Is Buddhism atheism? Or even is Buddhism a faith? The question could be put in another way too, such as, is Buddhism a religion at all? For Westerners, Buddhism was an oriental religion. For Chinese, Buddhism was an Indian religion. Those general statements apparently set aside the historicity of Buddhism as a changing tradition through the ages of more than two thousand years. Nowadays, as some scholars have suggested, we may have to say "Buddhisms" rather than "Buddhism", because there are many different forms and traditions of Buddhism across the world. Thus it would be difficult to answer the question in the first place.
Let me begin with the most visible English term, "Buddhism". It was a word probably created in the British literature in the nineteenth century. It coined a tradition centered on "the Buddha", the so-called founder of Buddhist religion. Literally, the "Buddha" means the "awakened one" or the "enlightened one". Being enlightened, as the Buddha notes, was a state free from the suffering of worldly life, the suffering of life and death, and the suffering of birth and rebirth. Buddhism is a teaching of the awakened one.
Historically speaking, the word "Buddhism" itself might have been created by Christians or people with Christianity in mind under the inspiration of the word "Christianity", which is a religion centered on Christ. Is Buddhism a religion centered on the Buddha? Yes or no. If we say yes, it is because the Buddha initiated this religion. If we say no, the argument sometimes would be that the religion centered on Dharma, or what the Buddha taught, rather than the Buddha. The Buddha would encourage everyone to pursue enlightenment, but would not put an emphasis on "Buddha". For some reason, especially in the Christian context in the nineteenth century, the Buddhist tradition was called Buddhism, rather than Dharmaism, although the focus of this religion is the Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha. So what does the Buddha teach? Namely that there are four noble truths.
Buddhism has been regarded as atheist wisdom since the nineteenth century. It attracted numerous notable thinkers and writers, such as Schopenhauer and T.S. Eliot. Yet that Buddhism refers to the textual tradition written in early Indic languages, in particular, Pali language, and it was a religion recovered from the manuscripts of Buddhist scriptures that the colonists collected and discovered in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. What language did the Buddha speak and preach? We really do not know. What we know is that early Buddhism tradition did not teach Buddha as a divine god. There was no creator in Buddhist cosmology. The world comes into being depending upon interconnected conditions. The Buddha himself was a human being before he became a Buddha. He never created anything, including Buddhism. He would neither punish nor reward for people's deeds. One would earn karma for whatever he or she did. The karma determines one's fate. If one achieves enlightenment, he or she would be out of the suffering cycle of life and death. The Buddha does not save anyone from this cycle of birth and rebirth. There is no savior. Suffering cannot be cut off beyond the effort of oneself. In other words, faith in Buddha does not help one be set free from the suffering of the worldly life, since the Buddha only teaches four noble truths, rather than saves the suffered. Truths could only be recognized and enlightened by oneself, without relying on the outside salvation.
What we can see in early Buddhism is that, when the Buddha achieved his final nirvana, he was gone to another world, the absolute state of mind free from any emotional feeling or rational intelligence. He left the entire universe behind and would never come back to even give a glance on it. Once he entered nirvana, there was no way to tell what he looked like, because he became formless and inaccessible. He has no gender. He would not talk to anyone, hear from anyone, manifest himself to anyone, or even leave any sign to follow. He was completely gone. What he left was the teaching he delivered during the time period from his enlightenment to his final nirvana. He would not answer any call for help. Any cultic worship does not work either. The icon of the Buddha was not encouraged, since he would not answer the call.
Still, in early Buddhism, there was hope for those who could not get out of suffering. Since the Buddha is dead and he is no longer coming back, unlike the Messiah who would descend to this world, the Buddha leaves the saving business to Bodhisattva. Bodhisattva is a being who has achieved enlightenment, yet still waits to become Buddha. A Bodhisattva who is waiting to become Buddha can be regarded as a candidate for being a Buddha. This being, as an enlightened being, does not have gender either. Yet achieving the Buddhahood is not a timely automatic promotion. A Bodhisattva must fulfill the obligation of helping sentient beings in suffering and making merits to become Buddha. Therefore, a Bodhisattva should have faith in becoming Buddha. For a sentient being, devotion to a Bodhisattva also works, because this Bodhisattva will pick up the call from the devotees.
If we look at early Buddhist art, we will find a striking difference between the representations of Buddhas and those of Bodhisattvas. Buddhas did not wear anything on their bodies. But Bodhisattvas usually wear necklaces and other decorations. Why is that? It is because Bodhisattvas could receive offerings and enjoy these offerings from their devotees. These devotees believe that, if Bodhisattvas received their offerings, they would help devotees. They come to help devotees, not from the order of Buddhas, not from the offerings they received from devotees; instead, they come to help devotees because they need to make merits for becoming Buddhas. However, in the mind of devotees, as long as they make a wish or make offerings, they have a faith in which they could receive the help from Bodhisattvas. This was the early development of devotionism in early Buddhism.
However, in Mahayana Buddhism the case is very different. Mahayana literarily refers to a greater vehicle, which means that it could carry more people toward enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism is different from early Buddhism in many ways. First, Mahayana Buddhism is no longer atheism. Buddha becomes transcendent and he could come back and stay with any sentient being who wishes for the return. Buddha was said to visit China and Japan often, as Chinese and Japanese Buddhists believe. He could manifest himself in any form, such as a beast, a beauty, a bee, or even a building. He is an omnipotent being, endowed with the power of rewarding and punishing. He can make sense of anything that happens in the universe from this life to the next life, even many lives before. He could both make things happen and make things disappear completely. He is like God; if he cannot be regarded as God, it is only because he is not the Creator. For Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism, basically there is no boundary between life and death, birth and rebirth, and this world and his world.
In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha could have myriad bodies that he can manifest. He can answer the call and show up for help. Worship, confession, and devotion all could bring Buddha down to the scene, as witness, judge, and savior. Becoming a Buddha is not exclusively limited to a privileged one, and it is accessible for anybody who has faith in Buddha. Even an animal could become a Buddha. Faith is absolutely the key to achieve Buddhahood.
In Zen Buddhism, one should have a faith that there is no Buddha. Anyone who has Buddha in mind means that he or she still does not empty his or her mind. His or her mind is still attached to the Buddha, and for this reason, he or she does not really achieve enlightenment. For the Zen idea, the issue is not to ask if there is no Buddha or not; rather, it should ask if your mind still matters.
Huaiyu Chen is an Assistant Professor of Chinese Religions in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at ASU. He offers undergraduate courses on Buddhism and Chinese Religions regularly. He has published articles on Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity in medieval China and Central Asia. He is currently working on a book manuscript about animals in medieval Chinese religious life.