Why I am not a buddhist

I can remember that life was getting to me about five years ago. Stress of work, lack of social time. Then the embarrassment of needing to ask for 38 inch trousers from the uniform department. Something had to give and I was determined it would not be my gut over my trousers. So I decided to change my life style.

For this I went on a detox six week diet. No booze, frequent healthy eating and for the last four weeks veggie diet. By the end of it I had lost a stone and a half. More than that though I felt great, relaxed and able to wear size 32 trousers. In fact I felt so good that I decided to alternate between veggie one day and meat the next.

Taste buds were sharper – things that never tasted sweet before did. My palate was more discerning than it was before. Also I found that I was not reaching for a beer as soon as I came in from work. Rather I was feeling good, perhaps better without it.

 Soon I decided to stick with a veggie diet. It had never seemed appetising before but my taste buds had changed that now it did. I also stopped drinking. But though physically I felt great people and work still stressed me out. I felt better but could not honestly say I was happier.

To this end I decided to try meditation. I found the practice exhilarating, relaxing and at times inspiring. During dinner intervals instead of being in the staff room listening to a lot of negative comments about other staff members I started to go to the local park, with a stream that ran through the middle. With mindful walking (every step in tune with your breathing) I found this brought about a peace that after months of doing it any stressful situation was easier to cope with and I could concentrate without unhelpful emotions getting in the way.

After months of doing this I decided to explore buddhism. For me, though I was an atheist, it seemed like it could combine the spiritual without the religious aspects. Practice without belief, no dogma, no creator god. It seemed like a humanist heaven – and I devoured books like my next life would depend on it.

 In particular was drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalia Lama. The former due to his engaged buddhism during the Vietnam War. Compassion made little sense hidden inside your monastery walls – contemplation necessitates action, right thought leading to right action. The later is the most recognised practitioner of buddhism and his books were a form of popular psychology that made me feel good.

Thich Nhat Hanh

However, despite agreeing with the mindfulness teachings of the interbeing community some things for me seemed out of step with ideals that I aspired to. For example, the practise of taking young infants from their family to be brought up at a monastery seemed to be labelling children. Than rebirth seemed to suggest a bleakness to existence. Yes you could change your destiny but it could take generations for it to play out – you will suffer now for actions possibly done generations ago. Not only that but it seemed more an explanation for what was happening to you in the here and now, more an explanation of fate. The evidence for it seemed to rest on a bubble that was held up by your own suspension of disbelief.

Than there was meditation itself. I became aware of changes in how I thought but did not see an outer reality to what was going on. Even during a moment of bliss I could compare that experience to being under anaesthetic. Whether my breathing had slowed to a point I reached a high, or certain parts of my brain normally firing had rested which did not usually I experienced something that made me feel, well like a loved and loving human being.

Then using a Mala seemed to increase single pointed concentration. But again

Dalia Lama - god king for some

there seemed something very human going on. Focusing on something else will help you to relax, and this ability will de-stress you and help you cope with other things because you are taking time out to relax. By doing nothing at times you could do more at others.

So I recognised the techniques as being useful to me. But the metaphysics and mysticism about warring gods and hungry ghosts made me question the claim that buddhism is not dogmatic or religious. Even Zen has and uses these influences, though I expect that a westernised version can be found at a centre near you.

That and realising that Tibetan history was not exactly rich in compassion, and current situation in Sri Lanka made me realise that, like all religions they may mean well if you cherry pick, but taken whole there was something rather disturbing about the whole thing that required suspension of disbelief.

I still find the Buddha’s sutras moving – the Pali Canon is one of the most important collection of writings and ancient wisdom. My mother certainly preferred me as a buddhist – for one when she talked about Intelligent Design my answer was that life was so fleeting be happy in what you think and use it to be loving and caring to all living things.

So being a humanist, why on earth do I still do mindful walking, mindful breathing, use a Mala, or like sounding a bell? Well as a human being I like ritual. Mostly however I find that it just helps me be a little bit sanier in a world that likes shouting at everyone and throwing one big tantrum after another without using that energy to find solutions. It reminds me to breathe in and out and smile.

Because we are never going to be here again. Life tastes sweeter when you realise that, and grab those moments of happiness but also accept the reality of what life is. Yes happiness is there and so is suffering, much of it needless and much not in the control of the people affected. I do not ever want to be someone disconnected from feeling injustice when I see it, but I want the focus to try and help correct it if I can, while accepting that I could even be wrong myself.

 I am fascinated by religion, and buddhism is one in particular along with the Gita and the Tao. However, I cannot follow it as a practitioner of faith. I have found something else to carry that is better for the human journey of making sense of these atoms that seemed to have formed something that closely resembles what I call me. Humanism just makes more sense.



Filed under Philosophy, Religion

18 responses to “Why I am not a buddhist

  1. quotesqueen

    Very nice…I have loved aspects of Buddhism and Zen, and I don’t think Thich Nhat Hanh has ever said anything that didn’t make sense to me. While I’m likely more Buddhist than I am anything else, I don’t really call myself by a label. Mindfulness is perhaps the key to life, the universe and everything…but I could be wrong.

  2. John:

    Hi. I just finished reading this article and looking around your blog a bit. We seem to have a lot in common! I too am an atheist who actively promotes intellectual honesty, rationality and detachment without withdrawal from one’s ideas (i.e., commitment to rationality, not to beliefs). I’ve been an active part of local secular organizations in Toronto–CFI Toronto, the Freethought Association of Canada and the University of Toronto Secular Alliance. I went to the student leaders conference in Amherst at CFI Transnational, which I really enjoyed.

    I’m also very interested in Buddhism for many of its practical and philosophical developments—e.g., meditation for insight and wisdom, awareness and detachment from ego, beliefs and other sources of unneeded vulnerability, connection with others and the world, etc., but have no interest in adopting beliefs on faith. While it has occurred to me that concepts like karma may be true in the sense that if one establishes a view of themselves as detached from others and thus is able to do harm to them for self gain, the punishment could be in the form of being a less happy and more vulnerable individual by virtue of having separated oneself from others and perhaps feeling more insecure regarding one’s self–or something like that. But this is mere casual speculation. Perhaps reincarnation could refer to the shedding of one ego for another in a single life. When we do things to promote enhanced mindfulness we shed a layer of egocentrism, when we do things that do the opposite, we add a new layer of delusion. A sort of new you that is either for better or worse.

    I haven’t read any original buddhist texts, though. I’m assuming that in the texts the views are not spelled out as metaphor as I was representing above, but in far more literal terms. Karma is a product of an objectively moralistic universe that will bring good unto one for doing good, and bad for doing bad. And living things actually do die and then return in another form. These things taken literally are clearly no more justified than taking messages from the Bible as being literal, whether it be the Christian God’s existence or whatever. You’ve probably read Sam Harris’ article “Kill the Buddha”, in which he encourages Buddhists to abandon the irrational beliefs but maintain the valuable practices and philosophy, as they are truly valuable and tap into genuine human psychological phenomena that transends national and ideological borders; the world would benefit greatly by learning more about these practices and ideas, but that is hindered because people are reluctant to enter into a new faith community, real or perceived.

    Anyhow, I’m gonna make a point of visiting your blog.

    Feel free to check mine out. It’s called “The Frame Problem” and is at http://theframeproblem.wordpress.com. On it I focus on a few related clusters of issues: 1) religion, science & politics; 2) cognitive science–specifically, non-estoric cogsci likely to be of interest to people in and out of cogsci, and the cogsci of religion, morality and meditation; 3)wisdom, from philosophical, modern cognitive science and hopefully religious perspectives.



  3. I remember reading said by Ricky Martin on what his opinion of Buddhist philosophy is: “I really like the Buddhist philosophy but that doesn’t mean that I am of the religion. If I subscribe to Buddhism, I can’t be of anything else. They limit to you in many aspects, [and a]ccording to the teachings of Buddhism, the worst thing than you can do to your karma is to say to someone else that their faith is bad.”

  4. Good to hear from you Ron. Yes Sam Harris is an exponent of practice without belief.

    There are suttas where the Buddha explains karma/kamma in terms of one life-time. However that is to understand the deeper meaning as he understood it when he said: “For beings obstructed by ignorance and hindered by craving, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture, for consciousness to be established in a new realm of existence – either inferior, middling, or superior”. (Anguttara Nikaya 3:76; I 223)

    While some modern forms of buddhism try to discount this early buddhist cosmology it must be born in mind that the intention of the Buddha with the twin doctrines of kamma and rebirth is to transform your way of life and your understanding of the world – people truly deserve what happens to them, because in a past existence they could have changed it. It is not a cosmology I am happy with – to reject means for me that you cannot call yourself a buddhist. Anymore than someone that rejected that Jesus’ death gave us salvation could not call themselves a christian.

    The techniques though can be used by anyone, faith or none. I know that they did not work for Richard Dawkins though I would enjoy watching Sam trying to teach Richard breathing techniques and mindful walking!



  5. I guess some want to live the good life others want to be livin’ la vida loca 😉

  6. rdthrawn

    It’s always interesting, reading about journeys though thought. Buddhism seems very popular in the atheist and agnostic communities, probably for the good bits you mention.

    Teaching how to to manage our responses to things is something religion sometimes has a monopoly on. Fortunately, us atheists can pick and choose the good bits which actually make some sense.

  7. I’m inclined to think that Dawkins just didn’t commit to it enough. I mean, how can the practice not be of benefit to people. It is simply the practice of being more attentive to the present moment which can help one notice their thoughts more. It’s practicing focusing one’s attention on now and noticing thoughts as thoughts. It would be ridiculous to say that practicing one’s baseball skills will not improve them. Or bicycling, sewing, etc. If someone doesn’t improve at what they’re practicing, it seems that there’s a good chance that they never really fully applied themselves. Of course I’m making an unfalsifiable assumption here and I admit that and will thus hold a healthy amount of self-doubt, but it just seems straight forward to assume that if one practices at something, they’ll get better at it.

  8. halfmonk

    it’s very easy to misinterpret buddhism using the intellect. in fact, this is the basic mistake that most people make. buddhism is a practice not an intellectual exercise. it is also appealing to borrow aspects of buddhism that work for you and leave the rest. but you cannot take the meat without the bones and the marrow. buddhim is entirely integrated. if you’re sitting around talking or writing about it using your conceptual mind then you’re probably not doing it. it’s actually very simple. historical buddhism starts with the enlightment of the buddha which can be experienced by anyone but the awakened state has always existed and is eternal. experience that and you will know what the buddha experienced. then you won’t need to talk about it. everything else is conjecture.

  9. Buddhism is not a religion, but a practical way to get rid of sufferings. If U really want to understand U hav 2 do some practical Vipassana Meditation, then step by step U wil realize who U R.

    If knw all the 84,000 Vipassana methods nd 18,000 detailed theories in buddhism, still you knw nothing about nibbhana, u cant even imagine what it is actually. But if U sit nd do the practical vipassana then ur supreme mind will come out and wil guide U to attain Nibbhana (the ultimate freedom in body mind nd soul)

    • It may lack a god, but there are enough things to call it a religion including a belief in the supernatural. The marked difference is an acceptance that this can be stripped away yet still be benefical. Life in the now is the only life.

  10. Arun

    I have derived a lot of solace from my study of the Upanishads, Gita (I am a Hindu, but not a theist one), Tao and Buddhism.

    The cruft in all these have puzzled me as well. Clearly the people behind them had something worthwhile to say. Why couldn’t have they said it simply, without all the baggage?

    But then I recall that there are two things to consider:

    1. The people who recommend these things *may* have seen aspects of reality that most humans haven’t – 99% of humans do not freeze for years in the Himalayas doing nothing but meditating on their minds.

    2. But that notwithstanding, it’s fully possible to take an agreeable subset from the teachings and apply it to our lives even while remaining skeptical of the rest.

  11. Peter

    Well , imagine a painting. A person comes and changes the colors of some parts of painting . Another person comes and add his own changes . This is done many times by different people. Hence , the painting looks completely different and nobody knows how original painting looks like . This is what happened to BUddhism. There are many variations of original Buddha’s teaching.

    Buddhism is definately not a religion. It is philosophy and a way of living your life.

    As for supernatural beliefs , Buddhism rejected the idea of supernaturals controlling us or the weather or to natural disasters . Buddhism has always maintained that Natural disasters and weathers were caused by nature and not by supernatural.

    I don’t know exactly Buddha’s take on god and supernatural.
    But I think it was mostly apathetic – that is , he never was interested in proving or disproving god and supernatural . He just said all man need to do is be good and do good.

  12. Andrea

    I read once, something about buddhism, and it said,
    you don’t have to believe in everything you learn about buddhism.. when you don’t feel right in something into it, like you say about hungry ghosts, and some gods, look I believe in ghosts, but I have some personal reasons to it… I’m not someone who believes in a god because they said to me, it;’s the best thing to do, well my parents don’t believe in A god, or Church or whatever, well my mum likes buddhism, she has something with buddha statue I regonized some weeks ago, I didn’t know but she knows about me, xD I told here years ago that I want to become buddhist and I didn’t know many on that time. But in buddhism there are things from an older religion in India, Siddharta gautama, came from India originally, and people around him Believed in gods.
    That’s why they say in buddhism, there are gods… but they haven’t find nirvana. Siddharta accepted the faith into gods… That’s what I read into a book about him. It’s a non dogma religion but the truth is… Siddartha believed there where gods… because in that time, there where a religion, that people offered Food into the forest for those gods ( i forgot the name of that religion it’s older than hindu I thought.)For a lucky family and protection, you know… the standart reasons of nature asian religions. And Siddartha thought, even a person with nothing, gives his last rice to gods in forest incease of they use it for their family. to stay alive, he liked more that they should use it more for their family… already maybe I should read it a little wrong but that’s how I read it.
    But you don;t have to believe it.
    The buddhists learned it to have in their minds ’till they could write it on paper and then it were written on paper, and so it stays in books now. I read into a book of thich nhat hanh: In the footprints of Buddha. (If it’s the english title, I read it in dutch, I’m from the netherlands. xD & I still have to learn english better, there are always some wrong sentences I think, my appologize for that.)

  13. I agree that you have to take into account the views of the time. To that extent the principle that you should trust your reason over the authority of others is an excellent one – providing with base that on sound reasoning.

    There is the rub – right thought and right action. Perhaps one of the most idiotic things said of atheists is as they do not believe in god they cannot do morally the right thing. Sam Harris counters that well in his latest book.

  14. Hi! May you find the right path in your life! May you be happy and well!

  15. I encourage you to check out the Secular Buddhist Association (based on the US, but active online ) at http://secularbuddhism.org In addition to the practices themselves, there are doctrines like the four noble truths that are not supernaturalistic in nature and are consistent with brain science Other doctrines like rebirth just have to be discarded.

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