Episode 129 :: Thupten Lekshe :: Benefits and Challenges to Secular Buddhism

| August 4, 2012 | 42 Comments

Thupten Lekshe

Thupten Lekshe joins us to provide insights and companionable discussion on the potential benefits and challenges to secular Buddhism.

There are a lot of discussions online lately, about a wide variety of topics. And it seems that, for some reason, very few of them are in the polite tone we use face to face. That makes it all the more difficult to have a dialogue, let alone make any kind of progress. We’re not seeing each other online as people, and every week we see back and forth comments deteriorate into strict adherence to being right, showing the other person is wrong, or worse — backhanded insults or outright personal attacks.

Today, we’re going to have a conversation where we don’t have agreement on all points, and in fact have very divergent points of view. This episode is not about one person being right and another wrong. It is about sharing, about learning, about understanding more about why someone else thinks and feels the way they do. Inevitably, that is going to vary from our own perspective. Today is about open communication, and the building of companionable dialogue with new friends.

Alongside his work as a clinical psychologist for more than thirty years, Thupten Lekshe has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 2000 by His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, and now works actively to bring a western psychological perspective to Buddhist practice and a more spiritual dimension to psychotherapy. Thupten Lekshe specialises in the use of mindfulness practice as an adjunct to evidence based psychotherapies, and in secular approaches to Buddhism. He has trained in the delivery of Cultivation Emotional Balance (CEB) a new course for the general public designed by Dr. B. Alan Wallace and Dr. Paul Ekman. CEB mixes contemplative and emotional regulation skills drawn from western science and mind training practices drawn from Buddhism.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Giddapahar Estate Green Darjeeling tea.

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Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

 

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. The track used in this episode is “Eleven Waterfalls” from his CD, The Shakuhachi.

Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

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 (42)

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  1. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Great discussion! I think many of us relate to the concept that what attracts most of us to Buddhism, no matter whether secular or traditional, is the practice itself, and that some of the ideas and stories strike skepticism in most western people. It was interesting to hear how Thupten worked through rebirth in his own mind to alleviate the conflict.

    I was also really glad to hear him address the problem with the Tibetan Feudal society, and how that can appear as Buddhism here, when it’s really a culture difference between Tibet and the western world. That hierarchy really seemed odd to me, and it makes sense that it would given the democracy I’ve grown up in.

    Ted, I also thought you explained why we need to keep the secular Buddhist guiding principles loose and not restricting.

    I don’t feel secular Buddhism throws the baby out with the bathwater, but rather we are throwing out the used bathwater and keeping the baby:-)

    Fascinating that a Buddhist monk of tradition is getting a lot out of our debates. That is good to know! It was interesting to see Thupten found this all healthy debate. Nice to get the perspective of someone who adheres to tradition, but is finding our discussions interesting and helpful.

    Thupten, thank you so much for sharing why you wanted to live as a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition! Robina Courtin was my Lama Mama for some years. You may know of her:-)

    Great explanation for secular Buddhism and Buddhists, Ted! Great points on verification too!

  2. David S says:

    Ted, Thank you for all the work you do. It was a very stimulating discussion to listen to.

    I found your agreement in using the term “materialist” to ruffle my mind!

    This word seems to me to be used mainly by religious persons who believe in an immaterial soul or extra-existence of some sort, like rebirth in Buddhism, and anything that contradicts their view hence is “materialist.” It is commonly used in Buddhist circles in a derogatory manner to relativize the scientific method as merely one way of thinking, and in their view a mistaken way at that. They use the word “materialist” to wipe away any discussion of the the basis of their beliefs on immateriality. Because of this I wouldn’t be so swift to use this in implicit agreement.

    Moreover, the use of the term “materialist” is a straw man arguement, because this term fails to describe scientific thinking accurately anyway. Currently the fundamental basis of everything in science is being seen as energy and force fields, not to mention space and time, which are far from being matter. So even in science “materialist” notions are not ultimate descriptions of the world. So we should not be so willing to accept this description either.

    Besides, I don’t think science is the issue either. Isn’t the scientific method based upon understanding CAUSE AND EFFECT, very much like the Buddha’s structure for his understandings as well: kamma, dependent origination, the illness and the cure, etc…? It is all about understanding cause and effect. There is no divide here. This is the way of knowledge. There seems to be agreement here. It is not about scientific thinking being mistaken. It has nothing to do with “materialistic science”. It has to do with how does one’s understanding arise. What is its basis?

