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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

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 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.


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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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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