All Buddhists Are Atheists

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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby Konchog1 » Thu May 23, 2013 12:26 am

dyanaprajna2011 wrote:Now we come to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We use the term 'deity' to describe these beings. But how does this work? Each of these beings describes some aspect or characteristic that is in ourselves that is hidden, but needs to be brought out. We may revere these beings, and even pray to them, but ultimately, they are not different from ourselves. We are Guan Yin, we are Manjusri, we are Amitabha, and they are us.
I believe that's the Vajrayana view. The Mahayana is that the deities are separate beings out there somewhere.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Thu May 23, 2013 12:42 am

I dunno, if you look at traditions like Kabbalah, there are some striking similarities.

The thing is that with traditions which are more theistic, my inclination is to think that the "God" concept would be seen as a bit of a projection in Buddhist terms, sort of a dwelling on false notions of agency, subject, and object.

Other than that, the place where the largest difference is is in ideas of causality..in Kabbalah the highest reality Ein Soph can be equated with Sunyata, what I have never seen explained is how exactly this Ein Soph manifested a really-existing God who then "created" the world. It may be that I am missing some part of Kabbalah, and of religions like Advaita Vedanta which seem similar in concept but somehwat more theistic or at least monist - but it seems to me this is the crux of where Buddhism differs from views which exist on the more theistic side of the continuum.

The other thing is that what a religion "believes" is a wide range of stuff, right now there are Buddhists who believe that Mahasattvas are not real, some who think they really exist somewhere, others who hold some other more nuanced view, and some who probably don't give it a second thought at all. Everything from intellectuals whose preoccupation is figuring out philosophical proofs to people who merely engage in devotional practices with giving little thought to theory...everything in between.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby tomamundsen » Thu May 23, 2013 1:08 am

Konchog1 wrote:
dyanaprajna2011 wrote:Now we come to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We use the term 'deity' to describe these beings. But how does this work? Each of these beings describes some aspect or characteristic that is in ourselves that is hidden, but needs to be brought out. We may revere these beings, and even pray to them, but ultimately, they are not different from ourselves. We are Guan Yin, we are Manjusri, we are Amitabha, and they are us.
I believe that's the Vajrayana view. The Mahayana is that the deities are separate beings out there somewhere.

That might be true historically, but modern Zen would hold a similar view. Although the concept is not as nuanced as in Vajarayana, from what I can tell.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Thu May 23, 2013 1:31 am

dyanaprajna2011 wrote:I've been on many forums, and in some discussions, about weather Buddhism is theistic or atheistic. The fact is, is that it's neither, and it's both.


It's neither and it's both because outside of the imagination, theist and atheist don't exist. One can use the word 'diety', but it's just a term. And not a very good one at that. In other words, if one is approaching the whole thing with a load of preassigned definitions and then trying to fit Dharma into that, then it really isn't a discussion about what Dharma is, but about what that bunch of definitions mean, and what they are able to stick to.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby jeeprs » Thu May 23, 2013 2:16 am

dyanaprajna2011 wrote:I've been on many forums, and in some discussions, about weather Buddhism is theistic or atheistic. The fact is, is that it's neither, and it's both. For some time, I had seen Buddhism called 'non-theistic'. But this descriptor is only part of the story. Then, I seen another term applied to Buddhism, transtheistic. This works a little better, but still isn't perfect. So, just how does theism and atheism work in Buddhism? (Barring, of course, the idea of some that Buddhism is pantheistic)

The first thing we notice is that, in the Pali canon, the Buddha never denies the existence of the Hindu devas. Some of them even make appearances. However, he did teach that none are almighty creators, or are to be worshiped.

Now we come to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We use the term 'deity' to describe these beings. But how does this work? Each of these beings describes some aspect or characteristic that is in ourselves that is hidden, but needs to be brought out. We may revere these beings, and even pray to them, but ultimately, they are not different from ourselves. We are Guan Yin, we are Manjusri, we are Amitabha, and they are us.

