by Wayne Ren-Cheng
There are some who view Buddhism as an agnostic religion, and some who view Buddhism as an atheistic philosophy. Agnosticism can play a vital role in Buddhist practice but not a central role. The concept of Buddhism as atheistic comes from a deep misunderstanding, or in some cases a complete misrepresentation of Buddhist philosophy.
Setting aside the question of an Ultimate Cause, a God that directs all phenomena that is how most people relate to agnosticism brings us to the more pragmatic view of this philosophy. Awareness, and acceptance of causal conditioning (dependent origination) subtracts the concept of an Ultimate Cause from any consideration. That the essential nature of things cannot be known has long been an ideal in Buddhist philosophy as no phenomena has an inherent existence, no essential nature to be known. In Buddhism this is not agnosticism . . . it is reality. What firmly grounds a Buddhist practice is that knowledge is gained through experience, and if something cannot be directly or indirectly experienced it is not knowledge, it is theory and speculation. In the Kalama Sutra the Buddha teaches: “When you know in yourselves: These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness, then you should practice and abide in them . . . “ (translation by Nanamoli Thera)
One lesson of this sutra is directed toward a common occurrence in the India of the Buddha’s time. There was a proliferation of religious teachers wandering the countryside extolling the virtues of their Truths and Practices, that they alone taught the True Way, the only way to their vision of salvation. In Western society, right this moment, folks are facing the same problem, and some of the teachers are Buddhist.