group of lay followers and historical monastics who clearly took the celestial Buddhas, Pure Lands, the realms, a semi-sentient Karma and a permanent, rebirthing soul as literal truths and true on account of faith.

In Basic Teachings of the Buddha, by Glenn Wallis (his old work that predates his current project), the author at points argues that the historical Buddha was an atheist and a nihilist that had no choice but to speak in the theological terms of the culture around him.

My own analogy is this-- it's like if you wanted to explain how evolution worked to a theist Christian, but didn't really care if the audience was atheist or not. Such a hypothetical teacher might teach about evolution as designed by God. In the same way the historical Buddha used the language of Karma, Dharma, Rebirth, Brahma to discuss a program of morality, restraint as part of a program to end suffering.

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In my opinion most forms of atheism and agnosticism are incompatible with Buddhism.

In Buddhism the supreme beings are Buddhas.

The Buddha had much more of an issue with atheists and skeptics of the time than Theists and believers of the time.

Wrong views, highlighted in many suttas seem to closely resemble the views of most atheists:

He has wrong view, is warped in the way he sees things: 'There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.' - Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta, (repeated in many suttas that this is a wrong view)

"Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: 'The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him' — unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell." - Maha-sihanada Sutta

Secularism Buddhism would be viewed as a wrong view.

In the Payasi Sutta, an arahant disciple Kumara debated with someone who has views resembling most modern day atheists:

Once everyone was seated, Prince Payasi said, "Reverend Kumara, I maintain that kamma does not have effects. I believe that there is no life after death, no world beyond our own. I think that angels and demons are things from a child’s dream." - Payasi Sutta

Kumara came up with all types of arguments against the atheist Prince Payasi.

The view that there is no afterlife is opposed in Buddhism numerous times, including in the Brahmajala Sutta:

Wrong view 51: "Here a certain ascetic or Brahmin declares and holds the view: ‘Since this self is material, composed of the four great elements, the product of mother and father, at the breaking up of the body is annihilated and perishes, and does not exist after death. This is the way in which this self is annihilated.’ That is how some proclaim the annihilation, destruction and non-existence of beings." - Brahmajala Sutta

So based on my research Theistic beliefs are more compatible with Buddhism. In Buddhism some Theistic beliefs are viewed as slightly wrong, but nearly as wrong as atheistic and materialistic beliefs.

A lot of people often cite the Kalama Sutta but this is taken out of context as the Kalamas were non-Buddhists and The Buddha was addressing non-Buddhists, when The Buddha spoke to his own disciples he encouraged faith and right views.

Some believe that "Secular Buddhism" and other forms of Buddhism match into the prediction in the Ani Sutta:

"In the same way, in the course of the future there will be monks who won't listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won't lend ear, won't set their hearts on knowing them, won't regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering.

But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.

In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about." - Ani Sutta

Thus we see people out to replace Buddhism with a flowery attractive elegant words rather than the truth.

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Welcome To Buddhism SE "MischievousSage", It is a good answer. Keep it up. Here are few things you should know in this SE meta.buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/1502/… – Theravada Jan 14 at 22:19

From my perspective as a Soto Zen follower, Buddhism is extremely logical. The only faith required is that Buddhism as a system has merit and is worth investigating. Most of the "supernatural" elements are artistic embroideries to help shake people out of a common way of thinking, or are inherited from other religions that were more supernaturally focused.

For example, Buddhist texts talk of "hell" and "nirvana", which people in a theist society equate to the Christian heaven and hell. But that isn't the intent of what the Buddhists are saying. Both hell and nirvana are mental states, and are not externally imposed. If you say something you regret to your spouse, you'll likely enter a hell state (regret, shame) for a little while until you burn off that karma (action). If you are coding something awesome and you lose all track of time and your surrounding to where only you and the code exist... no mind, no thoughts of the past, no thoughts of the future, just connection with the code - that's nirvana. Like a hell state, it's temporary. You spill coffee on your computer, and boom, you're now in a different state.

In a single day, you'll live millions of lives in millions of states. Thus reincarnation can be considered the act of dying and starting over, or it can be interpreted within the course of a single life. I'm not the person I used to be, and in the future, I'll be someone else. That is a form of reincarnation.

So in short, I think Buddhism can be very compatible with Atheism. It's just a matter of overcoming all of the mystical sounding labels and getting to the true essence of the teaching - which I am over-simplifying, btw.

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Buddhism is compatible as there is no notion of an almighty.

Buddhism revolves around the practice of Morality, Control over the Mind and Wisdom. So it is compatible regardless of what you call your self. May it be a Atheist, Christian, Muslim, etc.

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Mr. James Jenkins, valued Readers,

There are less how really define of what Atheism is and there are less who understand Dhamma.

So if one asks: "Is believe and faith important for the Dhamma a clear?" "YES, most! 'Right faith' is the prerequisite of the whole practice of the Noble Eightfold Path."

And if ones asks: "Is it necessary to believe in deities and fine physical beings?" "YES, most! As it is as a part of right view, right faith and the prerequisite of the whole practice of the Noble Eightfold Path."

So if your or what ever Atheism does not have problem with such, it has maybe some similarity but as for -isms they are naturally just philosophies while Dhamma -Vinaya is a way of live, a way of practice and not to create a world justification by thinking.

Mr./Mrs MischievousSage also catches good points. If one is interested in liberation he would not find much food for that in such Beliefsystems like secular Buddhism, yet there believe is neither grounded by anyone, never was it heard that a secular teacher got liberation and Atma guesses that all will agree that their Guru Bachelor is even far away from entering the stream not to speak about having abounded a single fetter but increased.

People who have joined such sects are really poor, they have nothing as their believes to relay on, just that they maintain the idea to know instead of making a step forward, guided by a certain perception (belief)

(Note: this answer has not been given with the agreement to be means of trade or the purpose of/for trade and/or keep people trapped and bound. How you handle it lies in your sphere, but does not excuse the deed here either.)

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