A Reply to B. Alan Wallace’s article “Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist”

| October 11, 2010 | 63 Comments

The following is a reply to B. Alan Wallace’s article “Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist“. Readers may wish to read the article in its uncommented form before reading this response.

Stephen Batchelor has also written An Open Letter to B. Alan Wallace, which appears in Mandala itself, and is an excellent response.

The article from B. Alan Wallace was posted for review on the FaceBook fan page for the podcast on October 5, 2010, and prompted much interest and discussion. Many points and counter points were made, and some themes have risen to the surface. It is my hope to explain a bit more about what this practice of secular Buddhism is, why people are integrating the eightfold path in their daily lives in this particular way, and respond to some of the points that were made in the article.

I will do my sincere best to provide meaningful examples and dialogue, without engaging in logical fallacies of argument. As a human being, subject to mistakes, I may not catch my errors, and ask for your patience and honesty in helping me correct those mistakes when they are made.

As Buddhism has encountered modernity, it runs against widespread prejudices, both religious and anti-religious, and it is common for all those with such biases to misrepresent Buddhism, either intentionally or unintentionally.

This is a true statement, but incomplete. Buddhism is not exempt from the natural evolutionary process of adaptation, all religions go through cultural assimilation as they encounter new environments from the one in which they initially formed. They are all encountering modernity. The book The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David L. McMahan does a very respectful investigation of some modern impacts to our tradition.

There is also a positive side to this. Buddhism and other faiths do encounter prejudices, but they also encounter fertile ground for growth with people who have not heard the teaching and resonate with it. Any departure from classical early Buddhism, the whole of the rich Mahayana school, was able to come from that original teaching and provide a spiritual path to those who found it. Alan Wallace himself is an example of that growth, that opportunity for a Westerner to practice a tradition they would not otherwise encounter except for that very engagement outside of the land of its formation.

Reputable scholars of Buddhism, both traditional and modern, all agree that the historical Buddha taught a view of karma and rebirth that was quite different from the previous takes on these ideas.

What is the definition of “reputable scholars of Buddhism?” Who is the defining authority for what is reputable? This touches on the first point of secularism I’d like to share, not simply in Buddhism but with all religious traditions — authority is arbitrary. Anyone can (and many have) declared themselves the authority by lineage, divine inspiration, by years on the cushion, by fiat. Secularism is in total agreement with the Canki sutta‘s criticism of tradition, and the Kalama sutta, which describe authority as not being a valid means of determining the truth of a statement. This does not mean we completely reject all statements by figures with experience and skills in the realm for which they’re speaking. It simply means that we can and should question the validity of statements made, and put them to the test for ourselves. This is in complete accord with the Buddha’s teaching.

Moreover, his teachings on the nature and origins of suffering as well as liberation are couched entirely within the framework of rebirth. Liberation is precisely freedom from the round of birth and death that is samsara.

I agree that the Pali canon has rebirth, and liberation as being freed from the rounds of rebirth. Not all agree on that point, so please understand this is my own accordance. This, however, brings up a second point of the secular point of view. Again, in alignment with the Canki sutta, I am completely honest and open about not having been present 2,500 years ago, nor were my teachers, nor my teachers’ teachers, for far more than seven generations.

The simple fact is I don’t know — none of us do.

We have a wonderful teaching in the words of the Pali canon. But, we weren’t there. We don’t know what the Buddha said, we only find some degree of reasonable expectation that what is said, when tested for ourselves, is of value in our personal spiritual growth.

This is a discussion I have had many times with devout Christians, absolutely certain that the words in their Bible are true and the divinely inspired word of God. And yet, without any clear definition beyond their own belief, they reject out of hand the Book of Mormon. And without any experience with Buddhism, dismiss it just as completely. Again, Buddhism is not exempt because we practice it — there is absolutely no way for all religious texts to be completely and literally true, as they say different things. When you practice Buddhism and identify as Buddhist, or Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, you’re making a choice to dismiss other traditions in favor of your own. And that is why I as a secular person reject untested acceptance of religious texts as the source of authority for my spiritial growth. It doesn’t mean I don’t find value in them, or that I don’t resonate more with some traditions than others. It means I question what is said, and put it to the test.

But for many contemporary people drawn to Buddhism, the teachings on karma and rebirth don’t sit well, so they are faced with a dilemma. A legitimate option is simply to adopt those theories and practices from various Buddhist traditions that one finds compelling and beneficial and set the others aside. An illegitimate option is to reinvent the Buddha and his teachings based on one’s own prejudices. This, unfortunately, is the route followed by Stephen Batchelor and other like-minded people who are intent on reshaping the Buddha in their own images.

This is not a dilemma for us in the least, because the secular expression is one of questioning and not adhering to that which is unproven, and has no basis in the natural world. And, again, who is the judge of what is legitimate, and why? I am being described quite clearly here as being like minded to Stephen Batchelor. I am; it has been my great joy to speak with him on these topics and have him as a guest on the podcast. I am unreservedly atheist in the sense that I do not believe in deities or the supernatural, there is nothing agnostic about it. I am also unreservedly Buddhist in the sense that I have a practice of personal growth, and that practice is the eightfold path. This is not a choice made out of faith in the Judeo-Christian sense, but in the Pali connotation of faith (saddha) being “confidence.”

I disagree with the concept that we are intent on reshaping the Buddha in our own image. We are not. This brings me to the third point about secular Buddhist practice, that of providing another inroad to the dhamma.

We are all people. We all have the same propensity for suffering, for joy, for ignorance, for understanding. But we all do have different personal experiences, backgrounds, likes, and inclinations. Many of us know or are ourselves Westerners who started out with a Judeo-Christian background, but have come to have a Buddhist practice. Whether it’s Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana, etc., they have left another tradition and taken the precepts.

For some, there remains a cognitive dissonance with having a very rational spiritual practice, but what feels like an irrational religious framework. Some have left their “home” religion because of rites and rituals — the forms of religion which are among the first fetters to go upon stream entry — which were meanginless to them. They came to Buddhism because of the practice, but remain uncomfortable having replaced one set of beliefs that can’t be proven and provide no value to them, with another.

Secular Buddhism is about providing a means to practice the eightfold path to those of us for whom supernatural claims, rites, rituals, and lineage traditions do not contribute to personal growth. It does not in the least discourage others from practicing in that way if they find it beneficial to their practice — far from it. Secularism is about choosing the practice that is best suited to the personal experience of spirituality, rather than insisting on adherence to its own views.

The back cover of Batchelor’s most recent book, entitled Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, describes his work as “a stunning and groundbreaking recovery of the historical Buddha and his message.” One way for this to be true, would be that his book is based on a recent discovery of ancient Buddhist manuscripts, comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Nag Hammadi library for Christianity. But it is not. Another way is for his claims to be based on unprecedented historical research by a highly accomplished scholar of ancient Indian languages and history. But no such professional research or scholarship is in evidence in this book. Instead, his claims about the historical Buddha and his teachings are almost entirely speculative, as he takes another stab at recreating Buddhism to conform to his current views.

Stephen is very open about his experience as a scholar, and his book is a personal story, not an academic presentation. Of course there’s conjecture, that is part of one’s personal journey.

To get a clear picture of Batchelor’s agnostic-turned-atheist approach to Buddhism, there is no need to look further than his earlier work, Buddhism without Beliefs. Claiming to embrace Thomas Huxley’s definition of agnosticism as the method of following reason as far as it will take one, he admonishes his readers, “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” He then proceeds to explain who the Buddha really was and what he really taught, often in direct opposition to the teachings attributed to the Buddha by all schools of Buddhism. If in this he is following Huxley’s dictum, this would imply that Batchelor has achieved at least the ability to see directly into the past, if not complete omniscience itself.

Huxley’s definition of agnosticism is simply showing the difference between belief and knowledge. And, in keeping with not only the tentative and therefore corrective claims of science, it is appropriate to avoid certainty of conclusions about things that cannot be demonstrated. If that were not the case, every supernatural claim from every religion would be acceptable. I suspect that no one believes every claim of every religion. Secularism suggests we put things to the test — as does Buddhism. Stephen is openly questioning the traditional texts and commentaries with rational and critical thinking. A view in opposition to many schools of thought does not make it incorrect. It is only the validity or invalidity of something that makes it correct or incorrect, nothing else. Not lineage. Not because it was written. Not because it was divinely inspired.

From a modern academic perspective, the most historically reliable accounts we have of the Buddha’s life and teachings are found in the Pali canon. Most Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhists acknowledge the authenticity of these Pali writings, but Batchelor repeatedly overrides them with his own agnostic preconceptions that cause him to portray the Buddha as the spitting image of himself.

I would agree that the Pali canon represents the best we can hope to have as indicative of what an historical Buddha may have said. Again, this does not make it true, however much we may want it to be. We don’t know, we only have some degree of reliance due to reasoned inquiry of scholarship and experience.

As for Stephen’s agnostic stance, I share it, as do many others. And we still find the actual practice of the eightfold path to be of value. This does not mean we’re trying to make it in our own image. It means we’re embracing the practice within our own modern, cultural context. And though many of us have interests in Asian culture, we were not raised with it, and the practices are not a part of our personal heritage. The rites, rituals, and many practices that have been brought along from the East do not always create a comfort zone for practice in the West.

For example, contrary to all the historical evidence, Batchelor writes that the Buddha “did not claim to have had experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” To cite just two of innumerable statements in the Pali canon pertaining to the scope of the Buddha’s knowledge: “Whatever in this world – with its devas, maras, and brahmas, its generations complete with contemplatives and priests, princes and men – is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, pondered by the intellect, that has been fully awakened to by the Tathagata. Thus he is called the Tathagata.” In a similar vein, we read, “the world and its arising are fully known by a Tathagata and he is released from both; he also knows the ending of it and the way thereto. He speaks as he does; he is unconquered in the world.”

Quoting religious texts is not evidence, it’s quoting religious texts. If someone quotes the Christian bible, do Hindus accept what it says? Neither do I. Nor should we allow our “preconceptions” for the validity of traditional religious alignment with the Pali canon cause us to ignore that and give our own interpretation greater strength. It is when we are most certain, that we are most in need of checking ourselves.

Batchelor brings to his understanding of Buddhism a strong antipathy toward religion and religious institutions, and this bias pervades all his recent writings. Rather than simply rejecting elements of the Buddha’s teachings that strike him as religious – which would be perfectly legitimate – Batchelor takes the illegitimate step of denying that the Buddha ever taught anything that would be deemed religious by contemporary Western standards, claiming, that “There is nothing particularly religious or spiritual about this path.” Rather, the Buddha’s teachings were a form of “existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism” that was “refracted through the symbols, metaphors, and imagery of his world.” Being an agnostic himself, Batchelor overrides the massive amount of textual evidence that the Buddha was anything but an agnostic, and recreates the Buddha in his own image, promoting exactly what Batchelor himself believes in, namely, a form of existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism.

