Is Secular Buddhism Cherry Picking?

| June 30, 2011 | 35 Comments

For me, yes! Just as I would pick cherries from a tree, taking the ripe ones and the almost ripe, and leaving unripe on the tree and the rotten ones on the ground (or throw them away), I have cherry picked from Buddhism.

Over the last ten years or so, I have studied Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and Insight Meditation, which is loosely based on the Theravada tradition. I’ve attended their talks, meditations, read the books, and chatted with the people at the gatherings (sangha). Most importantly, I tested out the teachings.

The traditions above have some common themes and tools:

  • Meditation: In Zen you sit, and you sit some more. In Tibetan Buddhism, you use guide meditations and visualizations. In the Theravada tradition, you learn insight meditation, or mindfulness meditation and concentration.
  • Compassion: In all the Buddhist traditions, compassion for ALL beings is taught, explored, and experienced through looking into the nature of life itself, and the suffering thereof.
  • Ethics and Morality: Meditation and compassion help one to see the powerful need for ethics and morality personally, to alleviate one’s own suffering, but also because when you develop compassion for others, you don’t want to create suffering for them either. Ethical living is of great importance to any tradition in Buddhism.
  • Letting go: All traditions teach various ways for us to explore our clinging and attachments, and how these attachments create suffering and delusion. The freedom from clinging is to let go of it. Turns out that is much more difficult than it sounds, and mindfulness and meditation are key in seeing the true nature of our existence so that we can let go. Psychology talks a lot about ego, but Buddhism teaches us how to explore and see it directly for ourselves.

Secular Buddhism focuses on the above, picked out because of practicality and necessity, and has left behind teachings that contradict or downright disprove themselves. We understand some of the above traditions see the point of Buddhism as the means to stop the circle of rebirth, of being reborn in some other life, with all it’s likely suffering. However, when one sees directly that there is no particular thing in our existence that is a self, the idea of rebirth after death is disproved. If you want more on this topic, you can read No One to be Reborn.

That said, we do see the ego being reborn repeatedly in one’s experience. We even begin to see what drives this response, how it creates suffering, and we learn to let go of the attachment we have to ego. All this occurs, with persistent and vigilant observation in this lifetime. Secular Buddhists have no interests beyond death. We have plenty to work with, appreciate, and discover in this life.

Some secular Buddhists enjoy some of the rituals and practices they learned in traditional Buddhism, but the desire to use them is closely examined and the utility of them explored. For instance, I like to light incense when I meditate. The aroma reminds me that I’m sitting to be present, to see what my mind is up to in that moment, what’s happening in the body, and to focus on the breath. Of course, I can meditate without it, and sometimes I do.  But I don’t light it as a blessing, as I was taught in Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s not a gift to the gods. It’s just incense.

In my practice, I find the Four Noble Truths invaluable, and I use the Eightfold Path as a practical guide for me to explore and integrate into my life. These teachings are intended to bring our lives into sharp focus, refine the mind so we aren’t behaving like mindless monkeys, and to assist in the letting go of the many cravings and attachments that lead to suffering. I do not adhere to the teachings dogmatically. I will reject anything outlandish, even if it was said by Buddha.

I do enjoy reading suttas (teachings) from translations of the Pali Canon, and I view all of Buddha’s life and teachings as mythology. This allows for more cherry picking, and I can see useful metaphors and analogies where others may be thumping their foreheads, trying to figure out exactly what the Buddha meant or why one sutta contradicts another. You can go on endless discussions about whether or not the Buddha was a historic person. But no one can prove it either way. You can read more of what I had to say about this topic in Refuge in the Buddha. That Buddha spoke of gods and hell and heaven realms is not a problem for me because I see that as a metaphor, and I do not take it literally.

All of this is my view, and not necessarily shared by all secular Buddhists. But I do see secular Buddhism as cherry picking, taking the ripe, practical fruits of the teachings and putting them to valuable use, and leaving behind that with requires belief, which Buddha taught against (and science teaches us today), and that which is fantastic and without evidence. I make no apologies for it, as I see this practice as immensely beneficial to my life and those who come in contact with me, and I see it lessening the suffering of those who I know also practice.

For me cherry picking in Buddhism has been more about making wise choices and testing out the teachings, just as the Buddha taught.

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Dana Nourie

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Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

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  1. Erasing Personal History | Essential Knowledge | October 6, 2011
  1. Andrew says:

    Why does a so-called secular Buddhism need to refute reincarnation and hold that as a belief? What about suspending one’s belief and saying I don’t know? It seems like we are creating another dogma with our anti-rebirth rhetoric. The strength of a secular approach should be to lay out the facts and let people decide for themselves. That’s the big tent approach.

    We don’t (I don’t) know whether rebirth is true or not, but I’m willing to lay on my deathbed and keep paying attention until the lights go out. Who knows? You can certainly have your belief and let it guide you, but I for one will suspend mine until I truly come to know something at the core of my being.

    I think the best overall approach, eg. is to teach the Four Noble Truths, both from a tradtional metaphysical view as well as the radical different view that is emerging that Frank Jude, David Brazier and Stephen Batchelor (and many others) expound. The task is to show how each view takes people down a different road and the result of having taken such a road. By highlighting in this way, people can make up their own minds. Highlight the dependency on the belief of rebirth and karma via the traditional view, and compare it to the more secular understanding that doesn’t see nirvana as an extinguishing, but is more of a containing the fire of dukkha and learning how to work with it. If you can understand both approaches you can then see how people make choices and for what reasons. This is the main task, I believe. It is not to construct a new set of tenets for another fixed belief system.

