Are You an Atheist?

 

Q. I know you’re a Buddhist. Does that make you an atheist?

A. I’m going to have to unpack this question. It’s direct and personal and I’m going to make it broader first and then narrow down to actually answering about my personal beliefs.

Do Buddhists believe in God?

That’s a question without a simple answer.

Buddhists have a diverse range of views on the subject. If you look for Buddhist atheists, you can definitely find some. If you look for Buddhists who also practice Christianity, you can find some of those too. And if you look for Buddhists who don’t really seem to have many opinions on the subject of God, you can find a lot of those.

Those of us that grew up in the west tend to think in terms of dualistic paradigms, sometimes: Theist-Atheist, Good-Evil, Spiritual-Worldly, etc.

Zen philosophy, along with most of the other branches of Buddhism, tends to reject dualistic paradigms.
If we really think about it deeply, the word ‘atheist’ doesn’t really seem necessary. Why do people want to define themselves by something they don’t believe in? Why don’t we have a word for people that don’t believe in mermaids? Or giraffes?

But, I’m close to getting off topic.

My point is this:

Buddhism doesn’t fit neatly into this dualistic paradigm. The point of Buddhism has nothing to do with God; it’s about transcending our small self. It’s about overcoming suffering and seeing beyond our delusions.

None of that really prevents or supports either side of the theist-atheist paradigm.

So, am I an atheist?

No. I might go a little outside of Zen philosophy when I answer this, but it’s a personal question and deserves a personal answer.

If I have to put a label on it I like the word ‘Pantheist.’ This is the concept that all things are one. Everything is sacred. The ‘God’ in this view is a part of you and me and everything else in the Universe. Not a separate being; not someone who saves or condemns us.

I think the universe is really an infinite field of boundless loving awareness.
This is what we are all part of—what we are all connected to. And as we become more and more Awakened, we become more in tune with this infinite love field. This is why the greatest virtue is compassion. This is why the greatest feeling is unconditional love.

In Buddhism we call this the Dharmakaya. It’s the essence of the universe— the unity of all things and beings.

We are one with everything. And everything is love.

If you want to call that God, you certainly can. I don’t tend to think this infinite field has an identity, because it’s every one of us.

We aren’t alone.

The reason for this isn’t because there are many others around us.

It’s because there are none.

 

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher living in Kansas City. He gives online teachings through the Open Heart Project. He also runs the Monday Night Zen Group at the Rime Buddhist Center. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

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