Can You Do What is Right Without Belief?

The following is the first draft of a chapter for my new book. I just wrote it yesterday. I’m not sure why, but I feel like sharing it. Is it clear?

I want to take a little digression here before we go on to the rest of the Eightfold Path. Because one way that the concept of Right View is often translated into English is as Right Belief. And you could make a case that the early Buddhists didn’t just want you to understand the Four Noble Truths, they wanted you to believe in them. Therefore, I think I ought to address the matter of belief as it pertains to Buddhism.

The other day, my girlfriend’s sister’s husband asked me if I could state succinctly what Buddhists believe. He, my girlfriend, her sister, her parents, and I were all sitting around a table, playing Scrabble I think. Everyone was chatting. The conversations were going this way and that. Topics were shifting. People were talking over each other.

Trying to state what Buddhists believe is difficult even under ideal conditions. Under those conditions it was impossible. The best I could do was to say that it’s not really about beliefs. If you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior who died for your sins, I said, you can still be a Buddhist. Your Christian friends might have a problem with that, but most Buddhists would not.

That was the best I could do given the situation, and it satisfied him enough that the conversation could continue into other areas. But there’s more to it than that.

There are some forms of Buddhism in which having the correct beliefs is important. Stephen Batchelor, who has written a lot of books about Buddhism, wrote a book called Buddhism Without Beliefs. Batchelor was distressed because the Tibetan Buddhist organization to which he once belonged insisted that he must believe in certain things. I’ve forgotten exactly what they said he had to believe in, but it had something to do with a particular deity they were fond of in that sect.

The point is that some Buddhists do insist that all Buddhists must hold specific beliefs. But most Zen Buddhists don’t believe that. If there’s one thing I can say that most Zen Buddhists believe it’s that they believe you don’t have to hold certain specific beliefs in order to be a Buddhist.

This was one of the big reasons I found Zen Buddhism so attractive. I didn’t like being told what to believe. Especially when it came to things that were impossible to verify, like whether Jesus rose from the dead or whether there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark. When I tried to become a Christian, I found that I was required to believe a lot of stuff that I could not believe. The insistence that I believe these kinds of things was an insurmountable barrier as far as my ever becoming a Christian. This was a huge disappointment, because I really wanted to be a Christian at one point in my late teens. When I found out that Zen Buddhism didn’t require me to believe anything like that, it was a tremendous relief.

Back then, during the time I was checking out Christianity and when I first encountered Zen, I was a huge fan of The Monkees, the made-for-TV band from the sixties. I’m still a fan today. In the late 80’s I even auditioned to be in a TV series called The New Monkees. I got as far as having a personal interview with the producers — most of the thousands who auditioned for the show only made it as far as the “cattle call” auditions with dozens of other hopefuls in the room.

Even so, I didn’t get on the show, which turned out to be a good thing. It barely lasted a single season and their only album didn’t sell at all. Sometimes not getting what you want is the best thing possible.

The reason I bring this up, though, is that The Monkees — the original ones, not the “new” ones — made a movie called HEAD in 1968. There’s a scene in that film in which an Indian swami gives a little speech. One Halloween I decided to go out as a swami. In order to have something to say in character, I memorized the speech the swami gives in that film. I still know it.

It goes, “We were speaking of belief, belief and conditioning. All belief could possibly be said to be the result of some conditioning. Thus the study of history is the study of one system of belief deposing another, and so on, and so on.  A psychologically tested belief of our time is that the central nervous system, which feeds its impulses directly to the brain — conscious and subconscious — is unable to discern between the real, and the vividly imagined experience. If there is a difference, and most of us believe there is. Am I being clear? For to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline. To experience the now, without preconception or beliefs, to allow the unknown to occur and to occur, requires clarity. And where there is clarity there is no choice. And where there is choice, there is misery. But why should anyone listen to me? Why should I speak, since I know nothing?”

It’s actually a really brilliant little speech. It was written by Jack Nicholson, the guy who played the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman movie and the guy who yells, “Here’s Johnny!” in The Shining. Apparently Nicholson was a fan of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti was a guy who was discovered as a child by some folks who were searching for what they called the World Teacher, a charismatic religious leader who they believed would usher in a golden age of peace and enlightenment.

