This column is a great idea. Thanks for taking it on.
The question is: am I missing something here? Am I ignoring some blind spot of my own?
The problem: I am both an atheist and a practicing Zen Buddhist. While it is true that some forms of Buddhism assert the existence of gods, demons and so forth—and no form of Buddhism explicitly denies the existence of any such—these woo-woo characteristics spring from the cultures in which those particular forms of Buddhism grew up, rather than from anything in Buddhist philosophy itself. The group to which I belong—a stripped-down American version of Korean Zen—is completely non-theistic. The main practice is meditation, and there is no supernatural component to any of it. I derive—or imagine I derive—tremendous psychological benefit from the practice, and have found it very useful in examining the underlying causes of unhealthy actions and emotions.
Yet periodically I hear non-theists denigrate Buddhism with exactly the same language they reserve for fundies and born-agains. I think this stems from the erroneous notion (propagated by fundies and born-agains and repeated unwittingly by the uninformed) that the Buddha is some kind of god (he is not), that Buddhists pray to Buddha the way Christians pray to Jesus (they do not), and that karma is some kind of cosmic bank account where one stores up brownie points for future rebirths (it is not).
The truth is that Buddhism is probably the world’s oldest humanist “religion.” The most important guiding principle for practice, supposedly articulated by the Buddha himself 2,500 years ago, is simply, “try this out—see if it works; if not, abandon it.” There is no element of faith in unseen forces, or acceptance of any tenet without evidence. Yet many of my fellow non-theists persist in their disparagement of Buddhism.
So what do you say? Do you think I’m just fooling myself? Or am I merely the unfortunate victim of other people’s ignorance?
Codswallop—The Perfect Fool
Long ago, I practiced Zen Buddhism for many years as a lay member of an urban Zen center. As in yours, the emphasis was on meditation, and basically any of those other beliefs were optional, being whatever each individual wanted to adopt or discard. There were some very down-to-earth folks there, and some space cadets as well. Whatever woo-woo that I subscribed to and eventually rejected was only the woo-woo that I had brought with me.
In every religion, even in very regulated sects, we see variation in what people focus on as essential and what they de-emphasize, disregard or dismiss as unessential. Each individual, though they may not admit it, does at least some “customizing” of their belief system, so that it better fits their personality. This is why there are thousands of sub-sects and sub-sub-sects.
The path you are walking is of your own creation and definition. You carry with you whatever baggage works for you, and as you journey, you may pick up a few new items, but probably you will discard more than you collect. Gautama taught that we each have a buddha, a person who is awake inside of us. More than inside, is us. So your Buddhism is based on your buddha, not on somebody else’s. You are the world’s leading authority on Codswallopism. If keeping your mind free of clutter is what you want to do, then just keep right on sweeping clutter away whenever it begins to collect. You sound like you’ve become quite good at that. The clutter in others’ minds is not your concern. They have their own paths on which to walk or stumble as they choose.