    It seems one of the primarly strengths of our western wisdom tradition is the critical inquiry part. We know how to ask questions and jettison the obvious bullshit. Why can’t we make that our religion?

    • “Why does a so-called secular Buddhism need to refute reincarnation and hold that as a belief? What about suspending one’s belief and saying I don’t know? It seems like we are creating another dogma with our anti-rebirth rhetoric. The strength of a secular approach should be to lay out the facts and let people decide for themselves. That’s the big tent approach.”

      It’s so called because secular means of this world, and that’s what we’re interested in. I don’t need to refute it, I just don’t believe it. I’m no more convinced of the traditional Buddhist rebirth stories than I am of any other stories that have no evidence. That’s not holding to it as a belief, that’s merely asking for evidence. None is forthcoming, just as there is none for unicorns or fairies — do you believe in them, or do you consider yourself a fairy agnostic? I’m willing to say “agnostic” is not strong enough for my disbelief, I think it’s not accurate, and it needs to provide evidence. When it does, I’ll be happy to change my mind.

      A dogmatist isn’t willing to change their mind, despite evidence. I am when it’s forthcoming, so please, let’s leave off the idea that secular Buddhism is dogmatic. Are rebirth believers as willing to be convinced by evidence that out of body experiences, for example, are natural events expressly in the body, reproducible in the lab? None that I’ve encountered. Again, this is not “anti-rebirth rhetoric”, this is asking for evidence. Now if you consider that anti-rebirth rhetoric, then anytime you ask the mechanic to show you what went wrong in your car you’re practicing “anti-auto-engine rhetoric”. That’s not so, it’s not what you mean by asking for evidence that he fixed the problem.

      “Big tent” is not “anything goes”. I’ve had quite enough intolerant speech from rebirth believers about my practice — I’ve yet to compare any of them to Hitler. So again, let’s not point fingers at secularists for daring to question tradition. Yes, I do question tradition, I question with confidence anything that’s not in evidence.

      • Jenny Jenny says:

        Andrew has a valid point, though there is insufficient space and time here to articulate the deep histories of various “isms” lurking (trust me!) in the margins beyond the electronic print here. I am fairly new to Buddhism, via Tibetan Buddhism. I came to this site because I was having a hard time integrating notions of continuity (endless and beginingless mindstream), even of the “subtlest level of consciousness,” which apparently isn’t conscious consciousness at all, with annata. I had even more serious problems when I heard and read about tantra and guru devotion. I’m also a science editor. I preface with all this just to be clear that I’m not some troll . . .

        That said about my parting ways with Tibetan dogma and the conflation of Buddhism and Tibetanism, I found while with the Tibetan for the past year that the metaphorical imagination that required a kind of suspension of belief, particularly surrounding karma and some sort of notion of ever-rippling effects from the choices I made, did cause me to be more mindful throughout the day, to feel that the reality of the moment resonated. In short, being agnostic on rebirth and karma, quite deliberately and quite without demands for “proof,” was, and is, pragmatically helpful to my practice. I’m a literature major, a reader and writer. Poetry attains for me a dimension of reality, real and even rational experience, that cannot be demonstrated to another and need not be.

        When people demand demonstration of evidence, they are invoking as disproof the standard of proof Bacon posited as the basis for the scientific method. The scientific method is indeed axiomatic at bottom, nonetheless. It, like Bacon himself, is inscribed in history. Moreover, history is inscribed in semiotics, language systems, metaphor. People coming from a thoroughgoing scientist bias, those who’ve never studied linguistics or humanistic discourses and their alternate methods of inquiry, will believe (yes, believe) that science gives us “facts” that are true and speak for themselves, without an interpreter or interpretation. This belief may profitably be questioned by anyone holding finding himself or herself holding it, for if there is anything we can say with confidence after studying science, philosophy, and language, it is that there is no such thing as a “fact.” There is no locatable truth not dependent on interpretation. Nowhere. Scientific method itself acknowledges that what we call facts attain truth-value (not Truth) only contingently and only via the rhetorical convincingness of published interpretations of data sets for a historically specific community of credentialed experts . . . until new evidence emerges.

        There is a lot more that could be said and explored here, if there were time for us to build up a conversation equal to the task at a very first meeting, an online to boot. For example, we might discuss the definition of “evidence.” George Berkeley, for example, demonstrated (although not through sense data) that we have “immediate knowledge” of a great deal of phenomena, what we usually call “direct experience.” This kind of “evidence” is not “demonstrable” to another person via replication of tested results, but can we really declare it not true and yet claim we aren’t clinging to a vaulted faith in an axiomatic method when we do so? What about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? What about deconstruction via the humanist disciplines? Are these all to be dismissed because they don’t inhere in the relatively small inscription known as sense data? I’ve been an atheist for decades, but I do agree with Andrew: When we exclude entire other serious, even academically lauded, ways of making sense of the world and our experience of it, we turn science into a religion.


        • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

          Hi, Jenny, welcome to the site and thank you for posting this very well articulated reply. Yes, I agree, there is a great deal of potential dialogue on this topic of belief, facts, skepticism, and where the line is we draw of what is provisionally accepted as “truth” — whatever that may be!

          Where we tend to go down a rabbit hole is when we talk about the veracity of one’s experience, which you succinctly describe as not being demonstrable to another person. Exactly. So how do we distinguish between a false memory, for example, and a true one? We can go down a deep philosophical discussion of what is meant by truth, and we can endlessly debate that, but in conventional existence (not quantum level, for example) it’s either in alignment with reality or it’s not.