So what does this mean? A Buddhist can call themselves a theist, an atheist, or neither, and they all would be right. But it would be improper to call Buddhism theistic or atheistic.


Glad you asked that question. I agree very much with your last statement. I am from a Christian cultural background, and even though I declined confirmation in the Anglican communion, I have never been atheist and I don't like atheist philosophers. So I have thought about this question a lot, and I don't feel any conflict between the theistic belief I retain and Buddhist meditation practice.

I notice that if you raise this question on the sister forum, Dhammawheel, the general consensus tends not to favour any concessions to theistic belief. (In fact they are generally pretty hostile to mysticism too now that I think of it.) I think that is the influence of Theravadin commentators such as Buddhaghosa. It might also be a consequence of the way that the Theravada orders were treated by Colonial evangalists. I can truly understand why you would not want anything to do with that. I think, generally, the experience in the Mahayana countries of incoming Christians was less confrontational. Also the Mahayana does accomodate the kind of mystical spirituality that is found in many different religions, and the mystical aspect of the Christian faith is quite compatible with Buddhism. That is explored by people like Suzuki in books like Mysticism Christian and Buddhist. Of course that type of Christian thinking is hardly typical of popular Christianity but it is what has always appealed to me.

I have about the same view of the question as expressed by Soyen Shaku (D.T. Suzuki's Roshi) in his The God Conception of Buddhism. And I am also very interested in Platonic philosophy which tends to attract me towards Eastern Orthodoxy, philosophically speaking. But I am quite happy to interpret all this from the Buddhist perspective.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby tobes » Thu May 23, 2013 4:10 am

jeeprs wrote:
dyanaprajna2011 wrote:I've been on many forums, and in some discussions, about weather Buddhism is theistic or atheistic. The fact is, is that it's neither, and it's both. For some time, I had seen Buddhism called 'non-theistic'. But this descriptor is only part of the story. Then, I seen another term applied to Buddhism, transtheistic. This works a little better, but still isn't perfect. So, just how does theism and atheism work in Buddhism? (Barring, of course, the idea of some that Buddhism is pantheistic)

The first thing we notice is that, in the Pali canon, the Buddha never denies the existence of the Hindu devas. Some of them even make appearances. However, he did teach that none are almighty creators, or are to be worshiped.

Now we come to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We use the term 'deity' to describe these beings. But how does this work? Each of these beings describes some aspect or characteristic that is in ourselves that is hidden, but needs to be brought out. We may revere these beings, and even pray to them, but ultimately, they are not different from ourselves. We are Guan Yin, we are Manjusri, we are Amitabha, and they are us.

So what does this mean? A Buddhist can call themselves a theist, an atheist, or neither, and they all would be right. But it would be improper to call Buddhism theistic or atheistic.


Glad you asked that question. I agree very much with your last statement. I am from a Christian cultural background, and even though I declined confirmation in the Anglican communion, I have never been atheist and I don't like atheist philosophers. So I have thought about this question a lot, and I don't feel any conflict between the theistic belief I retain and Buddhist meditation practice.

I notice that if you raise this question on the sister forum, Dhammawheel, the general consensus tends not to favour any concessions to theistic belief. (In fact they are generally pretty hostile to mysticism too now that I think of it.) I think that is the influence of Theravadin commentators such as Buddhaghosa. It might also be a consequence of the way that the Theravada orders were treated by Colonial evangalists. I can truly understand why you would not want anything to do with that. I think, generally, the experience in the Mahayana countries of incoming Christians was less confrontational. Also the Mahayana does accomodate the kind of mystical spirituality that is found in many different religions, and the mystical aspect of the Christian faith is quite compatible with Buddhism. That is explored by people like Suzuki in books like Mysticism Christian and Buddhist. Of course that type of Christian thinking is hardly typical of popular Christianity but it is what has always appealed to me.

