Buddhism:  A Form of Atheism

       2500 years ago, a new religion was born, Buddhism.  Before the founding of the Buddhist religion, the teachings of the Vedas were tossed aside and the foundations for modern Hinduism were being set by sages called Upanishads.  There were also various Buddhanistic notions before this time, but no actual Buddhist Religion.  Ascetic Indian religions, such as Jainism, calls for self-denial and purification but tends to be rather destructive for the body.  There were also traveling hermitic religious leaders, shramanas, in the area who opposed the ruling class with their teachings.  It seems as if Buddha arose at a critical period in India's history to save his people and the world from themselves and their many troubles.  Or, one could say that he arrived at a time when people were open to and very desirous of a new centralized positive belief system.  In any case, it is easy to see that there would not be a Buddhist religion if the historical Buddha had not founded it.
       Historically, Buddha refers to Siddhartha or Shakayamuni Gautama.  They are one and the same.  He was not the Almighty God, but a man.  Depending on who you ask, Buddha was born in either 624 or 563 B.C.E, as son and prince to King Suddhodana and Queen Mahamaya Gautama of the Aryan race in the Kshatriya warrior caste of the Shakya clan in ancient northeast India near present day Nepal (Humphreys 29).  History tells us that this good prince was trained to succeed his father.  But as the prince grew older, he strayed from his father's hopes and became very interested in the teachings of the hermitic Gurus that spoke of self-purification.  Shortly after, Buddha laid down all of his royalty and became as one of the hermitic Gurus.  He later declared himself an 'Enlightened One,' all the while founding the Buddhist faith.  Interestingly, Buddhist practitioners state some elaborate additions to the historic records of Buddha's life. 
       Before giving birth to Sidhartha, Queen Mahamaya dreamt that four guardian angels carried her to the Himalayan Mountains for purification.  One day while relaxing, the Queen believed that she became impregnated when a great white elephant approached and entered her body.  The custom of the day was for women to give birth to their children in their father's homeland (Boeree).  So, when time came near for Queen Mahayama to have her child, she traveled to her father's kingdom for the birth.  But during the long journey, she went into labor in the small town of Lumbini.  She asked her handmaidens to assist her to a nearby grove of trees for privacy.  One large tree lowered a branch to her to serve as a support for the delivery.  They say that the birth was nearly painless, even though the child had to be delivered from her side.  At the moment of birth, the Heaven and Earth shook and a bright light shined throughout the universe.  Afterwards, a simple gentle rain fell on the mother and the child to cleanse them (Boeree).  Some sources say that "four guardian kings placed the baby on a golden net and washed him with heavenly fragrant warm water" (Ludwig 118).  It is said that the child was born fully aware.  He could even speak and said to his mother, "I am born to be enlightened for the well-being of the world; this is my last birth" (Ludwig 118).  He stood and walked a short distance in each of the four directions.  Lotus blossoms rose from the ground with each step he took.  The name given him, Siddhartha, means "he who has attained goals."  Queen Mahamaya died only seven days after the birth.  After his mother's death, Siddhartha was raised by his mother's sister, Mahaprajapati.
       The King had high hopes for his son, Siddhartha.  But, a prophet named Asita entered the King's courts and gave a prophecy concerning the prince.  In his prophecy, he said, ". . . He is born who shall discover the extinction of birth, which is so hard to win.  Uninterested in worldly affairs he will give up his kingdom.  By strenuous effort he will win what is truly real.  His gnosis will blaze forth like the sun, and remove the darkness of delusion from this world . . . To those who are tormented with pains and hemmed in their worldly concerns, who are lost in the desert tracks of Samsara, he shall proclaim the path which leads to salvation, as to travelers who have lost their way . . . The world is entangled in the snares of self-delusion, it is overwhelmed by suffering, it has no refuge: after he has won full enlightenment this boy, then a king of Dharma, will free the world from its bonds" (Conze 36-37).  In objection to what he saw as the lesser of the two possible paths, the King trained Siddhartha to be a warrior and the future King of the Shakya clan.  To distract his son further from the religious path, he lavished Siddhartha with sensual pleasures and found him a bride of great beauty and reputation named Yashodara.  The King decided that the prince must never see anything that could sway the path he chose for him.  Buddhist scripture says that he would not even let Siddhartha leave the palace in fear that the knowledge of the world's troubles may cause the dread prophecy to be fulfilled.  Yet, "the gods knew that the time for Siddhartha's enlightenment was drawing near, so they intervened by presenting Four Sights to the Prince" (Ludwig 118).