          I provisionally accept understandings of how the natural world works, always subject to revision, based on what we have as having the best track record of producing valid and predictive results. When ideas are posited that fundamentally conflict with that understanding — like neutrino movement being faster than light — why would we not question that? Why would we not question the existence of fairies and unicorns or bigfoot? I find nothing wrong with provisionally concluding they don’t exist, and find it a waste of time to defend the possibility of them being real in the absense of any evidence. We all are in situations where we ask for evidence, and we *should*, because if not we’re utterly at the whim of whatever anyone asserts.

          In an election year, that’s probably not such a good thing 🙂

          You had a beautiful statement, though, that I am very grateful for, “Poetry attains for me a dimension of reality, real and even rational experience, that cannot be demonstrated to another and need not be.” Yes, exactly. Where I’m comfortable drawing that line of what I find realistic and what I find ridiculous has no bearing on whether or not it can be meaningful to me, and whether it can help in my practice. As I’ve said on the podcast recently, Br’er Rabbit doesn’t need to have been a real live talking bunny for me to learn from the stories about him. We all respond differently to stories, to the value we place on them — and that’s okay.

          But if you’re going to tell me you can fly, you need to prove it, and that doesn’t make me a foolish nay sayer for asking.

          • mufi says:

            Yeah, all the post-modern deconstruction in the world isn’t likely to change much how we experience the world on a daily basis or how scientists observe it via their methods (although new breakthroughs in technology and conceptual analysis might).

            As a lay person (i.e. non-scientist), science is actually of no more relevance to my daily life as, say, the arts (the latter of which overlaps my interest in Buddhism more so than the former). I value both highly, and came to the conclusion years ago that I simply lack the expertise to speak authoritatively on either category. I can, however, try to hone my critical thinking skills and apply them as I listen to others and consume media that relate to those categories. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available nowadays that aid in that critical thinking endeavor (albeit, not nearly as much as there is nonsense).

            Anyway, we’d be guilty of special pleading (or worse, chauvinism) if we were to treat Buddhist assertions on rebirth with any less skepticism than we treat, say, Christian assertions about the miraculous life of Jesus. No, we don’t know for certain that any of these extraordinary assertions are false. But, if nothing else, I’ve found I function quite well (indeed, I’d say better) without them.

            I’ve also found, however, that I do not function quite as well without some of the practical wisdom that we find in Buddhism – thus, the aptness of the “cherry picking” metaphor.

          • mufi says:

            PS: I knew there was a famous Einstein quote that sums up my first paragraph above, which I just remembered: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

          • Doug Smith Doug says:

            I’m not going to get into a lot of this, but the claim is incoherent that ‘there’s no such thing as a fact’. That is,if it is a fact that there is no such thing as a fact, then it follows that it is not a fact.

            Hence the general claim about facts being problematic is either trivial or false. It’s trivial in the sense that there is an interpretation of facts in which facts are linguistic entities, and as such they require interpretation. But there are better and worse interpretations.

            I prefer to say that facts are states of affairs, in the sense that the two linguistic entities “the earth orbits the sun” and “la tierra gira alrededor del sol” express the same fact.

  2. Dana Nourie says:

    I agree that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path definitely is a part of the path. I didn’t get into that here because that would take a blog in itself, but the other items I mentioned are a part of FNT and EP.

    Anyone can have whatever view they want regarding reincarnation, but for me I see no evidence, therefore spend no time on it. It’s a non issue to me, especially given no self.

    I did put critical inquiry into rebirth and reincarnation, and what I came out with was no evidence and it conflicts with what I did discover. So of course, I should discard it, until evidence of some kind arises. No need to keep beating a dead horse:-)

  3. mknick says:

    In fact, there’s no way to be any kind of Buddhist without cherry picking. The Pali canon is one of the most heteroglossic collections of texts you’ll find anywhere. Which Gotama are we going to accept? The common man or the physical freak? The one who tells us not to speculate about the afterlife, or the one who tells us how to be reborn in the realm of the devas? The one who distains miracles or the one who flies? The one who teaches in intimate, eloquent verses or the one who presents detailed, technical and endlessly repetitive lectures? Every other school of Buddhism selects some texts and ideas and ignores others — Why should secular Buddhism be any different? We can be different, however, in embracing the historicity of Buddhist thought and being the ones who admit that we are selecting those concepts and practices that seem most helpful to living our lives here and now.

  4. Andrew says:

    How about keeping the whole cherry tree? Then we can call it BTB (Big Tent Buddhism), enjoying our rich heteroglossic collection, sampling first the teaching of the 4NT and the 8FP. Take your pick. Yum yum…

    • Viki Jensen says:

      Keeping the whole cherry tree is important the way I see it. Why? Groups of people gathering in attempt to follow general Buddhist beliefs is highly advantageous to the group as a whole for many reasons. First, I would like to think that secular Buddhists have “wisdom” (is that too much of a Christian word?) that can see that tolerance towards others philosophical difference only makes the group stronger. And I know personally that through meditation, mindfulness training, reading authors that espouse a seemingly tolerant view of others attempt to follow The Way, and attempting to live compassionately (first and foremost with oneself) one cannot help but be more tolerant of “the whole cherry tree”. Perhaps coming to an understanding that without the whole tree, we lose the beauty of each individual cherry. There is wholesomeness in even the sour cherry? And is their such a thing as a rotten Buddhist (cherry). We would certainly have something over the many hundreds of Christian faiths that cannot agree!

