The Problem with Buddhism

Here on Atheist Republic you can find news stories, blogs, memes, and discussion groups on almost every religion. But Buddhism, despite being the world’s fourth largest religion, doesn’t get much coverage 1. Perhaps it’s because there is no Buddhist equivalent of the horrors of the Jewish Torah adopted by Christians as their “Old Testament” or the Muslim Koran from which titillating quotes can be gleaned to highlight the shortcomings and inconsistency of the religion with current morality and science. And it lacks the self-evidentiary milk pouring, cow dung worshiping, and caste system insanity of Hinduism. But it’s also largely because of a general difficulty with generalizations about a highly diverse religion (and because of that diversity, people will find lots of legitimate reasons to criticize this blog, with due justification). It’s been said that there are 84,000 branches of Buddhism, within three general classifications. And every practitioner of Buddhism is considered to have it within themselves to become “enlightened” and therefore a Buddha – and there is nothing superior, god or prophet, to this human accomplishment.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism started out, and still largely remains at its core, a philosophy dedicated to controlling an individual’s emotions through quasi-monastic practices, principal among which is meditation. Everything else is usually described as an aid to achieving this end, although there are sects which also throw in some after death benefits such as being reborn out of a lotus flower in a celestial pond of tranquility (such as in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism) or avoiding another rebirth under a strict doctrine of reincarnation (such as in Tibetan Buddhism, known as Vajrayana).

The original philosophy was allegedly founded by Siddhārtha Gautama 2, the son of a local noble, somewhere on the Northeastern Indian Subcontinent. Presumably he was raised as what we would now call a Hindu, and left his family to take up an itinerate life practicing various physical deprivations as a means of achieving mental awareness sometime in the 5th Century BCE. He gave up on these physical techniques, and adopted what has been called the Middle Way (mid-way between deprivation and indulgence) as a means to enlightenment. At 35, while practicing sitting meditation, he is said to have achieved enlightenment (an undefinable term of higher consciousness), and then went on to tell others about his doctrine (the Noble Truths and Eightfold Path) and attracted a group of followers during his lifetime, which ended at the age of 80. There is virtually no contemporaneous independent collaboration for any of this, but then none of it is supernatural either, and certainly a new philosophy and meditative discipline was founded at about this time which is what developed into Buddhism.

The basis of Buddhism is set out in the Four Noble Truths: 1) life is suffering; 2) suffering is caused by desire/greed; 3) there is a way to end suffering, by ending desire/greed; and 4) a way to end suffering (it’s never stated as the only way) is to follow the Eightfold Path. Some people on casual inspection won’t peruse Buddhism further, as they consider their own life to be happy or not full of an inordinate amount of personal suffering. But that is to miss the point of what “suffering” is, as most people have unrequited desires or lack constant control of their emotions. Some new English translations now use the word “stress” instead of “suffering. 3 ” But still, it’s not for everyone and, indeed, was never designed or intended to be for everyone. Buddhism was never conceptualized in its earliest forms as a “religion” and everything in its first few hundred years of existence supports that view.

So, what is the Eightfold Path? The Dali Lama has called it simply “compassion” and that is a pretty apt summary. Technically, it’s: 1) right view, which means seeing things as they are (no illusions) 4 ; 2) right intention, which means the renunciation of desire and promoting good will, and harmlessness; 3) right speech, which means being honest, avoiding conflicts, being polite, and forgoing gossip; 4) right action, which means acting in harmony with the compassion espoused in the Eightfold Path (i.e., “practice what you preach” or “don’t be a hypocrite in your actions”); 5) right livelihood, which means living a life where you are not forced to kill, steal, misuse sex, lie, or overindulge in intoxicants 5 ; 6) right diligence, which means trying to eliminate personal qualities like anger, greed and ignorance, and cultivating qualities like compassion, wisdom and generosity; 7) right mindfulness, which means being in control of your own mind, and not subject to idle daydreaming, anxiety, or anticipation; and 8) right concentration, which is usually taken to mean meditation.

The interesting thing is that, to an outside observer, all of these things, with the possible exception in some circumstances of item 5, are invisible. You don’t have to wear anything special, you don’t have to cut bits of your body off so some god knows you’re one of His people, you don’t need to eat differently than other people 6 , and there are no overt public acts like prayer, making sacrifices, attending religious services, giving dues to the religious order, and so on. For those who feel they need help and guidance, monasteries were established to teach the doctrine, but that was not something for wide-scale public consumption nor was it an overt intention to proselytize 7 .