Stephen is conjecturing that the Buddha’s teaching of the practice is not religious. The eightfold path does not involve rites and rituals, praying to divinities, or prostrations of any kind. In that, secular Buddhists are in agreement with this not being a religious path. This is one of several reasons there continues to be discussion about Buddhism being a religion or a philosophy, as it retains qualities of both.

Since Batchelor dismisses all talk of rebirth as a waste of time, he projects this view onto his image of the Buddha, declaring that he regarded “speculation about future and past lives to be just another distraction.” This claim flies in the face of the countless times the Buddha spoke of the immense importance of rebirth and karma, which lie at the core of his teachings as they are recorded in Pali suttas.

Buddha very specifically stated in the suttas — if that’s what we’re taking as evidence — not to speculate about the workings of kamma, which Wallace points out right here as being directly associated with rebirth. Which brings me to the fourth point about secularism, that a belief in an afterlife of any kind is not necessary to the practice.

So, I’m on retreat. I’m practicing anapanasati, or perhaps mindfulness, with the same diligence as the person next to me. We both practice silence during this time, we both practice right speech at other times. And we both have personal experiences in the broadening of this present moment to help us make better decisions, to be free from suffering.

How does a belief in rebirth impact that moment by moment practice? Knowing that my grandfather was a toymaker or a horse thief has no more effect on my meditation than the other person’s conviction that they were Eleanor Roosevelt, nor should it. Whoever I was in the past is totally irrelevent to what I choose to do this very moment.

Secular practice does not require the promise of a better afterlife, or the threat of a woeful rebirth, to practice the eightfold path in this lifetime. The practice itself is unchanged. Secularists don’t practice right action to get a reward later, or even just because it’s the right thing to do, we practice right action to see and experience for ourselves cause and effect, which encourages us without reliance on an unprovable claim of rebirth.

Batchelor is one of many Zen teachers nowadays who regard future and past lives as a mere distraction. But in adopting this attitude, they go against the teachings of Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto school of Zen, who addressed the importance of the teachings on rebirth and karma in his principal anthology, Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma (Shobogenzo). In his book Deep Faith in Cause and Effect (Jinshin inga), he criticizes Zen masters who deny karma, and in Karma of the Three Times (Sanji go), he goes into more detail on this matter. Since Batchelor feels such liberty to rewrite the Pali suttas, perhaps he should have a go at Dogen’s writings next, to enlighten us as to their true meaning.

Wallace is right, secular Buddhists do tend to view previous and past lives as a distraction. And again because a teacher said something, even Dogen (whom I admire, as someone who *is* from a zen lineage), doesn’t make it true.

Stephen is also not rewriting the Pali suttas. That would be creating new Pali texts, or making wild claims of finding new ones that have been guarded by dragons. Does that mean we should dismiss all Mahayana tradition as dangerous?

As to the source of Buddhist teachings on rebirth, Batchelor speculates, “In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time.” In reality, the Buddha’s detailed accounts of rebirth and karma differed significantly from other Indian thinkers’ views on these subjects; and given the wide range of philosophical views during his era, there was no uniformly accepted “worldview of his time.”

I agree that Buddha’s interpretation of rebirth (if we take the Pali canon at face value) differs from reincarnation in that there is no unchanging self which is reborn. What I think Stephen is saying is that rebirth as a concept, however much Buddha’s introduction of anatta diverged from the norm, was pervasive in that culture. More than it is in, say, modern Western culture.

Rather than adopting this idea from mere hearsay – a gullible approach the Buddha specifically rejected – he declared that in the first watch of the night of his enlightenment, after purifying his mind with the achievement of samadhi, he gained “direct knowledge” of the specific details of many thousands of his own past lifetimes throughout the course of many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion. In the second watch of the night, he observed the multiple rebirths of countless other sentient beings, observing the consequences of their wholesome and unwholesome deeds from one life to the next. During the third watch of the night, he gained direct knowledge of the four noble truths, revealing the causes of gaining liberation from this cycle of rebirth. While there is ample evidence that the Buddha claimed to have direct knowledge of rebirth, there is no textual or historical evidence that he simply adopted some pre-existing view, which would have been antithetical to his entire approach of not accepting theories simply because they are commonly accepted. There would be nothing wrong if Batchelor simply rejected the authenticity of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the core of his teachings, but instead he rejects the most reliable accounts of the Buddha’s vision and replaces it with his own, while then projecting it on the Buddha of his imagination.

Again, quoting religious texts is meaningless as a source of truth, even for the Buddha. It is a guide. It is a reference to truth. It is not truth itself. Taking the suttas as absolute truth means one needs to take all aspects of the teaching as absolute truth. And all aspects of all religions, which no one is prepared to do.

I’d also like to point out that rebirth is hearsay, unless validated with evidence.

Batchelor concludes that since different Buddhist schools vary in their interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings in response to the questions of the nature of that which is reborn and how this process occurs, all their views are based on nothing more than speculation. Scientists in all fields of inquiry commonly differ in their interpretations of empirical findings, so if this fact invalidates Buddhist teachings, it should equally invalidate scientific findings as well. While in his view Buddhism started out as agnostic, it “has tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalized as a religion (i.e., a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests).” Since there is no evidence that Buddhism was ever agnostic, any assertions about how it lost this status are nothing but groundless speculations, driven by the philosophical bias that he brings to Buddhism.

Wallace makes a subtle but profound change in wording here. Stephen is correct, the different schools do vary in their interpretation, and are all speculation. And Wallace is right, scientists do vary in their interpretation of empirical findings. That is conjecture, or more correctly for the context, hypothesis. Wallace then introduces “invalidates” to the topic, which Stephen does not, and then tries to use this incorrect transition from ‘interpretation’ to ‘invalidation’.

Scientific findings are not invalidated by having differing hypothesis; indeed, it is the very nature of science to be tentative and corrective. In the case McLean v. Arkansas in 1981, science witnesses helped the court with defining science as having the following traits:

  1. It is guided by natural law
  2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law
  3. It is testable against the empirical world
  4. Its conclusions are tentative
  5. It is falsifiable

That is part of its great value, to remove that which is shown to be not true or non-contributory. Secular practice is the same. If there is no value shown, remove it. The Dalai Lama agrees in his book The World In A Single Atom with his statement, “.. if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

Of course, this is something of a logical trick, as proving a negative is problematic. As Bertrand Russell demonstrated with this analogy in 1952, “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

This is every bit as true for claims our own Buddhism makes, including those claims some of us hold most dear.

As an agnostic Buddhist, Batchelor does not regard the Buddha’s teachings as a source of answers to questions of where we came from, where we are going, or what happens after death, regardless of the extensive teachings attributed to the Buddha regarding each of these issues. Rather, he advises Buddhists to seek such knowledge in what he deems the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and so on. With this advice, he reveals that he is a devout member of the congregation of Thomas Huxley’s Church Scientific, taking refuge in science as the one true way to answer all the deepest questions concerning human nature and the universe at large.

This mixes two concepts, that of naturalism and that of personal meaning. Stephen J. Gould views science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria” or NOMA as highlighting this difference. The scientific method is indeed the best way we have to learn about how the natural world works, unless we believe the Buddha’s body-hairs are coloured deep blue and grow clockwise in rings, and that adepts in meditation can multiply their bodies. If not, perhaps even Wallace doesn’t take everything in the Pali canon at face value, exactly like a secularist.

A method for learning about the natural world does not, nor is it intended, to ascribe personal meaning to the experience of that world. That’s what this practice is about, not about providing a cosmological map of the universe with Mt. Sumeru at the center.

Stephen is committed to growing the eightfold path as a viable and practical method of training the mind, just like other secular Buddhists. We simply don’t believe in supernatural claims, we’re not tossing out the baby with the bathwater. One of the most common discussions secular Buddhists have is how to ensure the teaching does not get reduced to just another relaxation technique, as that is not what our practice is about, and not what we find of value.

Having identified himself as an agnostic follower of Huxley, Batchelor then proceeds to make one declaration after another about the limits of human consciousness and the ultimate nature of human existence and the universe at large, as if he were the most accomplished of gnostics. A central feature of Buddhist meditation is the cultivation of samadhi, by which the attentional imbalances of restlessness and lethargy are gradually overcome through rigorous, sustained training. But in reference to the vacillation of the mind from restlessness to lethargy, Batchelor responds, “No amount of meditative expertise from the mystical East will solve this problem, because such restlessness and lethargy are not mere mental or physical lapses but reflexes of an existential condition.” Contemplative adepts from multiple traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism have been disproving this claim for thousands of years, and it is now being refuted by modern scientific research. But Batchelor is so convinced of his own preconceptions regarding the limitations of the human mind and of meditation that he ignores all evidence to the contrary.

I’m glad Wallace brought up the work done by Cliff Saron of the Samatha project, as I’ve had him on the podcast. We’ve discussed this work, and at no point is it intended to convey personal meaning. It is meant to quantify what is happening during the experiences of meditation, and what the long-term (within this lifetime) effects of meditation are.

Also, Stephen is not a “follower” of Huxley, any more than any secularist is a follower of anyone. That is completely contrary to secular practice.

While there are countless references in the discourses of the Buddha referring to the realization of emptiness, Batchelor claims, “Emptiness … is not something we ‘realize’ in a moment of mystical insight that ‘breaks through’ to a transcendent reality concealed behind yet mysteriously underpinning the empirical world.” He adds, “we can no more step out of language and imagination than we can step out of our bodies.” Buddhist contemplatives throughout history have reportedly experienced states of consciousness that transcend language and concepts as a result of their practice of insight meditation. But Batchelor describes such practice as entailing instead a state of perplexity in which one is overcome by “awe, wonder, incomprehension, shock,” during which not “just the mind but the entire organism feels perplexed.”

Reporting experiences does not make those experiences true, any more than claims of stigmata throughout history are true validations of Christian belief, or the claim that communion wafers and wine are magically transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ — unless he was constituted of flour and alcohol. As Wallace has referenced scientific studies, I’ll reciprocate with a machine which recreates the out of body experiences such contemplatives claim to have. Such is just one example that our minds can be deceived.

Stephen’s point is that emptiness is a reference to our concepts, that those concepts are not the actual thing, and the actual thing is not what we conventionally view it as. There is nothing mystical about it.

Batchelor’s account of meditation describes the experiences of those who have failed to calm the restlessness and lethargy of their own minds through the practice of samadhi, and failed to realize emptiness or transcend language and concepts through the practice of vipashyana. Instead of acknowledging these as failures, he heralds them as triumphs and, without a shred of supportive evidence, attributes them to a Buddhism that exists nowhere but in his imagination.

Since Wallace is asking for evidence, I hope he’ll please provide evidence of rebirth. He can win $1,000,000 from the JREF if he does. Or any supernatural power claimed by Buddhist contemplatives, for that matter.

