What does it mean to be a religion without a God? More broadly, what does it mean to live without an exterior savior of any kind?
In the 1930’s, the scholar Helmuth von Glassenapp published a book entitled Buddhism: A Non-theistic Religion. In this title the author was making the point that unlike most of the other world religions, Buddhism denies the ultimate existence of any “God” or deity. As von Glassenapp indicates, non-theism is fundamental to Buddhism and stands right at the heart of its spirituality.
Unfortunately, people in the West have sometimes jumped to the conclusion that Buddhists do not believe in the existence of gods or other unseen beings at all. Wishing Buddhism to be true to modern scientific materialism and philosophical rationalism, they believe that Buddhism is eminently “empirical” and denies the existence of anything that cannot be seen with the senses or proved in some kind of objectively verifiable manner.
But this is not the sense in which Buddhists are non-theistic. Buddhists everywhere believe in an “unseen world” inhabited by a full range of gods, demi-gods, spirits, ghosts and demons. In addition, all Buddhists-except, perhaps, modern Western ones-pray continually to buddhas, bodhisattvas and great teachers not only for inspiration, but for practical guidance and help.
In these various ways, Buddhists certainly seem to be behaving like worshippers in the world’s theistic religions. This raises the question: what exactly is Buddhist non-theism?
Briefly put, non-theism in Buddhism means that what is ultimately true and real cannot be found in any external god or being. Any such being has location, qualities and some kind of existence, and is therefore subject to causes and conditions. There is, according to Buddhism, something far more fundamental than this.
Theism implies an inherent limitation to human nature. It declares that to attain the ultimate, we must look outside of ourselves and our immediate experience. It establishes a reference point for reality that resides somewhere else and directs us to seek confirmation of the self in relation to that.
The doctrines of original sin or inherent human depravity would be examples of theism in its more extreme forms. They are typical in asserting that we can connect ourselves to the ultimate only by making a relation with that which is exterior to us, and that we can do so only through the agency of a savior, a holy book, a religious institution, and so on.
In Buddhism, the meaning of theism is best understood when set in a wider context. In a larger sense, theism refers to anything outside of us that purports to solve the human predicament. It may be spiritual; it may be secular. Some people seek salvation in an external deity. But others seek it in a philosophical viewpoint or political movement, in a relationship, in social status, or in material acquisition.
In each case, the individual seeks ultimate confirmation and fulfillment by looking outside. What is already present within his or her experience, what arises throughout the course of a day or a life, is discounted as being without ultimate value. In a sense, whether the external “answer” is materialistic, psychological or religious does not really matter.
The Buddhist approach states that what is ultimately required for human fulfillment is a perfection of being that is found in who we already are. This is the meaning of the Buddha’s advice given shortly before his death and recounted in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, in which he councils his followers to be lights unto themselves, to seek refuge in themselves, and to seek no other refuge, using the dharma as a means to that end.
Here the Buddha directs us to rely only on ourselves, using various methods to explore our own human nature as it exists right now. This exploration is not a one-sided introversion. Rather, it is looking at our present experiences of both the “internal” and “external” worlds to see what lies at their base, beneath the constant chatter of discursive thinking. Then from within our own experience is gradually uncovered what is ultimately real. This is our buddhanature-that which is open, clear, all-wise and limitlessly compassionate.
In fact, it is this very nature that is habitually projected onto “supernatural beings.” It is in this sense that the Buddha, the prototype of the enlightened person, is called the devatideva in the early texts-the god above gods. The Buddha fully understands the deities-that while they may appear to exist on a relative level, they have no final reality. Instead, they are projections of the deepest qualities of our own human nature. This understanding is attained through the practice of meditation, in which the temporary defilements that obscure the buddhanature are gradually stripped away.
It is true not all Buddhists are non-theistic in this sense. One may be a Buddhist but also a theist, if one believes that enlightenment is something external and looks to texts, human teachers or institutions to provide the final answers.
Nor are all Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus theistic. One can be a good Christian, for example, and be non-theistic in the Buddhist understanding, if one admits the presence of a “Christ within,” as the Hesychasts do, and takes St. Paul’s perspective that when one does good, “It is not I, but Christ within me.” In similar fashion, Hindu advaita Vedanta, certain strands of Kabbala, and aspects of Sufism conform to the definition of non-theism.
Finally, it is interesting to note that theism is not universally condemned in Buddhism. In fact, it is said to be a necessary component of the path, not only at the beginning but right up until enlightenment itself. Perhaps in order to enter the path at all, one must believe that there is a tradition of teachers, texts and practice “out there” that will provide some answers to one’s basic life questions. It is only through locating the ultimate outside of oneself in the form of projections that one can rouse the motivation to traverse the path. Even for the bodhisattvas of the high levels (bhumis), there is some sense, however subtle, of a final enlightenment to be attained.
There is no need to worry, then, that the dharma is necessarily being perverted when one finds Buddhists acting like spiritual practitioners in “theistic” religions. Of concern, rather, are those modern Buddhists who utterly abjure theism even in its relative and pragmatic senses. In turning away from devotion, veneration and supplication of the enlightened ones, they are rejecting the most powerful methodology that Buddhism possesses.