Philosophy – On Being A Buddhist Atheist

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it,
or who said it, no matter if I have said it, 
unless it agrees with your own reason
and your own common sense.”
– The Buddha

[Four things I like about Buddhism][Being receptive][The Life of the Buddha] – [The Four Noble Truths][The Noble Eightfold Path][Schools of Buddhism] – [Being a Buddhist][Wristbands]

 Buddha and Sky by Vicki Dodge

When I returned from my trip to Thailand in December 2004 and told some people how fascinated I had become with Buddhism most of them probably thought “What!? You?! Of all people?!” And indeed, I have to admit that it must have sounded quite strange coming from someone who had always detested religion in general. An atheist by heart who thought that throughout history religion had done more harm than good and was responsible for some of the biggest injustice against fellow human beings. Be it holy wars, inquisitions, the shady side of missionary work, or what have you. Somebody who didn’t shun any opportunity to express his opinions about religion. And now this same guy was fascinated by a religion to the extend that he claimed it had changed his life?

Well … yes. But then again, Buddhism isn’t really a religion in the traditional sense of the word. I would rather call it a philosophy or ‘way of life’ instead.

Four Things I Like About Buddhism

There’s a couple of reasons why I got so fascinated by Buddhism. First of all, it does not include all of the concepts I disliked so much in other religions. Like the existence of a God and creator. The existence of an afterlife in the form of heaven and hell. The thought that everything happens because it was God’s will. The concept of divine intervention. The existence of miracles you read about in many holy books. I’m too much a sceptic realist to believe in all of these concepts. Instead I believe in science and the theory of evolution. Now, the core of Buddhism doesn’t feature any of the mentioned concepts. And for those who might misunderstand, the Buddha is not a god. He was a human being, just like you and me. But a very special one at that, someone with unlimited wisdom, gained through enlightenment.

A second thing I like about Buddhism is that, unlike many other religions, there is no urge to convert other people to this way of thinking. Centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ Buddhism had already spread throughout certain parts of Asia, purely based on the free will and interest of the people who wanted to hear the teachings of the Buddha and his followers (Sangha). What’s more, Buddhism doesn’t consider itself to be superior to whatever other religion. As a matter of fact the Buddha said that we have to respect other religions and the Dalai Lama has often said that whereas Buddhism might be the best for him, that certainly does not mean that everybody should become a Buddhist. Everybody should stay with his or her own religion he grew up with, as long as they feel comfortable with it. What an enormous difference with the blood on the hands of many other religions.

Not having a God to ‘blame’ for all bad things that happen in life, Buddhism makes the individual responsible for his own life. This is a third thing I like about Buddhism. Someone’s suffering or happiness is the result of good and bad things (karma) this person has done in his life or previous lives. Now, I must admit that I’m not 100% convinced by the concept of reincarnation, but it still sounds much more believable than the concept of heaven and hell. And I like the concept of karma, which could be explained simplistically with ‘what goes around comes around’. If you do good, you will eventually find happiness, if you cause suffering, suffering will be yours in the future. In Buddhism you can’t rid yourself of your ‘sins’ by simply confessing and redeeming.

Another reason why I got interested in Buddhism was the situation I found myself in, making me very receptive for the philosophy of the Four Noble Truths (more about those later). While on vacation in Thailand, during our stay in Chiang Mai my girlfriend at that time decided to break up with me. This came as a tremendous shock. Not only had we already been together for more than two years, we had actually made plans to move in together only two weeks before. One of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha is that there is ‘Dukkha’, what might translate best into English as ‘suffering’ or ‘dissatisfaction’. It’s all around us and life is a continuous string of dukkha. Having had my fair share of dukkha through the years and finding myself in another painful situation this Noble Truth seemed all the more true, and I was all the more receptive for the other three.

The fourth reason why I like Buddhism is because it is a very practical philosophy. It offers lots of guidelines on how to live and act in everyday life (see the Noble Eightfold Path) and ‘tools’ like meditation to help you along the way. Besides that, I agree 100% with these guidelines, which stimulate ethical behaviour, respect for others, rejects greed and materialism and teaches people to accept and deal with misfortune. And in strong contrast with other religions, Buddhism doesn’t preach. It advises. Instead of saying ‘you shall’ the Buddha said ‘try to’.