Although Batchelor declared himself to be an agnostic, such proclamations about the true teachings of the Buddha and about the nature of the human mind, the universe, and ultimate reality all suggest that he has assumed for himself the role of a gnostic of the highest order. Rather than presenting Buddhism without beliefs, his version is saturated with his own beliefs, many of them based upon nothing more than his own imagination. Batchelor’s so-called agnosticism is utterly paradoxical. On the one hand, he rejects a multitude of Buddhist beliefs based upon the most reliable textual sources, while at the same time confidently making one claim after another without ever supporting them with demonstrable evidence.

Stephen makes no claims whatsoever about the universe or ultimate reality, Wallace is doing that. He’s making claims about rebirth without “demonstrable evidence”. Ian Stephenson studied this, and the most he could do was be intellectually honest in his book by stating that it was not evidence, but was merely suggestive of rebirth.

In Batchelor’s most recent book, he refers to himself as an atheist, more so than as an agnostic, and when I asked him whether he still holds the above views expressed in his book published thirteen years ago, he replied that he no longer regards the Buddha’s teachings as agnostic, but as pragmatic. It should come as no surprise that as he shifted his own self-image from that of an agnostic to an atheist, the image he projects of the Buddha shifts accordingly. In short, his views on the nature of the Buddha and his teachings are far more a reflection of himself and his own views than they are of any of the most reliable historical accounts of the life and teachings of the Buddha.

I would suggest that a 2,500 year old story of someone else’s personal journey is not more reliable than one happening today. It’s not the form, teacher, culture, or timeframe that matters, it’s the teaching.

In his move from agnosticism to atheism, Batchelor moves closer to the position of Sam Harris, who is devoted to the ideal of science destroying religion. In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris proclaims that the problem with religion is the problem of dogma, in contrast to atheism, which he says “is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.” This, of course, is the attitude of all dogmatists: they are so certain of their beliefs that they regard anyone who disagrees with them as being so stupid or ignorant that they can’t recognize the obvious.

How is that different from what Wallace is doing here in his criticism? I would also like to point out that Sam isn’t being dogmatic, as he is just insisting on proof for supernatural claims.

In his article “Killing the Buddha” Harris shares his advice with the Buddhist community, like Batchelor asserting, “The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism,” and he goes further in declaring that “merely being a self-described “Buddhist” is to be complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.” Harris not only claims to have what is tantamount to a kind of gnostic insight into the true teachings of the Buddha, he also claims to know what most Buddhists do and do not realize: “If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world – truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence – these truths are not in the least ‘Buddhist.’ No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not.” It is sad when communist regimes throughout the world seek to annihilate Buddhism from the face of the earth, but it is even sadder when people who are allegedly sympathetic to Buddhism seem intent on completing what the communists have left undone.

I’ve also found great value in that article of Sam’s, and link to it frequently. He’s right. If the teaching of Buddhism is correct as a teaching for sentient beings, it will hold true without the rites and rituals of the culture in which it manifests. It will be timeless and prove to be true without religious trappings which are not a part of the eightfold path.

What has come up in interfaith dialogues I’ve had is that this practice is of value to people. If it’s only of value to Buddhists, there’s a problem. The attitude that one must “become a Buddhist” to practice meditation, let alone the eightfold path, is a problem that must be overcome if the value it brings is to be brought to fruition.

Our culture is one that questions authority, questions supernatural claims, and puts things to the test. Buddhists need to rise to that challenge, and show that this practice is valid under all circumstances, not just when one adopts a belief in the unseen. If we can’t, we should set aside our beliefs as being invalid.

The current domination of science, education, and the secular media by scientific materialism has cast doubt on many of the theories and practices of the world’s religions. This situation is not without historical precedent. In the time of the Weimar Republic, Hitler offered what appeared to be a vital secular faith in place of the discredited creeds of religion, Lenin and Stalin did the same in the Soviet Union, and Mao Zedong followed suit in China. Hugh Heclo, former professor of government at Harvard University, writes of this trend, “If traditional religion is absent from the public arena, secular religions are likely to satisfy man’s quest for meaning. … It was an atheistic faith in man as creator of his own grandeur that lay at the heart of communism, fascism and all the horrors they unleashed for the twentieth century. And it was adherents of traditional religions – Martin Niemöller, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Buber – who often warned most clearly of the tragedy to come from attempting to build man’s own version of the New Jerusalem on Earth.”

Surely he doesn’t mean domination in modern American culture, with constant attempts to introduce biblical creationism in the classroom as science, and a National Day of Prayer held despite a federal judge’s ruling against it? Doubts exist about that kind of thing because they have no evidence, and as such, should be questioned.

While Batchelor focuses on replacing the historical teachings of the Buddha with his own secularized vision and Harris rails at the suffering inflicted upon humanity by religious dogmatists, both tend to overlook the fact that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong caused more bloodshed, justified by their secular ideologies, than all the religious wars that preceded them throughout human history.

I’m going to call “shenanigans” here. The Pope recently made the same biased error in historical revisionism that is being made in this article. Let’s set the record straight, as I’ve had to do so many times with dogmatic Christians — Hitler was not an atheist. He was a Christian. Here are a set of quotes of Hitler’s, showing his adherence to Christianity. He also outlawed books criticizing religion.

I am not suggesting that Batchelor or Harris, who are both decent, well-intentioned men, are in any way similar to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Zedong. But I am suggesting that Batchelor’s misrepresentation of Buddhism parallels that of Chinese communist, anti-Buddhist propaganda; and the Buddhist holocaust inflicted by multiple communist regimes throughout Asia during the twentieth century were based upon and justified by propaganda virtually identical to Harris’s vitriolic, anti-religious polemics.

I’m going to call “shenanigans” again. Yes, Wallace is suggesting Harris and Batchelor are similar to Hitler. Quite clearly. He made the tie between them in the same sentence.

But, more importantly, it is utterly irrelevant to the discussion. To say that Hitler was an atheist (though he was not) and therefore atheism is bad, is no more sensible than saying Hitler was a vegetarian, so vegetarianism is bad. The criticism needs to be made on the virtues or vices of the ideological stance, and when practiced correctly, its effects in the real world.

The Theravada Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa refers to “far enemies” and “near enemies” of certain virtues, namely, loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. The far enemies of each of these virtues are vices that are diametrically opposed to their corresponding virtues, and the near enemies are false facsimiles. The far enemy of loving-kindness, for instance, is malice, and that of compassion is cruelty. The near enemy of loving-kindness is self-centered attachment, and that of compassion is grief, or despair. To draw a parallel, communist regimes that are bent on destroying Buddhism from the face of the earth may be called the far enemies of Buddhism, for they are diametrically opposed to all that Buddhism stands for. Batchelor and Harris, on the other hand, present themselves as being sympathetic to Buddhism, but their visions of the nature of the Buddha’s teachings are false facsimiles of all those that have been handed down reverently from one generation to the next since the time of the Buddha. However benign their intentions, their writings may be regarded as “near enemies” of Buddhism.

We’re trying to preserve Buddhism and the wonderful teaching and practice it has, for the benefit of all mankind, not just the ones who believe in rebirth.

The popularity of the writings of Batchelor, Harris, and other atheists such as Richard Dawkins – both within the scientific community and the public at large – shows they are far from alone in terms of their utter disillusionment with traditional religions. Modern science, as conceived by Galileo, originated out of a love for God the Father and a wish to know the mind of their benevolent, omnipotent Creator by way of knowing His creation. As long as science and Christianity seemed compatible, religious followers of science could retain what psychologists call a sense of “secure attachment” regarding both science and religion. But particularly with Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural selection and the militant rise of the Church Scientific, for many, the secure attachment toward religion has mutated into a kind of dismissive avoidance.

Galileo’s faith is utterly irrelevant to the validity of his scientific work. And his treatment at the hands of the church — when he was correct in his findings — came from a fear of the loss of ascendancy of dogmatic belief that was not in evidence. My preference wouldn’t be to associate my stance with religion on this particular topic! And that’s an excellent example of why secularists find dogmatic belief to be harmful.

Children with avoidant attachment styles tend to avoid parents and caregivers – no longer seeking comfort or contact with them – and this becomes especially pronounced after a period of absence. People today who embrace science, together with the metaphysical beliefs of scientific materialism, turn away from traditional religious beliefs and institutions, no longer seeking comfort or contact with them; and those who embrace religion and refuse to be indoctrinated by materialistic biases commonly lose interest in science. This trend is viewed with great perplexity and dismay by the scientific community, many of whom are convinced that they are uniquely objective, unbiased, and free of beliefs that are unsupported by empirical evidence.

The scientific community is made up of people, filled with the usual set of human issues. That does not detract from the scientific method as a means of investigating the natural world as being vastly more effective than religious doctrines in that particular sphere of knowledge. This does not take away from our spiritual practice, and the comfort it brings us. It’s not one or the other — they both can have contributing roles in realms of learning, one as a way of knowing, another as a way of experiencing.

Thomas Huxley’s ideal of the beliefs and institution of the Church Scientific achieving “domination over the whole realm of the intellect” is being promoted by agnostics and atheists like Batchelor and Harris. But if we are ever to encounter the Buddhist vision of reality, we must first set aside all our philosophical biases, whether they are theistic, agnostic, atheist, or otherwise. Then, through critical, disciplined study of the most reliable sources of the Buddha’s teachings, guided by qualified spiritual friends and teachers, followed by rigorous, sustained practice, we may encounter the Buddhist vision of reality. And with this encounter with our own true nature, we may realize freedom through our own experience. That is the end of agnosticism, for we come to know reality as it is, and the truth will set us free.

I agree that we should set aside biases. That means encouraging different ideological views to participate in meaningful dialogue, but it does not mean we simply give a free pass for every unsubstantiated claim those views make about the natural world. I would also agree that we need critical and disciplined study of the most reliable sources of the Buddha’s teaching, and that does mean questioning every aspect of it, without a pre-determined conclusion about what the right answer must be. Asking questions only as long as one comes to the “right” conclusion isn’t sincere inquiry, it’s prejudicing the results.

Only then, when we have been transparent and completely honest about our inquiry, our practice of the eightfold path, do we eliminate the hindrance of doubt without remainder. Then we can set aside the raft, concepts of agnosticism vs. faith, us vs. them, and simply practice together — as people.


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Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

Comments (63)

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  1. I think there are a couple of points Wallace makes that are not really addressed in this response. One is the whole difficulty of making revisionary historical claims about the Buddha. The challenges to be made to traditional Buddhist dogma are philosophical and practical, not historical, so it’s important not to appear to be making new historical claims without historical evidence. Instead we need to shift the grounds of discussion to philosophical ones. Batchelor has unfortunately not worked out his philosophy very fully. Secondly, Wallace challenges materialism as dogmatic – and being a metaphysical claim I don’t see how it can be otherwise. Buddhist secularists need to be much clearer about why their approach is not materialist (if it isn’t). I think this can be done best by dropping appeals to ‘naturalism’ and instead using the Middle Way as a paradigm, as I have tried to do (see http://www.moralobjectivity.net).

  2. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    My practice is naturalistic, it is materialistic, and devoid of any reliance on the supernatural.

