I see Buddhism as the third way in its traditional sense of the Middle Way as the path of synthetic resolution of the polarized mindset that forces our thinking about life into an either-or frame work. The human mind every where is subject to the mind's inherently polarizing influence in the very structure and function of consciousness, but the Western World's frame of reference, of Greco-Roman-European derivation, for religion and philosophy is bound up in the historically relevant context of the structures of opposition that have grown out of the theism-monotheism-atheism streams of thought. Today the West is still under the spell of theism so that people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are viewed as "the three horsemen of atheism" traveling widely to preach the virtues of atheism and the vices of theism.
There are many people, and I am one, who feel dissatisfied with the dialogue as it is framed and see the debate as caught between a rock and a hard place. Buddhism, however, naturally flows between the rock of theism and the hard place of atheism, and for those in Western culture who see the barrenness and inadequacy of both theism and atheism, Buddhism is the natural solution to rescue spirituality from the theism of modern religions and to rescue rationality from the atheism of scientism. It is this recognition of the position that Buddhism takes in this debate that led Albert Einstein, the preemeninant physical scientist of the 20th century, to declare that Buddhism is the historically closest religion to his conception of the cosmic relition that humankind is yearning for.
There is a frequently cited quote attributed to Einstein that says,
The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense of arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. . . Buddhism answers this description. . . If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.
This quote is found in several slight variations and is sometimes challenged as legitimate because its source has not been identified. However, if it is not a direct quote, then I take it as an accurate paraphrase at least, based on the following excerpt taken from Einstein's article printed in the New York Times Magazine on November 9, 1930 pp 1-4 which contains all the important particulars of the condensed quote:
"Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.
"The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.
“The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another."
The essential points of Einstein's view of a science that has not left spiritual values or appreciation behind include (1) no dogma, (2) no anthropomorphic God, (3) a cosmic religious feeling, (4) experiencing the universe as a single significant whole or meaningful unity, (5) leading to freedom from the prison of individualism.
It should be clear to the honest observer that neither modern theistic religions nor modern atheistic scientism fit this bill of particulars. However, Zen Buddhism does fit Einstein's bill in every particular.
Similarly, Carl G. Jung, the Einstein of Psychology in the 20th century, also found kindred spirit with Zen in his scientific inquiry of the mind in which he discovered again and again that any attempt to remove the spiritual values from science were bound to fail and create only a dead dogma. When Jung was near death he was reading Charles Luk's Ch'an and Zen Teachings: First Series in which the first section presents discourses of Zen Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud). Jung directed his personal assistant and friend Dr. Marie-Louse von Aranz to write to the author. In the letter (dated September 12, 1961) von Aranz wrote
"He was enthusiastic.... When he read what Hsu Yun said, he sometimes felt as if he himself could have said exactly this! It was just it!."
Buddhism, and most essentially Zen Buddhism, is "just it!" when it comes to expressing the comprehension of the reality of life and death in a manner that is not inconsistent with the most insightful scientists of the physical and psychological sciences of the 20th century. However, in the later half of the 20th century, science itslef has become entraped in a form of dogma that has become scientism as expressed through the anti-theist preaching of the above name three horsemen of atheism, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. This view of scientism is scientific materialism in which the literalized objectification of the material world is taken to a limit of phyical appearances but no further. There are, to be sure, still scientists today who, like Einstein and Jung, do not subscribe to this atheistic scientism, however, they are hard pressed to get recognition beyond the walls of their academic towers, while the mainstream media and popular culture claim for their own a scientism of physical things sanitized of all spiritual or psychological dimension.
For people of the West who see the superstious silliness of anthropomorphic gods and their dogmas, yet who also sense the irrationality of an anti-spiritual scientism with its dogma of atheistic materialism, Zen Buddhism provides a context and method for discovering the real and profound dimension of a religion of meaningful unity liberating us from the prison of our individual and separate existence.