Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

After all, people desire immortality and do not wish to embrace the inescapable reality of death; they long for happiness and shy away from the contemplation of pain; they want to preserve their sense of self, not desconstruction it into fleeting and impersonal components. It is counterintuitive to accept that deathlessness is experienced each moment we are released from the deathlike grip of greed and hatred; that happiness in this world is only possible for those who realized that this world is incapable of providing happiness; that one becomes a fully individuated person only by relinquishing beliefs in an essential self.

a passage in the Middle Length Discourses of the Pali Canon where the Buddha says: “Whoever thinks: ‘extinction is mine,’ and rejoices in extinction, such a person, I declare, does not know extinction.

As a way of life, a middle path is an ongoing task of responsiveness and risk, grounded on a groundless ground. Its twists and turns are as turbulent and unpredictable as life itself.

Being-in-the-world means that I am inextricably knit into the fabric of this fluid, indivisible, and contingent reality I share with others. There is no room for a disembodied mind or soul, however subtle, to float free from this condition, to contemplate it from a hypothetical Archimedean point outside. Without such a mind or soul, it is hard to conceive of anything that will go on into another life once this one comes to an end. My actions, like the words of dead philosophers, may continue to reverberate and bear fruits long after my death, but I will not be around to witness them.

Buddhism has become for me a philosophy of action and responsibility. It provides a framework of values, ideas, and practices that nurture my ability to create a path in life, to define myself as a person, to act, to take risks, to image things differently, to make art. The more I prize Gotama's teachings free from the matrix of Indian religious thought in which they are entrenched and the more I come to understand how his own life unfolded in the context of his times, the more I discern a template for living that I can apply at this time in this increasingly secular and globalized world.

Buddhism, it seemed, was a rational religion, whose truth-claims could withstand the test of reason.

For a while I hoped that Buddhism Without Beliefs might stimulate more public debate and inquiry among Buddhists about these issues, but this did not happen. Instead, it revealed a fault line in the nascent Western Buddhist community between traditionalists, for whom such doctrines are non-negotiable truths, and liberals, like myself, who tend to see them more as contingent products of historical circumstance.

For pragmatist philosophers such as these, a belief is valued as true because it is useful, because it works, because it brings tangible benefits to human beings and other creatures. Siddhattha Gotama’s Four Noble Truths are “true” not because they correspond to something real somewhere, but because, when put into practice, they can enhance the quality of your life. In

Gotama did for the self was Copernicus did for the earth: he put it in its rightful place, despite its continuing to appear just as it did before. Gotama mo more rejected the existence of the self than Copernicus rejected the existence of the earth. Instead, rather than regarding it as a fixed, non-contingent point around which everything else turned, he recognized that each self was a fluid, contingent process just like everything else.

Gotama's awakening involved a radical shift of perspective rather than the gaining of privileged knowledge into some higher truth. He did not use the words "know" and "truth" to describe it. He spoke only of waking up to a contingent ground--"this-conditionality, conditioned arising"--that until then had been obscured by his attachment to a fixed position. While such an awakening is bound to lead to a reconsideration of what one "knows," the awakening itself is not primarily a cognitive act. It is an existential readjustment, a seismic shift in the core of oneself and one's relation to others and the world. Rather than providing Gotama with a set of ready-made answers to life's big questions, it allowed him to respond to those questions from an entirely new perspective.

To live on this shifting ground, one first needs to stop obsessing about what has happened before and what might happen later. One needs to be more vitally conscious of what is happening now. This is not to deny the reality of past and future. It is about embarking on a new relationship with the impermanence and temporality of life. Instead of hankering after the past and speculating about the future, one sees the present as the fruit of what has been and the germ of what will be. Gotama did not encourage withdrawal to a timeless, mystical now, but an unflinching encounter with the contingent world as it unravels moment to moment.

I greatly enjoyed these studies. Geshe Rabten communicated the ideas clearly and succinctly, then had us divide into pairs to pick apart in debate the details of what he had just taught. This was an excellent intellectual discipline. It made me aware of how much of my thinking was muddled. Without subjecting one’s ideas to such scrutiny, it is easy and reassuring to cherish opinions that, in the end, are found to rest on the sloppiest of unexamined assumptions. This

I know very little with anything approaching certainty. I know that I was born, that I exist, and that I will die. For the most part, I can trust my brain's interpretation of the data presented to my senses: this is a rose, that is a car, she is my wife. I do not doubt the reality of the thoughts and emotions and impulses I experience in response to these things. . . . Yet apart from these primary perceptions, intuitions, inferences, and bits of information, the views that I hold about the things that really matter to me--meaning, truth, happiness, goodness, beauty--are finely woven tissues of belief and opinion.

