Buddha: a “Non-Theistic” Religion.

Via Waylon Lewis
on May 1, 2012
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Is there a God? Maybe. What’s more important is being present, genuine, and kind:

What do Buddhists believe in? Trick question:

Always retain your critical intelligence. Trust the principal one. Do not place others on pedestals. Do not look for satisfaction outside of one’s own heart.

Trungpa Rinpoche always described Buddhism as “non-theistic.” We aren’t a-theistic, he’d say—we don’t not believe in God, or gods. We only believe in things that we can find to be true. That said, if God or gods show up, we’ll be happy to believe.

Same goes for reincarnation. Same goes for kami. Same goes for cat. Same goes for Buddhism itself, as the Dalai Lama reminds us (he says if Science and Buddhism conflict, Buddhist ought to go with Science).


“When we tell ourselves and others that our heroes are inhuman and on a pedestal that is not just high but unattainable, we are actually pushing ourselves down rather than climbing.” ~ Katrina Honigs 


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


23 Responses to “Buddha: a “Non-Theistic” Religion.”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    When His Holiness the Dalai Lama "goes with science", let me know. What do you think the meaning of that statement, allegedly by His Holiness, is? I only say allegedly because i did not hear him say that. he has been misquoted continually. Also, what is it that makes that statement attractive to you and others?

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  3. […] that, the Buddha says more simply and eloquently, is the goal of all those who would be genuinely happy in this life. Yours in working (and playing) […]

  4. __MikeG__ says:

    I'm not a Buddhist. And even if I were the Dalai Lama most probably still would not speak for me. But my guess is that the "goes with science" statement is so attractive is that persons who really wish to "wake up" also do not want a belief system which includes magical thinking.

  5. guest says:

    is this another "my religion is better than your religion" post?

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    guest…i hear what you are asking. Those who think of themselves as buddhist , here only in the west, feel compelled to let everyone know that they are 'buddhist'. they even take it one step too far and try to explain buddhist thought in public forums uninvited or without request. this confuses buddhism from the very start for those who have no background and it also presents buddhism in a light which does not resemble buddhism in this anything goes society. in india, tibet, and bhutan, and nepal there are practitioners who diligently practice unbeknownst to even their neighbors and when they die there are signs of accomplishment. Those on public blogs and publications who continually expound their buddhist ness usually use it to create an income…but they justify it as..mindfullness. i think your comment is very justified. i, personally have not had one buddhist teacher who would personally point to themselves in any public forum and proclaim what is being proclaimed on a daily basis on the blogosphere.

  7. sure does sound like it to me, guest. Although please note, Buddhists "aren't in a religion." No wonder they're confused :))

  8. ps: nice answer, Padma…really nice.

  9. integralhack says:


    I think Trungpa's double negative (don't not believe) is brilliant. I think it is good to "don't not believe" in science or religion. Ultimately when I argue against people with a scientific materialist persuasion it is essentially the same argument I would have with a religious fundamentalist (which isn't to say that I hold their views to be "equal"–I usually find the evidence of science to be more compelling, if not obvious). What I question of both is the level of attachment to their view and the fear or insecurity that is usually behind the zealousness of commitment. Often both want a clean, concise narrative of reality, but you can never really have that. Both lack the "wisdom of insecurity," as Alan Watts put it.

  10. Padma Kadag says:

    …I get your meaning. Science is very nihilistic in that it deals only with what can be quantified.If it cannot be measured within the confines of scientific method it does not exist. Science can also be Eternalist in that, hopefully, they keep open minds to universal possibilities. The problem with Waylon's thesis is not that what the Buddha said about theism, the challenge is when Buddhists try to educate above their own capabilities and realization. Buddhism for the individual is just that, for the individual. We, every moment of each day and even in our dreams are theistic. Buddhists are theistic until they go beyond samsara and nirvana.If we beleive in a better future then we are theistic. If we carry out our actions and activities to benefit ourselves so that in the futeure we will gain something then we are theistic. If we judge anything to be good that is being theistic and cling to that.

  11. integralhack says:

    Well put, Padma!

    I myself am someone who has himself at times tried to "educate above [his] own capabilities and realization." Now I try to append a disclaimer underneath everything I write: "I know almost nothing but love to hear myself talk." 🙂

    But isn't it also a Buddhist point that this self analysis should be recursive? Since we are constantly attaching shouldn't we return to our meditation–again and again–to recognize the various attachments that constantly pop up? Based on this condition, are most of us "theistic" in the sense that you're using the word?

    I also would hate to limit the Buddhist purview to the individual only (although I know many Buddhists believe that it should)–to me it seems that Buddhism can have applications beyond the individual. Naturally, I don't suggest Buddhists can project enlightenment on society, but I think they can help point out different sorts of mass delusion and societal illness.

    I think it would be great if Waylon could clarify his point as it was somewhat glib (perhaps by design)!


  12. Padma Kadag says:

    i agree that we should absolutely look beyond ourselves if we are practicing correctly with pure intent and bodhicitta. But we should also know that the entire world and phenomena is our own making and it is up to us to tear down all that creates confusion. We can only do that as individuals. I think my comment about theism is all that I can say about that. Any good judgements are theistic. In regard to buddhists explaining points which really are meant to be explained as teacher to student, that will never stop here in the west…thats fine. But it is not Buddhism, at least to me. To proclaim buddhism is non-theistic does not have the effect one intends in such a public forum. Mainly because we buddhists practice theism every moment whether we are honest with ourselves or not.

  13. Padma Kadag says:

    hahaha…good one Braja…you are right!

  14. integralhack says:

    Gotcha. "Theistic" is such a loaded term that it invites confusion (such as the image of a big man in the sky reaching down from the heavens), but I think I grok you.

  15. suri_k8 says:

    the literal meaning of theistic is :
    One who believes in the existence of a God; especially, one who believes in a personal God.

  16. suri_k8 says:

    Buddhism is so profoundly relativistic , that it seems like anything goes really.

  17. Padma Kadag says:

    Its the process or habit of believing in a god and how one believes in the god of hoping for a better future as if god were answering your prayers…I would go even further and say that most atheists are actually theistic.

  18. suri_k8 says:

    i dont think so…atheism = absence of belief in god/s….you can use the english language anyway you want but literal meanings of words exist for a reason … a toilet is a toilet even if you choose to call it a shower … that is the problem with relativism … anything goes …. that is exactly where all those spiritual wackos start their journey to "wonderland".

  19. […] spring and one of the things that means for American Buddhists is that it’s Vow […]

  20. […] And that’s why we call Buddhist “non-theistic.” […]

  21. soulhakr says:

    @suri_k8: Your example disproves your point. You do realize that when one person says "toilet" they may be referring to the porcelain plumbing fixture, or they may, for instance, only be referring to the room in which such a fixture resides (e.g. "I need to go to the toilet to freshen up a bit")? or they may referring to one of they acts that they typically do on such a fixture, even when no such fixture is around (e.g. "he went to the toilet in the woods…" or "…in his pants")
    While not _everything_ is relative, words do not have only a single meaning.

  22. Mel says:

    Great post! Best I've seen on EJ actually