On the Atheist Morals of Buddhism

Those who think morality is supreme say purity is by self-restraint; having taken upon themselves an observance they are dedicated to it. “Let us train ourselves right here and now, and then there would be purity”—Claiming to be adepts, they are brought up to further existence.
If one is fallen away from his morality and observances, he is agitated, having failed in his action. He longs for and aspires to pure freedom from wrong, like one who has lost his caravan and is far from home.
But having abandoned all morality and observances, and that action that is criticized or uncriticized, not aspiring to “purity” or “non-purity,” he would live refraining, not taking hold even of peace.
     from the Mahāviyūha Sutta (“The Great Discourse on Tactical Deployment”)

     Despite the fact that I am a Theravada Buddhist bhikkhu by vocation, and despite the fact that this is a blog ostensibly dedicated to “politically incorrect Dharma,” I have been neglecting Buddhist philosophy, especially lately. Over the past few months I’ve discussed some things from a Buddhist point of view, although I’ve written specifically about Charles Darwin, maybe even about Adolf Hitler too, more than I’ve written about Gotama Buddha or the philosophy attributed to him. This is largely because the point of this blog isn’t as Buddhism-oriented as the first one was. I’ve written most of what I wanted to write about Buddhism already. But even so, this time I’m taking a walk on the tame side and discussing the basic elements of Buddhist ethics.

     A common argument against atheism is that it necessarily spawns immorality, because without a God serving as a kind of universal policeman and magistrate there is not only no sin, there is no basis for morality at all. As Ivan Karamazov says in Dostoevsky’s great novel, if there is no God, then all is permitted. There may be a kind of hedonistic or utilitarian ethic or social contract that prevents everyone from robbing, raping, killing, and cannibalizing each other, or possibly some social herd instinct bred into us human animals which keeps us more or less civil and cooperative with each other, but there can be, according to the theory, no true morality in a spiritual sense, no profound reward for goodness or retribution for badness that affects us any more than superficially.

     But with all due respects to Dostoevsky, this is not necessarily the case. Theravada Buddhism features one of the most meticulous, exact, finely tuned moral systems ever devised, yet it is essentially atheistic, particularly with regard to its interpretation of right and wrong. There are small-g gods in the Buddhist universe, but they are simply beings higher up on the scale of mental power and material subtlety than we are; morality is essentially psychological, not decreed by any deity. We grant moral rewards and inflict moral punishments upon ourselves, and it is we ourselves that send ourselves to heaven, hell, or anywhere else after death, assuming that we go anywhere, not some Supreme Deity who judges us. In fact there is no God Almighty at all in Theravada (although the Buddha himself, or some other, mythological Buddha, may assume that position in some forms of Mahayana, or among some of the more worshipful and ignorant of Theravadins). In fact in Theravada any metaphysical Absolute, such as the Vedantist Brahman, is considered “indeterminate” at best—to say it exists is invalid; to say it doesn’t exist is invalid; to say it does and doesn’t exist is invalid; and to say that it neither does nor doesn’t exist is also invalid. Absolutes are off the scale pretty much by definition, and thus beyond conception, and beyond the scope of any system of moral conduct. So, as I’ve already observed, ethics in Buddhism is essentially psychological and subjective.

     Some people may object that Buddhist ethics is based on the idea of karma, or kamma in Pali, and thereby not purely subjective; although most people don’t understand the Buddhist conception of karma very well. From an orthodox Theravada Buddhist perspective, karma is purely psychological; in fact in the Pali texts the Buddha identifies karma with cetanā, which is a mental state usually translated into English as “volition.” It may come as a surprise to some that karma is not some universal law of metaphysics along the lines of, “for every moral action there is an equal and opposite moral reaction”—in fact that’s how I understood it before I became a monk and studied the texts; but although that’s what karma may be in New Age or maybe Hinduism, in Buddhism karma is a mental state.

