An uncertain refuge

Google-Plus-LogoI remember the day I realized I was an atheist. I was sitting on an S-Bahn in Stuttgart, reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker for the second time – this time paying more attention. I finally came to know that for my purposes there was no credible need to believe in the god I had been raised to worship. The ties were already very loose by then. Dawkins just helped me to be honest with myself.

There has always been some kind of searching going on in my life (if you are reading this blog then there is no need to explain that idea). I had tried out Buddhist meditation a few years previously and found it to be good thing. But then I started travelling, living a whole new life with lots of money and lots of fun. Meditation had given me a kick start, and now I had moved on. The moment of realization on that S-Bahn brought me to the conclusion that there was no need to seek any more. Silly me.

The question about whether or not there is a god takes up a lot of space on YouTube these days, but I’ve come to see it as a bit dull. Once you’ve answered the question for yourself – in whatever way that works for you – the really interesting questions remain: How do I live well? What is the nature of mind and experience? And who the hell is asking, anyhow? I’ve never been comfortable calling myself Buddhist as it has too many associated assumed beliefs to which I don’t adhere and which I don’t wish to defend. But something has moved in the years since The Blind Watchmaker, and again I find myself forced into honesty.

On the 44th anniversary of the moment I started breathing air, and at the end, more or less, of the 4th year that I have returned to observing that breath in Buddhist meditation, it seemed like as good a day as any to acknowledge what has changed. I still choose not to call myself a Buddhist. But there remains the realization that I have already taken refuge in the Buddha – as much in my own presumed Buddha nature as in the historical seeker and scientist Gotama.

I have already taken refuge in the Dhamma – it describes in a very satisfactory way the things I experience in life, and much of what I read about in the sciences.

And now in the past few months, I have taken refuge in a very special Sangha: the Wildmind Community.

These are not refuges into which one flees in fear to avoid uncertainty, but towards which one gravitates in hope and confidence but with some trepidation. Whatever word I might or might not use to describe myself, there is a path ahead of me now that I cannot imagine leaving.

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • Congratulations, Mr. Lawlor, on your well-written essay!

  • Nice post. I don’t believe in the “God” of most organized religions, either, but don’t call myself an atheist because I do believe that the universe in aggregate is alive and possibly sentient, and that in any case there are levels of consciousness above our own. I wonder whether your definition of atheism leaves room for such a view, or whether it’s the classic atheism of materialists who believe that the universe is essentially dead and that human consciousness is an accidental epiphenomenon.

    • Brendan Lawlor
      April 1, 2013 6:51 am

      Thanks George. It occurred to me, after posting, that for somebody so hesitant in using the word Buddhist, I used the word Atheist without a second thought. If we use ‘Dawkins’ scale’ of atheism which runs from 1 to 7 (1 = I absolutely know that God exists; 7 = I absolutely know that God does not exist) I am a 6. It’s not intellectually tenable, I think, to claim knowledge on this matter (perhaps on any matter?). In the absence of certainty, knowledge can be a verb that constantly gathers information and adjusts itself where necessary. So for what it’s worth, my definition of atheism leaves room for lots of stuff.
      A dead universe? I am of the universe and I don’t feel dead. It’s hard to find a scientific reason to contradict to the simple statement ‘I am the universe which has become aware of itself’.

  • I wish I could find a companion that thinks and feels the way you do. I am married to an atheist..agonostic whatever he goes by these days. There is no life after death, no reincarnation, no past lives. We die, go to dust and it’s done. I am a recovering alcoholic, sober three years now – on my own – couldn’t tolerate the AA powerless approach, started yoga evolved to mediation and you sum up exactly how I am changing. Hesitant to say I am Buddist – I am not worthy or knowledgable to state that but most everything that I read make me nod my head in agreement and these thoughts and feeling are making a better, more compassionate, Christiam, Buddist, whatever person! Thanks

    • Brendan Lawlor
      April 1, 2013 6:59 am

      Hi Layla. Congratulations on three sober years and my best wishes for many, many more. I don’t think anybody is more ‘worthy’ and ‘knowledgeable’ to make a statement on who you are and what you believe, than you yourself. And I agree with the sentiment you hint at – whatever the label, what matters is compassion and wisdom. By the way, it might surprise you to know that I find nothing to object to in what your partner says about life after death. But like I said in the post, what matters to to me is what we consider to be a life well-lived.

  • I think that, many who find that they think they are atheists, may not really be. Perhaps the undoing of traditional religious ideas, especially of those called “reveled”, the Abrahamic traditions, leaves them with no other assumed identity, for the moment.

    There are alternatives to ‘atheism’, which appeal to my reason. Deism is one, though it’s writers are scarce, it’s premise is sound. Thomas Paine is among the best.

    Then there is Buddhism. Though many purported Buddhists claim that Buddha renounced the idea of god, it just isn’t so, any more than he renounced the existence of self.

    Both fall into the category of topics which Buddha made no direct discourse on; and refereed those questions to outside his sphere.

    He proclaimed only suffering, the origin of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to the end of suffering.

    He emphatically intended that his followers not perceive certain aspects as being ‘the self’. That there was no self, he never claimed. There is a difference. He did emphatically declare also that ‘one’s self’ is one’s sole refuge.

    Again touching on deity, he never said they did not exist, and even that to think that would be wrong view. His view was that even deity existed within samsara, and was of a limited duration. That’s very different than the claim some purported Buddhist make of his teachings.

    But again, it was not his subject, his subject was suffering, and the end of suffering. Ironically I find that many Theravada students have a real good grasp of The Buddha’s ideas on divinity. He avoids a thicket of views, and returns to the subject of suffering and it’s end. Contrarily many Mahayanist who I find are more likely to claim Buddha was an atheist, have found many ‘Deities’ for themselves, and claim them to be within the legitimate framework of Buddhism. Go figure!

    • Brendan Lawlor
      April 3, 2013 5:42 am

      Thank you nofolalo, for the considered and informed comment. Perhaps indeed some people think they are atheists, but are not considered to be so by others. As perhaps some people think they are buddhists, but are not considered so by others. In both cases it requires the professed atheist or buddhist to be using a different definition to the other who is making a judgement. As you hint at, a more fruitful activity than either defining or judging, is investigating the buddha’s answers to those questions which were inside his sphere. It’s hard to get away from definitions in everyday language, unfortunately.

  • Agreed, we’re hooked on name and form in the West. We’d be lost, or considered mad, without it; and, if we persevere in Buddha Dharmma, we’ll eventually drop it, at least in our practice.

    I recall in one discourse the discussion to the effect that if one comes to Nibanna will he then not refer to himself as “I”, or things as “my”, and “mine”.

    The answer was categorical somewhat. It was that though the enlightened understood perfectly, he also realized the necessity of communicating in conventional terms, and would for that purpose certainly refer to himself as ‘I’ and things as ‘my’ and ‘mine’.

    I think that having good teachers who understand Dhamma and are gifted in communicating it to those infused with Wetern ideas has been of the greatest benefits for me.

    I have some favorites, by way of their understanding and communication skills. You may find them very interesting and comprehensible as well.




    The whole Access to Insight site is a treasure. Be sure to take a look around there if you haven’t yet. All The Very Best.


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