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Podcast Episode 3: What Buddhists Don’t Believe


What Buddhists Don’t Believe

Welcome to Episode 3 of Daily Buddhism. We’re obviously still not Daily, but at least we can get the Buddhism part right. I’m your host, Brian, and here we go!

At the end of last episode, I said that this time we would talk about what Buddhists believe. That’s a huge subject, and there’s no way I can get into that in a single show. So instead, I’m going to go about it in a different way; I’m going to talk about what Buddhists don’t believe. From stereotypes to misinformation to just plain wrong ideas. Once we get some of this disinformation out of the way, we can move on down the middle way and start talking about the true path of Buddhism.

First, let me get some podcast stuff out of the way. First, I’d like everyone listening to subscribe to the podcast. Listening on the website is nice, but if you are subscribed, you will receive new episodes automatically. On the website,, click on the logo image on the right-hand side of the screen. A message will come up saying that something or other wants to open a program. If you have iTunes installed, it will talk about opening iTunes. If you listen to podcasts using some other piece of software, open it instead. Just give it your ‚ÄúOK‚Äù and the program will open and automatically add Daily Buddhism to your subscription list. Now, every time you update your podcasts, all new episodes will automatically be downloaded. Once we get going at full speed, it might be all too easily to accidentally is an episode if you have to remember to visit the site to listen.

Of course, you should subscribe to the email service as well. I’m still not completely decided whether the podcast is going to be daily or weekly, but there is no doubt about the email list; it’s going to be daily, and it’s the heart of my plans for Daily Buddhism. If in doubt, go with the mail list!

We still don’t seem to be listed in the Itunes store, but we are listed on Podcast Alley and Feedburner. If you know how to vote or do a review on those sites, please vote for us there. If you don’t know how to do that, I’ll explain in a future episode.

But now, let’s get on with talking about ‚ÄúWhat Buddhists Don’t Believe‚Äù

First of all let me put out a disclaimer: There are hundreds of different varieties of Buddhism. Just like the denominations in Christianity, there are many different competing ideas and schools about Buddhist beliefs. As much as possible, I am going to try to stick to the ideas that are common to all of them, but I will be making some general statements, and in nearly every case, there will probably be some exceptions. As you will soon learn, everything I say is true; not only that, but everything I say is a lie. Buddhism is sometimes insanely difficult to nail down.

OK. Do Buddhists believe in God?

No. And Yes. Well, maybe. When Buddha was asked about this, he simply stated that no one can know for sure. Since no one can know, it is non-productive to debate or hypothesize about his existence. If there is a god, he is so far above us and removed from us that we cannot comprehend him, so involved guessing and debate on god is a waste of time; if there is no god, then there is no point in wasting our time thinking about him. So maybe there is a god, maybe there isn’t, but Buddhists don’t concern themselves with him. Buddhists certainly would deny the existence of a personal god that you can pray to for miracles; Buddhists live in reality, and accept what they can see and experience.

Another problem with god is that it puts the responsibility for ‚Ķ pretty much everything, in the hands of an outside force. In Buddhism, salvation, if you want to use that word, comes from within. You are responsible for saving yourself. It’s your responsibility. If you choose to be a drunken thief, that is your choice and your responsibility, not some outside force such as the devil.

You will eventually come across Buddhists texts and readings that make reference to God or gods. This is because Buddhism grew out of Hinduism, a religion with many gods. At some point, we’ll get into Hinduism and it’s influence more seriously, but let’s just say that the people in Buddha’s part of the world had gods as part of their culture, and it just wasn’t possible to get people to give them up too easily. Today the ‚Äúgods‚Äù referenced in these old works are considered mythological, symbolic, or simply literary characters. Don’t get bogged down in the actual writings of Buddhism.

Which brings up my next main point: The Writings. There is no single ‚ÄúBible‚Äù in Buddhism. Buddha never wrote or claimed to write anything himself. Supposedly, many of his sayings were collected and written down after his death. No one can say for sure how many of these are valid or truly the words of the Buddha. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Rea the words and decide for yourself if they are true. Remember, the whole point of Buddhism is to learn and enlighten yourself. If the words hold true to you, then they are true to you. If they make no sense or sound wrong, ignore them. Maybe later when you’ve learned more, they’ll make more sense to you. Or maybe they won’t. There are some books that are more important and have more accepted ideas and stories than others, and we’ll get them, but there’s no single ‚ÄúBuddhist Bible‚Äù you need to rush right out to buy.