     What karma is, basically, is the momentum of our mind. It’s the driving force behind our mental actions which pushes us forwards through life; consequently “volition” isn’t as good of a rendering as something like “urge,” or maybe Schopenhauer’s “will.” Another translation of the term that I have seen, and which I really like, is “habit energy.” If we do something without full consciousness, which is pretty much always, then it affects our mental habits. If we cultivate peaceful, healthy actions, then our mind naturally becomes habitually more peaceful and healthy. If we ignorantly, recklessly cultivate agitated, violent, unhealthy actions, then our habits of mind reflect that also. And of course when our mind is calm and lucid we are happier, or rather less unhappy, than when we’re agitated and not thinking clearly. In other words, the cultivation of subtle, “high-vibration” mental states results in less suffering than does the cultivation of crude, bestial semiconsciousness. Thus what it all boils down to is this: doing what raises consciousness decreases unhappiness and is “good” or “moral” or “skillful,” and doing what lowers our level of consciousness decreases our level of happiness and is “bad” or “immoral” or “unskillful.” It’s not a matter of the decree of a God that one must love one’s neighbor or avoid certain kinds of meat, but rather the level of consciousness that accompanies one's actions that determines morality.

     Some actions naturally have a raising or lowering effect on the quality of our mind, possibly as a mere side effect of being human. Lying or stealing or beating someone up, for example, are very difficult to accomplish with a calm, expanded mind, and tend to reduce the level of one’s consciousness. According to Buddhist ethics it is a practical impossibility to murder one’s own mother without some very extreme negative mental states that will have lingering, habitual effects in future, vulgarly referred to as “bad karma.” Just as a person with a troubled mind is more likely to have bad dreams at night, so a person with such a mind is more likely to create a bad waking reality also, subconsciously or subliminally. The quality of your mind determines the quality of your world, your reality.

     One key point to bear in mind is that Buddhist ethics thus really is subjective; an action is good or bad depending on its effect on one’s own consciousness, not on the consciousness of someone else. It tends to be the case that hurting others involves unskillful mental states, although this does depend upon volition—which, again, is karma. So let’s say a person takes someone else’s property by mistake because it looks like his own and he doesn’t have his glasses on. Well, he hasn’t really stolen anything, and aside from not paying sufficient attention he has done nothing wrong. Same goes for speech: If a person believes something to be true and says so, and is mistaken because it isn’t true, then so long as that person had no intention of deceiving anyone he is innocent of lying. By the same token, a person may calmly state his honest opinion, and he has done nothing wrong so long as he has no malicious intention of harming anyone—so whether a hypersensitive person is offended or not is irrelevant to the moral quality of the action. A lot of western liberal Buddhists really don’t get this.

     Even a certain amount of callous indifference towards others and their feelings is not necessarily wrong from a Buddhist point of view. If someone considers it important to state a fact, even if he knows it will ruffle some feathers or hurt some feelings or cause maladjusted people to feel unsafe, then stating that fact is not immoral or wrong, regardless of any subsequent hysterical caterwauling or flash mobs on Twitter. It depends upon the motive of the agent, not upon the reactions of anyone else.

     It is true that a person can’t really be happy, deep down, while wantonly, willfully hurting others, or trying to do so, regardless of any grinning or cackling he or she may indulge in at the time. Hatred, desire, and delusion are conducive to suffering, and acting with these as motivating forces not only results in unhappiness but results in habitual unhappiness (“bad karma”), since whatever we do in a semiconscious state (which applies to almost everyone all the time) creates or reinforces habits. Really happy people don’t want to hurt others anyway—happy people tend to have a live and let live attitude. It’s generally only a suffering person who lashes out and wants others to suffer also. This may serve as a good reason to feel compassion for assholes.

     Aside from the deliberately evil, cackling, tormented spirits who crave the suffering of others, there are also a fair amount of sharks and tigers out there, also known as sociopaths, who are simply ruthless and relatively unfeeling. They’re still human, so they’re prone to human motives and feelings even if they’re subliminal, but they’re not exactly evil, and certainly not as bad as the guy who feels compulsive urges to torture puppies or beat up prostitutes. A cold, calculating sociopath is still not fully conscious and is bound to suffer as a result of his actions, but he is leaning in the direction of amorality, and may not suffer as much as his equally semiconscious victims may like.

