The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

January 26, 2013

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Transcendence Cross-Examined

The Buddha sits cross-legged, hands in lap, in peaceful equanimity in my backyard.  In other iconography, Jesus hangs pierced from his palms, in agony, on a cross.  Two radically divergent approaches to the same subject: human suffering.  The Buddha, unattached, has moved beyond pain and fear; both of which Jesus, crucified, is mired in.

As an atheist, the dogma built around either icon holds no appeal.  But the contrasting images are striking.  Not a single crucifix in my house, so as my backyard Buddha attests, I have favored, if never achieved, the beyond-it-all approach.  Recently I have begun to reconsider my choice.

Over 200,000 people were killed in a few moments in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  They’ve just made a movie, “The Impossible,” about a tiny (Western) piece of that enormously painful cataclysm.

I have wondered: in response to abject suffering on such a wide scale, WWBD?

Before offering comfort to the survivors, would he first attempt to grasp the pain of their trauma?  Would he have any personal context for doing so?  The mythical Buddha was a prince who left behind his wealth, wife and child after being so shocked by the simple facts of individual aging and death.  After some years of self-inflicted suffering, the Buddha claimed to have found nirvana, which claim gained him a following, who surrounded him at his death at 80, a very ripe old age indeed for 400 BC.

The Buddha in equipoise makes a lovely garden statue.  I’m certainly not going to be hanging crucifixes around anytime soon, but I can see their appeal–Jesus, unlike the Buddha, feels your pain.

Real suffering may be something that cannot be sat through with a soft smile on your face.  Suffering should be engaged; and after it is endured, the psychological effects worked through.  Most likely quite imperfectly.



  1. What would the Buddha do? The Buddha would find some way to express compassion for those in need. Buddhism, especially in its Mahayana forms, is about engaging with great intimacy with both the joy and the suffering around us.

    Comment by bussokuseki — January 26, 2013 @ 11:38 am | Reply

    • Thank you for the comment. I have no doubt that the Buddha and Buddhists more generally would respond with compassion to survivors of great traumas. My question went more to the tone underlying the approach. I have come to think that the only realistic approach to profound suffering is to plunge into it fully, with the goal of coming out the other side. And I don’t think that when you do that you can sit in contemplation of the suffering itself with half smile. Life can break your heart, and I don’t mean in some trivial way. That heartbroken state can and perhaps should be inhabited for the fullest, even most compassionate, understanding of the human experience. I do not see that the popular image of the Buddha represents that immersion in true suffering (not the fasting, hairshirt kind). I do think there are images in Christian iconography that do. By my prior posts, you will see there is much else valuable I have found in Buddhism. And I’m certainly not advocating Christianity over Buddhism or any religion at all, for that matter. Just exploring different responses to the problem of human suffering.

      Comment by SAJohnson — January 26, 2013 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

      • I guess that I believe the popular image, then, is an unfortunate misconception. Speaking of heartbreak, as Zen Teacher James Ford said, ““I’ve found myself broken open, and found in that opening my fundamental connection to the whole world.” Be well~

        Comment by bussokuseki — January 26, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

  2. The Buddhist idea of transcending suffering has nothing at all to do with denying suffering or only acknowledging it on a small scale. Instead, it allows a person to fully experience and empathize with all suffering, however horrible, while trusting to the fact that eventually, for whatever reason, the suffering will pass. In a sense, faith in Jesus does the same thing, except that instead of a person trusting in themselves to live through suffering, they trust that Jesus will bring them through. It is a small but important distinction.

    And also, the popular image of anything is usually not totally accurate. I know that the conceptions of Buddhism I have heard from my American friends have usually been pretty superficial and sometimes way off-base.

    Comment by Emily — January 26, 2013 @ 4:07 pm | Reply

    • Not all suffering passes. Neither should it. I honestly do not think one can have fully empathized with the most horrible suffering and also persist in a state of soft-smiling equanimity. Many things in human experience, particularly the almost incomprehensible suffering we inflict on each other (child suicide bombers, maimed child beggars, state-sanctioned torture, state-sanctioned starvation, Auschwitz, and on and on), cannot be transcended. They can only be survived. Totally different things.

      Comment by SAJohnson — April 7, 2013 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

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