Being receptive

“Soon the child’s eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines, and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day…we become seekers.”
– Peter Matthiessen

Before I came into contact with Thailand’s Buddhism I had been spending some time pondering life and the human race. During a short vacation I had a rather ‘deep’ conversation with my girlfriend in which we exchanged our opinions about the nature of humans. Thanks to the constant stream of news about the misbehaviors of mankind in the daily news, but also because of the total lack of integrity I saw around me in daily life and work I had become convinced that humans were ‘evil’ by nature. I was convinced that human beings had to do their utmost to lead a ‘good life’ and not be tempted by all forms of behaviour that would harm others or place them above others. She however had the opinion that humans were ‘good’ by definition and only a small part of them was tempted to do bad deeds. Whoever was right, it was clear that I had become very disillusioned by the way people treated each other. You’d only have to open the papers or turn on the TV to be hit straight in the face by a multiple of examples: terrorism, pointless violence, murder, robberies, fraud by business men, adultury, cheating, lying, etc.

And then came Thailand ….

It didn’t take long for me to understand that ‘the average Thai’ had a remarkable compassionate character and real urge to lead ‘the good life’. Their passion for Buddhism, the manner in which their whole daily life was ‘soaked’ in Buddhism and how they folded peace birds from paper in Bangkok as a token of kindness for the Muslims in the south of Thailand sparked my curiosity. Fascinated I listened to the stories our guide Anne told us in the temples we visited and when we finally reached Chiang Mai and walked in a bookstore to buy a map of the city my eye was caught by the last available copy of The Good Life, a tiny little booklet by one Gerald Roscoe. The booklet was a short introduction into Buddhism for the ‘Westerner’. It was a fascinating revelation. A few days later I bought two more booklets of the same series about the life of Buddhist monks and the life of the Buddha himself.

In his booklet Roscoe described how many Westerners, when they first come into contact with Buddhist teachings, realise that they’ve been Buddhists for years without even knowing it. After all, Buddhism isn’t a religion, but more a philosophy, a way of life. Theoretically it is very well possible for someone to be a Buddhist Atheist. And I had that exact same feeling when reading his booklet and I was convinced I should go and talk to Pra Santi, a western monk who was said to live in Chiang Mai and was described in Roscoe’s writings.
However, since the booklet had been written in 1992 I first decided to consult the Internet to see if the monk was still living in Chiang Mai. After some research I found, to my disappointment, that Pra Santi had moved to Australia. For the time being I had to be satisfied with Roscoe’s booklets.

There’s a lot to tell about Buddhism, and surely this is not the right place to go into great detail. Nevertheless, I’d like to share some of the fascinating basics of Buddhism with you. When interested, simply check out the recommended readings or links for more information.

The life of the Buddha

In the 6th century before Christ a young prince named Siddhartha Guatama lived in Northern India. His father, the king, tried to protect his son as much as possible from sights of illness, old age and death. When Siddharta eventually did see these situations of suffering he realised how meaningless his royal life was. He decided to give up his luxurious life and search for enlightenment. After many travels and not having found what he searched for in many existing philosophies he nearly died of extreme fasting. When a girl offered him a bowl of rice and he regained strength after eating it he realised that neither his former life of wealth, nor this extreme deprivation were the answer. The middle way between these two was the right one. After long days of meditation under a bodhi tree he gained insight and wisdom and eventually enlightenment. Siddharta became the Buddha (the Enhlightened One) and dedicated the rest of his life teaching his Dharma to anybody who wanted to listen.

Oh, one more thing. The laughing, fat bloke that is often named ‘Buddha’ is not the historical Buddha described above. As a matter of fact he was a Boddhisatva (see below) named Pu-tai Ho-shang or “Hemp-bag monk” in China and Hotei in Japan. According to some believes he was an early incarnation of Maitreya, a future Buddha.

The Four Noble Thruths

The Buddha and his followers developed teachings and a series of practical guidelines for living a good life (the Dharma) and a more extensive set of rules (Patamokkha) to be followed by those (monks) who wanted to obtain enlightenment. Among the most important teachings are the Four Noble Truths:

  1. There is Dukkha. Dukkha can be described as suffering, pain, sadness, loss, not getting something you would like to have or getting something you do not want, etc. For the sake of simplicity: all unpleasant, dissatisfying and traumatic aspects of life.
  2. Dukkha is caused by craving to satisfy our needs, by ignorance and by hatred. Just think about the constant strive for long life, status, power and wealth.
  3. Dukkha, or suffering, can be stopped by giving up these cravings and gaining wisdom and insight into the real nature of life through enlightenment.
  4. Dukkha can be eliminated (or minimised) by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold path could be considered the ‘golden mean’ or ‘middle way’ between abundance and deprivation.

