Religion Today

Friday, March 20, 2009

What Buddhism Does and Does Not Believe In

Move over atheism, Buddhism has you beat. What angers most Christians about Atheism is that it denies the existence of their unseen heavenly God. That's nothing. Buddhism denies not only the unseen heavens and their godly residents, but also the visible Earth and all its inhabitants.

And just to be fair, a good Buddhist denies his/her own existence as well. This strikes Westerners and monotheists as contradictory from a rational perspective, which it is. But Buddhism believes that Ultimate Reality lies beyond rational human thought's ability to comprehend.

Let me explain Buddhism in two steps. In the first, Buddhism developed from Hinduism, taking many beliefs from it. One of these was that the natural and supernatural realms, as Western religions would term them, belong to a single structure called Samsara. Everyone and everything living in Samsara is subject to reincarnation -- upon death they are reborn into Samsara. Again and again and again. This applies to the gods in the heavens as well as to the humans and animals on Earth. The gods may be strong, spiritual beings who live long lives, but they do not live forever and they are not all powerful.

The most powerful beings are humans who have achieved enlightenment. In the Sanskrit language, enlightenment is called bodhi, and one who achieves it is a Buddha. In Mahayana Buddhism, such enlightened beings have two possibilities, they can either pass on into Ultimate Reality and end their ever-repeating existence in Samsara, or they can use the power they gain through enlightenment to help others. These are known as bodhisattvas, "enlightened saviors." Bodhisattvas wield their vast power to assist others, usually relieving their suffering or helping them to achieve enlightenment.

What is enlightenment?

The answer brings us to the second step of the explanation. According to Buddhist belief, humans live lives of suffering and loss; pleasure and enjoyment occur rarely and fleetingly. Reincarnation brings nothing therefore but repeated and continuing suffering. Most Buddhists live such difficult lives providing for themselves and their loved ones, it is believed, that they have little choice but to request help from gods and the more powerful bodhisattvas and buddhas for help.

But a few Buddhists eschew ties to family and others to enter a monastery and seek enlightenment. Enlightenment enables one to escape the recurring suffering of life in Samsara by realizing that all Samsara is an illusion. Ultimate Reality lies beyond it.

Humans are deceived by the apparent reality of the world and universe in which they live. They become attached to it and to the people who inhabit it, and to themselves. They love their parents, spouses and children. They hate their enemies. They become proud of their talents and skills. They become vain about their looks and their social status. They desire comfort, sufficient food and possessions. These emotions attach them firmly to this world and its reality.

This is all an illusion; it is not real, despite what it seems. When monks enter a monastery, the first thing they begin to learn is that one's attachment to people and things gives (seeming) permanence and solidity to the illusion of life. They learn detachment, to remove the links that tie them to people and objects in Samsara, the links that give Samara the appearance of reality.

Once this is mastered, monks must learn that they themselves are not real; they are part of the illusion as well. This realization is extremely difficult, given the persistence of each person's ego, and may take two or three reincarnations to achieve. But once enlightenment is found, then the illusion that the world, the heavens, and their human and divine inhabitants are real falls away. One knows Ultimate Reality as it truly is. Is this difficult? You bet. Do many Buddhists achieve enlightenment? Only a few. But in Buddhist belief, that does not make it any less certain.

If Buddhism, with its denial of what Douglas Adams calls "life, the universe and everything," still qualifies as a religion, then atheism's denial of god(s) poses no obstacle to its classification as a religion.


  • First of all, Hinduism developed after Buddhism, although Hinduism's antecedents were around in the Buddha's time.

    I suggest you should at least read Karen Armstrong's biography of the Buddha before making any more comments about Buddhism or its historical setting.

    And you really, really don't understand what the concept of "non-self" in Buddhism is at all. It is NOT that you don't exist. If you didn't exist, how could you be blogging this?

    By Anonymous Evan Hodgens, at 3/21/2009  

  • You really should read more before posting misinformation like this. You obviously don't understand what Buddhism is about. There's a difference between reincarnation an rebirth, which you obviously don't understand. Propagating your ignorance onto others helps no one.

    And to other who happen across this write-up should remember, not everything on the Internet should be taken as any sort of fact.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/22/2009  

  • Dear Evan,
    Delightful! After reading only Karen's book, you are already writing koans. "If you don't exist, how could you be blogging this?" How indeed?

    My favorite koan is the old chestnut, What is the sound of one hand clapping?

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/22/2009  

  • Dear Anonymous,
    What actually is the misinformation here, which you loudly proclaim but do not indicate? Not a very Buddhist approach on your part.

    What is the difference between reincarnation and rebirth (which of course are used differently and in different contexts)? How exactly do you think I misused the terms?