  5. Jan Ford says:

    It seems to me that cherry picking smacks of eclecticism. If the suttas themselves are eclectic and contradictory in their teaching it might behoove those calling themselves Secular Buddhists to do some theory building and develop a new perspective that is integrated, consistent and logical.

  6. Jan Ford says:

    It seems to me that anyone claiming equal time to the possibility of rebirth and reincarnation must also accept claiming equal time for the matrix as an explanation of our reality as well. As has been pointed out, there is absolutely no evidence of rebirth or reincarnation so such a belief is simply a matter of speculation. On the other hand, what we do have evidence of is death and the disintegration of the physical body, and the dispersion of the atoms that made up such bodies. Afterlife and reincarnation beliefs should be put into the category of “isn’t it pretty to think so” and seen as a psychological yearning for a more satisfying explanation as to the meaning of life for those who feel the need to hold such beliefs.

    • Exactly. If we’re going to accept one view about what happens after we die that has no evidence, we must accept all of them.

      Do we accept that Valhalla is our reward? Not likely. I’m not agnostic about that, I quite actively don’t believe it. Same with rebirth, I find the idea to be utter nonsense and without benefit to my practice. Secular Buddhism isn’t about accepting every unproven belief simply because it comes from a Buddhist background, that is also utter nonsense. Question with confidence, and if the other person can’t provide any valid evidence, throw it out.

  7. Dana Nourie says:

    Andrew I don’t see not believing in rebirth or reincarnation as holding to a belief, any more than I don’t hold to a belief of no god. Instead, I don’t hold a belief that reincarnation is true, just as I don’t hold a belief in god.

    In not holding a belief, there is no clinging. I don’t cling to the idea of dragons and fairies, nor do I cling to the idea of reincarnation.

    Furthermore, to hold a belief in reincarnation is to cling to some aspect of self, of permanence in existence. That is going to create suffering.

    • Andrew says:

      Hi Dana,

      Thanks for stirring the pot and joining with Ted on this excellent adventure. You’ve created a forum that is attracting interest. Congratulations!

      You are right that not believing in rebirth doesn’t have to be seen as holding to a belief. However, it depends greatly on how much one is defended against those that do have that belief. I think for some people it can become a badge of identity. It becomes part of a creed very easily. Before you know it, people will claim that not believing in rebirth is a tenet of secular Buddhism – and that is a belief. That’s fine for people who want to join an institution, but I don’t think it’s in the best spirit of a secular mindset. I believe the idea of secularism has to do with a mode of inquiry, not a thing in itself. It’s not about setting up a new religion with an improved set of names and labels. Perhaps others feel differently.

      I’m always on the lookout for the tendency to close down around a concept and harden one’s view. It is difficult to suspend belief and really mean it. Lots of times we think we need to take up a position and get closure so we can move on. I think it is better to hold the question in our mind and regard it as a mystery until such time that we have a direct experience or deep conviction on a visceral level. There’s much to be gained by suspending judgment and being open to outcome.


  8. Dana Nourie says:

    Jan, I agree with you about Secular Buddhism smacking of eclecticism. I don’t know if developing a cohesive theory around it is the right way to go, or if pulling the valuable teachings and practices out of Buddhism altogether and incorporating into mainstream little by little is better. I think about this a lot, and maybe it’s worth a blog in itself, but I don’t feel equipped to right that. Maybe you can;-) I don’t have the social education to wrap my arms around that as a whole.

  9. Volkuhl says:

    Perhaps since this strain of quasi-zen Buddhism is so adamant about it’s need for secular thinking based on empirical evidence, the co-opters…oops, I mean creators, should refresh themselves with the law of conservation of energy? Here’s a link:

    And for those whose fingers are too pampered to click on a refuting link…this empirically proven, secular-based law of physics states that a)energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it only changes form and b)matter is a form of energy. Now what are we as humans? Carbon matter given animate form through a series of chemical and electrical processes. So we’re matter and energy…in some places more than others. Does it not follow that when we die we aren’t obliterated into nothingness but simply change form to become another part of this living ball of blue? Sounds like reincarnation to me.

    Guess that queer Tibetan was right, you are presumptuous.

    PPS: Secular…don’t demean my Valhalla and I won’t demean your milquetoast understanding of the universe as an elegant chaotic system.

    • Dana Nourie says:

      And so what happens to a candle flame when you blow it out? Heat energy reborn as a gnat somewhere? No, you see it convert to a little puff of smoke that dissipates.

      Yes, I understand the Laws of Thermodynamics. But also understand when the body dies it’s no longer producing energy. Also what is there of the body is transformed into heat via cremation, and the remaining carbon sits as a dirty little pie. The physics of death is quite easy to understand. Some of the atoms will be freed, but to turn into a full living being? Some will go here, some there, but nothing of Dana will exist. Nothing you would call “that person I used to type at” will exist any longer. Water molecules may be reused, but that’s not what people mean by reincarnation. That’s not what lamas mean when they say you will be reborn in heavens, hells, or as a goat. Because there is no me to be reborn, only atoms that will be released back to the universe.

      Yes, were are all parts of stars once, that’s where all our elements came from, but who talks about having once been a star? Though we know that’s how earth ended up with all it’s wonderful atoms and molecules, we don’t call that reincarnation of a star. Reuse is more like it, and we resemble big hot stars in no way.

      You use the conservation of energy law in the same way god believers do. And it doesn’t work, at all.

    • Here’s the scoop — you can be polite and stay, or continue to be a jerk and get banned. Your choice. But one thing you don’t get to do is self-righteously claim you got booted because of your engagement with the people here. You’re not, it’s because you’re acting like a jerk. This is your opportunity to be an adult, you get exactly one warning, that was it. Questioning is fine, but change your tone or go grieve somewhere else.

      “Do we accept that Valhalla is our reward? Not likely. I’m not agnostic about that, I quite actively don’t believe it.” That’s what I said about Valhalla, and I stand by it. It doesn’t even register on the US Religious Landscape Survey, I was not disparaging of it in the least, I was pointing out the fact that most people do not believe in it, and I’m one of them.

      Dana made no snide comments whatsoever, despite your assertion. She was quite respectful to you in her addressing your questions and comments.

      Oh, and Queer Tibetan has earned my respect for his positive discussions with us, however we may have disagreed. What are you going to do?

      • Volkuhl says:

        Yes sir, I will be a good independent thinker, sir, and question in the way you tell me to, sir!

        You sir, have earned my respect as a man who throws out a statistic from a singular government organization and accepts it as canon. I’m so sorry my tone offends you and that you feel I’m not being an adult. I didn’t mean to be a jerk, especially since I didn’t realize you have such powers over my very body and mind to keep me from…how did you put it…”self-righteously claim you got booted because of your engagement with the people here”. Not only must you be a secular Buddhist, you must have also studied Vodun to control a man from a distance! And that, really earns my respect…holding several contradictory modes of being in one head at one time? Why, it’s worthy of a politician!

  10. Volkuhl says:


    To understand the destination of the flame being snuffed out, one would have to question what a flame is in the first place. Is a flame not the byproduct of a wick undergoing a process of chemical change instigated by a prior chemical process? If this is so, would it not be reasonable to say that the wick is the flame, excited to a plasma state and made stable again by the process of blowing it out? That seems to follow the law of conservation of energy.

    To your comment about the body’s process…if you had understood this physical law, you’d know that the body cannot produce energy…energy can’t be produced, it can only be converted from one form to another (for us, it’s eating and defecating). And, since matter is energy, we can safely say that the human body, in any form (cremated or otherwise) can provide energy to any other biological system that can harness it (likely via the carbon consumption…made simpler by cremation, actually). Unless you die in space your atoms don’t become “free” of the cycle on earth, they get…what was that quaint little word you used to say the same thing I did…reused.

    You are right when you say that a reincarnation of corporeal form does not prove the transference of a singular consciousness. This, I believe is the central issue you’re wrestling with. Let me give you some perspective on this as a science-minded pagan outsider:

    First, from what I understand of the Buddhist tradition, only tulkus have the knowledge to crystallize their prior consciousness and send it, in part, to the body of another after death. I also understand that while these reborn souls know who they are…they don’t remember fully what they learned prior and require retraining. For all other beings undergoing rebirth, they have no capacity to remember anything or even know they were and will be reincarnated until they come across this school of thought again…if they even become`reborn as human in succession.
    At best, you can call the Tulku method “an inelegant process of human hard drive backups with a high rate of data decay that is, outside the research of Ian Stevenson ( largely unproven but really interesting”.

    Secondly, in mentioning the cessation of the individual known as Dana, you seem to skip over a key component of what your religion describes as “emptiness of form”. If, as it is said, all things are dependently originated and there is no distinctive quality that makes a thing a thing, you aren’t a Dana; when you die there is no Dana to cease existing because you never were in the first place. Instead you’re a culmination of biological processes that occurred in a region of Minkowski space-time over a progression of time due to certain causal factors. Your rebirth (or recycling as you wanted to call it) will consist of the prior biological processes becoming current biological processes utilized in a system over and over again.

    Third, I feel that your conception of consciousness is a bit lopsided. You, by stating that no one remembers being a star (and we can assume you have data in the form of interviews to prove this), imply that a star has no consciousness, inevitably separating stars and any other thing you authoritatively deem as separate from conscious things. I question your authority to decide this. I question what you consider consciousness? What are its qualities? How do you measure consciousness in another dependently originating system without being subject to the conditions that formed your mind, body, and opinion? My guess is that you don’t and, seeing as how psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists don’t have consensus over this issue, you won’t…at least not in this incarnation.

    Finally, and this is on a separate note, I’m not a (damnable, you were probably muttering) god-believer. I’m a GODS believer. I believe that all gods are mind-stream emanations of our belief in them and we their mind-stream emanations of their qualities. I believe gods work like banks, you put in a deposit of faith, you save up a feeling of community, mindfulness and good personhood, and you take a loan out on a non-normative quantum disturbance commonly known as a “miracle”. I believe it’s easy to apply to any bank, hard to save, and near impossible to get a loan (almost like the ones that use money, eh?). I want you to differentiate between those that blindly serve gods and those that actively negotiate with them as both an entity given some form by faith and as an archetype of the qualities of the self. I want you to differentiate so your snide comments can be more accurate…I’m a stickler for logic and accuracy in xenophobia.

    • Dana Nourie says:

      I’ve never heard of Tulka. Don’t care either. Bottom line for me is if I see no evidence in my own practice of an afterlife, gods, or reincarnation. My focus in on this life, and this life only. The rest is colorful speculation. I can examine not self. I can see how suffering arises, the attachments underlying craving, and how ethics and compassion help relieve suffering.

      I simply do care about gods, reincarnation, etc. I do know, for certain, I have this life, this life to observe and learn from, to be in the moment of what’s happening, and I see no reason to be concerned about after death. I accept death as the end of life, and anything we have to say about it thereafter is meaningless.

      I’m certain that before there is death, there is LIFE!