They groomed young Krishnamurti for years to fulfill this role. They established an organization called the Order of the Star, eventually attracting hundreds of thousands of followers eager to do the bidding of the World Teacher. One day they called a huge meeting in which Krishnamurti, now an adult, was supposed to formally announce that he was the World Teacher. Instead, Krishnamurti dissolved the Order of the Star and told them they needed no messiah. “Truth is a pathless land,” he said. He spent the rest of his life speaking out against organized religion and saying a lot of other deeply profound stuff. At one point in my life I read every Krishnamurti book I could get my hands on. His philosophy was very influential on the way I understand Buddhism.

Anyway, the point is that the swami’s speech in the movie HEAD sounds like the kind of thing Krishnamurti might say. But, as far as I know, it’s not based on anything specific Krishnamurti said. It seems like Jack Nicholson was capable of some pretty profound thoughts.

What he wrote for that swami to say about belief is spot on. All belief is the result of some kind of conditioning. This doesn’t only apply to superficial beliefs like the belief I hold that I am an American or the belief I hold that Monster Zero (aka Invasion of Astro Monster) is the best Godzilla movie. It even applies to beliefs that hardly anyone would ever question, like the belief that I am a human being or that I live on Planet Earth. Although, as an aside, I can’t imagine why anyone would question that Monster Zero is the best Godzilla film.

Anyway, even beliefs like that I am a human on planet Earth are based on conditioning. We are told again and again that these beliefs are true and undeniable. Eventually we internalize them and think that they are our own beliefs, that we reasoned our way to them. But I wonder if that’s true.

In the past, religious beliefs have been important tools used by societies in order to maintain order. For example, if most people in a society believe that murdering someone will anger God who will then punish them by sending them to Hell for eternity, you might have fewer murders. Or if most people in a society believe that raping someone will create bad karma that will end up making you get raped in a future reincarnation, you might have fewer rapes.

Whether it’s true or not, a lot of people believe that those who have the proper beliefs will behave ethically, while those who do not have the proper beliefs will not. This is why some people get so hot and bothered when they find out someone doesn’t hold what they believe to be the proper beliefs. Someone who does not hold the proper beliefs is seen as dangerous.

A non-believer is believed to be dangerous for two major reasons. First, if, for example, someone doesn’t believe he’ll be sent to Hell for murdering someone, he might murder someone. And second, if someone doesn’t hold the right beliefs, he might influence others to stop believing the right things, and if enough people stop believing the right things, the entire social order might break down completely.

At least that’s how the thinking goes. A lot of people who think this way don’t even realize they think this way. Their belief in belief goes so deep that they don’t even recognize it as a belief.

The ways people react when they get worked up about what other people believe seem a bit weird to me sometimes. If you tell me, let’s say, “Those guys over there believe that all writers of books about Zen should be kicked in the ass,” then I can see the sense in me steering clear of those people.

But if you say, “Those guys over there have the wrong beliefs, we’d better go over there and change their beliefs to the right ones,” all I can think is, good luck with that! I wish all people believed the right things. But I’m not even sure that I believe the right things. Of course, some beliefs cause more trouble than others. Still, trying to change the beliefs of other people is difficult. If that’s your plan, you ought to be prepared to put in some serious time and effort. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy.

A few days ago I posted on Twitter that I would continue to do what was necessary and polite, but that I no longer believed. I wanted to see what sort or reaction that would get. The reaction was fascinating. Lots of people tried to guess what it was that I no longer believed in. One tweeter made a specific guess and started tweeting back about how it was “deeply, deeply disturbing” that I did not believe in the thing he thought I no longer believed in. I was “endangering human lives” by not holding the specific belief he had guessed I was referring to.

Actually, I was referring to belief in general, rather than any specific belief. I was also engaging in a bit of hyperbole. I said that I no longer believe but, try as I might, I still have a lot of beliefs. When I notice them arising in my mind, I do my best to let them go on their merry way without making them part of my ego structure. But old habits die hard, and I still make some of them part of my ego structure anyway.

Other Twitter users were worried about me. Maybe they thought I was saying I was deeply depressed. Lots of times that’s what’s going on when people say they no longer believe. People often become terribly despondent when they find that they can no longer believe in something they once believed in.