Cultural practices later added various elements of these things to many Buddhist sects, probably as an attempt to make the philosophy more attractive to local peoples, and in actual practice many people adopted customs to self-identify themselves 8 , such as amulets, hand-held prayer wheels, rosaries, tattoos, silly hats (which always seem to be popular with humans) and uniforms, and so on. But by this time, Buddhism in many places had become a religion 9 . But there is nothing about this in the core teachings. Buddhism is a “religion” best practiced, and only capable of being achieved, alone 10 .

Buddhism is not in any sense an egalitarian philosophy. When you baptize people in Christianity, they all emerge from the water with the same condition or in a “state of grace”. The same is true when people profess their faith in Islam. Everyone around you is expected to have the same degree of salvation or divine reward. Largely, you have to follow the rules on what is not to be done (murder, eating shrimp, going bareheaded, farting loudly in church, etc.), and certain things that are to be done (e.g., baptism, giving alms, prayer 5 times a day, etc.), but these are always within the capabilities of your average person.  This is not true in Buddhism, where only people who work hard at meditation 11 achieve the ultimate benefit. Most Buddhists never expect to accomplish this.

This is why Buddhist laity generally have such a high degree of respect and admiration for those who do dedicate their lives to the pursuit of enlightenment – monks and nuns. This is a fundamentally different form of respect than that accorded to imams, rabbis or priests in the monotheisms 12 . In those religions, the individual is accorded respect due to their perceived closeness to the godhead. The respect is clearly part of the institution of these religions, and their positions are justified and sanctified by the religious doctrine itself 13 . In Buddhism, those accorded this respect are entirely self-selected, as anyone can become a monk, and everyone understands the personal sacrifices and hard work which is required to undertake this effort to achieve enlightenment. So, people are happy to do what they can, as in donating food, to help those who make this effort. Also, if an individual is known to practice Buddhism strongly in their personal life, even though they are not a monk, you will see a similar respect accorded to them.

The core point of Buddhism is achieving control of your own mind, through your own efforts, the principal recommended one being meditation. Meditation in Buddhism does not allow you to levitate, have a brighter aura, travel the astral plane, predict the stock market, cure your body of diseases, eliminate body odor, increase the size of your breasts/penis, or any of the other odd claims that you may have seen as benefits of mediation in the popular press. In Buddhism, it’s all hard work, and its sole benefit is to gain control of your own mind. If you think this is easy, then try to count your breaths while you read this. See how long you can do it before you forget to count one, or lose count entirely. The mind is a constant maelstrom of thoughts, most of which arise unbidden. An early tangible benefit of meditation is perhaps better concentration, in addition to the more distant objective of controlling your own emotions and thoughts. It’s like exercising your body. A couple days of training won’t let you accomplish your goals, and many people give up when there is no immediate benefit and the considerable amount of effort that will be required to accomplish any results becomes obvious.

The ability to control your thoughts and emotions, and thereby ending your own personal “suffering”, is often translated as “enlightenment,” 14 and many early Buddhists who were immersed in the religion of Hinduism often sought to explain the transition in terms used by the Hindu religion which had celestial implications as well as psychological ones. Buddhism originally grew out of, and in some ways was a rejection of, Hinduism. The core tenets of Hinduism, such as the caste system, the progression of rebirths, and cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, all occurring within the single Brahman (according to the monist Advaita Vedanta tradition, where the Atman 15 and Brahman are usually considered as one reality) are anathema to a philosophical Buddhism, but have partly re-arisen in various sects of religious Buddhism.

Buddhism has been disparaged and deemphasized at times in India, China and Japan, in the latter two largely because of its being a “foreign” institution, while the local elites wanted to solidify public support behind a more malleable religious or philosophical institution, such as Confucianism or Shinto both of which strongly emphasize obedience to the State and ruling elites. In general, Buddhism and its influence is largely absent from most of the great events occurring in countries with large numbers of Buddhists. There is no Buddhist Pope, no ultimate canonical doctrine or single writing that rises to the level of a Bible or Koran 16 , and the whole point of Buddhism is to reject earthly attachments. Buddhist regimes were usually known for religious tolerance, such as in the Kushan Empire and in China for most of the Tang Dynasty and on a more limited basis up until the Ming Dynasty 17 .

Unlike the major competing philosophies and religions in Asia, such as Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism, Taoism, Shinto, and various pantheistic animist and folk religion traditions, Buddhism never really set out a set of principles for governance of a State. While it did become an institution in most countries, it never really institutionalized any society with its own imprint. Perhaps this was because of the significant difference between the monks, who were committed to the discipline, and the laity who were rather lightly committed to the philosophy and attendant religious additive trappings? As a result, it was often intentionally diminished in social and cultivated cultural importance in India, China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and it never really put up a fight against this.

So, is it a religion or a philosophy?