  11. Volkuhl says:

    I guess, Dana, you weren’t a very good student of Tibetan Buddhism (raising the question regarding the rigor of your other Buddhist studies) if you didn’t know what a Tulku (not tulka) was. The Dalai Lama is one, have you heard of him?

    Your precious little parry of a rebuttal indicates several things to me:

    “Bottom line for me is if I see no evidence in my own practice of an afterlife, gods, or reincarnation. My focus in on this life, and this life only. ”
    –This statement is contrary to your practice’s assertion to maintain “an accurate, empirical description of the experience of living, and as a methodology of understanding, social behavior, and mental development”. Empiricism as a philosophy and empirical data finding (across all spectra of science) require objective observation…that is, observation outside the realm of the “self”. You, in this statement just said your understanding is the only thing that matters. What, in your life, in the world, in the universe? Certainly you as a being have the right and the power to put blinders on BUT to call yourself empirically minded is to call for derisive laughter by those that actually are.

    ” I accept death as the end of life, and anything we have to say about it thereafter is meaningless.”
    –If you had been reading and understanding what I posted prior, you’d know that any scientist would (reluctantly, I’ll admit) tell you that death is not the end of life. Death, in fact is only a transitory state between forms of existence. This statement is, again, indicative of your inclination toward what the Brits call “bloody-mindedness” which is, again, contrary to your school’s assertion of
    1) [understanding] an accurate, empirical description of the experience of living, and as a methodology of understanding, social behavior, and mental development,
    2) reference[-ing]natural causes and effects, demonstrable in the known world, and
    3) [being] inclusive, fostering learning and practice across cultural and traditional bounds.

    • Dana Nourie says:

      Volkuhl, I definitely was not a good Tibetan Buddhist student:-) Too much Tibetan and not enough Buddhism for me in it. But for those of you who like it fine. Go enjoy your studies.

      I am simply not giving attention to that which can not present itself to me. If it does, then it will get my attention. I’ve stated my practice is in the here and now. Why you have such issues with that I don’t know, but that is my practice.

      I don’t pay attention to that I don’t have beliefs around including gnomes, fairies, ghosts, flying saucers, big foot, etc. Now if for some reason there is evidence that comes my way, or some kind of personal experience, then I’ll visit the topic.

      And no not any scientists would reluctantly say death is not the end of life.

      My practice is to focus on suffering, the causes of suffering, alleviating those causes, in this life. This life is what I have to work with.

      If you want to believe in after death things, fine. Enjoy yourself. And for those who want to contemplate reincarnation that is certainly fine. I have. I believed it in the past, and I came to an understanding about it. You don’t agree. Fine.

  12. star says:

    Volkuhl, you said: “So we’re matter and energy…in some places more than others. Does it not follow that when we die we aren’t obliterated into nothingness but simply change form to become another part of this living ball of blue?”

    We are matter that *uses* energy, the way a lightbulb uses energy. Turn out the light, where does the light go? What does conservation of energy say about that? For any part of “us” to actually *be* energy (energy that would need to be conserved) it would arrive from somewhere, add itself to our form, and depart at the end. And energy is *measurable* so where’s the science telling us which bit of energy is “us”? Look for it, the way the Buddha taught us to look for it, with keen attention — do you find it?

    In the end, friend Volkuhl, all this conviction about some part of us not being obliterated but simply changing form is just clinging to self. As we come to understand what the Buddha’s saying, and put it into practice, and let go of one aspect of self, and then another — gross and obvious ones are the easiest to spot, but the ways get finer and deeper as we move forward — what’s left behind are more and more subtle ways of clinging to the self. “I will not be obliterated but simply change form” — without evidence you can see and test — is just one of those very subtle forms that the desire for continued existence takes.

  13. Volkuhl says:


    I find your commentary quite eloquent, but I notice you didn’t take my meaning in the explanation of the conversion of matter/energy. This is my fault, pagans tend toward obfuscation…we have a history of having to do so on pain of death.

    To be perfectly clear….science will tell us that matter is energy given “stable” form. Energy is matter, active to a degree that matter cannot achieve unless it transitions to energy itself. A living organism, a matter-based object that can achieve motion under it’s own will outside the law of gravity or electromagnetism, is an organism comprised of stable compounds like H2O, Carbon, and Nitrogen that also uses other chemical compounds in digestion to release chemical energy (producing the means of motor function). We are also partial electomagnetic energy…not only does our brain produce chemical and electrical signals, our bodies themselves are a product of atoms of specific elements coming together under electromagnetic stabilization. To sum up…we are matter, chemical explosions, and electric storms…all of these being forms of energy.
    And energy can neither be created, nor destroyed…it can only convert. From what we know of the ecological process, when you die, your body becomes dirt, worms, maggots, grass, trees, giraffes that eat trees, cows that eat grass, etc, etc. That is a literal rebirth…you will literally become part of the process that facilitates energy conversion in some organism that, immediately after, gets pregnant. Your atoms will become a larvae/fetus of something at some point because you are made up of the atoms of other things that died.

    Think of it this way…you have a block of wet clay. You pinch a piece off, roll it into a ball, and set it on top of the block of clay. That little ball is distinct from the block; it has been given a form that is different from the block in size and shape. But when you smash that ball of clay back into the block…the block becomes as it was. Where is the ball? It’s both there and not-there. The ball was the block, the block the ball, distinct for a moment and unified the next. At all times the block and the ball were made of the same thing, the only change was your apparent observation of it. If you had viewed the block and the ball only with a microscope, you’d have seen them as the same thing. If you had viewed them with a telescope from a distant space, you’d have seen them as the same thing inside a house that was made of the same thing on a planet that was made of the same thing. Your perception is what changes the observation.