I was perplexed by the failure of teachers at school to address what seemed the most urgent matter of all: the bewildering, stomach-churning insecurity of being alive. The standard subjects of history, geography, mathematics, and English seemed perversely designed to ignore the questions that really mattered. As soon as I had some inkling of what 'philosophy' meant, I was puzzled as to why we were not taught it. And my skepticism about religion only grew as I failed to see what the vicars and priests I encountered gained from their faith. They struck me either as insincere, pious, and aloof or just bumblingly good-natured. (p. 10)

[Mindfulness] is not concerned with anything transcendent or divine. It serves as an antidote to theism, a cure for sentimental piety, a scalpel for excising the tumor of metaphysical belief. (130)

of the monastic institutions on which it depended. Since celibate monks tended to

Our old religious and moral traditions,” writes Cupitt in The Great Questions of Life (2005), “have faded away, and nothing can resuscitate them. That is why a tiny handful of us are not liberal, but radical, theologians. We say that the new culture is so different from anything that existed in the past that religion has to be completely reinvented. Unfortunately, the new style of religious thinking that we are trying to introduce is so queer and so new that most people have great difficulty in recognizing it as religion at all.

Places to which I am instinctively attracted are places where I imagine suffering to be absent. “There,” I think, “if only I could get there, then I would suffer no more.” The groundless ground of contingency, however, holds out no such hope. For this is the ground where you are born and die, get sick and grow old, are disappointed and frustrated. To

Rather than seek God—the goal of the brahmins—Gotama suggested that you turn your attention to what is most far from God: the anguish and pain of life on this earth. In a contingent world, change and suffering are inevitable. Just look at what happens here: creatures are constantly being born, falling ill, growing old, and dying. These are the unavoidable facts of our existence. As contingent beings, we do not survive. And

The aim of mindfulness is to know suffering fully. It entails paying calm, unflinching attention to whatever impacts the organism, be it the song of a lark or the scream of a child, the bubbling of a playful idea or a twinge in the lower back. You attend not just to the outward stimuli themselves, but equally to your inward reactions to them. You do not condemn what you see as your failings or applaud what you regard as success. You notice things come, you notice them go. Over time, the practice becomes less a self-conscious exercise in meditation done at fixed periods each day and more a sensibility that infuses one’s awareness at all times.

The Four Noble Truths are pragmatic rather than dogmatic. They suggest a course of action to be followed rather than a set of dogmas to be believed. The four truths are prescriptions for behavior rather than descriptions of reality. The Buddha compares himself to a doctor who offers a course of therapeutic treatment to heal one’s ills. To embark on such a therapy is not designed to bring one any closer to ‘the Truth’ but to enable one’s life to flourish here and now, hopefully leaving a legacy that will continue to have beneficial repercussions after one’s death. (154)

The point is not to abandon all institutions and dogmas but to find a way to live with them more ironically, to appreciate them for what they are—the play of the human mind in its endless quest for connection and meaning—rather than timeless entities that have to be ruthlessly defended or forcibly imposed.

The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks. (65)

This deep agnosticism is more than the refusal of conventional agnosticism to take a stand on whether God exists or whether the mind survives bodily death. It is the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to the superficial consolations of certainty.

To embrace suffering culminates in greater empathy, the capacity to feel what it is like for the other to suffer, which is the ground for unsentimental compassion and love. (157)

To fully know suffering goes against the grain of what I am primed to desire. Yet a contingent, impermanent world does not exist in order to gratify my desires. It cannot provide the non-contingent, permanent well-being I crave. A place where things happen that I do not want to happen is not a place where everything is likely to turn out all right in the end. I struggle to order my life in accord with my longings and fears, but have little if any control over what will befall me even in the next moment. The

To pose a question entails that you do not know something. To ask “Who is the abbot?” means that you do not know who the abbot is. To ask “What is this?” means that you do not know what this is. To cultivate doubt, therefore, is to value unknowing. To say “I don’t know” is not an admission of weakness or ignorance, but an act of truthfulness: an honest acceptance of the limits of the human condition when faced with “the great matter of birth and death.” This deep agnosticism is more than the refusal of conventional agnosticism to take a stand on whether God exists or whether the mind survives bodily death. It is the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to the superficial consolations of certainty.

To say “I don’t know” is not an admission of weakness or ignorance, but an act of truthfulness: an honest acceptance of the limits of the human condition when faced with “the great matter of birth and death.” This deep agnosticism is more than the refusal of conventional agnosticism to take a stand on whether God exists or whether the mind survives bodily death. It is the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to the superficial consolations of certainty. By

We took a bus to the nearby monastery of one of the last great Tang dynasty Chan masters, Yun-men. Yun-men was known for his pithy “one word” Zen. When asked “What is the highest teaching of the Buddha?” he replied: “An appropriate statement.” On another occasion, he answered: “Cake.” I admired his directness.

What is it that makes a person insist passionately on the existence of metaphysical realities that can be neither demonstrated nor refuted? (176)

When there is great doubt,” says a Zen aphorism that Kusan Sunim kept repeating, “then there is great awakening.” This is the key. The depth of any understanding is intimately correlated with the depth of one’s confusion. Great awakening resonates at the same “pitch” as great doubt. So rather than negate such doubt by replacing it with belief, which is the standard religious procedure, Zen encourages you to cultivate that doubt until it “coagulates” into a vivid mass of perplexity.