The simple answer is that it depends on how the individual practices it. I would use the rather artificial distinction between philosophy and religion as being one of supernatural intent. Many “atheist” philosophies in the course of history have had supernatural underpinnings, usually in the sense that they were appealing to a higher level for a justification of their advocated moral order – with the supernatural power usually being designated as some aspect of “nature” 18 . So, Buddhism as a religion would be a designation that would apply to anyone who felt that there was a supernatural answer to prayers, or an ability to influence a soul’s reincarnation, or any after-death benefit. Buddhism as a philosophy would be applied to anyone who does not hold the former perspectives.

Here in Thailand where I happen to live you find both sorts of people at the same Wat (a Thai word for a monastery/temple complex), and even as between the monks themselves. A stone’s throw from a Wat near me, there is a popular Hindu statue, which people will go to for prayers for good luck or personal benefits, just after or before going into the Buddhist Wat. Does it bother the monks? “Not if it makes them a better person” or “not if it makes them happy” are the standard responses. One told me “maybe it works, who knows, but it’s not important to Buddhism” which is a good example of the mentality behind the exceptional degree of non-confrontation usually shown by Buddhists.

Imagine a Christian Church where the parishioners exited on Sunday morning and then walked over to a Hindu idol and poured milk on it while invoking the god’s blessings for a win on their next lottery ticket. Or how about a Muslim mosque emptying after Friday prayers, and the members going next door to have a beer and bacon sandwich while listening to a lecture on Scientology? Buddhism has never said there is only one way to achieve the desired result of “enlightenment” and other ways are just as valid. They can generally co-exist 19 with pretty much everyone, which has often resulted in Buddhism taking on some of the elements of the local religions, as in Thailand where many Hindu elements are often found in Buddhists’ practices and local beliefs compared to China where some popular Buddhist sects have many Taoist elements. This may also help explain why Buddhism has faded from many countries where it was once a dominant philosophy/religion. Accommodation is not a good strategy when dealing with other religions which practice overt competition and seek dominance and uniformity 20 .

And this differential in the conceptualization of what Buddhism is lies within virtually all sects of Buddhism, of which there are more than anyone can count, since they overlap and don’t usually have core tenets different from the 5 Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. There are thousands of Buddhist sutras and authoritative writings. Anyone can write one. No one has a lock on the truth, because it’s within each person to be able to discover it. Every human being has the capacity to become a Buddha, which merely means someone who has attained enlightenment and “awakened”.

Imagine a Muslim saying each person could become as close to Allah as was Mohammad? Or a Jew thinking that everyone could be as important to YHWH as was the murderous rapist King David? Or a Christian believing that anyone could be as holy as Jesus? All three religions in their day would have slaughtered the originator of such beliefs as a heretic.

This is not to say that institutions do not develop within Buddhism which try to impose orthodoxy, and this has been true in Sri Lanka, Tibet, Myanmar and to a lesser extent Thailand in recent years. But historically, it’s a game that has never been won and the orthodoxy only ever extends to the monasteries and principal temples themselves. Buddhists have never been known to burn heretics. Indeed, the concept would really be contrary to Buddhism’s core beliefs (which is not to say that Buddhists don’t get very angry, sometimes murderously so, if people “offend” their beliefs – same as with any tribal link, like nationalism, ethnocentrism, and of course other religions – but this is a human response, and is not dictated by the religion/philosophy itself).

But what about the Buddhist bigots?

There are indeed bigots everywhere, I am sorry to say that some of the worst ones I know personally happen to be atheist. But there are very few historical examples of Buddhist inspired institutional bigotry. The Rohingya situation in Myanmar is not really about religion at all, it’s about ethnicity, and it’s been going on for decades and is a situation largely caused by the UK when they controlled what was then Burma 21

The other major case of alleged modern Buddhist bigotry is also largely tribal, in Sri Lanka. There the history is between the Tamils (many of whom happen to still be Hindus) and Sinhalese (who are mostly Buddhists) 22 . So, is this really about Buddhist and Hindus, or is it just convenient that the two different “tribes” happen to have different religions? The same could be said of the Balkan War in Europe between the Croats (mostly Roman Catholic), Bosnians (mostly Muslim) and Serbs (mostly Serbian Orthodox). Was that conflict ethnic or religious?

Personally, I think tribe comes before religion, and so I side with the ethnic provenience of the conflict. When we are talking about differences between two peoples, religion is just one of the differentiating factors between tribes. A true religious conflict absent ethnic tensions, like that of the French Roman Catholics against the French Cathars or Huguenots, is actually quite rare. Whereas tribal conflicts, despite the different tribes being of the same religion, are frequent (just look at European history, the constant internecine wars on the Indian Subcontinent, and the depredations visited upon other Islamic nations by Tamerlane, etc.).

How about all the superstitious stuff in Buddhist teachings?

There are two problems with pointing out stupid supernatural stuff in Buddhist writings. The first is a question of which one do you want to pick on? There are thousands. And most practicing Buddhists don’t read any of them. If you had the time to go through all of them, I expect that you could find examples of every kind of silliness that you get in many other religions. But you will not find much violence, although there are a few texts which do contain this element of human depravity. But even once you found them, there is the second problem.

Buddhists are very rarely literalists. Its allegory, it’s a story to teach a lesson. There is no reality outside of your own mind. It like deciding to argue that the Greeks were dumb because in Aesop’s Fables there are talking animals, when we all know there is no such thing. Ha, ha, dumb Greeks… Right… Conventions that we apply to the literalists in the so-called monotheisms just don’t apply to Buddhists, except very rarely. I have heard Buddhist speakers challenged on this many times, and I’ve yet to hear one defend the literal meaning of a text (except when it comes to reincarnation, more on this later). There probably are some literalists out there, most likely in the Pure Land or Tibetan Buddhist sects, but it’s rare. Many lay followers may have a more literal interpretation of some texts or stories, but if it’s not part of the institutionalized religion what is the point of arguing about it? Buddhists don’t generally argue dogma. You want to believe in gods and a heaven? Fine, if it helps you. But is it real? That doesn’t matter, what matters is how you conceive it and whether it is beneficial to you, or not, in your quest to end your personal suffering 23 .

Some commentators have characterized Buddhism as being a philosophy of wholly subjective reality, as in the final analysis the only element of importance is an individual’s own progression towards the goal of enlightenment. In this sense, it is very similar to other religions which ask their adherents to abandon reality and just “believe” in the religious truth or doctrine. But Buddhism doesn’t tell you what to believe, instead it says that such belief is objectively unimportant except from a standpoint of expediency in connection with an individual’s own quest for enlightenment.

I remember going up to a senior monk at a Buddhist temple in Thailand one time, to complain about the horrid pictures of Buddhist “hell” (which is never depicted as eternal, just a sort of summer school for sinners before they are reborn) on the temple walls. He agreed with me, and said that they left them there because they had been there for so long. “And if it helps people to behave better by thinking that there was a penalty for being bad, then that might be useful to them.” But he said he never told anyone it was real. I expect that many monks may believe in the reality of such Hindu inspired heavens and hells as part of the cycle of death and rebirth, but it’s not usually part of established official dogma. If the concept of an after-death hell scares you into being a better person, then maybe it’s a good idea to believe in it. Monks will often give totally conflicting advice to different people that come to the same Wat for advice, depending on what the monk considers will work better for the individual. Expediency rules, which is why mentorship or a “Master” is such an important concept in the Buddhist monastic tradition, where the Master can select the best advice applicable for an individual.

In Buddhism, it always comes down to the individual, and what is within your own mind, even for those sects that talk about heavens, hells, rebirths and celestial lotus ponds. If you go to a Muslim, Jewish or Christian retreat, you are likely to be singing songs, saying group prayers, reciting holy verse, sharing meals, and doing fun stuff. You go to a Buddhist retreat and you maybe get a short sermon, some question and answer time with some senior monks, and then you generally get to sit, walk or lay by yourself in a quiet place to meditate. There may be some religious chanting involved at some point, but like the incense and the artistic mandalas that adorn the walls, and the temple gardens, these are supposed to be aids to help you achieve a singular mental state. Alone. All in your own head 24 .

Is there a god?

If you listen to many Buddhists talk about a “god” they are usually talking about a concept which is akin to the Hindu Brahman; the “monad;” the totality of existence. It’s rarely an anthropomorphic god, although you do find these frequently in Buddhist literature, but they are not there to be worshiped and their veneration is not part of Buddhism. They are part of existence, the scenery, or a character through which a story is told. But you can find considerable heated debate on the subject of whether Buddhism is an atheist religion or not. I won’t get into it here, but suffice to say that gods do not have anything to do with the Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path. It is often said that gods are irrelevant to the quest for enlightenment, and that if they do exist, they would benefit from Buddhism just as much as humans – maybe more. They are largely irrelevant, except in the Pure Land sect, which does pray and meditate on a Buddha of Mercy which is supposed to get them reborn into a Lotus Pond in a celestial heaven of sorts. But again, a great many practitioners and adherents of this sect will also tell you that it’s all allegorical and the Lotus Pond is the reflecting pool of your own mind once the “self” has been eliminated.

The statues in Buddhist temples are of the original Buddha or later ones (anyone can become a Buddha, which means an “awakened one” and the designation is relevant once you’ve achieved enlightenment). Generally speaking, Buddhists will tell you that the statues are venerated, and are there to be shown respect, and also serve as a focal point for mental concentration. Still, seeing the laity making offerings, rubbing gold foil on them, and offering incense – but not sticking around for any meditation, makes you wonder how this sort of “veneration” differs in any practical sense from worship. But, as with everything in Buddhism, it comes down to what is in the head of the believer. My mother-in-law prays to the Buddha, and makes offerings like any Roman Catholic, with the expectation that the prayers may be answered. She has never read a sutra. My brother-in-law goes through the same rituals, but doesn’t pray, since Buddha was a man and is long dead, but is there to show his respect and use the brief time as a way to remind himself what is important and that he can do a better job controlling his emotions and following the Eightfold Path. From the outside perspective, they do exactly the same things while in the temple. Religion or philosophy?

So what about all the charms and prayers and good luck medallions?

Most Buddhist temples will be happy to sell you charms for good luck or sell you a Buddha image for your neck 25 or shelf (in Thailand they are not sold, they are given away for a suitable donation). I have been to temples where you can: crawl under a porch for luck; shake bamboo sticks until one comes out of a cup with your fortune written on it; crawl through a hole in a temple pillar for good luck; release birds, turtles, fish for merit; drink water with special qualities; shoot off lucky fireworks; etc. But does any of this really have anything at all to do with Buddhism? Or is it, as one monk once told me, like candy sold at a fair 26 . You don’t go to the fair for the candy, because you can get candy at many different places. But it makes you feel good to have it while you’re at the fair. Humans in virtually every culture have some sort of fetish for procuring luck, health, fertility, favorable weather or harvest, etc. No religion or culture has been able to eliminate them, although the Wahhabists in Islam have been giving it a good try in Saudi Arabia.

Buddhism is at its core a self-directed philosophy with a mental discipline involved. It was never something for everyone, and most of the circus show elements (like the petting tigers at one famous Thai Wat 27 ) are there to generate money for the Wat to allow those who want to focus full time on their meditation to do so (and for many family owned temples, as in Japan, to make money for the owners). Are there abuses? Of course, loads of them. Drunk abbots, Mercedes driving monks, womanizers, etc. But these are normal human characterizations, and are found among atheists as well as all religions. So pointing out some examples of self-indulgent monks or abbots is about as useful as pointing out some greedy preachers or prelates, or imams, or rabbis, or front-running atheist hedge fund managers for that matter. It’s not an indictment of the religion itself unless it’s part of the core tenant of the religion.

Ok, what about women, every religion gives women a raw deal, how about that?

Actually, at its inception Buddhism was very progressive and the Buddha was known to have admitted women into the teachings. But trapped in the mainstream Hindu culture, and later in the North Asian context, Buddhism adopted many of the prejudices and intolerances of the cultures in which it operated. This is true even in Thailand, where women have had a history of far greater importance and legal rights than has been the case in either its dominant Eastern cultural neighbor India, or of its Northern cultural neighbor China. Here in Thailand, a monk is considered to be tainted or unclean if they happen to even touch a woman. Women (and men though) are supposed to dress modestly when going into temple areas. Women are accepted in orders as nuns, but they do not always have the same status and rights as men. This needs to change.

This attitude towards women has been adopted in many Buddhist texts as well, where women are seen as temptations for men. That is, of course, why you need to leave them behind if you are going to have your mind in control rather than your hormones. The desire for sex represents an attachment to the world, uncontrolled by your mind. So this unbidden desire, unrequited, is a suffering that is supposed to be eliminated in the quest for enlightenment.

Most Buddhist attitudes towards women are not that far removed from the society in which they operate, however. So it’s hard to tell which came first and which is the driving force. I am not aware of any mainstream current sect of Buddhism which thinks that women cannot achieve enlightenment, although this aspect has cropped up from time to time, usually as a remnant of Buddhism’s original Hindu roots, where women are accorded a distinctly last class status in all things. Whenever this happens, it should be called out as the sexism it is and opposed. So, on this account, Buddhism is probably not a regressive force for women’s rights, but it’s not a progressive one either in most cases.

Wars? Genocides? Mass incarcerations?

Even when you go back to majority Buddhist Governments, like much of the Tong Dynasty in China, or periods in the Kushan Empire, or periods in Japanese history, there are precious few examples of overt Buddhist militancy. Perhaps, it’s just because it was never under a central authority 28 ? Tibet may have been an exception to this, however 29 .

Were Buddhist States more peaceful? No, I don’t really see that either. Here in SE Asia, the Burmese and Thais have been constantly at war, despite sharing the same Buddhist tradition. The Japanese clans had bitter fighting until being unified under a central authority. Buddhists didn’t accomplish much in terms of human rights in any of these countries. They still had expendable peasants, slaves, and huge inequalities. But then Buddhism doesn’t really care about all that, since it’s about the individual alone, and not about his or her position within society. Buddhism is not out to save the world, although they see a better world as a consequence of people following the Eightfold Path. So again, it’s hard to be judgmental without sounding irrational. There are also many instances of Buddhism being credited for a ruler imposing more humane treatment on his subjects, with Ashoka Maurya in the 3rd Century BCE being the most well-known example 30 , but you find this in other religions too, so I don’t see it as being a distinction of Buddhism.

What is wrong with Buddhism: The tyranny of reincarnation

While the teachings attributed to the original Buddha do not talk about gods, heavens or hells or reincarnation, his teaching were set within a Hindu cultural context where reincarnation was regarded as a “fact.” Much of what became religious Buddhism took on the mantle of reincarnation, with Buddhism being a way to “get off” the cycle of reincarnation. Enlightenment meant the accomplishment of a complete ending of one’s existence 31 . In this case, it’s not so much of a mental state in the here and now, as it is an accomplishment with an effect after death. This is modern Buddhism’s greatest vulnerability and greatest injustice to humanity. Sadly, it’s also a position that the most notable Buddhist of the modern age, the Dalai Lama, promotes.

The Dali Lama is rather famous for saying that “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” You see it on memes and YouTube posts all the time. But proving reincarnation wrong would be like proving that god does not exist, and the Dali Lama knows this. We could never prove that a “soul” does not exist, we probably could only show that it’s impossible using current technology to find one 32 .

Reincarnation is one of the most perverse ideas I’ve ever come across, because like the idea of inherited sin, it accrues to a person regardless of their actions. It is a reason for people to despise and ignore the suffering of their follow humans, and even of animals, as their current predicament is punishment for some crimes they committed in a past life. To refuse to help someone who is sick, impoverished, or hungry because of the warped logic that they are in that circumstance because of their past evil actions is anathema to the Buddhist concept of compassion. And yet its perverse judgmentalism persists in some form in almost every major Buddhist community.

Also, the concept of reincarnation includes the idea that you do good things to make “merit” for the next life. Now “merit” is again hard to criticize, since at one level Buddhists will tell you that an act of charity, even if taken out of selfish desires, is more ennobling than no act of charity at all. Monks will often tell you that doing good, even for a bad reason, is the first step to becoming good. I admit that I do see the logic in this.

But many people are not concerned with “merit” for this life. They know they don’t have time or temperament to meditate and be a monk which could lead to enlightenment, so they hope to give some money or do some actions that will help them get born into a better position in the next life so that they can then be a monk and gain enlightenment. This is from Hinduism, and has nothing to do with the original philosophy of Buddhism, but it is a cultural appendix which can end up poisoning the philosophy entirely.

To the extent that Buddhism blames people's current conditions for imagined failures in a past life, or by which it asks people to make sacrifices in this life for gains in the next, then this is something that needs to be abhorred and condemned. There is nothing worse than seeing someone go through a personal misery and blame themselves for it by thinking “I deserve this for something I did in the life before.” And I’ve seen this happen first hand many times, in many countries, and each time it’s tragic and unnecessary. On one occasion, I was able to get a monk to explain to my friend that Buddhism was not concerned with any life before or life after, but the cultural concept of reincarnation was so ingrained in them that such words of comfort were cold indeed.


If Buddhism wants to be a positive force for good in the world, then major Buddhist figures need to speak out against the mental and emotional tyranny of reincarnation. That abscess from Hinduism needs to be expunged once and for all from the Buddhist philosophy and mantra. Yes, I know that many Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation, but it is widely believed by the laity, and this desire to make merit for the next life is a source of material contributions from merit making individuals to the monks and temples. The economic link to this enslavement of the mind needs to be severed. Until reincarnation is firmly denounced and abhorred as the emotional abomination it is, Buddhism will always be tainted as a burden on the human spirit and upon the consciousness of the majority of its followers.

(It should also do more to speak out forcefully for the equality of women.)


1 I love radio shows, and one of my favorites is “Old Harry’s Game” by the BBC. In the fifth season, first serial, two Christian and Muslim fundamentalists find themselves in hell and can’t conceive of why their righteousness would land them in hell, so they conclude that it’s all a plot by ruthless Buddhists. But Buddhists are rarely portrayed as the bad guys in popular culture. Even though they are non-speaking roles, the pacific (and impliedly useless) Buddhists in the recent Korean film “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” end up morphing into formidable fighters against the Japanese aggressors.

2 There are some biographies on the Buddha, but since there is no primary source material, there is really nothing to write about other than regurgitations of the stories from later authors. However, recently, Karen Armstrong’s “Buddha” (2004) is a reasonable effort.

3 There are fewer things in life more boring than listening to debates on the proper translations of Pali language texts. Frankly, as Buddhism for most people is not a religion bound up in a holy or authoritative text, I will avoid the discussions over definitions entirely. Endnotes are boring enough as they are, without making them worse.

4 This is why the Kalama Sutra made it into the list of books atheists should read, as it exhorts people to question those who claim to know some special “truth” that relies on faith. Check it out at #3:

5 Not because its “bad” per se, but because it interferes with your control over your own mental facilities, and Buddhism is all about control over your own thoughts and emotions, so stimulants or depressants that make the exercise of such control more difficult are to be eschewed as counter-productive to the ends sought to be achieved by the discipline.

6 Some Buddhists are vegetarian, but the Buddha did not think this was important, and his last meal was of pork. Many Buddhists refuse to kill animals, and they “rescue” fish from drowning, but they are happy to eat meat. Monks are supposed to eat whatever is put into their begging bowls, and there is a famous story about one monk who, while being given food by a leper, had one of the leper’s fingers fall into his bowl, which he duly ate.

7 Under many historical reviews, Buddhism is regarded as a local religion until the development of the Silk Road, along which it moved to the West and East, where it proved popular and took root in China during the Han dynasty around 200 BCE to 200 CE, and gained prominence in the early Tang Empire around 600 CE, but went into decline in China by the end of the Tang period around 900 CE. It’s still debated whether Buddhism moved into SE Asia via China or Indian routes, and the likely answer is that it was probably a bit of both, as trade routes in both directions flourished.

8 Monks originally were also not self-identified, as they were supposed to dress simply and in donated cloth. However, as fashions have changed what was once common dress is not highly distinctive. In addition, many sects added color to their robes to make them stand out further and give themselves a unique designation. In this sense, the Buddhist monastic tradition has strayed far from its original intent. It’s not clear when head shaving came into vogue, but it was probably an attempt to avoid the irritation of head lice when meditating.

9 Possibly under the influence of the Kushan Empire, which has been accredited by some as the first place where an image of the Buddha was reverenced. Before then, the symbol was either of an eight spoked wheel or a leaf from the Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha sat while achieving enlightenment. But this is very speculative. However, it certainly does appear to be taking on the trappings of a religion as opposed to a philosophy at about this time. This is also around the time that Buddhism formed what is known as the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which was strongly influenced by the Lotus Sutra, and from which a majority of the forms of Buddhism practiced today are derived. Mahayana is hard to pin down, but generally can be stated as a belief that all beings are capable of enlightenment or liberation of from suffering. So clearly, the philosophy has advanced from a form only attainable by the few with concentrated dedication, to one obtainable by the many with lesser or different forms of adherence.

10 Buddhists do congregate together in monasteries for the purpose of focusing on their individual efforts with less distraction from the outside world, but basically Buddhism is a lonely philosophy where practitioners abandon family and friends and retreat to seek mental tranquility – in this lifetime. One of the core tenants of the meditation discipline, and one which the Buddha himself set as an example, is the abandonment of attachments to the world, which includes family and friends. Want to be a good Buddhist, then learn to stop loving (in the way you do now, with attachment) your parents, siblings, spouse, and children.

11 Cf. the concept of sudden enlightenment espoused most notably by the Japanese school of Rinzai Zen, which is the modern survivor of an earlier Chinese sect sometimes known as the Northern school of Chan Buddhism established during the Tang Dynasty.

12 Although it’s very similar to how Hindu view their gurus and various sorts of “holy men.” Odd that it’s never “holy women”…

13 Just read the Hebrew Torah’s ad nauseam descriptions of priestly rights (included a percentage of female virgin war captives), vestments, temple fixtures, rites for sacrifice, etc. It’s a clear sign that it was priests writing this garbage to try to gain the social benefits they felt they deserved. It probably constitutes some of the most inane religious writing in any human religion.

14 Although more value is usually attached to the concept, and it’s often stated that it is impossible to explain to someone who has not experienced it. This sounds a bit wooly to me, but I can say from personal experience that when you get into deep meditation, there are experiences that defy verbalization. Or maybe I just lack the vocabulary for such unusual feelings and thought sensations. A calm mind is often compared to a mirror, or still water, or depthless night sky. It may be natural that languages did not develop words to describe experiences of thought and mind which are extraordinarily unusual. In the same way, if you’ve never seen an elephant, you would have no word for it.

15 Usually translated as “soul” or “personal consciousness” but in some writings having a broader meaning.

16 Theravada Buddhism, which is mostly practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar venerates what is sometimes known as the Pali Canon. Most scholars consider this to be closest to the original teachings of the Buddha, and many parts of this find their way into other sutras and canons, of which there are hundreds if not thousands.

17 The exception was Japan, where Buddhism played a prominent role in tandem with Shinto, but this did not translate into acceptance of the attempted introduction of Christianity, probably because as a foreign religion it was seen as creating a conflict with peoples’ loyalty to the State. It may also be the case that Japan was exceptional as it was the only major Asian country that did not participate in world trade either through the Silk Road land route or via the South Asia sea trade routes. In both cases, exchange of ideas was a notable consequence of the trade in mercantile goods.

18 You can find a brief discussion of a number of these here:

19 Although the Wat Phra Dhammakaya is pushing the limit here in Thailand – with its emphasis on large donations getting large remissions of sins and buying a place in a Buddhist paradise, not to mention earthy benefits. Doesn’t really sound much like Buddhism, but then Mormonism doesn’t really sound much like Christianity when you look at its teachings. They use the same names, Buddha or Jesus, to gain immediate market recognition, but the teachings are altogether unique.

20 This is an aspect of the old issue of whether a tolerance society can accept the internal advocacy of an element with beliefs anathema to tolerance. In any country with a political system premised on popular participation, this is always a serious risk. See:

21 Also, although there is one monk (Ashin Wirathu) in particular who has been very vocal about his opposition to them on the basis of their religion, the Buddhist establishment has always and immediately disavowed him and his invectives (but these pronouncements don’t seem to get as good ratings as media coverage of vicious rantings by a few hundred bigots). But this is largely a tribal conflict between an indigenous people and others who were moved into their country by a foreign power, were joined by subsequent movements of related peoples (many were forced out of Bangladesh after independence and again when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan, as well as subsequent economic migrants) and who then (largely) rejected assimilation and community association within Myanmar. Also, they have since Burmese independence largely been legally regarded as refugees. This matter should have been dealt with by the British at the time of Burma’s independence, but as usual they couldn’t be bothered the clean up the mess they left in someone else’s home.

22 Don’t bother reading Wikipedia on this subject, as it’s a hotly contested one and much of what is there is provocative. Go to the library and read a real book on the subject. The Tamils came into Sri Lanka in force in the 12th Century when they invaded from mainland Southern India. There had been invasions before and of course mutual settlement between both areas, but no wholesale movement of peoples as there was after the establishment of the Jaffna Kingdom by the Tamil conquers. The conquers were not interested in ruling so much as laying waste to the existing culture and society, and undertook what would probably be called ethnic cleansing measures today. This resulted in the migration of the Sinhalese people to the Southern and mountainous parts of the country. There are many folk tales of the cruelty of this Jaffna regime, which was also attested to by the first Europeans, Dutch and Portuguese, who chronicled the country starting in the 15th Century.

23 Check out the interview between Carl Sagan and the Dalai Lama (the Dalai Lama is from a Buddhist sect that promotes the concept of reincarnation):

24 Meals together are nice, but after 3 days I was dying for some chili and a fried chicken (this was in Japan, in Thailand you get better food).

25 I have one myself, which my Thai wife got me from Doi Suthep in Chang Mai, which is supposed to protect me from unexpected events, like plane accidents (I travel a lot on business) or winning the lottery.

26 Japanese temples have the best selection of trinkets for sale usually, many of which are very beautiful and I own a number for this reason. Partly, this is because many Japanese temples remain family owned, and it’s a way of making a living.  

27 But I don’t recommend it, as there is considerable doubt as to how well the animals are treated and whether some have been sold off to China – presumably for consumption.

28 The Tibetan Theocracy is the only real example I am aware of. Certainly, in that instance, the religious authorities appear to have been impeding social development, especially in the case of the adaption of new technology. Although the Chinese invasion and ongoing occupation has been at times massively brutal and highly prejudicial to the interests of native Tibetans, they did need to get rid of a theocratic state in order to achieve some degree of economic and social development. I would not want to say that the Chinese invasion was a good thing overall, however, especially since they never left and Tibet is now being filled up with ethnic Han, to the detriment of economic and social opportunities for native Tibetans.  

29 See “Tibet: A History” by Sam van Schail (2013) for an overview of Tibet’s history.

30 See “Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor” by Charles Allen (2012) for a good treatment of this remarkable leader. There are many older accounts of him, but this one benefits from recent archeological findings. If you don’t know about Ashoka, you are missing out.

31 Here is where most people would start talking about the various interpretations of “Nirvana” which is often mentioned in Buddhism. Suffice to say that Nirvana in the Buddhist and most Hindu contexts is a fancy way of talking about a metaphysical “nothingness.”

32 See:

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