    Being dogmatic is adhering to a view *in spite* of evidence — every secularist I’ve encountered is perfectly willing to change their minds about claims that are not currently demonstrably accurate, if provided with evidence. That’s not dogmatic, that’s sensible. Otherwise all claims are equally true, including those in conflict.

    My question is, what do we lose by reliance on the natural world? We can still be inspired by the stories of our traditions, our practice can still be informed by the teaching, we still feel and practice compassion, and we still have open minds about what is (to use a reference, not a metaphysical proposition here!) “true”.

    Naturalist views are, in my opinion, more open minded than those which rely on supernatural claims for the simple fact that once one plays the supernatural card, we close our minds to further investigation and learning about what might really be going on.

  3. David S says:

    Where is Wallace’s experience with such things as rebirth?

    I’m so sick and tired of doctrinal analysis and interpretation devoid of personal experience with such understandings. This is such a large problem for Buddhism in general. No one talks from experience who comes from the traditional ways. Why are “you” a teacher? What claims to experience do “you” have? If people talked from experience then we’d be able to separate these beliefs out right from the start!

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, David. Yes, it is sometimes very frustrating when we hear declarations without what you and I might think is little more than an appeal to authority of scripture. One thing to consider is that though the veracity of experiences and past life memories may have only interesting stories, they can be very compelling. With that in mind, it might be a little easier to be patient with the strength of people’s convictions.

      And Alan, with his years of meditation, has probably had very interesting experiences to support his point of view. It’s just not demonstrable to others, however potentially helpful to him it may be.

    • David S says:

      Hi Ted. I think there is more for us all to know about Buddhism by discussing the experiences themselves. There are ways to discuss anything. Without such talk we are left with vague aspirational talks and old tales. These become reliant upon faith and belief to astounding degrees. I thought that the notion of “delusion” was to be rooted out?

      • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

        Totally with you, David, and why we continue to ask why one would accept supernatural (i.e., non-physical world) explanations for things like past life experiences instead of natural explanations which we *can* demonstrate.

    • Linda Linda says:

      I am working through A.K. Warder’s “Introduction to Pali” right now and I was fascinated to read the advice that, for the purposes of translation, translators could ignore many “indeclinable” words which (sensibly) would include things like Alas! and Thus… and so on but among them was the emphatic word “eva” meaning “only”. As if being emphatic doesn’t matter to what’s being said. But as I point out in a blogpost (url below), it is important. And I suspect that not paying attention to those “eva”s (among other things) is part of a larger problem with traditional takes on Buddhism. Ignoring all the “only”s in the passage I worked on makes what the Buddha is saying come off as mild advice, whereas if we put them back in we can see he isn’t *suggesting* that his disciples who go out preaching “only talk from their own experience” but he’s saying “you WILL NOT wander off into wild speculations will you?” and they all say “Just so, master, just so, we will not.”

      And as I say at the end of the article, just imagine what the history of Buddhism would have been like had all the teachers followed what the Buddha says they should be doing here.

      Instead they use the proscription *against* talking about one’s experiences — the one where you aren’t supposed to go bragging about your accomplishments — to imply that they really do *have* these experiences they are just not allowed to talk about them. Instead of taking up the lens that leads to clarity (speak only from your direct experience) they choose the veil to obscure what’s going on.

      http://justalittledust.com/blog/?p=84 is my post on what the Buddha had to say about “Speaking Only From Direct Experience”.

  4. Tom Alan says:

    Aside from such obvious things as prayer (which not all traditional Buddhists believe in), how is supernatural belief an integral part of traditional Buddhist practice? I know that many traditional Buddhists abhor materialism, but that’s not what I’m asking. In traditional Buddhism, what part does supernatural belief play in, for example, meditation or following the Precepts?

    My point is that, when Ted says, “My practice is naturalistic, it is materialistic, and devoid of any reliance on the supernatural,” I can imagine a great many traditional Buddhists saying, “So what? What’s that got to do with practice?”

    To say that one regards a thing as important is not to say that it is part of one’s practice. I love Baroque opera. It’s important to me. It has nothing to do with my practice.

    • mufi says:

      Tom: “I know that many traditional Buddhists abhor materialism…”

      I guess that begs the question: If Buddhist tradition is all about practice, then why would traditional Buddhists “abhor materialism”? Shouldn’t they be neutral about it? Or, even more strongly, shouldn’t they recognize this view as an aversion, which is one of the “three poisons” or “unwholesome roots”?

      My provisional answer is: Buddhist tradition is not all about practice – even though perhaps it should be (say, from a 21st-Century Western point-of-view).

      • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

        Good point, Mufi. Traditional forms certainly have an ideological standpoint — of course, so does secular Buddhism, and that also informs *our* practice. Just wonder what the pragmatic difference is between the two during, say, a retreat.

      • Linda Linda says:

        The pragmatic difference enters, as far as I can see, when the point of the meditation gets missed. If the emphasis of practice is on achieving certain states, on doing things really well, on doing these things so one can be reborn in a good place, or on “achieving bliss”, then the point is being missed.

        I have talked at length to traditional Buddhists who are aiming to have their meditative achievements prove that there is rebirth — put them in touch with those other realms, or let them “break through to absolute truths”.

        From my perspective, meditation is about gaining the skills to more accurately see who we are, and what is certain and what is not — to foster in us the ability to recognize the difference between what we know and what we only think we know. The above practices are either distractions from those efforts or lead directly *away* from those efforts.

      • Tom Alan says:

        Mufi, please don’t give us that “Love is attachment, so it’s bad” line. If we love tea, that doesn’t make tea bad.

        • mufi says:

          Tom, I wasn’t trying to give you that line. Why would I, given that I don’t believe it myself?

          I’m guessing that’s how you interpreted my question: shouldn’t they recognize this view as an aversion, which is one of the “three poisons” or “unwholesome roots”?

          Perhaps I misunderstand these traditional concepts, but it does seem a bit strong to me for a Buddhist to “abhor” (your word) materialism or any other metaphysical doctrine – especially if Buddhism is supposed to be so pragmatic.

        • mufi says:

          PS: I perceive “don’t give us that…” phrases as hostile. Did you intend that effect?

          • Tom Alan says:

            Please read the context of my post. Immediately after the sentence you have quoted, I wrote the following:

            My point is that, when Ted says, “My practice is naturalistic, it is materialistic, and devoid of any reliance on the supernatural,” I can imagine a great many traditional Buddhists saying, “So what? What’s that got to do with practice?”

            P.S. I don’t perceive the word “please” as hostile. Please don’t take things out of context, e.g., “don’t give us that …” taken from “Please don’t give is that …”

          • mufi says:


            I don’t perceive the word “please” as hostile

            Let’s test that, shall we? “Please don’t act like a jerk.”

            Did the “please” take much of the edge off? Not so much, I think.

            And here’s your full post, again: Mufi, please don’t give us that “Love is attachment, so it’s bad” line. If we love tea, that doesn’t make tea bad.

            So I don’t see how I took anything that your wrote to me out of context.

            I’m giving you feedback re: the impact of your words. You can take it or leave it, I suppose.

          • NaturalEntrust says:

            Tom thanks for being patient with me and
            while I have your attention may I start to say that
            I found your “Please” to Mufi to be a bit too harsh.

            I felt for to tell you there and then but mufi did it good.

            Re love as an attachment. There is Noble eight path that
            make use of words that maybe mislead them into such views?

            There is a lot of Buddhists that have a to me very problematic
            relation to love. They do act as if love is a hindrance to them
            in their practice of Buddhism. Maybe then have misunderstood
            the teaching? But then why do they go on year after year
            misunderstanding it? Maybe the teaching is too abstract or
            too rigid in using old words that fail to get through? Just guessing.

            And now to your comment to Eric Natural Entrust.

            Tom I did find the text now when you
            made a more detailed reference to it.

            You forgot to tell me to read what Dough
            and what mckenzievmd commented to you.

            I find their friendly criticism as very apt.
            I would have expressed myself very close to
            how they commented you if I where on their
            level of command over thinking and English.

            I also find such research very problematic.

            “Measuring” is is done by asking people
            how they subjectively feel.

            Such is highly subjective. I know that from
            my own 50 years of trying to know what
            I feel. I lived a lie for some 30 years and
            I felt very good. Had I been one of the participants
            I might have reported that it worked good.

            I don’t trust such research at all.

            How are a person at all able to know
            what is really going on within their body?

            What they feel is what their verbal circuits
            allow them to say at the time of the asking.

            Gazzaniga who is a known Neuro Scientist
            has done some research on such and the
            result is telling us that one can not rely on
            such answers. People don’t know what they feel.

            There is no way for the conscious mind to access
            those part of the body that know how it feels.

            A good example is suicide prevention.
            The one being depressed tell everybody
            that they feel grate and that there is no risk
            of them going to kill themselves and those
            close to him or her say that they acted normally
            and seemed to be happy and then they go kill themselves.

            They did not know how close to suicide they where
            because their body did not reveal it to themselves.

            That where kept hidden for it to be able to go through
            with the suicide,. Had the body not lied to the conscious
            person then they could have intervened and stop it
            from happening or to ask their close relatives to stop it.

            Gazzaniga writes in his book that the verbal circuits
            can lie so convincingly that it fools that conscious person.

            That is my personal experience too. During these 30 years
            that I lived a lie I had no idea who I where. My body kept
            that hidden to me. I trusted these lies and felt good.

            The purpose of the lie where to keep me alive.

            Had I really felt how bad I really felt from the Bullying
            then I had done suicide. By keeping me inside of Bubble
            of false happiness I could live on despite being Bullied
            and I thought it where the Bullies that lied about who I am.

            They did not really know me either but they saw things
            that my body did keep hidden to me. I where very self
            centered and arrogant and where proud of myself and
            I thought of myself as a rather special somebody.
            That I where somebody special and that where lie.

            When that lie got scattered and the bubble bursted
            then I really felt how close to suicide I where.

            I needed something outside of myself that helped me
            find a new way to accept myself despite me lacked
            social skills and lacked empathy and compassion and
            I needed to start from that very humble position and
            gain some sense of self worth.

            I guess I still live within a bubble but this time the bubble
            is a bit more realistic even if it still expect too much.

            I am not sure what you wanted to tell me referring to
            that research. Maybe you wanted to tell me there is hope
            even for me? Or that you have expereinced that mindfulness
            has helped you?

            I agree being mindful help me too. What I disagree with
            and what makes me disappointed is that you did not
            mention what Dough and mckenzievmd told you.

            I saw their text more by accident. And have you really
            answered them? have you really taken in what they tell you?

            Don’t you dismiss their friendly criticism too lightly?

          • Tom Alan says:

            I see your point. “You took what I said out of context” has a negative connotation whether or not it’s preceded by the word “Please.”

          • Tom Alan says:

            NE, the research you have asked about is available. You can download the articles or read the abstract summaries where I have posted them on the other thread. If I may say, it is a pleasure to take part in discussions where the participants show an interest in scientific research.