    So, perceive that your body is only an extension of the larger biosphere and you will see that your Gotama was, in fact, partially right about Samsara. Gotama didn’t have microscopes so he couldn’t phrase what we know now into what we talk about now. His perception was only of a certain degree and in his enlightenment he spoke (way ahead of his time) of things in a way that could be best understood to him and to others who’d never seen an atom, never cured a virus with an antivirus, never ground a series of glass lenses to look at Jupiter’s “ears”, and never put a thousand songs on an iPod.
    Stating the fact that Samsara exists in a scientifically provable form does not necessitate a “clinging to self”. Do I cling to self personally? Yes, of course…I’m not a Buddhist, I’m a pagan and I like to eat, drink, smoke, and have sex in mud-puddles. I’m invested in the examination of the mundane and its potential for gnosis toward higher understanding in relation to the universe. This is an ass-backward version of what Buddhists do, but it doesn’t change the fact that we both want to understand the nature of things, help people reach their full potential, find peace, etc etc.

    I’ve taken a broad look at the critiques of this New School calling itself Secular Buddhism and the main critique seems to be in consensus: practitioners, instead of exploring all possibilities as to why something within your holy texts was said and how it can possibly make sense in modernity…instead of humbly setting aside the things that aren’t necessary to practicing your individual faith, as the Rinzai, Chan, and Theravada Schools have done…you heatedly and righteously cut out the core of your base religion and hold it aloft as a trophy in a manner similar to a Berserker cutting the heart out of an enemy on the battlefield. Your critiques and methods are no dissimilar to what Joseph Henry, Martin Luther or Henry VIII did when their religion didn’t suit them. Instead of seeking a personal understanding and adding to the body of knowledge, they threw a shit-fit and went off to start their own religion, taking only the things that suited them.
    What it looks like to an outsider and probably to your own Sangha (because you are still a part of the global Sangha, make no mistake) is that of a 5 year old child, getting pissed that the other kids in the sandbox won’t use their imaginations the way that one kid wants, and kicking over the sand castle before stomping off to play under the tree. I’m honestly not trying to be facetious here, Star…that’s one of several perceptions I and others seem to be taking in about this New School…a playground temper-tantrum.

    I haven’t done this enough, only hinting at it in the way pagans tend to, but I’m straight up urging you all to diligently question your own methodology of questioning in tandem with your critiquing of your faith. Don’t close yourself off at all from the Sangha, push your way to the front of the room and pepper your local lama with questions until he gets tired and sends you off to sweep a hall in quiet meditation. Add to the body, don’t try to take away. It serves no purpose to segregate, and it makes you appear at best, elitist and at worst, haughtily xenophobic. That’s a mark that no Buddhist and no person wants to bear.
    Consider too, that layers of meaning within a single text can be (and probably are) present by a deliberate stroke of genius of your forebearers. Don’t burn the book just because you can’t read…learn to read.

    Finally, Star, a lightbulb in a house is part of a grid of power generators in a neighborhood facilitated by a series of circuit “lockouts” in a single home. Throwing a switch to turn on the light is a process of allowing electrical energy already present and circulating in the house to facilitate a chemical process in the filament that, in turn, generates photons. When you throw off the switch, the conversion stops…the filament lays stable in dormancy, and the electricity circulates in other places. Nothing is made, things are converted. The photon is absorbed into the carpet, your skin, the cat, and the countertop to facilitate changes on a molecular level (is why we tan in the sun, why our furniture bleaches in overexposure, why our hydrangeas grow, etc etc). Nothing is created…everything is converted.

    • star says:

      You are equating samsara with the way matter and energy combine and recombine? That’s interesting, but I’m pretty sure the Buddha was not much concerned with material effects, but rather with human interactions.

      But ah, Volkhuni, perhaps I see what you are saying: we are part of the great All. Out of One we come, to One we return, a chip off the old block of clay. You’re a materialist, or perhaps an annihilationist, out of that old school of Brahmins, who believed that the self of our individuality is lost at the breakup of the body, but we still go on. But of course you do — you say you’re not a Buddhist, so this clinging to self is natural for you. But you go further, and prescribe this belief for all Buddhists. You aren’t working at letting go of the self, and you have no plan to investigate the process personally, to see if it just might be true that holding to the belief that we go on after death adds to suffering. But you are certain we should hold that belief, nonetheless.

      You got it right in the end there, though, when you said nothing is created. When a baby is conceived and comes to birth, no new material or energy is created, there is only a unique combination of these, which we agree to call an individual, even though it too changes moment-to-moment. When the light is turned off, the light doesn’t go somewhere else. If we dismantle the switch, wires and bulbs, there is no shine to return to the grid and be born again. The light has no self, it is just the visible manifestation of a combination of elements and energy. We are like that too. All we can see that we are is heat and visible form, and the energy we put into the world, and our effect upon the world. That is a part of us that we *can* see that lasts beyond the breakup of our bodies.

      If there is something more, that isn’t found by our investigations, well then there is, and debating what it might be, or how it might work, is useless, because we can garner no information about it. There is no cause and effect to learn from, nothing we can use to improve our behavior in ways that will make this a better world, whether for us as individuals, or for all. Arguments over the way the ‘possibility of things we have no evidence for’ might work is worse than useless — it leads to wars.

      But I appreciate that your intention, as ours here, is to investigate the world and the way we live in it, with an aim of reducing suffering for all of us. And this is what we are doing. We are questioning and investigating, not just the world, but what everyone tells us about it, and if that includes ancient lineages, then this just means we are not narrowing our search to protect even the dharma we value. If the dharma is truly accurate, it can withstand any amount of questioning we throw at it.

