by Alfred Bloom, Emeritus Professor, University of Hawaii
It has been very common in modern western circles to describe Buddhism as atheistic. This view arose because Buddhism does not appeal to a creator god for the universe or for the understanding human life.
In turn, Buddhists adopted this definition by Christians in order to distinguish itself from Christian belief. By creating insuperable differences between the religions both created an impenetrable wall around their faith, ignoring the challenge that accurate understanding might present to their views.
However, it is a question whether Buddhism is truly atheistic. In Buddhist legends, the gods of India play a great role. Brahma and Indra encourage the Buddha to share the truth of his enlightenment with all people. In later mythic depictions in Mahayana Sacred texts, the audiences attending the Buddha’s sermons include hordes of deities of every type who listen and affirm the Buddha’s message. In popular religion in every Asian country, the gods support Buddhism and provide for the worldly needs of the people for health, wealth and spiritual protection. The native Japanese gods were seen as manifestations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to protect Japan even before Buddhism officially arrived. In Japan virtually all temples had a shrine, dedicated to a tutelary native god or Indian deity, to protect the sacred area.
Buddhist teachings taught that the gods, though powerful to aid beings in their worldly life, were irrelevant for gaining enlightenment and spiritual development. No amount of devotion or praying to a god will bring Buddhist enlightenment. In fact, according to Buddhism, the gods themselves need to be enlightened.
The gods like every other being must strive to achieve enlightenment. They are a dimension of the 6 paths of existence through which sentient beings transmigrate until they gain enlightenment and enter Nirvana. Any particular god became a god because of his good karma. Though a god might have an extremely long life compared to a human, it is determined by karma and will eventually come to an end with the rebirth of the god into another life form. This understanding differs from Indian views where the gods are always gods. In Buddhism the gods are part of the worlds of form and desire and therefore essentially finite. While they are in the position of gods, they can benefit human life.
Consequently, Buddhism believes that a god is not the highest level of spirituality. Entry into bliss and freedom of Nirvana and emancipation from the world of suffering and rebirth is gained only through undergoing Buddhist discipline.
Buddhism is not, therefore, atheistic in the modern understanding which developed in the West as a reaction to theistic Christianity. Rather, Buddhism affirms many forms of spirituality and belief in gods as means to elevate and improve worldly life. In its spread through Asia, it has been able to adapt to the various native religious traditions to promote the spread of Buddhism.
In our modern and contemporary context, Buddhism can coexist with Western beliefs in God because it recognizes that such beliefs assist people in dealing with their everyday needs. However, we can only achieve enlightenment when we understand reality as it is, beyond all concepts and beliefs, and the nature of our own minds which become attached to concepts and beliefs.