          • mufi says:

            Tom, if you wish to convince me that I took your words out of context, then you’ll have to try a little harder to explain yourself clearly. Otherwise, I suggest that we just let it go.

          • Tom Alan says:

            NE, you may be right about quickly dismissing their friendly criticism. It may be that I tend to make snap judgment about people who spread false or misleading information about treatments for life-threatening illnesses (cancer, depression).

          • Tom Alan says:

            In reading my previous post, I suggest taking note of the words “My point is”

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Yes, Tom, exactly. I can find no functional difference in the practice methodologies of a secular Buddhist / scientific materialist than those employed by a more traditionally minded person.

      • NaturalEntrust says:

        I got the impression too that some or many Buddhists
        have a complicated relation to love.

        These do act as if love is a very bad attachment.
        It could have to do with precepts for Monks?

        Love being a biological function for to get kids?
        Parents do get rather attached to their kids?
        Monks are not supposed to fall in love and get kids?

        And the most important. Gotama is alleged to have
        left his wife and kids. He show by his own example
        and act that love is an attachment that don’t lead to enlightenment?

        Why else would he leave them? Did he join them after the
        enlightenment and reconnect and showed them bodily love?

        Did he get more kids after his enlightenment?

  5. NaturalEntrust says:

    A personal message to David S

    I have tried to get your attention over at

    I am basicentrust at yahoo there.
    I want to talk about RKK and Shin Buddhism.
    What is similar and what differ. Best wishes.


    • David S says:

      Eric. Not sure I am who you are thinking of. I’ve not been at the web site where you said you’ve tried to get my attention. Is there another Dave S at that web site who is not myself? I’m not familiar with RKK either, so you must be referring to someone else.

  6. NaturalEntrust says:

    It could be my poor grasp of English
    or my poor brain failing to grasp concepts?

    Dependent arising sounds very much like
    a supernatural view to me.

    Interconnectedness too sounds like a faith.

    Seen from a naturalistic and materialistic
    perspective a lot of random things happen?

    My secular take on the Four Noble Truths
    is that it is a prescription and not a description.

    The description is very supernatural to me. A faith.
    But seen as a metaphor it can be related to
    as a prescription. Something one recommend
    as a cure for suffering.

    If you suffer than do the following.

    Buddhist prescription on how to live life. …

    Taken that way it is possible to support it.
    But if I read it as it says literally and
    not metaphorically then it is faith in
    creative imaginations. Myths about life.

    As a metaphor it could point to naturalistic
    ways to live life in a good way.

    To not have unrealistic demands and
    unreasonable cravings and expectations.
    To be mindful of life and not to carelessly go on.
    To show compassion and not self-centered behavior.

    • Linda Linda says:

      “Dependent arising sounds very much like a supernatural view to me.”

      That would depend on what your understanding of dependent arising is. If your perception is that it is about your past life, present life, and next life, then, yes, that’s a supernatural view. If you understand it as following the description I gave in my 13-post series, then it is specifically pointing out human behaviors that we can see for ourselves in our lives and the lives of those around us — nothing mystical about it at all, nothing beyond the natural — then it is not a supernatural view.

      “Interconnectedness too sounds like a faith.”

      Again, it depends on what your understanding of “interconnectedness” is. If it’s the New Agey feel-goodness of “We are all one” which tends to imply a uniformity that isn’t realistic, then, yes, that’s heading off into mysticism and faith. But if you’re talking about noticing how when I smack you, you react, and when you smack me back, I react — there’s nothing of “faith” in that kind of interconnectedness.

      “Seen from a naturalistic and materialistic perspective a lot of random things happen?”

      Yes, they do. From this sentence I begin to suspect that the problem you are seeing with dependent arising and interconnectedness is that you perceive them as saying that *all phenomena* are described by dependent arising and tied up with karma. If you so much as *sneeze* that’s your karma. Is it that system of beliefs that you are objecting to?

      “My secular take on the Four Noble Truths is that it is a prescription and not a description.”

      My take is that it is both. It describes something so that we can use the skill of “seeing it that way” to gain better outcomes. To use a stupidly simple example from physics to make a simple parallel, it is as if the Buddha pointed out to us that when we hold something heavy up in the air and drop it, it falls with some impact — and we had never noticed how consistent this effect is, or thought about its cause having to do with the weight of the object. Now we can make wiser choices about, say, letting go of that bowling ball when our toes are directly below it. That is a description with a prescription: pay attention to this phenomenon then you’ll have better information on which to make your choices.

      “The description is very supernatural to me. A faith.”

      What is it you are hearing being described?

      “If you suffer than do the following.”

      What is the ‘following’ that you understand is being prescribed? I am earnestly struggling to understand what your understanding is, but you are speaking in such broad generalities that I am not getting what you are saying, unless your understanding of what’s being said *metaphorically* is:

      “To not have unrealistic demands and
      unreasonable cravings and expectations.
      To be mindful of life and not to carelessly go on.
      To show compassion and not self-centered behavior.”

      Which is fair enough, but still leaves me unclear on what it is you think you are also hearing *non-metaphorically* or “as based on faith and myth” that you are objecting to.

  7. Tom Alan says:

    I have heard practitioners of traditional Buddhism say that they are reluctant to join Alcoholics Anonymous because, as Buddhists, they could not comply with the AA rule of allowing themselves to be guided by a “higher power.” People like this don’t believe in prayer that get gets them help from Almighty God or any supernatural being — a deva, or a fairy godmother.

    It seems to me that the fuss over supernatural beliefs and agnosticism among secular Buddhists is something akin to classical conditioning — a holdover from disputes with monotheists, who regard supernatural belief as having supreme importance. So far as I can tell, Asians who are not Christians or Muslims may regard the question of God’s existence as an interesting one but not especially important.

    • Linda Linda says:

      From a secular Buddhist standpoint, I consider myself to be guided by a higher power — I call it “reality” (even though the word comes with almost as much freight as does “God”). The point of my practice is to stop trying to subvert reality and build the world in the image I want it to have (the way I think the world should be for me to “be happy”) and learn to just accept that the world is what it is, and that I can be happy with it being what it is, and to recognize that understanding the limits of my power to give the world a make-over results in me actually being happier, because I’m fruitlessly struggling a whole lot less, and effectively dealing with what’s going on around me a whole lot more, due to having a much clearer understanding of “the world” and “reality” (and myself and my abilities).

      I often think of this as an unequal parallel to the monotheistic view that one should “surrender to God”. I am “surrendering to reality”. Both have the same short-term effect — that of relief from the struggle of trying to control so much that is beyond one’s control. The difference between the two lies, as I see it, in monotheism substituting one hope-that-things-will-be-different for another — starting from “hoping I can control everything” and letting go of that (relief) but then substituting “hoping God will control everything” and so still looking for something outside us to make sense of it all. Whereas Buddhism substitutes recognizing what we ourselves *can* do for us struggling to do what we can’t do.

  8. NaturalEntrust says:

    I can see that point and at the same time
    the conditioning does set in within me too 🙂

    I grew up as a native Swede and got to
    atheism due to my skepticism that God
    really existed. Maybe it where like Santa
    or other such myths not to be taken as a
    literal truth.

    When I first heard about Shim Buddhism
    then I concluded it where a Buddhist
    version of Pentecostal faith in fundy
    texts about Amida Buddha seen as a Deva.

    Almost like a Buddhist version of Jesus?

    So I totally dismissed Amida from first
    instance of hearing about him and that
    where most likely as early as 1964 or so.

    I even fail to remember but trust it where a book
    by one of the Suzuki or maybe Alan Watts?

    One of these three did mention more like
    to give a whole picture of all traditions and schools?

    I don’t trust that I ever bought a book about Shin.

    I had several on Zen though.

    Then at 2007 or 2008 or definitively at 2009
    I got aware of Amida Buddha and read up on Shin
    and could see it from a totally metaphoric way.

    And then it all made sense to me as a subjective personal experience.

    The words told a mythic truth about how it is to be a selfish Ego
    and that compassionate selflessness could be a better way to live.

    I kind of feel sorry that none told me about the metaphoric way
    to read those old myths way back in 1963? I would have needed that badly.

    I where very selfish in the false Ego-Self way.

  9. NaturalEntrust says:

    Thanks Linda.

    It is a combination of my poor reading skills
    and my confused way of thinking that comes
    in the way when I try to point out why it looks
    that way to me.

    I think that the Four Noble Truth is a dual
    set up of Koan and “Hard to Fake sigh of Commitment”
    kind of way to weed out free loaders.

    It is at least used that way by many groups.

    Even SBA seems to use it that way seen from my poor grasp.

    Maybe it is all unintentional or not something any of you are aware of.

    And I agree it can be me that project that view on many groups
    including SBA.

    But that is my subjective personal experience.

    The failure of letting go of that “functional aspect”
    of the 4NT seems to support my take on it.

    One could keep it as a reference back to history.

    4NT is the historic way to present the Dharma.
    We do this metaphoric presentation like this:

    ” text that is a metaphoric and not literal take on 4NT follows … ”

    That would be to me a consistent way to be a Secular Buddhist.

    But I am very biased by my atheism most likely.

    I seems to fail to point out why it do come through as very fundy to me.

    One way is that one fail to find a good translation for Dukkha or Dharma
    or most of the other Buddhist terms could indicate that it can only be used
    in the literal way for to be a Buddhism.

    Could that not be why Julian Baggini wrote the way he did? and why
    Sam Harris wrote his text about Killing the Buddha


    we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”

    If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.

    There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all. In the same way, once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations. Once such a conceptual revolution has taken place, speaking of “Buddhist” meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that have occurred in our understanding of the human mind.

    I usually don’t agree with Sam Harris due to him supporting Dean Radin
    and Rupert Sheldrake but this text by Harris is how I would express it
    if I had his command of words and his grasp of what is what.

    I sure can be very wrong but either is the 4NT a combined Koan
    and a “Hard to Fake Sign of Commitment” or it is a literal reading
    of Gotama text.

    I find it more likely that it should be read metaphorically and
    presented as metaphor too.

    Unless one really need that “Hard to Fake Sign of Commitment”
    for to weed out free loaders? I failed to get bring over my understanding
    to Dana so I expect I fail to bring it over to you too?

    We may be too far apart? Both of you have accomplish things
    and thus look at reality from that subjective personal experience
    while my subjective personal experience is that I fail at almost
    everything I do even here at SBA..

    Almost nothing I say get understood as I intended and it is my fault
    because I lack the talent and skill for how to make thinking understandable.


    • Linda Linda says:

      Eric, friend, thanks for signing your name (much nicer than me calling you “NE”).

      Don’t give up on communicating with us; there’s a lot of interference in the situation between us: Swedish-English language barriers, Shin-to-SBA concept barriers, not to mention just the ordinary misunderstandings between humans. We’ll get it if we keep at it with patience.

      You said, “One way is that one fail to find a good translation for Dukkha or Dharma or most of the other Buddhist terms could indicate that it can only be used in the literal way for to be a Buddhism.”