This is one that really makes me crazy. Buddhists don’t worship idols. Many Buddhists don’t even own a Buddha statue. I don’t! The point of having a statue in your home is simply to keep it around as a reminder. Mindfulness is a big part of Buddhism, as we’ll see later, and having a solid reminder around can be a big help. Some people may bow to the statue, but it’s just a sign of respect for what he taught. Any Buddhist will tell you that little stone man on the floor is just a piece of stone; Buddha statues are just things.

Speaking of things, we all know that Buddhists should give away all their possessions, shave their heads, and join a monastery right? Wrong! If you eventually have some super strong feeling that you want to become a monk, that’s fine, but probably 99% of all the Buddhists in the world are not monks. That’s like saying all Catholics are priests. No, most Buddhists are just normal, everyday working people who choose to live life according the path of Buddhism.

I think you’ll find that Buddhists don’t really ‚Äúbelieve‚Äù a whole lot. By that, I mean that Buddhism isn’t a system of faith or belief, but a way of living and interacting with the world around us. There are certain general principles that most forms of Buddhism accept, but for the most part, the ‚Äúreligious‚Äù aspects of Buddhist are not required. Buddhism can be looked at as a philosophy of life, leaving religion out of it entirely if you like.

Did you know it’s possible for Christians and Jews to practice Buddhism? Atheists too? It’s completely valid. Many Christians advocate learning Buddhist meditation and philosophy. Some less-informed groups call Buddhists ‚ÄúIdol-Worshippers‚Äù and ‚Äúheathens‚Äù and such. Most people who have done any research at all on Buddhism can see that’s just misinformation. The simple fact is that Buddhism in many forms, isn’t actually a religion at all. As I said before, it’s more a philosophy of life and a way to live, and it can be completely compatible with your personal belief system.

The closest that Buddhism really comes to religion is it’s way of describing the universe. This is a big idea, so I’m just going to give the basics right now.

Buddhists DO believe in karma and reincarnation. Not the ‚ÄúI used to be Napoleon or Cleopatra‚Äù style of reincarnation, but something a little less dramatic. As you live and do tings in your life, you accumulate karma. I like to think of karma as a sort of ‚Äúpoint system.‚Äù If you do something good, you get good karma, if you do something bad, you get bad karma. No, there isn’t a god keeping score, it’s just the way the universe works; like a force of nature. When you die, the good and bad points steer your ‚Äúbeing‚Äù into a better or worse life. I’m not going to use the word ‚Äúspirit‚Äù or ‚Äúsoul‚Äù here, and you’ll see why later. Anyway, you are then born into a new life. This goes on time after time after time. You may have been around ten thousand times before, you don’t know and you don’t remember. You are born, you live, you suffer and grasp and desire and then die. Your karma has been accumulating for all this time; your karma from past lives, for better or worse, is still affecting you. Buddhists believe that the goal in life is to escape from this endless cycle of rebirth. This can be done by reaching Nirvana or Enlightenment. This is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. This whole idea of reincarnation is just understood and accepted by most Eastern people, but is a big stretch for Westerners to accept. You know what? You really don’t have to accept it all. You don’t have to accept any of it. As I said, faith and beliefs are not especially important to Buddhism; knowledge and actions are what counts. Self-understanding and self-control are the keys to Buddhism. If this karma and reincarnation thing is true, then you’ll benefit by being a Buddhist; if it’s not true, you’ll still benefit from Buddhism by having increased understanding and good way to live.

OK, now I bet you have dozens of new questions. That’s fine; I’ve barely introduced some hugely big ideas this time with only a little explanation. I don’t expect you to accept any of it yet, but bear with me. Send me your questions by email to or better yet, record an MP3 file and send it to me, I’ll play it on the show. If you have any comments or suggestions for the show, fire away, I’d love to hear them.

This will probably be my last podcast from Japan, as next week I’m flying back to the States. It may be a couple of weeks before the next one, or maybe not. We’ll be starting up the Daily Email portion of the Daily Buddhism fairly soon after I return, and the podcasts will resume thereafter. If you are subscribed to the mailing list, just sit back and wait for things to happen. If not, get on over to and sign up in the upper right-hand corner.

1 comment to Podcast Episode 3: What Buddhists Don’t Believe

  • Celia Williams

    I have just so far read the beginning but my interest lies in the hand signs. Friends of mine are new buddhists and I have bought them a statue for the Christmas holidays. They don’t make much of Christmas but like to do good and make others happy at this time. The statue I’ve got them has a hand sign which is a bit like a ‘Stop’ sign or ‘peace’ or when one is calling for silence by gesture. If anyone can help I would appreciate it. Sometime in the future I want to learn more for myself but not right now.