The Noble Eightfold Path

In a nutshell, the Noble Eightfold path consists of eight guidelines in three groups.

Insight and Wisdom:

  • Right understanding: understanding the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma and the law of Karma.
  • Right intention: giving up ambition, revenge, hatred, greed, lust and violence.

Ethical behaviour:

  • Right speech: don’t lie, don’t curse, be honest and courteous, don’t gossip and say bad things about others.
  • Right action: refrain as much as possible from taking the life of living beings, don’t take what has not been given (stealing), avoid recklessness by alcohol and drugs, avoid improper sexual behaviour (including adultery and sex with minors).
  • Right livelihood: chose a job that does not conflict with the Noble Eightfold Path and does not harm others.

Mental Discipline:

  • Right effort: avoid evil manners, aim for goodness. Developing the will power to change our thoughts and habits. Developing the intuition to control our state of mind.
  • Right mindfulness: being conscious of the human body, health of the body and consciousness of every thought, every word and every deed.
  • Right concentration: basically this means the proper meditation to gain insight and wisdom.

The Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path translate themselves in a large number of advises and practical guidelines for living.


Schools of Buddhism

Since the enlightenment of Siddharta, Buddhism has developed into four main schools. Two centuries after the Buddha died, Buddhism divided into two schools: Theravada and Mahayana.

Theravada Buddhism: Theravada means ‘The Teaching of the Elders’. This school focussed on perfecting ones own life according to the original teachings of the Buddha, recorded in the Pali scriptures, in order to reach one’s own enlightenment. This tradition remains active in South-East Asia (Thailand, Birma, Sri-Lanka, Laos and Cambodia). There is a strong emphasis on Vipassana meditation in this tradition, aiming for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.

Mahayana Buddhism: Instead of focussing on the individual this school focuses on helping others to attain enlightenment. Catchwords are compassion, loving kindness, the Boddhisattva, anatta (non-self) and sunyata (emptiness). The Mahayana tradition developed a whole range of sutras in addition to the Buddha’s own teachings (e.g. the Lotus, Heart and Diamond Sutra). The Mahayana tradition remains active in the Northern parts of Asia (China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, etc as well as Vietnam).

The table below sums up the biggest differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

Theravada Mahayana
Emphasis on self-discipline and individual efforts. The ideal of the ‘Boddhisattva’ (Buddha to be) is accessible to everybody. The Boddhisattva offers help to others to free them from suffering.
Emphasis on insight and wisdom. Emphasis on compassion.
Conservative: sticks to the original Buddhism and the Pali Canon. Open for new additions.
Oriented towards the monastic order (Sangha) and the authority of monks. More accessible for laymen.
Buddha as a wise man. Buddha as a saviour. Development of a pantheon and cult of heavenly Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s who are receptive to the prayers of believers.
There is no divine intervention. Divine intervention is possible.
A minimum of metaphysics. Very detailed metaphysics.
A minimum of rituals. Emphasis on rituals.
Overall a rather simple tradition. Has a large variety of traditions, including the Japanese Zen Buddhism and the Tibetan Buddhism.

Source: Stichting Vipassana Meditatie Groningen.


Between the 5th and 11th century the Mahayana school developed into three other traditions: Vajrayana (or Tibetan) Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism: In this school the lama’s are the spiritual leaders of the people. The Dalai Lama is the most important of them and Tenzin Gyatso is the current, 14th Dalai Lama. This truly inspiring person is believed to be the latest reincarnation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Tibetan Buddhism in itself has evolved in four schools: Nyingma-Pa (emphasising on meditation and tantras), Kagya-Pa (the oral tradition), Sakya-Pa (the scholarly tradition) and Gelug-Pa (the tradition of the Dalai Lama).

Pure Land Buddhism: In strong contrast with other Buddhist traditions, this school believed in a Western Paradise of Pure Land. The strive of followers in this school are to be reincarnated in this Pure Land which is presided over by Amitabha Buddha (the Buddha of Infinite Light).