       Tormented with cabin fever, Siddhartha became curious about the beautiful forest that the women of the palace told him about secretly.  He ventured from the palace and saw an old man.  The good prince had never seen such a sight.  He was troubled by the new revelation that everyone will age as this man.  Shortly after, he saw a diseased man by the road and he became deeply compassionate.  Thirdly, Siddhartha sees the corpse of a man and becomes deeply dismayed.  He then realized that every man will die just as this man did.  Lastly, he saw a hermit monk who had withdrawn from the world.  Siddhartha returned to the palace and withdrew from everyone.  When anyone inquired, the prince said that after acquiring the knowledge of aging, disease, and death, he no longer found pleasure in things that are not permanent.  Siddhartha's inner struggle did nothing but increase.  And so, the king gave Siddhartha permission to go to the forest to gain peace.  The short excursion did not cause the prince to be peaceful nor did it extinguish his new passionate desire to find the truth.  The king made one final attempt to win back his ideal son but Siddhartha rejected the king's influences and for the next six years he wandered about as a beggar hermit searching for ultimate truth.
       During his quest, Siddhartha followed two teachers and mastered the art of yoga.  He later decided that yoga was not the ultimate path he was seeking.  For a time, he explored Jainism in which the body was deprived of food, pleasure, and often-bare necessities.  Near starvation, he realized that this is not the way to obtain enlightenment.  He believed that weakening the body also weakens the mind.  He resolved the issue by deciding to follow the "middle path" (Ludwig 119).  He avoided riches and self-mortification.  At the moment of his new thought, the gods sent a woman named Sujata and she fed him milk-rice.  He ate, bathed himself, and then sat in meditation under a wisdom (bodhi) tree at Bodh Gaya (Ludwig 119).  He purposed that he would not move again until he gained the ultimate truth.  During his meditation, the god Mara (Death) saw that Siddhartha was about to escape his grasp.  And so, he tempted Siddhartha with his three daughters, but his heart remained pure.  Mara then brought his warriors to overwhelm the to-be-Buddha.  Siddhartha pointed at the ground and the earth defeated the warriors with a loud roar.  Siddhartha continued to meditate and eventually attained Buddhahood.  He saw and reviewed all of his former lives and gained complete understanding of the samsara and compassion for all people who are caught in it.  He then began to teach others how to gain Enlightenment.  He gained many disciples and accumulated a large public following by the time of his death (Parinirvana) in his early 80's in 483 BCE (Ludwig 119).  Two and a half centuries later, a council of Buddhist monks collected his teachings and the oral traditions of the faith into written form, called the Tripitaka.  This included a very large collection of commentaries and traditions.  Most of which are called Sutras (discourses). 
       Buddha taught his followers about self-denial by telling them about positive decisions he had made in previous lives.  One of the stories was about a kind prince named Mhasattva.  As the story goes, the prince was traveling through a forest and came across a tigress who was very weak from giving birth to her cubs.  The prince realized that she would die from hunger and thirst, so he began to search for some meat for her.  He found none and decided to sacrifice himself to save the life of the tigress and her cubs.  He then threw himself down in front of the tiger but she was too weak to prey upon the good prince.  And so, Mhasattava took a bamboo shard and cut his own throat.  The tigress then ate all of Mhasatta's flesh and blood and regained her strength.  Finishing the story, the Buddha turned to his follower Ananda and said, "It was I, Ananda, who at that time and on occasion was that prince Mahasattva"(Ludwig 118).  Buddha also taught that he had spent many years in the Tushita heaven and decided that he would be born one final time as son of Queen Mahamaya.  He believed that through good decisions made in his previous lives, he was being perfected for his present state of Buddhahood.  All of these Buddhist teachings and legends have laid the foundation for its many adherents.
       There are three main branches of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.  The Theravada (path of the elders) became dominant in South and Southeast Asia, Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) spread through East Asia, and Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) was adopted in Tibet and in parts of Japan (Ludwig 124).  These different sects are now scattered throughout the world but are centralized in the Orient.  Buddhism has survived through the years because its followers have combined the teachings of the Buddha with local religious rituals, beliefs and customs.  Little conflict occurs in the combination because Buddhism can be grafted in with almost any tradition.  Although Buddhism has now divided into many different sects, its many believers remain consistent in some basic beliefs. 
       According to Buddhism, there is no God in charge of the universe who distributes rewards and punishments.  Buddha rejected more ancient theistic beliefs because of difficulty he had over reconciling the reality of suffering, judgment, and evil with the existence of a good and holy God.  Buddhism does teach that we are responsible for own actions and our lives are determined by them.  This is called Karma.  Karma refers to intentional physical, verbal, and mental actions (Brahm 336).  Karma is like seeds that leave imprints upon human souls.  These imprints determine conditions of present and future life.  For example, kindhearted people help others and evil people afflict others.  These actions are karmic particles that leave imprints on the soul.  The fruit of people's actions are retained with them from one lifetime to the next and are never lost.  Relating to the Christian, he would say, "You reap what you sow."  However, if we don't cause something to happen, then we won't experience that result.  If a farmer doesn't plant seeds then nothing will grow.  If we plant apple seeds, an apple tree will grow, not peaches.  If peach seeds are planted, peaches will grow, not apples.  All results come from causes that have the ability to create them.  In the same way, if we act constructively then we will be happy.  If we act destructively, then problems will result.  Whatever happiness and fortune we experience in our lives comes from our own positive actions and our problems result from our own destructive actions.  Actions aren't inherently good or bad, but they are defined by the results they bring.  If an action brings about pain and misery, it is called negative, destructive, or nonvirtuous.  If the action brings about happiness, it is called positive, constructive, or virtuous.  In an email from Southern India, a Buddhist named Ahiva Vishnu said, "...Newton did not discover the natural law of gravity but simply defined its qualities.  Likewise, Buddha in his perfected state did the same when he described Karma.  By doing this, he showed mankind the best way to work within functioning cause and effect in order to experience happiness and avoid pain..."  To defend possible stumbling blocks in this theory, Buddhism explains away doubt caused by circumstances such as cruel dishonest rich people or nice poor people who die young by teaching that peoples' present state of being is the result of their actions from previous lives.  The knowledge of this Buddhist philosophy is believed to be the information needed to obtain a perfect state of being. 
          It is taught that followers may perfect themselves to escape the reincarnation cycles of their lives and in the end obtain a perfect state of bliss called Nirvana.  Nirvana sounds somewhat similar to Heaven doesn't it?  The Funk and Wagnall's New Encyclopedia reads, "The ultimate goal of the Buddhist path is release from the round of phenomenal existence with its inherent suffering.  To achieve this goal is to attain nirvana (q.v.), an enlightened state in which the fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance have been quenched.  Not to be confused with total annihilation, nirvana is a state of consciousness beyond definition.  After attaining nirvana, the enlightened individual may continue to live, burning off any remaining karma until a state of final nirvana (parinirvana) is attained at the moment of death."  Buddha taught that Nirvana could be reached by becoming enlightened through holding to 'The Four Noble Truths' (Ludwig 120).  The first is the existence of suffering.  Suffering is obvious in birth, sickness, death, separation, frustration, and is inescapable.  The second is the knowledge that "All suffering is caused by ignorance of the nature of reality and the craving, attachment, and grasping that result from such ignorance" (Gard 113).  The third reveals that all suffering can be ended by overcoming ignorance and attachment.  The fourth says that freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the 'Eightfold Path.'  The 'Eightfold Path' can be followed by having correct and proper views, thinking, speech, conduct, work, effort, mindfulness, and concentration (Ludwig 120).  This all may be true, but where does a non-Buddhist stand?
