Thursday, January 04, 2007

Atheism and Buddhism

By Uncle Cheng

Readers of this column will know I am a Buddhist. I have often stated as much. But I now wonder if it is possible to be a Buddhist and an atheist at the same time.

This question has arisen after I read the latest, totally fascinating, book by Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University. The title is “The God Delusion” and it is currently a runaway best seller in Europe and America. I have no doubt that a Chinese translation will be on the shelves in Hong Kong before long.

Dawkins is a scientist, an evolutionary biologist to be precise, but he writes for non-scientific readers. In “The God Delusion” he uses science and fact-based logic to demolish the “myths” that any god has ever existed. He demonstrates forcefully how destructive religions have been in history and continue to be so even today. Religion is, he argues, a curse on modern society.

What caught my special attention are the professor’s comments about Buddhism. Is Buddhism, he asks, a religion? His answer is that Buddhism is unlike normal religions and is more of a set of moral and philosophical beliefs.

His exact words are “I shall not be concerned at all with ... Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.” Therefore, if Buddhism is not a religion it is possible for a Buddhist to be an atheist. It is a novel and most intriguing thought.

The religions which Dawkins aims his venom at especially are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His most scathing condemnations are of Christianity.

As for Buddhism I agree with the professor that Buddhism is best not treated as a religion because Buddha made no claims to godhood. Confucianism is even further removed from being a religion than Buddhism since Confucius was a philosopher who never preached about a soul or an after-life.

A famous remark of Confucius’ was “Devote yourself to the proper demands of the people, respect the ghosts and spirits but keep them at a distance — this may be called wisdom”. It was acceptable that in those unscientific days people did believe in ghosts and spirits. On another occasion Confucius remarked “We don’t know yet about life, how can we know about death.”

Of course the Buddhist sutras were not written during Buddha’s lifetime but hundreds of years, just as the Christian gospels were written after Jesus’s death. Buddha’s teachings concentrated on our actions in this life and taught how desire is the cause of all suffering. The eradication of desire brings the ending of suffering. So it is that Buddhism teaches the correct way to conduct our lives.

Buddha had only two devoted disciples in his lifetime and it is worth remembering that the pantheon of gods which enriched many schools of Buddhism were all created long after Buddha’s life. As an example, the pure land school of Buddhism which is so popular in Japan originated in the Ghandara region of northwest India. Some 500 years after Buddha’s death, under the influence of Hindu beliefs in past and future Buddhas, there emerged the Buddha Amitabha, the patron deity of the pure land school.

As I finished reading Dawkins’ denunciations of religion, I wondered if he is really a communist at heart. He would have much in common with Karl Marx and for that matter with Chairman Mao. After all it was Marx who famously wrote:

“Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”