      Look at that word “fail” in that sentence. So much assumption already being made about what is going on!

      There is no “failure” to find a good translation. THERE IS NO WORD for what the Buddha was talking about when he says dukkha. He stuffs so much meaning into that one word, so much very specific meaning, that unless we already had a discussion in some culture who had independently come to the same conclusions he had, there is no possibility we’d have a word to translate dukkha. None!

      Just because what the Buddha means by dukkha has only been described by the Buddha’s way of looking at it still doesn’t make it “a Buddhist term” that could only be used in Buddhism. It is describing something about human nature that can be described with no reference to the Buddhas teaching at all. But it tends to only be discussed in Buddhist circles because no other group has come up with the same insight and developed language to talk about it.

      We can talk about it outside of Buddhism, drawing on psychology, sociology, and probably a dozen other disciplines whose names I don’t even know.

      As for the 4NT, perhaps you can tell me what the “commitment” is that you find being made in the traditional way of understanding them.

  10. NaturalEntrust says:

    Thanks Linda. I got a text from you that
    seems to have failed to get updated
    by the software at SBA?

    On my own very naive level that is what I try to do too.

    I don’t quote in case you managed to send it to me privately?

    I trust that all of us do the best to our ability.

    You guys have a much better command of putting thoughts into words
    than what I manage to do.

    But I trust all of us have the best intentions to tell it like it is from our perspective.

    What else can one do. One would need a third voice.
    Some kind of “Mediator” not to be confused with Meditator.


    The term “mediation” broadly refers to any instance in which a third party helps others reach agreement. More specifically, mediation has a structure, timetable and dynamics that “ordinary” negotiation lacks. The process is private and confidential, possibly enforced by law. Participation is typically voluntary. The mediator acts as a neutral third party and facilitates rather than directs the process.

    Mediators use various techniques to open, or improve, dialogue between disputants, aiming to help the parties reach an agreement. Much depends on the mediator’s skill and training. As the practice gained popularity, training programs, certifications and licensing followed, producing trained, professional mediators committed to the discipline./quote

    That text obviously refer to Mediation seen as a payed professional expertize
    giving big corporations internal help of maybe a Counselor that give a Family
    help to agree on their personal matters.

    I talk about mediation more generally as a needed to either agree to
    that one use different ways to say basically the same thing
    or to agree on that one are too far apart and can reach not resolve at all
    but agree to stop fighting 🙂

  11. NaturalEntrust says:

    Mufi I don’t try to be Tom,
    but this topic about Buddhism
    interest me too. What it is about
    materialism that makes many
    buddhist to be very adamant and
    dismissive of science or Scientism
    as some of them prefer to clamp
    down upon. They also attack reductionism
    and they attack the modernist project?

    That is at least my impression of many Buddhists.

    I guess all of us are very skeptical to “materialism”
    of the Consumerism and Capitalist version but
    what they talk about seems to be a philosophical

    But that philosophical materialism? has been replaced
    by philosophical physicalism? and maybe the reason
    is that criticism making the word impossible to use?

    Or is it about China and Mao and their Marxistic
    scientific materialism seeing Buddhism as a religion
    that should be wiped out?

    Why else so very many texts on the internet
    where Buddhist after Buddhist talk bad about materialism.

    Religious Naturalists seems very skeptic to materialism too.

    Now I am not into philosophical materialism? as a philosophy
    at all. I know nothing about philosophical materialism?

    Sure I have bought many philosophy books but I don’t get a word
    what it is all about. Too abstract for my brain.

    But if one see it from a subjective personal experience perspective
    then matter not materialism but physical matter seems rather trusty.

    Okay my chair broke down and my HardDisk went south and a relative
    died out of a heart that failed. and many many other impermanent such
    but consider this. Cesium clocks are accurate more than many thousands
    of years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_clock

    “National standards agencies … maintain an accuracy of 10−9 seconds per day (approximately 1 part in 1014),”

    Haha I have no idea what that even means but it is an accuracy of one second
    on many many thousands of years.

    Compare that with how our earth revolve and the the year around the Sun
    the daily revolve and the yearly revolve is only failing one second in three years?

    I mean not even a digital quarts watch is that accurate? So the word impermanence
    is sometimes really stretched. Some matter are very stable. If it is only wrong
    with one second in three years or in more than ten thousand of years that is permanent
    in my world and not a sign of absolute impermanence of everything.

    And take something like human personality. Not every human but very many
    are same personality despite how much their views or likes or dislikes change.

    They may change views from right to left or from believer to unbeliever or
    from shy to outgoing or whatever. Have you met them as kid and then as teen
    and then as grown up and then as old retired you can see personal traits
    that are permanently there and not impermanent at all. They are very steady
    unless something happen physically to the brain. A hemor..age?. bleeding or a
    lack of oxygen through a stroke that can change the personality drastically.

    Friendly altruistic persons can get very selfish and not caring. My Dad changed
    after such a damaging body malfunction but up to that accident he where the
    same Dad as he had been when I where a kid.

    So where does all this almost hate towards materialism come from.

    What function does it have. Is it another version of “Hard to Fake Sign of Commitment”?
    That would explain it well.

    • mufi says:


      The distinctions between materialism, physicalism, naturalism, and scientific skepticism can appear subtle, and I generally prefer to leave such hair-splitting to the professionals (e.g. philosophers). So let’s just say that I’m comfortable with the idea that matter and energy (and whatever other basic components of nature that physicists discover) is all that there is, and that all the rest is reducible to that. I’m not saying that this account of reality is necessarily true (e.g. perhaps some phenomena are truly emergent in the sense of being greater than the sums of their parts). I’m just saying that it doesn’t bother me in the least.

      That many Buddhists seem to feel differently is presumably because the “supernatural” content that’s native to Buddhism – e.g. rebirth, karma (in the “untamed” sense of a cosmic moral order), gods, demons, other realms of existence, etc. – either those claims are unsupported by or they are in outright conflict with scientific knowledge regarding how the world works. In other words, the traditional-orthodox-Buddhist worldview and the modern-scientific view cannot both be right (at least not literally so).

      The situation is analogous to fundamentalist Christians who choose biblical creationism over natural selection. It’s not likely that reason has much to do with that commitment. It’s more likely that that’s simply what they were taught, and it would seem disrespectful (if not heretical) to reject it now – even if they must commit a list of classic fallacies in order maintain that commitment.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Eric, you said, “Why else so very many texts on the internet where Buddhist after Buddhist talk bad about materialism.”

      I can explain this. It is because traditional Buddhists get hung up on the Buddha’s denials around the school of thinking that gets translated as “materialism” by modern translators. (Wow, that was a confusing statement even to me!)

      So basically, when we read modern translations, we find there were “Materialists” in the Buddha’s time, and he said they had Wrong View. So obviously this is a Bad Thing, this Materialism. So if they can pin Materialism on YOU that means YOU have Wrong View too.

      The only problems with this are that:

      (1) What the group in the Buddha’s day that we’re calling Materialists believed may not be in close accord with what any modern Materialist believes. For example, in the suttas a Materialist is portrayed as believing that if they went up one side of the Ganges giving away gifts and all their worldly wealth to the poor, and then came back down the other side slicing and dicing the population up into tiny bits, neither would have any meaning at all. Not a significant act. Is that what our modern Materialists believe? I don’t think so!

      (2) (and this is why it’s all over the internet:) The traditional perception is that the *reason* the Buddha said Materialists had Wrong View is because they denied rebirth and (of course! to the traditionalist) rebirth is the truth of the matter — and a very important truth! So to the traditionalist, Materialism is horrible because it denies rebirth*. But the Buddha never said “the Materialists were mistaken about rebirth because I have seen rebirth myself” — he never says “Materialism is wrong view because there *is* rebirth”. Instead, he points out that the consequences of their beliefs are that they do bad things (see example in #1 above). I have never found him explicitly saying “they have wrong view because their view is speculative and the speculation leads to bad behavior” — but he is saying that with the whole of his dharma (that speculative views cause trouble).

      So the reason Buddhists are ranting about materialism is because they think the Buddha was saying that materialists are wrong — there is rebirth. Therefore anyone who denies rebirth is a materialist, to their way of thinking.

      * And, of course, denying rebirth undermines what traditional Buddhists see as a central tenet of the Buddha’s system. If we go around saying, “Think about it, folks, what evidence is there, really, for rebirth?” then they see us as trying to destroy the Buddha’s teaching by undermining a central pillar of support for the system.

  12. mufi says:

    Linda, (1) is a reference to Purana Kassapa, right? If so, then I think it’s a category error (not necessarily yours – possibly that of the ranting anti-materialist Buddhists to whom you refer) to say that he was a materialist – even by ancient Indian standards.

    As David J. Kalupahana (Ethics in Early Buddhism) put it: “Purana provides no reasons or a metaphysical position to justify” his (a)moral theory, which “denied the accruing of merit (punna) or demerit (papa) on the basis of good or bad actions, respecitvely.” However, the Buddha “allowed the concepts of merit and demerit”, but “only as incentives for the unenlightened person to adopt a moral life. But the idea of accumulation was not one that could eventually lead to freedom from bondage…Purana did not make this distinction. As such, his interest seems to be in totally condemning the Brahmanical and Jaina notions of accumulation of merit for salvific purposes, and then offering no alternative.”

    By contrast, usually when scholars refer to Indian materialism, they refer to the Lokāyata/Cārvāka school that “rejects the existence of other worldly entities such an immaterial soul or god and the after-life. Its primary philosophical import comes by way of a scientific and naturalistic approach to metaphysics.” (http://www.iep.utm.edu/indmat/). As far as we know, Purana was not a member of this school.

    Simply put: ethics vs. metaphysics.

    But I agree with the overall thrust of your comment, which is that ancient materialism is not modern materialism (a.k.a. physicalism). For example, the Lokāyata/Cārvāka school “held that all of existence can be reduced to the four elements of air, water, fire and earth”, which is of course very out-dated.

    • Linda Linda says:

      I didn’t have Purana Kassapa in mind, actually, I was thinking generally of texts I’ve read, and trying to give a feeling for the situation, rather than specifics.

      • mufi says:

        Linda, if that’s the case, then I have no idea who referring to and a reference would help.

        I thought you were referring to the Samaññaphala Sutta, which includes this line and attributes it to Purana Kassapa:

        Even if one were to go along the right bank of the Ganges, killing and getting others to kill, mutilating and getting others to mutilate, torturing and getting others to torture, there would be no evil from that cause, no coming of evil. source

        On second thought, the view that Purana rejects (i.e. ” the Brahmanical and Jaina notions of accumulation of merit for salvific purposes”) may have a metaphysical component to it. After all, to what does merit accumulate? Presumably, the soul or atman. Although I gather that Purana does not necessarily reject the soul part – just the accumulation of merit part.

        Either way, no materialism there, as far as I can tell. For that metaphysical view, we must turn to the Lokāyata/Cārvāka school or Ajita Kesakambalin. To be sure, this school also had something to say about ethics, but it wasn’t the same amoral (or moral nihilist) view depicted in your first list item above.

