Can Buddhism be viewed as atheism

PRESS / 654: Buddhism - a religion without God ... (DMW)

The Middle Way - No. 1, January - April 2008
Journal of the Buddhist Federation Hanover e.V.

Buddhism - a religion without God and its way of salvation

From Axel Rodeck

I. Buddhism as a religion

It has now become a matter of course that Buddhism is viewed as a (world) religion, and its representatives are welcome participants in interreligious discussions. That was not always the case, however. In 1893 at the "First Parliament of the World Religions", which took place in Chicago in connection with the world exhibition there, there was a debate about whether Buddhism could be accepted as a "religion without God".

A certain skepticism has remained, and this is even justified. Because the classification as "religion" is already characterized by a certain pre-understanding, it is based on Christianity and the Christian image of God and does not fully do justice to the Far Eastern culture. Judaism and its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, believe in a personal God who created the world out of nothing and, through his caring guidance, leads it towards an ultimate goal. Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists, on the other hand, adopt a natural world law that guides the cosmic process. So an occasion to deal with the terms "religion" and "God".

The meaning of the Latin term "religion" is already unclear in one's own western culture. It will be derived from the word "religari" = (to God) "to be bound", but also, according to the Roman statesman Cicero, from the verb "relegere" = "to observe something conscientiously". (See Hartig in DMW 1/2006) If one follows the broader Ciceronian derivation, religion can generally be defined as: "The conviction of the effectiveness of personal or impersonal transcendent powers, activated in knowledge, thinking, feeling, willing and acting, whereby this conviction is connected with the belief in a moral order of the world "(after H. von Glasenapp). This belief is expressed in the idea of ​​moral responsibility for action, of just retribution for all actions, and of the possibility of advancement to the highest perfection. According to this broad definition, there is no objection to referring to Buddhism as a "religion".

Nevertheless, the objection of godlessness must be addressed, because it is precisely in the question of God that there are fundamental differences between Buddhism and the prophetic religions. Of course, the understanding of God is also very different in the West. We come across the idea that God set the world in motion and now only watches its course passively (deism), that he as the creator of the world also regulates its daily routine (theism) or that there is no difference between God and the world and God is equated with nature (pantheism). Recently Pope Benedict XVI surprised. with the statement that the Christian God reveals himself according to Greek-philosophical tradition in categories of reason, while the Islamic Allah is a worldly god of arbitrariness, absolutely transcendent and not bound to any of our categories of reason: "Our God is different from Allah."

But while the western religions and philosophies strive for a positive concept of God, Buddhism is more interested in the question of human salvation. Buddha's teaching aims at a practical path to liberation from suffering and tends to be non-theistic in both theory and practice. Although the existence of gods or even a personal god and creator is not expressly denied by the Buddhists, pondering over this appears to be a waste of time, and "if indifference to a personal world creator means atheism, then Buddhism is indeed atheistic" (E. . Conze). The word "atheism" must by no means be understood in the sense of materialistic doctrine, which knows nothing higher than the deceptive world of the senses. The materialistic philosophy of total annihilation after death (ucchedavada) is emphatically rejected by the Buddha as false doctrine.

While v. Glasenapp calls Buddhism an "atheistic religion" and emphasizes that this is not a contradictio in adiecto, some Indologists disagree with a classification as a "religion". According to U. Schneider, there is a lack of real faith, as well as a bond with God or some higher power, and there is no cult. In fact, from the Indian point of view, the Buddha's teaching is a philosophical teaching.

On the other hand, according to K. Meisig, one can definitely speak of religion: Buddhism, according to Meisig, is a religion of salvation, because its existential starting point is the striving for otherworldly salvation; a universal religion, since its model of salvation applies to all people; a world religion in terms of its expansion and finally the founder religion of the historical Buddha Gautama. The atheism of Buddhism is to be understood more as anti-theism, since gods - regardless of whether they exist - can contribute nothing to the salvation of man. They are simply ignored in early Buddhist teaching. Buddha's response to the Indian polytheism found was not monotheism but rationalism.

The theologian Hans Küng, who is always concerned about balance, offers a surprising solution. Based on the different images of God - even among the monotheists - he states that one always speaks of "God", "where the sacred as a person, where powers are accepted as beings endowed with form and will." Sometimes, according to Küng, the god even has many names as an expression of his power, sometimes (in highly developed mystical religions) but also no name at all - the nameless god. Instead of asking whether "God" has to be thought of as personal or non-personal, it is better to interpret God as impersonal and not give him a name. This takes place exemplarily in Buddhism - the nameless god in the Buddhist religion. Their impersonal and negatively expressed view of the absolute is possibly better suited to unlocking the secularized technological world of the West for profound experiences than the view of a personal God.

In this sense, fundamental theologians no longer see God as a punishing creator God, but as a cipher for that which cannot be known with the intellect alone. God is consequently the "personified absolute" and to that extent contained not only in Hinduism, but also in later Buddhism. Because Mahayana Buddhism has led to the deification of the person of Buddha and allowed the monotheism rejected by Theravada to enter through the back door. All. Accordingly, religions start from an indeterminable ultimate reality and the peculiarity of Far Eastern religions lies in the fact that they have developed meditative techniques to achieve higher states of consciousness.

If one does not want to construct the existence of a nameless God, Buddhism is a religion without God, an atheistic religion. Belief in a god is from a Buddhist point of view a variant of the belief in immortality and thus an obstacle to final liberation. It is an expression of the desire for continued existence, the will to live. The early Buddhist thinkers did not regard the attempt to explain the universe, its origin and the position of man in the world with the idea of ​​God as in any way convincing.

II. A "godless" way of salvation

1) Buddhist salvation

The central problem of all universal religions is "redemption", that is, the offer of salvation which should take the place of existential calamity. Buddhism sets the goal of salvation as liberation from the cycle of existence associated with constant suffering, the "nirvana" (Pali: nibbana). "Nirvana" means "to extinguish", "blow away" (from nir-va = to blow out, to stop breathing) and denotes both the process of extinction and the state of being extinguished. Nirvana cannot be (positively) described in words. Because it is a typically mystical salvation quantity that the mystics of all cultures speak of only in negation because they are aware of the inadequacy of concepts in relation to the absolute.

In this subtractive usage, nirvana is the unborn and uncreated. It is the drying up of the driving forces of greed, hatred and delusion, the end of further birth and death. But, as the religious scholar G. Mensching emphasizes, "without personal experience, one will only be able to empathize with this event of redemption if one tries to understand what is happening in the redeemed as the irrational breaking open of hidden numinous reality from the depths of human existence."

The goal of salvation "nirvana" is, at least according to Buddha Gautama's original teaching, to be laboriously worked out and most Buddhists will be content in practice with first attaining a better rebirth. For the committed seeker of salvation, on the other hand, there are four stages on the way to holiness: the "stream entry" with a maximum of seven rebirths, the "one-time returnee" with one more rebirth, the "non-returnee" with rebirth in the heavenly world and finally the "saints", who - already in this world - enters nirvana. For salvation consists in a state of happiness and calm already during this life and, when it comes to an end, in not being born again.

According to the view later represented in Mahayana, the seeker of salvation already carries salvation within himself - but he must recognize it through all-encompassing (not rational) wisdom (prajna) in "emptiness".

The Buddha Gautama opposed the contemporary philosophy of the Upanishads with his doctrine of nirvana. Their all-unity doctrine named the unification of the individual soul (atman) with the world soul (brahman) associated with eternal bliss (ananda) as the goal of salvation. In contrast to "Nirvana", "Ananda" is a clearly positive term.

2) The Indian roots

The Buddhist way of salvation is based on ancient Indian thoughts contained in the "Upanishads", because every spiritual development takes place from the given spiritual and cultural circumstances. The Buddha did not see himself as the originator of a new theory, but saw himself as a revelator of found legalities which - like the teachings of rebirth and karma - described an objective state of affairs and from which he came up with the "Four Noble Truths" and the "Eightfold Way "believed to have drawn a conclusion relevant to salvation.

a) The rebirth

First of all, the doctrine of rebirth belongs to the material found for thought. It says that there were already countless other lives before the current, us conscious, life and that there will also be further existences after this life (pre- and post-existences). In contrast to the linear worldview of the monotheists, which assumes a world created with God's creation and a life that only takes place between birth and death, the cyclical worldview of the Indians knows neither a first beginning nor a definitive end of the world and that in the cycle of existence ( samsara) always (re) born living beings.