      And we are not questioning in isolation. Most of us have worked with teachers, pushed to the front of the hall, asked, and been answered. If we then take those answers back into our lives, and find that a great deal of what we’ve been told is so accurate as to act as a powerful catalyst for change, and we keep that, but we discover that some of it doesn’t work at all — ask further questions, and after more investigation, are still unsatisfied — would you have us, then, simply take those answers on faith and carry on as if they are perfect truth — without evidence of their accuracy? That isn’t what the Buddha taught us to do. A great part of what we are told is the Buddha’s teaching, that we have checked out and found does work, is the part where we check things out and don’t take ideology on faith.

      Neither is it in any way isolation when we put our questions out on the world wide web and invite others to join the investigation. If you see us as kids in a sandbox having a tantrum, that is your perception, apparently fostered by hanging out in the groups you do (“…that’s one of several perceptions I and others seem to be taking in about this New School…a playground temper-tantrum….”) That is your perception — that doesn’t mean it’s accurate — and I am not being facetious, either, when I invite you in to come and see, look a little closer. Discover the difference between what you think you know about Secular Buddhism and what you actually know. But then, I guess you are doing that, by coming out and engaging with us here, and I appreciate that, I truly do.

  14. Volkuhl says:

    Now here is a great debate Star!

    I’ll apologize and not imply or directly intend to speak for the Buddha on what he thought about the cycle. I will assert that what I read of your texts, hear from your and your teachers’ mouths about the cycle coincides with what I understand of a material existence. I think that existence can be quantized on several distinct levels and that (like cake mix instead of a jello fruit cup) distinct parts having properties affects all parts of the whole. So when we agree that something that could be called Samsara can be understood on a scientific and material basis, I posit that it, being part of the Indescribable Universe, scales up throughout levels of existence to affect the whole.
    I’ll add that acceptance of the scientific explanation for reincarnation in no way quiets the ego and the id when it wonders of it’s destination after death. My point (which you took) was that negating the existence of something rules out any possible explanation or reinterpretation that may be beneficial in understanding the broader strokes that paint the universe.

    I am pleased that though my pagan ass-backward ways amuse you, you take the time to examine my words and critique the critique patiently and firmly, with the benevolence of a parent to a child. This is a practice of Buddhism that outsiders such as myself expect from those taking the harder and more rewarding road.

    I’m going to work tangentially around your statements and begin by saying that there are, in fact, systems for pagans to understand, tame, and release our grasp on the Self. Chief among these are, yes, the old tools of the Brahmins; gnosis, meditation, and taboo-crossing. Methodologies such as these are not unique to India…Fire-Walking is to the Walkabout is to Berserking is to Broom Flying. We seek to lose the self in a variety of ways; for a moment we all dive into Crowley’s Great Abyss, we reassemble, recapitulate, and erase personal history in order to gaze at the pinky talon of the Eagle, if only briefly. We don’t do it nearly as successfully or painlessly as those taking the Middle Way, but we walk that path with all our heart as you do yours.

    I am pleased to have a testimony of intent of you and yours to add to the body of knowledge that is Buddhism. I can tell, for your part at least, you don’t theorize in isolation and it is a good thing to know the questions are being asked and understandings are being reached within the greater body of your community. I, a singular voice in the digital wind lording my egotistical knowledge over others, can wither away satisfied 😉

    We agree on perception, it’s subjectivity and potential for fault. Testing the battlements of your non-attachment to the opinions of others, this Accuser finds your foundation quite sturdy. In all this, knowing now my real burning queries in the pursuit of understanding and communion can be answered simply, without rhetoric, I ask:

    -What approaches and methodologies make secular Buddhist practice distinct from Zen and Theravada which incline toward a seemingly similar goal?

    -What is the benefit of finding and upholding consensus on minor phrasing and translation over an individual understanding and constant translation when shared between minds?

    • star says:

      Volkuhi, you said, “So when we agree that something that could be called Samsara can be understood on a scientific and material basis…”

      Except that I don’t. Since what defines samsara is suffering of a particular sort — not materialist suffering caused by earthquakes or accidents, not physical pain, but the stuff we add to it, all the “Why me?”s — it has nothing to do with science. If samsara were tied to physical objects — if *things* and *events* were the source of our suffering — there would be no escape from it. It’s what we do with our understanding of things that is the problem, not the things themselves.

      “What approaches and methodologies make secular Buddhist practice distinct from Zen and Theravada which incline toward a seemingly similar goal?”

      I haven’t studied Zen or Theravada methodologies so I am not qualified to answer. Hell, my own approaches and methodologies are chaotic enough I can’t even explain *them*.

      “What is the benefit of finding and upholding consensus on minor phrasing and translation over an individual understanding and constant translation when shared between minds?”

      Maybe I misunderstand your question but it seems to me that a dualist stance underlies it. Is one approach necessarily superior to another? Do they exclude each other? I tend to think not.

  15. Tom Alan says:

    The expression “cherry picking” suggests dabbling. It brings to mind someone strolling through the Spirituality section of Barnes & Noble, coming across a book by the Dalai Lama, and pondering a quote that might go along with an assortment of New Age notions that comprise the person’s belief system. On the other other hand, people who carefully scrutinize a religion and decide that certain ideas from it will be helpful are called cherry-pickers by many of the religion’s adherents. The most obvious reason for this is that such scrutiny is bad for business.

  16. Tom Alan says:

    I just want to try a little HTML italics.

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