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To say that Buddhism is atheistic may be an overstatement, a generalization, and a misunderstanding of the Buddha’s purpose, so let’s look at that subject in a different way.
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As we’ve seen in previous essays in this series, the Buddha frequently spoke of Brahman — God — with intimate knowledge and condemned those priests who did not act in conformity with Brahman’s nature. Further, the whole mission of Buddhism is to help alleviate human suffering by preaching moral behavior and alignment with the sacred Reality — which we would call God in the West, and which Buddhists in the East sometimes call nirvana.
It is important to note that while we talk about God all the time in the West, God is, we recall, as Aquinas reminded us in his De Potentia, unknowable. He “surpasses all that we can understand of him.” We really don’t know much about God save that we feel somehow connected to God’s Being, to the ultimate source of Reality, and that sense of connection can bring us great joy and spiritual peace.
One of the primary aims of all Buddhists — to be entirely free of the delusions of ego, and thereby free our beings from the fetters of the physical world — has as its goal the attainment of enlightenment. Once we release ourselves from those restrictions, the Buddha taught, we attain an ultimate heavenly home.
Buddhist scripture uses a whole host of symbolic and poetic terms to describe that state: the cool cave, a harbor of refuge, the place of bliss, the farther shore. In the West, most people just refer to that state of being as nirvana or “non-being,” and translate it as “passing away” or “dying out” to the delusions of life. But nirvana cannot be reached by craving non-being. In fact, the Buddha expressly repudiated the craving for annihilation or nonexistence in his very first sermon on the Four Noble Truths when he identified this as one of the causes of stress that must be eliminated. The Buddha said:
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there — craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
So, Buddhists, like the followers of all the major global Faiths, search for salvation and union with the divine Beloved, not just non-being. Although some understand nirvana only negatively, as a release from suffering, it can be much more accurately described in a positive way — as the ultimate goal of existence, which we all strive for, love, and aspire to. This more complete understanding incorporates the Buddha’s refusal to answer questions about the nature of nirvana, which he said could only misrepresent, minimize, or distort it.
It turns out, as Gautama Buddha’s teachings and the Baha’i writings amply demonstrate, that it’s possible to talk about and believe in this divine connection of nirvana without anthropomorphizing God.
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The Buddha’s solution was to speak of the ultimate reality as being empty — as Muslims would say, the Creator has no partner. Nothing we can attach to it can match its transcendent and immanent presence; it must be appreciated as it is, it’s suchness or thusness. It is complete in itself, in need of nothing, but it invites us to it through a path we can follow by ourselves becoming empty of self.
We can get a glimpse of this reality by understanding the purpose of Buddhist meditation — to remove the distractions that keep us from experiencing God. The Buddhist term for this emptiness, also translated as void, thusness or suchness, is sunnata (sunyata in Sanskrit). The concept of sunnata is central to the understanding of Buddhism, but has, alas, caused many doctrinal disputes, because its Pali Canon references (MN 43, MN 121-122, SN 12.15, SN 35.85) are subject to widely different interpretations.
Nevertheless, in broad strokes, it is clearly recognizable as the divine reality underlying all existence, our ground of being.
So, your Buddhist friend may say he is an atheist, but if he follows the true teachings of the Buddha, who believed in emptiness as a sacred reality, and that uniting with it brings nirvana, is he really?
… look into this endless universe: a universal power inevitably existeth, which encompasseth all, directing and regulating all the parts of this infinite creation; and were it not for this Director, this Co-ordinator, the universe would be flawed and deficient. It would be even as a madman; whereas ye can see that this endless creation carrieth out its functions in perfect order, every separate part of it performing its own task with complete reliability, nor is there any flaw to be found in all its workings. Thus it is clear that a Universal Power existeth, directing and regulating this infinite universe. …
The inner reality of that Being, however, is not known, although His effects are clear and evident.
And further, all created beings are limited, and this very limitation of all beings proveth the reality of the Limitless; for the existence of a limited being denoteth the existence of a Limitless One.
To sum it up, there are many such proofs, establishing the existence of that Universal Reality. And since that Reality is pre-existent, It is untouched by the conditions that govern phenomena, for whatever entity is subject to circumstances and the play of events is contingent, not pre-existent. Know then: that divinity which other communions and peoples have conjured up, falleth within the scope of their imagination, and not beyond it, whereas the reality of the Godhead is beyond all conceiving.