b) The karma

The control of rebirths is done by doing, by our deeds. What an individual has experienced and suffered in a previous life, what he has done and done to others, has an impact in the present life. And what he does now or what he fails to do will in turn determine the quality of the next existence. This law of cause and effect is called the law of karma (Sanskrit "karma", Pali "kamma" = deed, action). The psychological qualities created in the course of a life by one's own deeds are therefore decisive for the form of existence into which one will be reborn in the next life.

c) Desire

The drive for rebirths is the desire, the will to live and the greed for existence.

d) The Atman

The Upanishads assume the existence of a soul (atman) which survives death and incarnates again and again, ie is "eternal". It is a matter of a subtle substance, a "monad" (Greek = "unity"), not just something purely spiritual. This substance contains the ability to store perceptions and sensations, it also stores the sensory impressions that result from one's own actions, so the "karma".

The Buddha recognized the doctrine of rebirth, the law of karma and greed as the driving force of rebirths as correct, but rejected the soul teaching of the Brahmins.

3) The doctrine of the not-me

In sharp contrast to the Brahmins, the Buddha represented the view, otherwise only cherished by materialists, that an eternal soul, an "I", is not to be found in beings. He came to this realization through an analysis of the five "Skandhas" (Pali: khandhas), those clusters of factors of existence (dharmas) that make up the empirical personality. It concerns the body as a physical factor of existence as well as the non-physical existence factors sensation, perception, mental impulses and consciousness. All of these five factors of existence are impermanent and subject to decay. Consequently there is no something in man that can survive death; the person is without a soul (Pali "anatta").

With regard to the doctrine of rebirth, Buddhism differs from Hinduism in that it denies the existence of eternal, rebirth spiritual monads in accordance with the principle of the impermanence of everything earthly. According to the Buddha's teaching, the chain of rebirths is brought about by a conditionism (Lat. Conditio = condition) of the forms of existence, according to which every rebirth requires another. According to this system, no soul monad of any kind passes over into the new existence, but this is conditionally shaped by the impressions that the dying leaves behind. The consciousness of the previous existence shapes the new consciousness without, however, being identical with it.

4) The sermon of Benares

Siddhartha Gautama was now 35 years old when in 528 BC. Sitting under a Bodhi tree, the big breakthrough came when he was enlightened and thus became a "Buddha" (awakened). He decided to share the path of salvation he had found with people. Since his previous teachers had since died, the young Buddha sought out his former ascetic companions in the Isipatana Gazelle Park near Benares, where they were just staying.

a) The "Middle Way"

The first thing to do was to regain the trust of the former companions. Because Siddhartha Gautama had given up the six years of harsh asceticism, which was supposed to help him to redeeming insight and for whose self-torture he was admired, to her annoyance. He had recognized that it is not self-torture, but meditative immersion with a balanced lifestyle that is the right way to enlightenment: A body tormented by deficiency symptoms is only poorly suited for a spiritual search. When he ate enough food again because of this, his companions had left him disappointed and indignant. Therefore, on his return, he explained to them the "middle way" between self-torment and sensual pleasures in order to dispel their anger over his breaking off of asceticism:

"These two extremes, you monks, should not be pursued by someone who has moved into homelessness. Which two? On the one hand, devotion to sensual pleasures; it is the manner of the common people, village-like, commonplace, ignoble and pointless. On the other hand, devotion to self-torment; ignoble and (likewise) pointless. These two extremes, you monks, the Blessed One has avoided because he has recognized that it is the middle way that makes seeing, generates knowledge, to calm (of the passions), higher knowledge, enlightenment and Going out leads. "
(Translation here and following by H. W. Schumann)

For monks on the path of salvation, it seems that it is not the pleasure of the senses but the lure of asceticism that is the greater danger. This is why the Buddha deals in his discourses (see attached collection III 163 "Three Paths") with the danger of a joyful life in just a few sentences, while he goes long and detailed about the "agonizing path" of the ascetics. There the ascetic is undressed or wears robes from the rubbish heap, has an unrestrained demeanor and does not allow himself to be spoken to, does not eat fish or meat and obeys strange rules such as crouching asceticism or thorn sleep. In short - he behaves asocial, while the "middle way" leads to a collection of minds and wisdom.

b) The "Four Noble Truths"