The question that was on my mind when I made that tweet was; Can you do what is right without belief? That’s why I said that I would continue to do what was necessary and polite — in other words that I would behave ethically — even though I no longer believed. In the Zen tradition it is generally believed that a person can do what is right and avoid doing what is not right without necessarily holding any specific beliefs around that. Even so, it seems to me that the Zen Buddhists kind of hedge their bets when it comes to this belief.

For example, Dogen wrote an essay called Deep Belief in Cause and Effect. And by “cause and effect” he meant karma in the sense of the idea that if you do good things, good things will happen to you, and if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. This is a common Buddhist belief, and it’s one that Stephen Batchelor finds particularly galling.

Unlike Stephen Batchelor, Dogen, who was a very rational guy, did not find that idea of karma problematic. The essay I mentioned is one of two places in Shobogenzo in which Dogen writes about an old koan story from China. It’s the story of an ancient Zen master who is asked by a student if a Zen master is subject to the law of cause and effect. The Zen master says he isn’t subject to the law of cause and effect. Because of this, he gets reborn as a fox for his next 500 lifetimes. In China, foxes were seen as deceptive creatures.

Centuries later the fox/Zen master turns himself into a human for long enough to ask another Zen master to help free him from being a fox. He tells this Zen master what happened to him and asks what he has to say about it. This other Zen master says, “Don’t be unclear about cause and effect.” This does the trick and the ancient Zen master is free from being reborn as a fox.

The point is that everyone is subject to the law of cause and effect. It doesn’t matter how enlightened you are. Dogen wrote this essay to emphasize to his students that they should have what he calls “deep belief in cause and effect.” He also wrote an essay called Karma in the Three Times (past, present, and future), in which he makes more-or-less the same point.

On the other hand, Dogen wrote another essay called Great Practice in which he also comments on the same story of the fox/Zen master. In this other essay, he seems to be saying that an enlightened person is not subject to the law of cause and effect. What Dogen says in that essay actually a lot more subtle than I’m making it sound here. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that in the essay Great Practice, Dogen’s opinion about the nature of cause and effect seems quite different from the opinion he expresses in the essay Deep Belief in Cause and Effect.

My guess is that Dogen recognized that, for a lot of people, having the proper beliefs was an important factor in their being able to act ethically. Maybe the only reason some people can find to behave properly is that they fear what might happen to them if they don’t. Dogen wrote the essay Great Practice some years earlier than Deep Belief in Cause and Effect. Maybe in the years between he realized that some of the people who listened to his talks didn’t get his more subtle teachings on cause and effect. Maybe he felt that he needed to make things more blunt and simple.

To me, that’s really sad. But I think it’s probably true that some people need to believe they’ll be punished for doing wrong in order to be motivated to be ethical. Since human law and justice are often unreliable, it might be useful for such people to believe that there’s a Great Cosmic Policeman and Judge who sees all and knows all and will make sure justice is done even when human justice fails.

I don’t think everyone needs to believe that, though. Plenty of people are clearly capable of being ethical even when they don’t believe that God or karma will punish them for doing wrong. And because some people are able to do that, I think it’s reasonable to believe that all people have that capacity, even if a lot of them fail to live up to it.

As for me, I’ve seen karma at work in my own life so often that I can no longer doubt it. I believe in karma, and I believe that my belief in karma is rational. On the other hand, I think it’s important to apply ideas about karma only to myself and never to other people. I don’t look at someone who is having a bad time and say, “That guy must have done something wrong in the past. Ha! Ha! He’s getting what he deserves!” That kind of talk is really gross and ugly. What’s more, it doesn’t help. If someone is having a bad time, it doesn’t matter why, the best thing I can do is try to help.

When it comes to beliefs, I don’t believe in them. Not consciously, anyway. But, just like everyone else, I’ve internalized a huge catalogue of beliefs to the extent that it’s hard for me to recognize them as beliefs. When I can let go of those beliefs, I feel lighter and happier. I find that holding specific beliefs is not necessary to motivate me into acting ethically. At least not for me. But I believe that not everyone is willing to do that, even if they are capable.

Still, even that is a belief. I might be wrong.


Angel City Zen Center now meets on ZOOM several times each week often with Brad giving the lectures. We’re even having an online retreat in November. For details check


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