      • Linda Linda says:

        As I said, I was just being general. I am about 1,000 miles from my library and notes, so I wasn’t aiming for precision in matching Pali materialism to its historic criticisms, instead I was trying to give a sense of the reason why modern complaints of traditional Buddhists against modern materialists aren’t going to be accurate when it’s based on complaints against ancient materialists. I was drawing on memory, not research and citations. Sorry if you confused it for an attempt at precise scholarship.

        • mufi says:

          No worries, Linda.

          If nothing else, my nit-picking might have helped to clarify the issue for others (e.g. Eric, whose query we both replied to).

          Also, please bear in mind my distinction above (“not necessarily yours…”) between how you (and I, for that matter) categorize materialism vs. how the “ranting anti-materialist Buddhists” do so.

          Indeed, if one re-reads Alan Wallace’s critique of Stephen Batchelor, I believe one can spot evidence of the category error (i.e. metaphysics vs. ethics) to which I referred.

  13. NaturalEntrust says:

    Thanks Linda,

    that seems to be a reasonable explanation and
    maybe also explains why there is now this physicalism
    instead of the old word that get easily misunderstood.

    Now I am not into Philosophy due to me not brainy enough
    to get anything of Phil things. Not that I get much else either.

    I struggle with words.

    Wallace try to correct people like me?

    “Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist”

    I am an arrogant atheist that realized I need to humble myself.
    Now to humble oneself also can be understood in different ways.

    If materialism then is that bad.

    What is the official view on matter not materialism?

    Is matter itself seen as bad by Buddhism. I mean many many Buddhists
    say things like. “I am not religious I am spiritual” So they don’t look up
    on matter much. AFAIK spirit is not matter is it? Matter is not spirit?

    To some matter does not even exist it is an illusion? Only mind exists
    and mind is spiritual and those like me who hold matter in high regard
    say that the acts of matter creates the mind Mind is emergent from matter.

    Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist

    What distorted vision of Buddhist views on matter are there?

    I am trying to be consistent but have no talent for such.
    Take most Buddhists views on hair and clothe styles.

    I’ve seen pictures from Sanghas and they change style of clothes
    they wear and they cut their hair short. To me that looks like debasing matter.
    To look down on matter.

    It could have to do with debasing individualism too or even more likely.
    Both hair style and style of fashion is a way to express individuality.

    But that is also about matter and spirit. If one are a spiritual mind
    or a mindful spirit then individuality of having one’s own fashion is
    to care about ones individuality and that is seen as support Ego Self.

    A major sin? I ramble it is too complicated for this body/brain/mind to sort out.

    If I am not a materialist then, is it consistent to say that I am a matterist?

    To me matter exists and are something to hold in high regard.
    One should not make a god out of matter but matter is a kind
    of Mother that brought us forth. We are literally Star stuff.

  14. NaturalEntrust says:

    Thanks Linda.

    “As for the 4NT, perhaps you can tell me
    what the “commitment” is that you find being made
    in the traditional way of understanding them.”

    I trust it is the Eight Noble Path which ask you
    to practice them in the right way.


    1. Right view
    2. Right intention
    3. Right speech
    4. Right action
    5. Right livelihood
    6. Right effort
    7. Right mindfulness
    8. Right concentration

    Maybe Shin Buddhism try to help out with these?
    Concentration (Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)
    6. Right effort
    7. Right mindfulness
    8. Right concentration

    6. Right effort Comment from Eric NE.

    They have the idea that practicing Right effort
    in a Ego Selfish way can make the Buddhist lose
    interest in helping others who are not good at
    effort or mindfulness or concentration.

    That is why I took up this term “inner togetherness”
    and an alternative translation of dependent arising.

    But I know too little but the commitment should not be
    to be so attached to ones own achievement that one
    lost the compassion for togetherness for to help others?

    I just try to get what they say. What if they are right?

    I don’t know but it feels more right to me than what
    standard Buddhism feels right.

    • Linda Linda says:

      So Eric, you’re saying that the “Hard to Fake Sign of Commitment” to the 4NT is following the eightfold path? You wonder if it is just that — a test to get people to show whether they are serious about practice or not? — or if it is that plus it is actually important in the Buddha’s teaching?

      I can see how you could see it the first way. And I do think the 8FP has two places in the Buddha’s system.

      Where you are reading a “Hard to Fake Sign of Commitment” I see a structure built for beginners that gets them started down the right road, resulting in each of us setting up an environment for ourselves that supports continued practice. We pay attention to practical matters: how we speak, how we act, our livelihood — these put us into a situation where there is less strife and upset, where our way of life allows for more calmness so that we can work on insight. Right intention and effort are your “commitments” made visible — energy directed at insight (“right view”) through the meditative practices (concentration, mindfulness). I call this “outside-in” morality — applied morality — morality applied from the outside, as a set of rules and practices to follow.

      All that application of effort would, I suppose, have the effect of “weeding out” fakers who just want the community to support their escape from worldly commitments, without any sincere intention to do the work and make a change.

      But the second role of the 8FP is to actually lead beyond the setting up of the environment (and the weeding out) all the way to full awakening. The deeper practices and insights around anatta (not-self), anicca (impermanence), and the complexity of dukkha lead to inside-out morality — where it’s no longer about rules applied and followed because we should (to make merit or lead to a good rebirth). Instead it’s about dismantling the systems of thinking that inspire us to less-than-moral acts. Once the problematic sense-of-self is out of the way, the things we do are perceived as “morally correct” by those looking at them — as if we had applied the rules when thinking of the situation, and then followed those rules. But it’s no longer the application of rules governing our good behavior. It’s simply a way of being that is less involved (or not involved) with that problematic self. The good behavior comes from the inside, just naturally, without having to think through rules.

      I think this relates to the Shin approach in this way: When Shinran noticed that many Buddhists were getting stuck in egotistical cycles of aiming for achievements and set out to find a better way, what he was seeing was a failure to understand that there’s more to the 8FP than the first phase. This would be a failure of the teachers more than of the students — and it is not a failure of the Buddha’s teaching itself, but a failure to understand it. I see this as a side-effect of the distraction of rebirth — of the emphasis on merit-making and developing one’s karma. These are self-centered practices, that are going to tend to put the focus of practice in the wrong place, resulting in even the most sincere practitioners working on merit for merit’s sake, rather than moving on to what we should be doing to actually resolve the problems we set out to resolve, by looking at “the self” and seeing it for what it is, so that we can end the useless ego-centric cycles (and practices).

      The Buddha actually says this — about belief in merit-making and rebirth being a hindrance that keeps the selfing process going — in MN 117. It’s something any one of us can see for ourselves when we simply look at what effect concepts of rebirth have on practice, and it is not the heretical view that B.Alan Wallace might have us believe it is — it is heretical to traditional Buddhism, but not to what the Buddha was teaching, and we know this because the Buddha points it out himself. Far from risking the destruction of Buddhism, it actually is aimed at bringing what the Buddha taught back into view, with the emphasis on “phase two” restored, so that practitioners don’t get stuck in the merit-making phase, and can quickly move on to the deeper practices that lead to awakening.

  15. NaturalEntrust says:

    Mufi thanks for that thoughtful answer.
    I could be wrong about the
    “Hard to Fake Sign of Commitment”
    it could be just them being respectful
    or them feeling for to defend their Turf?

    I do behave like that at times.
    I tend to defend my version of religious atheism.
    Hhahah nobody else does so I feel for defending it.

    • mufi says:


      Yes, I assume that there are real conflicts here – both at the conscious and neural levels – and that those who adhere to supernatural beliefs are, for the most part, sincere in their adherence.

      Perhaps they only “believe in belief”, as Daniel Dennett might say. In other words, they assume that there are certain benefits that adherence to their particular creed entails – e.g. continued acceptance by family & friends, an easier road to happiness, etc. – and there may be some truth to that assumption. Having abandoned a religious creed once myself, I’m familiar with some of the costs of ending one’s adherence (e.g. ostracism), so I can hardly say that they’re wrong to anticipate those costs.

      But such fears are not necessarily conscious, if they occur at all. And, the more ignorant the adherent is of modern science and philosophy (and thereby ignorant of the real logical problems that I referred to), the less cognitive dissonance I would expect of him/her.

  16. NaturalEntrust says:

    Thanks Linda,

    that sounds reasonable to me and
    it reminds me that I have to correct
    the wrong picture I have giving of
    Shin Buddhism.

    Shin Buddhism does have a practice
    and it is rather demanding too.

    I know almost nothing about it but
    what I vaguely remember is that
    one listen to the Dharma and that
    one is mindful of what tricks the
    Ego Self is up to. It is a kind of
    humbling practice where one
    let go of “calculation” not sure
    how to explain that term but
    “calculation” is when one do
    8 noble path for Ego Self reasons
    and not for the right reason and
    when one get aware of that one
    feel humble.

    They claim such “listening to the Dharma”
    can be a demanding practice due to
    all the tricks the Ego Self do to be
    the Boss. In Shin Amida’s compassion
    should be the boss and not my Ego Self.

    All of the above is filtered through
    my poor memory and lack of knowledge.

    So they sure have practice but they name
    it “Non-practice” for to show it is a bit different.

    A notion that I have which can be my prejudice
    and very wrong is that Shin Buddhism is a bit
    into devotion of Amida Buddha.

    The “chanting” that one don’t do is a kind of
    thankfulness for the gift one have received
    from Amida. That is why I made the choice
    of user name. One entrust oneself to Amida
    as the universal symbol for the Dharma.

    So when I read what Dave S wrote here
    about RKK world and there found similar
    views I felt happy because finally I have
    found someone here that hopefully can
    explain this kind of practice.

    So sure they do have a demanding practice
    based on the N8P

    • Linda Linda says:

      “Shin Buddhism does have a practice and it is rather demanding too.”

      I can see that. And I can see that the aim is to lead to the same state of mind the Buddha was aiming for.

      “In Shin Buddhism, ‘all beings have the potential of becoming Buddha’ means that all beings in the universe are embraced and enfolded in the Great Compassion of Amida Buddha.” – http://www.bffct.net/id58.html

      This statement has a history. Winding it backward, from the above, to what we find in the Pali texts, we have:

      (1) All of us are enfolded in the Great Compassion of Amida Buddha (which is another way of saying:)
      (2) Each of us has Buddha-nature within
      (3) Each of us has the potential of becoming a Buddha
      (4) Each of us can become awakened

      What I don’t understand is why we have to take the very simple statement made in #4, and add layer upon layer upon layer to it, when (from what I can see out there in the world) each layer adds to the potential that newcomers will completely misunderstand what’s necessary to become enlightened. I do know folks who have followed Pure Land practices of chanting who believed just the chanting was enough. (They have since given it up, since it did not seem to be moving them anywhere.)

