Buddhism for Humanists

Revised 20 February 2018

Estonian translation by Johanne Teerink.
Uzbek translation by Sherali Nyazova
Russian translation by Sandi Wolfe


Westerners who are otherwise hostile to religion, particularly Christianity, sometimes say that they are well disposed towards Buddhism because it is more "rational" than other religions. But in recent years such opinions have been heard rather less frequently, owing to the growth in popularity of Tibetan Buddhism.

Since the Chinese annexation of Tibet and the displacement of most prominent Tibetan religious figures, including the Dalai Lama, to the West, our knowledge of Tibetan religion has emerged from the misty realm of legend and mystery into the light of day. Numerous books on Tibetan religious practices have appeared and Tibetan monasteries have been established in several Western countries.

Buddhism in many people's understanding is now synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism, which is characterized by esoteric beliefs, elaborate rituals, and complex meditation practices; it also assigns a central role to rebirth. As a result, the popular idea of Buddhism is rather different now from what it was a few decades ago, and secularists are probably more likely today to dismiss Buddhism automatically as something that doesn't interest them.

More than one kind of Buddhism

But Tibetan Buddhism is not the only kind. Today there are two main forms of Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada. (There were others in the past but they no longer exist.) Mahayana Buddhism, which is the category that Tibetan Buddhism belongs to, is indeed elaborate and complex in comparison with Theravada Buddhism, which is relatively austere and unemotional.

As a rough analogy, Mahayana could be compared with Roman Catholicism or perhaps Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity, Theravada with Presbyterianism (appropriately, because "Theravada" means "Teaching of the Elders", which is also what "Presbyterianism" means). But note that this is indeed only a very rough analogy, intended just to give a preliminary idea of the "feel" of the two traditions. (To complicate matters still further, Zen is classified as Mahayana, yet it is comparatively austere and has a degree of resemblance to Theravada.)

Mahayana Buddhism contains elements derived from Tantrism, an occult Indian mystical system that is associated with methods of inducing altered states of consciousness, including esoteric sexual practices; hence much of its fascination for certain Westerners. The following comments apply mainly to Theravada Buddhism.

The role of belief in Buddhism

One of the ways in which Buddhism differs from religions such as Christianity is that it is not much concerned with questions of belief. You don't become a Buddhist in the way that you become a born-again Christian, by undergoing an emotional conversion. Rather, you look at the ideas of Buddhism and, if you find they appeal to you, you may decide to incorporate them into your life. And you may practise Buddhist meditation without necessarily calling yourself a Buddhist.

From the Buddhist point of view it is a mistake to become preoccupied with matters of belief; these are just opinions and not of ultimate importance. And labels don't matter either. If you make a big fuss about identifying yourself as a Buddhist you've probably misunderstood what Buddhism actually is!

Beliefs are seen as attitudes of mind, and therefore neither to be fought against nor adhered to. This has important consequences. It means, for example, that there is no need for Buddhists to get into a quandary about science. Unlike Biblical literalists, Buddhists have no problem with Darwinian evolution. It's hard to think of any scientific discovery or theory that would threaten essential Buddhism.

God in Buddhism

Buddhism has often been called an atheistic religion, but this is misleading. The true Buddhist position is more that of standing aside from questions about God. The Judaeo-Christian religions postulate a God who creates the world, but for Buddhists the world is simply there. It has the properties it has, and that is all we can say about it.

Gods do figure in Buddhist tradition, being inherited from Hinduism, but they are not creators; they are part of the cosmos, subject to death like other beings. And it is unnecessary to be concerned with them; as a monk once remarked to Richard Gombrich, "Gods are nothing to do with religion".

It is thus perfectly possible to be an atheistic Buddhist, whereas it is difficult to be an atheistic Christian (although some modern theologians seem to have managed it). But given the Buddhist attitude to dependence on beliefs, agnosticism might be the better option for the Buddhist.

For Christians, the problem of reconciling God's omnipotence with his benevolence is notoriously difficult. For Buddhists there is no such problem; the world is simply what it is and we don't have to explain or justify the existence of suffering within it.

The soul in Buddhism

The question of the soul is a difficult one for most religions today, since it appears to entail some form of mind–body dualism, which is hard to maintain in the face of our modern awareness of the critical importance of the brain as the basis of mind and personality. But a materialist understanding of the mind doesn't pose any real difficulty for Buddhists.

In fact, one of the central teachings of the Buddha was that there is no persisting Self. Of course, on the practical level we all do have a personality, which persists, with changes, throughout our lives; but the Buddha decisively rejected the view that there is some over-arching Self or Spirit beyond this.

Buddhism and Western philosophy

As has often been remarked, the Buddha's teaching about the self is remarkably similar to the view of David Hume. Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy resembles Buddhism to a considerable extent, as he recognised, although he seems to have arrived at his views before he heard about Buddhism. Among modern philosophers, Derek Parfit and Galen Strawson have noted the relevance of Buddhism to their ideas. The psychologist Susan Blackmore, likewise, finds her view of the mind to have much in common with Buddhism; she has practised Zen meditation for many years.

Rebirth in Buddhism

This is probably the Buddhist idea that most often troubles Western intellectuals who feel some attraction to Buddhism. In fact, it's quite a difficult question for Buddhists themselves, because, as noted above, it's a fundamental notion in Buddhism that there is no persisting Self—no detachable soul which could continue from one life to the next. Yet the Buddha appears to have accepted the Indian belief in rebirth, which was already current in his time.

But how could this be, if there is nothing to continue from one life to the next? One explanation offered is that the last thoughts of the dying person condition the birth of someone who is due to be born later. But this doesn't seem to be a fully satisfactory answer, and it raises as many problems as it solves.

At least one prominent Buddhist teacher in modern times is reported to have rejected the rebirth idea. My own experience of Theravada monks in Britain has been that they adopt a non-committal attitude to the matter. All the emphasis is on the here and now, with little being said about any possible future or past lives.

The Buddha himself consistently refused to be drawn into metaphysical questions of this kind, and it is still entirely possible for someone to practise Buddhist meditation and call themselves a Buddhist while being agnostic about rebirth or even dismissing it altogether as an outmoded belief. Belief, once again, is not the issue.

The wider picture

In his book on the Buddha Michael Carrithers (see below) writes: "His teaching was suited to a world of different political philosophies and different religions, but a world in which certain basic values must guide personal relations if we are to live together at all, and it is difficult to see how that mastery could be irrelevant to us." It's difficult to disagree with this.

Many of us today feel that the world is faced by almost insuperable problems: war, terrorism, ecological and environmental catastrophe. All these things arise from our own minds; they are in principle soluble, but the solutions appear to be beyond our reach. What makes them unattainable is largely human greed and short-sightedness. We are blinded by our own desires, and trample on others and destroy our world in order to attain our ends.

A world in which Buddhist values were the norm rather than the exception would certainly be a pleasanter place to live in. It may be that such a state is unattainable, but unless we at least approach it there seems little chance that our society will endure for very long. This is surely something that concerns secularists as much as the religiously minded; in fact, rather more so, since for secularists this is the only world we have.

Suggested reading

Here are some of the books that I have found valuable in learning more about Buddhism. There are many others that might have been cited, but these should give a balanced introduction to the subject. More extended reviews of some of them can be found on my book reviews page in the religion category, along with reviews of books on related subjects.