Then the now Buddha conveyed to the now reconciled companions the enlightening knowledge that he had achieved meditating on that full moon night under the Bodhi tree and that was to form the core of his teaching: The "Four Noble Truths" and the eightfold path leading to the annulment of suffering, the as the fourth truth is identical to the "Middle Way" mentioned above. The meaning of the four truths proclaimed by Buddha Gautama is underlined by the adjective "noble".They are fundamental to all Buddhist tendencies that have emerged over time and form the framework of the entire Buddhist system. The famous "Sutta on the Turning of the Dharma Wheel", with which the Buddha founded his teaching activities in Benares, describes the "Noble Truths" as follows:

(1) This, monks, is the noble truth of suffering (dukkha): birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful, death is painful; Sorrow, misery, pain, grief, and despair are painful; to be united with unloving, separated from dear, is painful; Not attaining what is desired is painful; in short: the "five appropriation groups" (which make up the empirical personality) are painful.

(2) This, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: It is the rebirth, pleasing, passionate greed (tanha) that finds pleasure here and there, namely: the greed for lust, the greed for becoming, the greed for annihilation.

(3) This, monks, is the noble truth of the abolition of suffering: the complete abolition, annihilation, abandonment, rejection, the releasing (and) abandonment of this greed.

(4) This, monks, is the noble truth of the path leading to the abolition of suffering, it is this eightfold path, namely Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation.

c) The eightfold ("eightfold") path

While the first three truths are more of a philosophical nature, "with the fourth truth one enters the broad field of ethics" (H.W. Schumann). The procedures contained in it are not commandments, but suggestions for a wholesome life and it is up to everyone to decide whether to observe the recommended rules. No higher power, no god judges and punishes non-compliance with these rules, but the natural law of kamma (see above II 2b) mechanically and incorruptibly ensures that everyone is given the fruit of compliance or disregard of the rules.

The "eight way" is the practical and therefore most important part of the Buddha's teaching for the seeker of salvation and it is not surprising that the Buddha specified it in numerous explanations in the four and a half decades of his missionary activities as follows:

(1) Right view (samma-ditthi) consists in knowing the suffering, its cause, its abolition, and the way to its abolition, in other words, in familiarity with the four truths.

(2) Right decision (samma-sankappa) is the decision to renounce (i.e. turning away from exaggeratedly enjoying life), to benevolence towards all beings and not to harm.

(3) Right speech (samma-vaca) means avoiding lies, defamation, insults and gossip.

(4) Right behavior (samma-kammanta) means to refrain from killing, from taking what has not been given (i.e. from stealing) and from sensual excesses.

(5) The rule of right livelihood (samma-ajiva) aims at the way of earning a living. The follower of the Buddha has to give up wrong ways of earning money, namely through activities that harm or torment other beings.

(6) Right effort (samma-vayama) is directed inward. The monk - Gautama expressly speaks here of the 'bhikkhu' - fights that new unwholesome impulses do not arise in him and that the existing ones die off. He also tries to generate healing impulses in himself and to maintain the existing ones.

(7) Primarily, but not exclusively, a monastic discipline is right mindfulness (samma-sati). After the bhikkhu has rejected worldly thoughts and attitudes, he lingers in mental clarity in contemplation of his body, his sensations, his organ of thought and objects of thought. The purpose of this exercise is to bring all processes and functions that can be ascertained in oneself under the control of the mind.

(8) The rule of right meditation (samma-samadhi) comes from the time of Gautama's asceticism. These are the four stages of contemplation (jhana), which at the time made the spirit of the young ascetic capable of enlightenment. The purpose of these contemplations is to turn the meditator away from the world, to give him the experience of inner silence and to prepare his mind for higher insights.

Practice made it necessary to supplement the links of the eightfold path with five further moral rules of conduct (silas), namely in order not to kill, not to steal, to refrain from sexual misconduct, not to lie and not intoxicating To take drinks (cf. the biblical "Ten Commandments"). In addition, there were five rules especially for monks. Without "morality", the Buddhist path to salvation cannot be successfully curtailed.


There are some arguments in favor of not recognizing Buddhism and Confucianism as a religion at all, but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.
(Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins)

The first of the basic principles of Buddhism is atheism. No matter how many levels and realms of intellectual beings there are above man, we recognize them - but we strongly reject the recognition of a creator god as the lord of all creatures.
(Junjiro Takakuso)


The Middle Way - majjhima-patipada
Volume 39, January - April 2008/2551, No. 1, pages 6-11
Publisher: Buddhist Bund Hannover e.V.
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published in Schattenblick on January 16, 2008