       Buddhism, like other faiths, views all others as incorrect.  The Buddhists that I have come in contact with personally have mostly been erratic, but in the long run they hold to a constant worldview.  One once said to me, "Non-Buddhists are entwined in meaningless efforts.  These meaningless efforts restrain them from the path to Enlightenment.  They will not obtain Nirvana until they become self-aware and accept the Higher Buddhist way" (Chan).  These same Buddhist teachings have influenced the lives of millions for 2500 years.  That being the case, individuals of various other religious faiths may come in contact with these Buddhist followers.  These persons need not undercut their personal faith or heritage through religious experimentation.  Yet, it is handy to know how to approach, deal with, or be open to other people's beliefs and mindsets, even those as unique as the Great Buddha's, without undermining their own.
       From what I have gathered personally, I see Buddhism as a religion that was built more upon legends and stories than on personal encounters.  One might also consider Buddhism's more colorful legends to represent a somewhat paranoid worldview.  When viewing Buddhism from a monotheistic perspective, I see how Buddhism, other belief systems, and various cultures came into existence.  Gathering information from Genesis chapter 11 of the Holy Bible, we see how that the people of the world had united for the construction of a tower in hopes to reach Heaven (Zodhiates).  This story demonstrates how that men rejected God's provisional plan and planned to save themselves with another means to reach Heaven. (See Kingdom)  Knowing that the Tower Plan was a waste of time and that the people were turning away from Him with their actions, God intervened and caused the people's languages to change causing no communication to be possible among the gathering.  This caused an utter sense of confusion for the great tower builders.  Thus, the Tower to Heaven Plan was stopped, everyone left in different directions, and man covered the globe.  In the words of Robert L. Ripley, "Believe it or not!"  As with the building of the tower, Buddha has constructed a plan of self rescue by means of his Buddhist religion.  Sadly, his doctrinal religion has not solved the world's problems nor has it eradicated all universal mysteries.  But, has any religion completely done so?  I leave you with these two questions that arise within each and every group around the globe, "How do you know that what you believe or perceive is true?  Is it because 'they,' you, or I say so?"

Works Cited
Boeree, C. George.  "The Life of Siddhartha Gautama."  1999.  March 6, 2001. <http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/siddhartha.html>.
Brahm, Leon L.  "Buddhism."  Funk and Wagnall's New Encyclopedia.  Vol. 5.  New York: Funk and Wagnall's, Inc., 1995: 331-332.  35 vols.
Brahm, Leon L.  "Karma."  Funk and Wagnall's New Encyclopedia.  Vol. 16.  New York: Funk and Wagnall's, Inc., 1995: 336.  35 vols.
Chan, Miles.  "How do Buddhists view Non-Buddhists?"  Online posting.  Jan 1999.  MSN Religion Buddhist Chatroom.  Jan 1999.      
Conze, Edward.  Buddhist Scriptures.  London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1959.
Gard, Richard A.  Buddhism.  New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1962.
Gavishnu, Ahiya.  "In Reply."  Personal email.  7 March 2001.
Humphreys, Christmas.  Buddhism.  London, England: Cassell & Compnay Ltd, 1962.
Ludwig, Theodore M.  The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World.  New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.
World Religions Buddhism.  North American Missions Board.  Alpharetta, Georgia: Southern Baptist Convention, 2001
Zodhiates, Spiros.  The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible.  Chattanooga, Tennessee: AMG Publishers, 1991.

                                                        Jeremy Brown 2001

Also see:

Make a free website with Yola