“Was the Buddha a Humanistic Pagan?” by Tom Swiss

“So Siddhartha sat down under a tree”

Let’s start with a quick overview of the Buddha’s story. About 2,400 or 2,500 years ago a young prince in what is now Nepal, Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya clan, became more interested in spiritual matters than in politics and government. (Or perhaps his father was an elected chieftain in a sort of republic rather than a king – the history is at best shaky.)


Why the Buddha touched the Earth

The legendary version involves a prophecy made at his birth, an incredibly sheltered childhood, and his sudden discovery as a young man of the existence of old age, sickness, and death. Almost overcome by the shock, Siddhartha discovered the existence of spiritual traditions. Thinking these must hold an answer as to how to deal with the suffering he had just learned about, he left home – abandoning his wife and son – to go study various meditation systems.

He sought out the best teachers and quickly mastered their techniques for altering consciousness, but wasn’t satisfied. Looking for another option, he gave extreme asceticism a try. He completely overcame all his fleshly desires – and becoming immune to the desire to eat, came within a hair’s breadth of dying from starvation. That wasn’t the answer either.

So Siddhartha sat down under a tree (later known as the Bo Tree or the Bodhi Tree) to figure things out.

He eventually had a mystical enlightenment experience and a conceptual breakthrough which he expressed as the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is marked by “dukkha” – suffering, stress, out-of-jointness, dissatisfaction.
  2. The origin of this suffering is our desire that things be other than they are, our clinging to some of the temporary phenomena we encounter and our fear and aversion to others.
  3. A solution to this is possible.
  4. The way to this solution is a program of intellectual understanding, ethical living, and mental training – the Eightfold Path.

He started giving lectures on these ideas, and attracted a large group of followers who started calling him the “Awakened One” – the Buddha. He spent the rest of his life teaching these concepts and developing a religious community (which eventually included his abandoned wife and son) to propagate it.

The Buddha’s “Apatheism”

Now the story as I’ve given it here makes the Buddha sound like a philosophical naturalist, and that’s probably not the case. The stories of his birth and enlightenment feature various deities and demons and there are also tales about his supposed “past lives” that would, if taken literally, require some sort of supernatural soul. Mahayana Buddhism in particular was happy to absorb deities and spirits and tales of the supernatural as it spread to other cultures, and its sutras are as full of miracle stories as the scriptures of any world religion.

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sixth century Buddha figurine found in pagan Sweden (photo by John Halstead)

The earliest written records of Buddhism weren’t created until centuries after his death so it’s hard to know how much of this supernaturalism originated with the Buddha himself and how much was retconned in later. But it’s likely that the Buddha believed in at least some sort of supernatural phenomena.

But it also seems from the scriptures that when the Buddha was directly asked about such matters he would reply that they were irrelevant to the point he was trying to make. We might call him “apatheist” – he was apathetic regarding the existence of deities and other supernatural phenomena.

More importantly it’s clear the Buddha never claimed to be carrying out any sort of divine will. The core of his teaching is entirely about the human experience of suffering. And his suggested solution is not to give yourself over to a god or to pray for salvation – indeed, some of the myths have it the other way around, with gods learning from the Buddha. The Buddha’s recommendation is for each of us to change our lives and our way of thinking and experiencing through our own efforts.

If we define “religious humanism” as taking a human-centered rather than a deity-centered perspective on the big questions, the Buddha’s teachings definitely qualify.

The Buddha and the Earth Goddess

There are also some striking elements of nature spirituality in the mythology of the Buddha.


“This earth supports all beings”

The legend of his enlightenment as told in the Lalitavistara Sutra has him tempted by the demon Mara, who claims that Siddhartha has no right to seek enlightenment. Mara claims that the accolades of his army of demons show that it is he, not Siddhartha, who has the right to the prize, and challenges Siddhartha to produce a witness on his behalf. Siddhartha reaches down and touches the ground, and the Goddess of the Earth responds. He then spoke this verse:

“This earth supports all beings;
She is impartial and unbiased toward all, whether moving or still.
She is my witness that I speak no lies;
So may she bear my witness.”

As soon as the Bodhisattva touched this great earth, it shook in six different ways. It quivered, trembled, and quaked, and it boomed, thundered, and roared. Just as a Magadhan brass cauldron, when struck with a wooden log, chimes and reverberates, so did this great earth sound and reverberate when struck by the Bodhisattva with his hand.

Then the earth goddess in this great trichiliocosm who is called Sthāvarā, along with her retinue of one billion earth goddesses, began to shake the entire great earth. Not far from where the Bodhisattva was sitting, she broke through the earth’s surface and revealed her upper body, adorned with all sorts of jewels. She bowed toward the Bodhisattva, joined her palms, and spoke to him:

“You are right. Great Being, you are right. It is just as you say. We bear witness to this. But still, my Lord, you alone are the supreme witness in the worlds of gods and humans and the supreme authority.” — Dharmachakra Translation Committee, The Play in Full, version 2.22, p. 243

This strikes me as highly significant. According to the mythology of Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha’s spiritual authority comes not from a sky deity like Jehovah/Allah, Zeus/Jupiter, Amaterasu Okami, Indra, Thor, Horus, or Indra, but from a earth deity, an embodiment of the living and supportive world.

Buddhism as a “Forest Religion”

Of course this is a legend created well after the Buddha’s death and so doesn’t tell us much about his own attitude. But if we take the legend of the Bo Tree as being at least partially true, the fact that he went there rather than to a mountaintop or a cave or a desert is important.


Did the pagan Cernunnos sit down under his own Bo Tree?

Consider what his state of mind might have been like at this time. He had tried the spiritual paths available in his culture and found them all wanting. He had pushed himself almost to death and not found what he was looking for. This would create a intense spiritual crisis. Where could he turn for support?

He went to the trees. The Buddha achieved his enlightenment while sitting alone under a tree. Buddhism is at root (so to speak) a forest religion, and the legend of the Buddha touching the Earth may be a mythological expression of this.

Of course neither humanism nor Neopaganism were established ideas in the Buddha’s time. But there are enough resonances that Humanistic Pagans might legitimately claim him as a forebear, bringing a human-centered and nature-appreciative perspective to the spiritual quest millennia before science and the unpleasant side-effects of industrialization started pushing Western thinkers in that direction.

The Author


Tom Swiss describes his spiritual path as “Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian”, which usually baffles questioners enough to leave him alone. Over the past decade he has built a reputation as a lecturer on subjects spanning the gamut from acupressure to Zen and from self-defense to sexuality. He is an NCCAOM Diplomate in Asian Bodywork Therapy, a godan (fifth-degree black belt) in karate, a poet, a singer/songwriter, an amateur philosopher, and a professional computer geek. Tom has previously served as President of the Free Spirit Alliance. He is the author of “Why Buddha Touched the Earth” (Megalithica Books, 2013). Find out more about his wacky adventures at www.infamous.net.

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