I have about the same view of the question as expressed by Soyen Shaku (D.T. Suzuki's Roshi) in his The God Conception of Buddhism. And I am also very interested in Platonic philosophy which tends to attract me towards Eastern Orthodoxy, philosophically speaking. But I am quite happy to interpret all this from the Buddhist perspective.


This might lead us a little too far from the OP, but I do find it incredibly interesting just how distinct contemporary (western) Theravadin practitioners tend to be from Mahayana/Varjrayana practitioners on these kinds of issues.

I think it has more to do with the hermeneutical footing in which the West began to encounter the Pali traditions. Rhys Davids, the Pali text society etc - were very secular-humanist in orientation, and they explicitly tried to situate Buddhism to be in accord with that secularist movement.

It seems to me that such a footing has really taken root, and is part of a far more general sociological trend in which secularism needs to define itself against more religious or esoteric or mystical currents. But if you look even half closely, and think about the jhana's, and the broader cosmological context etc, those currents are clearly there in the Theravada - but practitioners often seem to have a strong desire to have Buddhism present itself as rational, secular, empiricist, in accord with contemporary science etc.

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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby jeeprs » Thu May 23, 2013 4:44 am

It's more likely, IMO, that the (let's say) 'conservative' approach is more realist, very conscious of the form of the tradition and specific content and directions encoded in it, whereas 'mahayana' was from the outset, less literalist, with more of an emphasis on the meaning rather than the letter. I think they represent, and also appeal, to different kinds of attitudes, or persons at a different stage of development. I think these differences are illustrated well in Bikkhu Bodhi's polemical essay on Dhamma and Non-Duality.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby tobes » Thu May 23, 2013 5:04 am

jeeprs wrote:It's more likely, IMO, that the (let's say) 'conservative' approach is more realist, very conscious of the form of the tradition and specific content and directions encoded in it, whereas 'mahayana' was from the outset, less literalist, with more of an emphasis on the meaning rather than the letter. I think they represent, and also appeal, to different kinds of attitudes, or persons at a different stage of development. I think these differences are illustrated well in Bikkhu Bodhi's polemical essay on Dhamma and Non-Duality.


I am a great admirer of Bikkhu Bodhi - but I found that essay very problematic.

I take Nagarjuna to be saying, in chaps xxiv & xxxv of the MMK, that because the four nobles truth are empty, they are possible. i.e. because ignorance does not have svabhava, it is subject to cessation. If it was not empty, it would be what it is independently of causes, and thus, it would not be subject to change.

That is, emptiness establishes the efficacy of the four noble truths and the path which emerges from it - rather than collapsing everything into a non-dualist absolute. In this sense, it is very in accord with the particularist account of the Buddhist path that Bodhi gives.

His pragmatic orientation was fairly interesting - I think you're right that this tells us something about the Theravadin disposition to avoid metaphysics etc. My own opinion is that the Theravadins have actually made a tremendous contribution on that front - a metaphysical and phenomenological front - with their various Abhidhamma interpretations etc. Practitioners should be proud of, stand in and proclaim that rich heritage, rather than attempting to be pragmatically free of metaphysics.


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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby Jnana » Thu May 23, 2013 5:16 am

tobes wrote:This might lead us a little too far from the OP, but I do find it incredibly interesting just how distinct contemporary (western) Theravadin practitioners tend to be from Mahayana/Varjrayana practitioners on these kinds of issues.

I think it has more to do with the hermeneutical footing in which the West began to encounter the Pali traditions. Rhys Davids, the Pali text society etc - were very secular-humanist in orientation, and they explicitly tried to situate Buddhism to be in accord with that secularist movement.

It seems to me that such a footing has really taken root, and is part of a far more general sociological trend in which secularism needs to define itself against more religious or esoteric or mystical currents. But if you look even half closely, and think about the jhana's, and the broader cosmological context etc, those currents are clearly there in the Theravada - but practitioners often seem to have a strong desire to have Buddhism present itself as rational, secular, empiricist, in accord with contemporary science etc.