Zen Buddhism: In Japan the Mahayana school evolved into the school of Zen Buddhism, which believes that enlightenment can be attained in this earthly life. Catchwords for Zen Buddhism are ‘koans’ (riddles that have no logical answer; for example, What was your face before your parents were born?), zazen (sitting) meditation and the relationship between teacher and disciple.

Now, having read all of this and remembering the opening texts on this page, it will probably not come as a big surprise that I personally prefer the Theravada school. Although I find the concept of the ‘Boddhisattva’ and pursuit of compassion quite fascinating and worthy of respect, Mahayana Buddhism has developed certain characteristics which I’ve always disliked so much in other religions (e.g. divine intervention, rituals, etc). I’ve therefore chosen to focus myself on the Theravada tradition, with a healthy interest in certain aspects of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. And as far as Zen Buddhism goes, that’s far too vague and woolly for my taste. I’ve got enough problems understanding the Theravada teaching as it is. 😉

For more detailed information about these schools, click here.

Being a Buddhist

Okay, so I’ve decided to “become” a Buddhist. Gosh. Now, what does that all mean? At first I gave the small Buddha statue I bought in Chiang Mai a prominent place in my living room, surrounded by candles. Not as a form of worship but out of respect for his teachings and a beacon of peace. And as a way to remind me of the things he taught his followers. I bought several books on Buddhism and I continue to learn more about the Dharma and what it all means in daily life. Now don’t think that this has changed me a lot as a person. Sure, I might have become slightly more considerate and thoughtful, but as I mentioned earlier the Buddhist way was already something which matched quite well with my personal view of how one should live his or her life. As such, you could consider all of this a steppingstone to something I was already practicing more or less.

Now one of the shelfs of my bookcase has slowly filled itself with books on Buddhism by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Frits Koster and more. Yes, even a Buddhism for Dummies! Two more Buddha statues adorn the living room, as well as a big Tibetan thangka of the ‘wheel of life’ and a tattoo of the Eyes of Buddha adorns my own back …

The 14th Dalai Lama The Eyes of the Buddha Thich Nhat Hanh (Thai)

The next step was learning more about meditation. Quite a big leap for me. As someone who can hardly sit still and waste a minute of time doing nothing I didn’t see myself very easily adopting meditation. I have however bought a couple of books and since April 2008 I have been practising Vipassana 20 minutes of every weekday on and off. I have also started delving into the Ten Paramitas through lectures by Jack Kornfield.


So, what’s with the wristbands? Coloured wristbands have been ‘in fashion’ for the last couple of years and earlier in 2005 I was actually wearing a textile white band for the Make Poverty History campaign. I eventually got a bit fed up with the need of washing and having to tie them, so I started to look for something different. It had to be something that was quite personal to me though, so I wasn’t all that interested in the standard ‘coloured statements’. That’s when I found a website on the Internet that sold personalised wristbands; you could actually have your own text embossed in the bands (up to a certain number of characters that is). I decided to buy two and use the colours black and white as a symbol of contrast.

The black band shows three words that are known as the Three Marks of Existence. These could be considered three realities of life that many people don’t understand or accept, but which are invaluable in order to see things as they really are:

  • Dukkha. The concept of Dukkha has been explained above. The reality of life is that Dukkha, or suffering, exists and you cannot escape it. Therefore it has to be accepted and dealt with.
  • Anicca. This basically means ‘impermanence’; everything is subject to change, nothing is permanent or stays as it is. This also goes for moments of happiness or unhappiness. Not being able to understand and accept the concept of Anicca can cause more dissatisfaction, thus Dukkha.
  • Anatta. This is the most difficult of the three concepts and one I’m still struggling with myself. Anatta means ‘non-self’, or the non-existence of a permanent self or soul. Instead, one’s personality is made up of five changing factors – body, feeling, perception, mental activity (including the will) and consciousness. So at any given time someone can be considered the sum of these five factors, which will be influenced by experience in the past as well.

You could say that these Three Marks of Existence sum up the elusiveness of life. You can control your life up to a certain extend but most of the things that happen around you or happen to you are outside your control. Personally, this black band and the understanding of the symbolism helps me to accept the nature of life.

The white band could be considered the way to deal with the black band, or the way to help you accept the Three Marks of Existence and the elusiveness of life. This band shows the intitials of the aforementioned Eightfold Path: View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentraction.