The Strategy of Atheism
by Mathuresha Dasa
A Vedic perspective on the popular allure of Buddhism.
Buddhism has at times attracted a measure of interest from a small number of Americans. In the last century Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Some will have bad thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha.” And in the middle of this century, writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Alan Watts showed a regard for Buddhism that made it part of the sixties counterculture.
But scroll to the 1990s and forget the counterculture. Buddhism is riding a wave in the American mainstream. Two recent Hollywood movies recount the story of the Dalai Lama; Buddhist motifs and Buddhist-inspired rock lyrics appear in television sitcoms; Buddhist musings grace the labels of bottled fruit-teas. Nor is this merely a pop culture craze. There are nearly 100,000 American-born Buddhists, and the number of English-language Buddhist teaching centers has doubled in the past ten years to over a thousand. On the Internet you can browse thousands of pages of Tibetan Buddhist writings.
Some attribute this expanded interest to Buddhism’s emphasis on qualities like nonviolence, humility, and simplicity in a world growing daily more violent and complex. Others say the nontheistic approach to religion is also key, as the Buddha said there was no Creator, no Jehovah or Allah or Vishnu. The Vedic literature confirms that both these features of Buddhism are important aspects of its allure, and they say more as well, providing a confidential account of the Buddha’s identity and of the rationale behind Buddhism’s singular teachings.
The Vedas explain that Buddha is an incarnation of God who appears in the Age of Kali, or Kali-yuga, the most materialistic of the four earthly ages that rotate like the four seasons. We are now five thousand years into the current Kali-yuga, which lasts another 427,000 years, and Lord Buddha appeared about 2,500 years ago. He has appeared in other Kali- yugas also, His mission always the enlightenment of especially materialistic and atheistic people.
In one Kali-yuga, in an appearance, or incarnation, recorded in the second canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.7.37), Lord Buddha countered atheistic scientists who had taken advantage of technical portions of the vast Vedic scriptures to construct weapons of mass destruction, a situation with striking parallels to our own Kali-yuga arms race. Lord Buddha captured the attention of that atheistic culture by speaking extensively on upadharma, or subreligious principles.
In fact, the teachings of Lord Buddha, commonly known as the Buddhist Dharma, are more exactly the Buddhist Upadharma. Lord Buddha avoids speaking of dharma in the sense of primary religious principles, since those principles are meant for directly understanding and surrendering to the Supreme Lord. Atheists or materialists cannot by their nature understand or surrender to God directly, but they can sometimes appreciate godly qualities like humility, pridelessness, nonviolence, tolerance, and simplicity, important qualities for religious persons. Lord Buddha, concealing His identity as God, focuses on these godly qualities, or principles of upadharma, to bring people gradually closer to qualifying for direct knowledge of the Supreme Person.
Although appearing within the material universes as Lord Buddha and innumerable other incarnations, the Supreme Person is not bound by material laws. Just as a governor visits the state prison, coming and going as he likes, God comes and goes within the material world, where we, His eternal individual parts, suffer in the prison of samsara,the cycle of repeated birth and death. Prisoners who take advantage of the Lord’s appearance to reawaken their relationship with Him in loving service become free of samsara,like state prisoners who by proper behavior are released by the governor.
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna says that He appears in the samsara prison to deliver His devotees and annihilate nonbelievers who harass the world with their mischief. In the Kali-yuga, however, when mischief-makers are in the majority, Lord Buddha devises a way to deliver them too.
When Lord Buddha appeared 2,500 years ago, atheists were again causing trouble, again by misusing the Vedic literature, this time to legitimize indiscriminate slaughter of animals. Animal slaughter is the way of subhumans and is almost completely forbidden in Vedic culture. The Vedic scriptures make very limited exceptions for those materialists who absolutely cannot resist eating flesh. But in Lord Buddha’s time those narrow exceptions were taken as the rule, as authorization for widespread animal killing. The poet Jayadeva Gosvami explains in his Dasha Avatara verses describing ten principal incarnations of God that Lord Buddha, feeling compassion for the poor animals, rejected the Vedic literature. By defying all the Vedic texts and advocating ahimsa, or nonviolence, He pulled the rug on scripture-thumping meat-eaters.
We might glimpse how Buddhist ahimsa appealed to people 2,500 years ago by weighing its appeal in our own violent times. Helen Tworkov, editor of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, points out that people coming of age during the Vietnam war explored Buddhism in response to the war’s savagery and to the calm protests of Vietnamese Buddhist priests. Nonviolence also plays a role in the popularity of the two recent films about the Dalai Lama. In one, Seven Years in Tibet, workers refuse to dig a foundation because they don’t want to kill any worms. Martin Scorsese, director of Kundun, the second film, says, “Anything infused in our world today about nonviolence can only help.”
Amid the violent animal slaughter of Lord Buddha’s time ahimsa must have attracted many people in a similar way, since animal slaughter has never been the norm on the Indian subcontinent. The current interest in Buddhist ahimsa would be true to Lord Buddha’s desire if it spurred refusal to take part in the culture of meat-eating. That might require our own rejection of scriptural license, or at least a radical sacrifice of almost sacred personal habits.
In rejecting the Vedas, Lord Buddha Himself adopted an apparently radical strategy for an incarnation of God, since God is the author of the Vedic literature, and either the author or the immediate inspiration for all world scriptures. The Upanishads say that the Vedas come from the breathing of the Personality of Godhead, and here was Lord Buddha using His breath to negate them. Of course, even an ordinary author can do as he likes with his own books, and the tactic served to remove the Vedas from the arsenal of destructive, materialistic people. As Lord Krishna says in the fifteenth chapter of the Bhagavad- gita, the purpose of the Vedas is to know Him.
The Vedas, in other words, are the source of the highest dharma, and yet in both the Buddha incarnations of which we have information, the Vedas were in the hands of people completely ignorant not only of dharma but of upadharma as well. Both times the Lord preached to people who did not understand the value even of nonviolence, what to speak of service to the Supreme Person, but who nevertheless used the Lord’s books to promote subhuman behavior.
Lord Buddha’s strategy is like that of a parent coaxing a toddler to give up a hundred-dollar bill the child has found. “That’s just a dirty old scrap of paper,” the parent tells the child. “Here, this candy bar is more valuable.” It’s a boldfaced lie, but any parent might tell it, because it’s for the benefit of the child, who can later learn to use money intelligently.
In addition to defying the Vedas, Lord Buddha denied the existence of God, another radical move calculated to secure Him the devotion of His atheistic audiences. With their minds emptied of scriptural misconceptions and fear of a supreme authority, Lord Buddha’s followers were ready to give their full attention to His teachings, summed up in the Four Noble Truths: existence is full of suffering; suffering is traceable to desire; desire can be transcended, leading to nirvana, or cessation of material existence; and the means to transcendence is the Eightfold Path of proper views, action, resolve, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. These truths, though spoken by the Supreme Himself as Lord Buddha and though clearly derived from His Vedic literature, were expertly presented without citing scripture or mentioning God.
Absence of a supreme authority figure is another current selling point for Buddhism. Writer Alan Watts once stated rather harshly that Buddhism helped him “get out from under the monstrously oppressive God the Father.” Other believers also maintain that Buddhism enables them to follow a spiritual path without the hellfire and brimstone or the guilt for alleged sins judged by an Almighty. Lord Buddha’s expertise, however, was that while denying God, the lawmaker, He inculcated within his followers a respect for His laws of karma and reincarnation. In the book Buddhism Without Beliefs, former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor recommends that Buddhism throw out karma and reincarnation to produce a “liberating agnosticism.” This may seem like a logical progression: throw out scripture, throw out God, then throw out karma and reincarnation. But that isn’t what Lord Buddha taught, nor is it liberating.
Lord Buddha gave his followers knowledge of samsara,the cycle of birth and death, and of karma, the universal law of action and reaction, because those ignorant of these features of material nature have no context in which to grasp the Four Truths and no impetus to follow the Eightfold Path. The First Noble Truth is that our suffering occurs within the painful cycle of repeated birth, death, old age, and disease; the Second Noble Truth is that as long as we have desires to gratify our material bodies we do things that get us a reaction in this cycle. If we kill or eat innocent animals, then by our individual karma we take birth as animals and are killed, and by our collective karma we are forced to herd our innocent children off to war every few years. If we employ weapons of mass destruction on civilians, we suffer massively, life after life. When Lord Buddha stops animal killing or an arms race, He therefore liberates from slaughter not only the victims of those crimes but their perpetrators as well.
With an enlightened perspective on his current and impending suffering, the atheist has impetus to advance to the third and fourth Noble Truths, transcending the desires at the root of his entanglement in samsara by attention to the Eightfold Path of proper views, speech, action, livelihood, and so on. This is commendable for atheists, who are not normally concerned with proper anything. The Gita explains: “Neither cleanliness nor proper behavior nor truth is found in them. They say that this world is unreal, with no foundation, no God in control. They say it is produced of sex desire and has no cause other than lust.” People without God and scripture are prone to see life solely as an opportunity for sex enjoyment without reference to religious or moral codes. If everything is a phantasmagoria of matter, why restrict the targets of my lust? This is your standard liberating agnosticism.
“Following such conclusions,” the Gita continues, “the atheists, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.” Unbeneficial works like butchering animals and nuking civilians.
It is a testimony to Lord Buddha’s supreme intelligence and mercy that He created in such persons a mindfulness of propriety. When people behave properly by following principles of the Buddhist Upadharma, they produce a peaceful atmosphere in human society and earn for themselves happy and prosperous future births in the cycle of samsara.The Gita states that good, moral behavior elevates one to positions of heavenly opulence (urdhvam gacchanti sattva- stha) or to birth in wealthy and pious families (prapya punya-kritam lokan), quite a step up from births as animals bound for the slaughterhouse or births in other, even less appealing locales.
While proper behavior does not alone lead to freedom from desire or to nirvana, the end of material existence, it does place the individual soul imprisoned in samsara on a platform with opportunities for further advancement in spiritual life. In an ordinary prison good behavior might win us parole. In the prison of samsara it earns the individual soul a very nice cell.
The Soul’s Desire
The Vedas say that the individual soul is eternal and cannot be desireless in either the imprisoned or liberated condition. As individual parts of God, we either desire power, up to the level of nuclear power, for our own sense gratification, or we desire to serve the transcendental senses of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As the governor of the material prison, God appears in unending incarnations to accept our service and take us back to the deathless spiritual world, back to Godhead. Persons who desire only to please the Supreme Person are actually desireless because they have given up the material desires and the concomitant behavior, either “proper” or “unbeneficial,” which keeps them in the prison of repeated birth and death. Nirvana, the cessation of material existence, is a by-product of the desire to please the Supreme.
Lord Buddha said none of this to His atheistic followers. He had already indulged them by denying the existence of God, so He taught them that the object of meditation was not service to the Lord but shunyata, emptiness. Sunya means “zero” or “void.” Like atheism, voidism is a predisposition of grossly materialistic people, people like the scientists in the Kali- yugas of our two Buddha incarnations. Science in the current Kali-yuga teaches that life comes from a combination of material elements within the body and that when the body falls apart we cease to exist; we are void. With the Buddhist knowledge of karma andsamsara,the concept goes a step further: we continue to exist as individuals within the cycle of birth and death until we overcome material desire. Then void.
It is true that everything material comes to nothing and that meditation on the impermanence of the material world may help us quell our desires for the fleeting manifestations of home, family, country, fame, and fortune. In the Kundun movie a character muses: “My enemies will be nothing. My friends will be nothing. All will be nothing.” In the material world what we hate and what we love will disappear in due course. But since we are eternal, the question that remains is what to do with our meditation once we have withdrawn it from the objects of our material desire and loathing. For those who have followed the Eightfold Path of proper action Krishna answers: “Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life and whose unbeneficial works are completely eradicated are freed from the duality of desire and hate, and they engage themselves in My service with determination.” (Bg. 7.28) “For those whose minds are fixed upon Me, O son of Pritha, I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.” (Bg. 12.7)
Void meditation may suffice while we practice the Eightfold Path of proper behavior and rid ourselves of the horrible works that drown us in the darker regions of samsara.After that, from a position of detachment and relative freedom from suffering we are set to make further advancement. “At the ultimate stage,” Srila Prabhupada says of the Buddhist path, “one has to accept the Lord and become His devotee; otherwise there is no religion. In religious principles there must be God in the center; otherwise simple moral instructions are merely subreligious principles, generally known as upadharma, or nearness to religious principles.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.7.37, purport)
Proper behavior short of loving devotion to God keeps us in the cycle of birth and death. But faithful practitioners of the Eightfold Path are in a fortunate position. For deliverance from the ocean of birth and death they have only to turn their meditation from the void to the astounding humility, nonviolence, and mercy of their teacher, Lord Buddha, the Supreme Person and well-wisher of the atheists.