    As someone who has taught Buddhism for many years, I'm not prone to making basic errors, although I do talk about Buddhism in terms not used by traditional Buddhist teachers, as I do here.

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/22/2009  

  • Professor Flesher, I posted a brief critique of your Buddhism post on my Buddhism blog, with links to articles that explain various doctrines in more detail. You really are making a huge mess of Buddhism here, and I hope you have an open enough mind to take correction.

    By Blogger maha, at 3/22/2009  

  • Here's a very cogent critique of this essay, by Barbara O'Brien -'s Guide To Buddhism:

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/22/2009  

  • I'm not going to debate details here; I think that Barbara O'Brien at has made a good start.

    I will say that I feel sad for your students. If you were my first and only source of knowledge about Buddhism, I would never have become a Buddhist. You've made it sound like one of the stupidest religions and Buddhist just plain crazy. I'm glad you were never an influence in my life.

    By Blogger Pangos, at 3/23/2009  

  • Unfortunately, the mind set of this author obviously has no grasp of Buddhist teachings. I strongly advise readers to search a more informed source to understand the teachings of the Buddha, which is what Buddhists study.

    The author tries to explain Buddhism as a religion, akin to Christianity. The most glaring error clearly evident in his writing is that he sees Buddhism as a religion with a deity to be worshiped, like Christ.

    The Buddha is not an object to be worshiped. It is the teachings of this awakened soul that is to be studied to minimize suffering on a path to reach enlightenment; a state of being. Conversely, Christianity minimizes the teachings of Christ in favor of deity worship of God, Christ and Mary.

    This in no way is intended to belittle the Christian belief system, just to clarify the differences from a religion and a philosophy of teachings.

    Buddhists only strive to become awakened to the real world in which we all live. Subservience to the worship of men or gods is the realm of religion, not Buddhism.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/24/2009  

  • I am shocked at your ignorance of Buddhism. I do not belive that you have a basic understanding of it. That you have taught others what you believe to be true about Buddhism is all the more distressing.

    The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering in life. This could be thought of as disappointment. You don't get what you want. You get what you don't want. You are wanting life to be different. The attachment that is described in the Second Noble Truth, is attachment or longing for life to be different than it really is. There is a way our of this. Though mindfulness, meditation and following The Eightfold path. The difference between reincarnation and rebirth is that in reincarnation, your self is given aother life (thus you can have past-lives). In rebirth, a 'spiritual energy' is brought into existance and experiences the karma of past existances.
    I believe that you are being disrespectful of a religion that I find to be precious.

    By Blogger Margaret521, at 3/28/2009  

  • Wow, the director of religion studies of a university wrote this? My goodness, do some research! The majority of Buddhists do not deny the existence of any phenomena, but assert that all things exist in dependence upon many other phenomena - that all things are dependent arisings - and therefore are impermanent and are "empty" of a solid self-nature. Deluded sentient beings believe in a self which exists independent of all other phenomena, this is the root cause of suffering, which Buddhism's purpose is to eliminate.

    By Blogger fadeout32, at 4/02/2009  

  • It seems that I need to tell people to read the commentary posted as the next entry in this blog. It makes the logic of argumentation more clear and addresses the misunderstanding that seems to have happened here.
    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 4/02/2009  

  • Dear Professor,

    Your argument that you only had 600 words and therefore are entitled to take such shortcuts in your explanation of Buddhism reminds me of my students who claim they didn't have time to do their homework because they had to watch TV.

    And, by the way, the correct koan reads: What is the sound of one hand?" "Clapping" is not part of the original.

    By Blogger eyesinla, at 1/07/2010  

  • Dear Eyesinla,

    "600 words" is a description of the genre, not an excuse. If you want to see the long version, look at the later post that comprises a commentary on this column.

    If "clapping" is missing from that koan, then that is interesting. I have not seen that information in any other place. I'll see if I can verify that. Thanks.

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 1/15/2010  

  • I am not Buddhist, but studied the Buddhist religion a couple years ago. This religion is hard to understand, but as a christian I was taught: Matthew 7:16 which tells us that "by their fruits we shall know them."
    From what I have seen, Buddhist are a peaceful people, and they do not seem confused at all. All I've seen from your writings are twists and lies. I'm sure you didn't intend for this to happen but because you researched this religion with a closed mind, and with prejudice, I think you made a very big error. I would love to hear your views (truths) of Muslims though.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/20/2011  

  • Cosmology tells us that the sum total of everything we perceive as the universe is exactly zero. If we add matter, anti-matter, gravity, energy, negative energy, dark matter and dark energy. The rules of thermodynamics haven't been violated in the universe being brought about, or spontaneously arising, from nothing because the net is still nothing.
    It seems the faith of atheists is in concurrence with eastern philosophy.

    By Blogger upsidedown, at 2/14/2017  

Post a Comment

<< Home