     Ultimately, an advanced Buddhist practitioner abandons both good and evil, since both are symptoms of semiconsciousness, and produce karma. The hypothetical enlightened being is fully conscious, creates no new habit energy, and thus has transcended morality in a sense. He can do as he likes, although of course it’s highly unlikely that he would want to beat up a little old lady in a drunken rage, or murder someone, or deliberately hurt someone’s delicate feelings. But even enlightened beings say and do things that others don’t like at all. Even people like the Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth had plenty of enemies who were personally offended by people, including saints, who disagreed with them. But sages say what they say, knowing full well in advance that maladjusted malcontents won’t like it.

     Anyway, getting back to Dostoevsky, it is true that all is permitted. That much is true, even pretty obviously true if one looks around and sees what the world is like. But even so our actions, especially our deliberate actions, have subjective consequences which condition the quality of our minds and thus the quality of our lives—and indirectly the lives of those who interact with us. If you have a bad mind you have a bad life and live in a bad world; if you have a good mind you have a good life and live in a good world; and if you have an enlightened mind you have left good and bad behind you and are simply off the scale.

     In conclusion I would advise the reader (that’s you) that, before doing or saying anything that you know will have someone’s panties in a twist, take care that you have an honest reason for doing or saying it, and don’t have as your motive the desire to put their panties in a twist. Then if they do get upset, well, that’s on them, not you. That’s their own unskillful or “immoral” reaction to what they don’t like, even though they’ll undoubtedly blame you for it. Don’t enslave yourself to the neuroses of others by playing by their rules. Trust your own conscience, try to do what is right, and be happy, and relatively free.



  1. An excellent explanation which I will share elsewhere, thanks.

  2. Juggernaut_poster_of_old_blogMay 10, 2019 at 12:17 PM

    Okay I donot how much of a push back there will be but this is my final observatipn pf Buddhism.

    A certain peaceful religion teaches these days suicide bombing of the body.

    But in my opinion Buddhism teaches suicide bombing of the soul.

    And now there will be the predictable outcry which would say that Buddhism doesnot believe in soul or the soul construct is redundant in Buddhism

    By Soul I mean whatever the Buddhists believe survive after the death of the body but cannot be supported through the materialistic scientific explanation

    Call it

    1) Soul
    2) Mind detached from body
    3) Spiritual Velocity
    4) Karmic momentum
    5) Etheric Impulse yada yada

    I say this because in many Indian languages from EasternIndia there is a name that is called Anirban---which literally means somebody who doesnot extinguish...

    Nirban means extinguished


    Given that the end goal of Buddhism is destruction of the soul, how many would still follow it if they really knew about what Nirvana actually means? I would agree with the Buddha that there is absolutely no way to permanently end suffering..any other method is just a Siyphyean Ordeal. You have been locked into existence by God and there is only one way out ---->Non-existence

    like deep dreamless sleep that never ends...You donot know that you are you or anything is anything for that matter in deep dreamless sleep...There is neither something nor nothing...There is no state above and beyond this, I am sorry...and we get to experience a part of it through sleep

    Given this is the condition, that makes the endeavour for Nirvana the ultimate Satanic Act. and Buddha the Original Lucifer...May be the Lucifer legend is built around men or neanderthals who strived for Nibbana to get out of God's control

    When enough beings achieve Nibbana, the spiritual blackhole that is created will eventually suck all of existence into nothingness, and thereby liberating God from His suffering too

    after aeons of nothingness, may be a new God and new Universe will arise to perpetuate suffering and anew Lucifer/Buddha to bring God out of his suffering

    1. All that dies is illusion, which never really existed in the first place. A mystical theist could say that the Buddhist saint simply destroys what isn't God.


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