These currents are there, but there are also western-born Theravādins who accept the Theravāda tradition and therefore accept the traditional teachings on matters such as karma and rebirth. And so it's important to avoid making inaccurate over-generalizations.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby tobes » Thu May 23, 2013 5:23 am

Jnana wrote:
tobes wrote:This might lead us a little too far from the OP, but I do find it incredibly interesting just how distinct contemporary (western) Theravadin practitioners tend to be from Mahayana/Varjrayana practitioners on these kinds of issues.

I think it has more to do with the hermeneutical footing in which the West began to encounter the Pali traditions. Rhys Davids, the Pali text society etc - were very secular-humanist in orientation, and they explicitly tried to situate Buddhism to be in accord with that secularist movement.

It seems to me that such a footing has really taken root, and is part of a far more general sociological trend in which secularism needs to define itself against more religious or esoteric or mystical currents. But if you look even half closely, and think about the jhana's, and the broader cosmological context etc, those currents are clearly there in the Theravada - but practitioners often seem to have a strong desire to have Buddhism present itself as rational, secular, empiricist, in accord with contemporary science etc.

These currents are there, but there are also western-born Theravādins who accept the Theravāda tradition and therefore accept the traditional teachings on matters such as karma and rebirth. And so it's important to avoid making inaccurate over-generalizations.


Yes, that's definitely true. These kinds of discussions can rapidly degenerate into crass generalisations - in both directions. That's something to be avoided, but nonetheless, I think there is something in this question which warrants analysis.

I'm not quite sure how to pursue it though.

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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby Jnana » Thu May 23, 2013 5:26 am

jeeprs wrote:It's more likely, IMO, that the (let's say) 'conservative' approach is more realist, very conscious of the form of the tradition and specific content and directions encoded in it, whereas 'mahayana' was from the outset, less literalist, with more of an emphasis on the meaning rather than the letter. I think they represent, and also appeal, to different kinds of attitudes, or persons at a different stage of development.

Conservative Buddhism has a role to play in sustaining and transmitting Buddhist values and practices. This role is just as important as what has developed into the various forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism. And even within the Mahāyāna there have been times when individuals have played an important historical role in transmitting traditional conservative Buddhist values and practices. Two historical examples of this would be Kamalaśīla in the 8th century and Atiśa in the 11th century.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby Jnana » Thu May 23, 2013 5:51 am

tobes wrote:I think there is something in this question which warrants analysis.

Yes, I think it's a worthwhile discussion. As you indicated, there have been people who have tried to frame the Theravāda as somehow more "rational," etc., than the Mahāyāna traditions. This is also inaccurate.

But it seems to me that many people with secularist inclinations are about as skeptical with regard to the traditional Theravāda worldview as they are with regard to the traditional Mahāyāna worldview(s).
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Re: All Buddhists Are Atheists

Postby Sherab Dorje » Thu May 23, 2013 7:10 am

Topics merged, maybe people want to read the preceding 16 pages before engaging in further speculation? Just to put an end to the rehashing of arguments.
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Re: All Buddhists Are Atheists

Postby jeeprs » Thu May 23, 2013 8:24 am

Konchog1 wrote:The Mahayana (view) is that the deities are separate beings out there somewhere.


Interesting turn of phrase! I wonder if the Hubble ever spots them......

Tobes wrote:I am a great admirer of Bikkhu Bodhi - but I found that essay very problematic.


I felt the same way - that's why I mentioned it. I didn't mean any disrespect either - I have great respect for Bikkhu Bodhi and have read most of the essays by him on Access to Insight. It's just illustrative of a certain constellation of attitudes, you might say.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby LionelChen » Thu May 23, 2013 7:49 pm

Konchog1 wrote:
dyanaprajna2011 wrote:Now we come to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We use the term 'deity' to describe these beings. But how does this work? Each of these beings describes some aspect or characteristic that is in ourselves that is hidden, but needs to be brought out. We may revere these beings, and even pray to them, but ultimately, they are not different from ourselves. We are Guan Yin, we are Manjusri, we are Amitabha, and they are us.
I believe that's the Vajrayana view. The Mahayana is that the deities are separate beings out there somewhere.


