Buddha is an atheist. His central doctrine is called shunyata, or emptiness. It is the antidote to belief in anything, God, for instance, as being real. Yet the seeming opposite, a belief in nothingness, which is at first implied, holds no more truth. This is the Middle Way, free from any extreme.
I want to address some things about Atheism first. I claim no great understanding of it beyond what is obvious to all. Some think it painful, the Atheist position. (Though I don’t know why, I don’t like the capitalization.) Why? Because the self-definition is someone who believes there is no God. It is a negation, not an affirmation. This is no criticism; truthful pain is an honest life. But Atheism, in most people’s minds, appears to be primarily a refutation of Christianity, rather than a substantive, positivist set of principles in its own right. That may be inaccurate, but the mistake is understandable, and largely the fault of the first principle: God does not exist.
To a Buddhist, God is irrelevant. Why disprove him at all? No one has any evidence of his existence. Sit down, try to find him if you must. Not in books. Not in magazines. But in your own experience. Where is God in the world? No one can offer a shred of proof. To a Buddhist, it’s not worth discussing. Forget what isn’t; find out what is.
What does a Buddhist believe? In terms of God, we have a doctrine called non-theism. (I will get to Buddhist deities presently. It may surprise you.) Non-theism says that nothing created all this; it simply is. Or, if some entity did create it, that being is not manifest, so it makes no practical difference. It cannot be proved. Buddhism is actually quite scientific.
The real issue is how do we work with what we have? Or, better - What is all this? What am I seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling, and thinking? What do the six senses tell me moment by moment, and is it accurate? A dog understands reality better than a human.
And how could they not, when their hearts are so true? This is a fundamental point: that of longing, or devotion. Without an aching heart, you cannot follow this way. But the smallest spark lights a fire that destroys a million acres. No one loses the spark of longing altogether. Longing burns away immense karma. Yearn for truth with all your heart and eventually, you will be free.
When I stumbled upon the American Atheist website, what I read echoed my own beliefs. Few people realize the humanist underpinning. Most believe that without God, there is no virtue, because virtue has no motive. Apparently, there are philosophers who have a dark view of the human spirit. Here the lie of God is preferable to the truth of meaninglessness because it protects society. But the logic is false, as both groups prove.To be fair, few, if any Christians believe this, though a few Popes probably have.
For my mind, Buddhism emphasizes generosity, self-reflection, strength of spirit, and above all, wisdom and compassion. It reaches for the highest goal for any and all beings. We call it buddhahood, but that is only a word. The state arises from one’s effort and is one’s utmost potential. It is self-caused, or beyond cause. Outside forces cannot create it, but can create awesome help or harm.
This potential is beyond words, thought and perception, thus it cannot be proved, thus it is not available to our quotidian mind. In a very real sense, buddhahood does not exist. Buddha did not believe in Buddha. He was an atheist to his own absolute truth.
It cannot be proven, yet is. Though it can never be found, it cannot be denied. This is the miracle of awareness, the fabric of mind itself. Mind cannot be separated from experience, yet where is it? Can you find your mind? If mind goes away, do you? If mind is here, are you? Can you say you are in any way different from your mind? What we call self and what we call mind are intuitively closest in identity. Yet not quite the same. One cannot exist without the other, can it? If you accept this logic, then self is two, not one. Thus there is no single self. There is the idea of a self, and there is the ineffable, continuous experience called mind.
I would like to make an uneasy substitution here, exchanging God for the self (more on this later). I leave it to the reader to adapt these arguments at the King of Heaven. Though to put it into atheist terminology, there can be no god, because the absolute identity of any god can be disproved. Start by defining God. I don’t wish to because of indifference, but later, I will attempt a disproof anyway.
There are a number of rigorous logical and meditative arguments. The argument of the one and the many, hinted at above, is a fairly simple example. The hand is made of five fingers. Is it singular or multiple? It cannot be both, because it is only one hand. How then is it also five fingers and a palm? Cut it in half. How can it be a single hand and still two pieces? It is impossible to be both one and two. No true hand exists. We can say it is the sum of its parts, but the same logic can be applied to each part without end. And still there is no hand.
Or: If I am one, what am I? The brain, the heart? But these are merely agglomerations of cells. Is it a single cell? The proposition is absurd. Is the person identical to the body? If so, which part? If pressed, most people would say they are not the body. Yet are we different from the body? If so, why is the body such a big deal? If different, where and what is the self? If it is the mind, is it the thoughts or that which perceives the thoughts? If it is that which perceives, where is that? What does it look like? What does it feel like?
Modern physics is essentially doing this in regard to string theory and the nature of all. Strings go at about a trillion to a proton and every time one makes a random move, the opposite random move creates another universe, and most of the top scientists say it’s the only logical endpoint of quantum physics. But at some point, what can be said? It isn’t going to end. Reality has no bottom, nor has it edges.
‘Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise,’ Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, said. This seems to assert non-existence of phenomena, but confusing emptiness with nihilism is a fatal mistake on the spiritual path. Buddhism is an amazingly positivist philosophy. From the relative standpoint, the individual devotes his life to release from suffering, first for himself, then as the heart opens, for all sentient beings, knowing it is an impossible goal. But, when the mind becomes absorbed in this active compassion, one eye upon the absolute nature, perfect happiness is inescapable. The only thing left is to help forever, liberating beings one at a time. That’s the teaching.
By seeing through the illusion of the self, peace is attained. Genuine mastery is when no situation disturbs the understanding, not even death and torment. Suffering arises as bliss. Which is to say, utter non-attachment is the goal. Why? Because all is impermanent in any event. It cannot be held onto. Whatever arises must fall, whatever is born will die. If it ceases, it cannot be Real. Non-attachment accords with truth.