      Why do we not just stick with #4? Why assign an outside agency? As I understand it, Shinjin felt that “self-agency” was a dangerous concept — and I agree that it is *if it is misunderstood*. But I think he was just working with teachers/in a time when how the process works was so misunderstood that it was not being conveyed correctly. Adding *more layers* over the top of the teaching does not seem to me to be the correct solution to the problem; stripping off the additions and revealing more of the basics makes far more sense to me.

      Assigning an outside agency — even if the teacher *intends* it as metaphorical — still leads away from the goal, which is to recognize that each of us has the ability, already — no outside agency needed — to change for the better, if only we have good teachers to show us why and where confusion enters. Adding an outside agency that is metaphorical then requires a student to figure out that it is a metaphor. Why not simply explain it without metaphors to begin with?

      I understand why the Buddha used the metaphor — it was expected of gurus to speak this way. Perhaps it was expected in Shinjin’s time?

      But it isn’t expected in *our* time.

  17. NaturalEntrust says:

    What did happen to B. Alan Wallace?
    Did he read and respond to Ted Meissner?
    Does he still think Secular Buddhism is
    too far out? Any other such critics?

    What is the trend. Are they coming on speaking
    terms or are they escalating the criticism?

    • Linda Linda says:

      It seems to be a ping-pong match played in very slow, irregular motion, the ball crossing the net each time may take years. I haven’t seen another exchange played out, myself.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Don’t know if Alan read this response, but I did send him a link to it. I’m of course interested in having a more positive dialogue, personally, rather than what this started as and has continued to be.

      This weekend’s upcoming interview, however, with Thupten Lekshe may help to represent some of the disparity of views we have on this page. And it was a very friendly talk, too, so I’ll be interested in having everyone commenting there when it comes out, too.

  18. NaturalEntrust says:

    Thanks Linda,

    You could be right. In the end we might agree
    if that is what we strive for? I don’t have the
    knowledge that allow me why they add those

    I may guess they say they placed value in
    layers that explained important experiences?

    But that is my guess. I can only refer to myself
    Sure it may be that I had too little insight and
    thus misunderstood the teaching and thus draw
    the wrong conclusion. But even now that you
    tell me the right teaching it would only work
    for someone that has that patience in doing
    all that work?

    “Reality” does show that I don’t have that patience.

    So instead of seeing it as Shin adding not necessary
    layers one could see it as their interpretation allowing
    one to practice from another point of view that share
    the importance of practicing compassion and to be humble
    and to listen intently to teaching of the Dharma and
    to act thankfully for the gift of having the teaching?

    That practice is also rather intense but does not
    require the ability to concentrate. They trust it
    to give same end result or that it is okay even if
    it fail to give that result?

    They use words that are a bit like this.

    Amida has already done all the needed work
    and he has promise to liberate all sentient beings
    so let go of your feelings of being a total looser
    you are okay and it may be okay to give a thanful
    thought to Amida and to act with compassion to all
    sentient beings like he does and …

    Just my wild guess based on poor memory.

    It may look like laying on mythic layers
    but it can be a kind of practice that just works for them?

    It worked for me. All the encouragement from the most
    common Buddhists on doing practice did not work for me.

    Okay then we have Shinran himself. Did he have poor teachers
    or did he fail to listen to them, where he too lazy or not attentive
    to what they did tell him and so on. We have no idea it where 700
    hundred of years ago. We can only trust all these people that followed
    him??? Which is what the Jesus followers also say so I would not do that.

    But we do have Jeff Wilson. He had good teachers and he did listen to them
    and where attentive to what they taught and did the practice right and
    still he left that view and embraced Shin Buddhism instead.

    But he is a very busy teacher at a University and I don’t
    trust he take time and visit us here in the threads.

    So I would have to buy his book and hope he tell it there.

    I guess you would still say something must have gone wrong there.
    Something his teachers failed or him failed or why else would
    he chose Shin Buddhism instead of the Buddhism that you support?

    My wild guess is that we are all different as humans

    maybe Shin is what suites my way of being best?

    • Linda Linda says:

      That makes sense to me, Eric. The only thing I can say is that I find it hard to see how someone could reach an awakened state without having insight into what is causing the problem, and what it takes to fix it. I find it unlikely that simply practicing compassion and gratefulness for teachings is going to bring one far forward without actually understanding the teachings. I would want to see some evidence that this practice actually leads its practitioners to being really awake before I had any confidence in its ability to do what it promises to do. If I can’t see the mechanism, I at least need to see results. Without seeing either cause (the mechanism) or effect (the results) all that’s left is faith that it works. I do recognize that just because I don’t understand how something works doesn’t mean it can’t work — so I can offer the benefit of the doubt, here, but not more than that without seeing those it has helped.

      I can see that it would help someone who had ADD/ADHD or any great inability to concentrate for whatever reason — many things could help a person in that situation by calming them down, for example, or by providing better ability to focus. But that doesn’t mean it leads where the Buddha was wanting us to go.

      The path *does* require work. That is the point of “right effort”. “Right effort” isn’t any old effort — it’s not, for example, effort put into faith (“I believe I will be enlightened, I believe the Buddha can do this for me, I believe, I believe, I believe!”) — there are many kinds of effort that don’t move a person forward on the path. The Buddha is describing a particular sort of effort, and it does involve concentration, and mindfulness — it seems clear to me that he was saying that these things support necessary insights that one isn’t going to get otherwise.

      It may well be that you are perceiving that it takes not just effort but a certain sort of success in the practice to get the benefits — that you have to be able to learn to sit still at least 20 minutes a day (or whatever) — but in my experience you don’t even have to be that good to get lots of improvement. The effort is put into actually seeing into your own self, so many small efforts over the course of time can do a lot.

      I am a lousy meditator yet I can see how the practice of meditation and my understanding of how the insights fit together — in principal and in my life — are making it so that I am holding up remarkably well through recent very difficult times.

      • David S says:

        Linda. When you refer to “awakening” what do you think of? I’m interested in this because this is the one part of Buddhism I haven’t made much of for myself.

  19. NaturalEntrust says:

    Thanks Ted,

    yes maybe we react to strongly
    to the personal style of Tom Alan.

    His intention maybe where light
    hearted harted sorry spelling.

    I would prefer that all of us treat
    each other friendly so I reacted
    hard to what Tom wrote.

    Now that you ask me to let go
    of that feeling of being harmed
    I can try to let it pass as his style.

    What I still is very disappointed about
    is that he did not tell me that others
    had given him very good criticism and
    that their texts where important to read

    Why hide such relevant info? Okay I am
    a whiner. I am not good at listen to English.

    As is obvious I barely get written text.
    Spoken words are way too fast for my brain
    to compute. Has he written on that theme

  20. NaturalEntrust says:

    Ooops I maybe derail this thread
    but here it is for those like me
    that can not make sense of fast talk.

    Public Talk on Secular Buddhism – fact or fiction?

    with Venerable Thupten LeksheVenerable-Thupten-Lekshe-200

    Friday 17 August at 7pm

    In this talk Thupten Lekshe will outline the key facets of secular Buddhism. He will explain the core Buddhist teachings that have been classified as secular in nature and discuss the various dangers and challenges of this way of bringing Buddhism to the west.

    Would be cool to have a good link to such texts then.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      That’s who I interviewed for this weekend’s podcast, and am publishing it now to let people listen prior to his public talk just in case someone from here is able to attend. I would encourage listening to this upcoming episode, because TL is very engaging and we had a very positive dialogue.

  21. NaturalEntrust says:

    Thanks Linda,

    good questions. I am no Shin Buddhist
    I only found their explanations best of
    all the practices that I have briefly
    looked into.

    So for to answer your questions
    I would have to put myself into your
    perspective on Buddhism as such and
    then put myself into Shin Buddhist practice
    and try to answer seen from their perspective
    but translated you your perspective.

    TRust me I even fail to get what they say
    seen from my own perspective so I lack
    knowledge on how to explain what they do
    or how they rectify that behavior.

    I don’t trust they really chant that much.

    Jodo Shu Buddhism do chant a lot. They even
    have meetings where they chant the whole day.

    Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is different. But I am too
    remote to really know but AFAIK they would see
    that much chanting as a calculation and that can
    be part of Ego Self effort that expect too much.

    But all that is filtered through my lack of knowledge.

    Now a Temple may have Priests that do chanting
    and maybe those Shin that goes to that Temple
    would feel embarrassed if they did not join in???

    But if one talk to the academic teachers of Shin
    then AFAIK they don’t recommend that much chanting.

    One can do it if one as individual really need it.
    What is recommended is that one say Nembutsu
    with a sincere heart say one time or two or three.
    Some say one should say it once any time one feel for it.

    But to chant it again and again repetition for long time
    that is seen as calculation that one achieve an Ego Self boost.

    • David S says:

      Hi Eric. Not sure I am who you are thinking of when you said, “Dave S wrote here
      about RKK world and there found similar views.” And I’ve not been at the web site where you said you’ve tried to get my attention. Is there another “Dave S” at that web site who is not myself? I’m not familiar with RKK either, so you must be referring to someone else.

  22. NaturalEntrust says:

    Thanks David,
    my bad entirely.
    He sign Dave S and you David S
    so I trust my body longed for to
    find someone that could explain
    Shin Buddhism and Dave S may
    be able to do that based on his
    RKK knowledge them claiming to
    have that goal to mediate between
    different views or schools in Buddhism

    So I do apology for not paying attention.

    I must go for to reach him through his
    Ethical Societies and Humanist activities then.

    If I fall back to think him and you to be same
    then I trust my brain has some early dementia
    or something. I should be able to see you and him
    as different persons now. Sorry for the inconvenience.


  23. leebert leebert says:

    Whatever B. Alan Wallace’s motivation was in writing his little philippic, I read his rant as boiling down to this: Literalists continue to get free rein over interpretation of a religious tradition, and the new wave can just go bugger off.

    1) Is the Tipitaka monolithically orthodox in how to interpret rebirth?
    2) Is claiming a heterodox Tipitaka contrary to the canon as it is documented?
    3) Is there no room for Dharma Agnostics in the Tipitaka whatsoever?

    I’m not sure what kind of Humanist tradition Wallace is endorsing here if humanism can’t inform the continued adoption & interpretation of religious traditions of any kind.

    Under the aegis of Christiandom, the same position might mean that the Universalist Unitarians couldn’t call themselves Christians, the same going for the non-theist Quakers, or that Islam can’t be reformed because the maximum position of Mohammed can never be offset by any equivocal position he stated another time!

    Moreover, are we supposed to lock Buddhism away behind a glass cabinet as it had been in Sri Lanka for centuries? Any chance for reinterpretation in any tradition, or is it the literalists who get to dictate the ultimate taboos in defense of static & unchanging traditions?

    Never mind that the whole feud is just a little weird… never mind what the hell Mandala Mag thought they were doing letting Wallace air grievances so inarticulately, with such desultory & personal vehemence…

    If scholars are going to publicly articulate a dialectic, aren’t we looking to them to lead us through the discussion WITHOUT rancor?

    Or is that beyond the ability of Buddhist scholars, to evince nuance & equanimity?

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