Just wanted to jump in and ask for a little more elaboration on that point.

When I often discuss this with friends of mine who aren't Buddhists and who generally accept a more scientific materialist viewpoint of life, their reaction to the statement would be something to the effect of:

"Oh, so are Vajrayana Buddhist deities (like an Yidam) essentially metaphors or analogies for aspects of the mind? In the same way that I could merely call my sense of taste "Zeus? In other words, are they simply generating models or fictional characters (in the same way say that Mickey Mouse is a fictional character) to describe some aspect of the mind?"

I have never been sure how to actually answer those questions and was wondering if anyone could clarify.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby porpoise » Fri May 24, 2013 2:41 pm

Jnana wrote:These currents are there, but there are also western-born Theravādins who accept the Theravāda tradition and therefore accept the traditional teachings on matters such as karma and rebirth.


Yep, there are still a few of us around.... :thumbsup:
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby Jikan » Fri May 24, 2013 3:20 pm

LionelChen wrote:Just wanted to jump in and ask for a little more elaboration on that point.

When I often discuss this with friends of mine who aren't Buddhists and who generally accept a more scientific materialist viewpoint of life, their reaction to the statement would be something to the effect of:

"Oh, so are Vajrayana Buddhist deities (like an Yidam) essentially metaphors or analogies for aspects of the mind? In the same way that I could merely call my sense of taste "Zeus? In other words, are they simply generating models or fictional characters (in the same way say that Mickey Mouse is a fictional character) to describe some aspect of the mind?"

I have never been sure how to actually answer those questions and was wondering if anyone could clarify.


I've been taught to regard them less as archetypes than as methods.
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby porpoise » Sat May 25, 2013 10:34 am

LionelChen wrote:"Oh, so are Vajrayana Buddhist deities (like an Yidam) essentially metaphors or analogies for aspects of the mind? In the same way that I could merely call my sense of taste "Zeus? In other words, are they simply generating models or fictional characters (in the same way say that Mickey Mouse is a fictional character) to describe some aspect of the mind?"


When I was involved in Tibetan Buddhism some people believed in these deities very literally while others took a more psychological approach. Perhaps it's about skillful means, what works best for each person?
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Re: All Buddhists Are Atheists

Postby Namgyal » Sat May 25, 2013 1:05 pm

LionelChen wrote:"Oh, so are Vajrayana Buddhist deities (like an Yidam) essentially metaphors or analogies for aspects of the mind? In the same way that I could merely call my sense of taste "Zeus? In other words, are they simply generating models or fictional characters (in the same way say that Mickey Mouse is a fictional character) to describe some aspect of the mind?"

'The Primodial Mother, Yum Chenmo, is the ultimate nature of all phenomenon, emptiness, suchness, free from the two veils. She is the pure essence of the sphere of emptiness, the insight on non-self. She is the matrix that gives birth to all the Buddhas of the three times. However, to give beings the opportunity to accumulate spirtual merits, she manifests as an object of veneration.' (Machig)
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Re: Buddhism and the god idea

Postby Zhen Li » Sun May 26, 2013 6:12 am

porpoise wrote:
LionelChen wrote:"Oh, so are Vajrayana Buddhist deities (like an Yidam) essentially metaphors or analogies for aspects of the mind? In the same way that I could merely call my sense of taste "Zeus? In other words, are they simply generating models or fictional characters (in the same way say that Mickey Mouse is a fictional character) to describe some aspect of the mind?"


When I was involved in Tibetan Buddhism some people believed in these deities very literally while others took a more psychological approach. Perhaps it's about skillful means, what works best for each person?

And the irony is that when you overtly treat them as just psychological, the fun of them being just psychological is dashed.
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