    For Thupten Lekshe to not find Daniel Dennett’s thoughts on consciousness convincing for a “materialist” explaination of consciousness doesn’t say much about this issue either. I too don’t regard Dennett’s thoughts to be of much importance. He is only a philospher playing with concepts. What I do find interesting are neurologist’s comments on what they are discovering. In reading of their patient’s minds which function differently than the norm it really drives home how when the brain is altered consciousness can be radically different, and reveals the way in which it works to construct our perceptions.

    This is where there is a division, between those who see consciousness as being an emergent phenomena of the brain and those who believe it to reside without a body. In this regard, Buddhism by placing a supreme regard on one’s personal experiences makes anything that can be perceptually experienced a basis for understanding, so with the experiencer being always present it becomes something which will always be present. However, neurological studies are showing vaiations to consciousness that are not intuitively accessible. There are far more functions operating beyond awareness. So here comes the great division in understanding the basis of consciousness and how we come to understand it.

    I see these revelations as an addition to our knowledge base and not a threat. It builds and adds dimension to our understanding. It remains incredible anyway it is viewed.

    An interesting question we can begin to address comes down to what does anyone of us believe regarding the basis of consciousness? The divide will show itself much more readily.

    Another important question is how do we come to our understandings?

    • Candol says:

      Doug, I think as a student of biology i think Ted has a good grasp of the correct use of the word materialist. It is originally used by scientific thinkers and western philosophers as an argument against religious thinking if I recall correctly. It may be disparaged by buddhists but that does not concern materialists very much. Those who call themselves materialists are interested in other ways of understanding the universe but notice that so far no one else has come up with any compelling evidence to contradict this position. This is pretty much what Ted has stated in the talk and elsewhere. I’m also a materialist. I can only see evidence of the world being a material based entity with no connection to anything else so that’s why i prefer this position.

      If you know about the black swan story, its a bit like that. Before black swans were discovered in Western Australia, the whole world (except aborigines who had seen them) apparently thought that all swans were white. Then when black swans were seen by western eyes and could report back convincingly (with evidence) to others around the world, the general view changed to swans being either black or white. So now that is the concensus view.

      Materialists may concede that in the future someone may show that there is a better explanation for the way the world works than a materialist world view but until such time as that happens, i think we are pretty happy to continue believeing the evidence before our eyes and accept that the world is only a material entity with no supernatural element at work.

      The fact that some people have a different belief and have experienced things which they interpret as having a supernatural basis is insufficient to persuade those of us who call ourselves materialist.

      Scientific knowledge is based on evidence until what we accept we know is disproven. For there to be a scientific understanding in the first place, we require evidence or at least an acceptable hypothesis. Hypotheses that involve supernatural belief are not compelling or acceptable to scientific thinkers for the most part. Many attempts to show evidence of supernatural experience are disproven when subjected to strict study or observation conditions. There are of course scientists who believe in God but they seem willing to suspend belief because they find belief in a supernatural entity helpful.

      If you read more widely on consciousness, you will see that it is understood that science does not know and does not have the answers. There are working hypotheses at this stage. A few competing ones. Not just Dennet and Chalmers i understand. Science says it does not know. Science as yet does not have the tools to get to the bottom of consciousness but with the development of finer instruments than were previously available to scientists, they feel more able to begin to study this phenomenon. I think all know that we are still a long way from knowing the truth of the matter.

      I think Ted could have pressed Thubten a bit more on how interpretations of subjective experience are understood. I know he did mention it but there was not a lot of discussion on this point which i think is the issue when it comes to experiences in meditation.

  3. NaturalEntrust says:

    Candol something odd did happen here.
    Dana, David S, and you are the only one
    active here in the comments.

    When you address Dough is that something
    that he wrote somewhere else?

    Apart from that more tech or formal thing.

    The word materialism like you and many know
    is almost impossible to refer to. It has very many
    definitions.

    And the history of it’s use in philosophy is diverse too.

    The old Greek materialists and their pupils had
    other views than the Modern Enlightenement of
    Europe had. So that could be why it is name physicalism
    today to not get mixed up with Marxism and Consumerism
    type of materialism.

    And one reason I don’t see me as Buddhist is this
    almost hate towards materialism and reductionism
    and modernism and so on. A kind of anti-science
    that pay lip service to love science if it support
    subjective personal experiences but to dismiss
    science if it is skeptical to the interpretations to
    these subjective personal experiences of Buddhism.

    Cute that physicalism has not entered the spelling
    dictionary yet so it comes out in red.

    Now I may be overly naive but I have eagerly tried
    to get philosophy since 1980 or so and I fail to get it

    That say nothing about phil and much about my poor
    grasp of concepts and ways of explaining concepts too.

    But AFAIK philosohpy has not added anything to our
    scientific knowledge for some 50 years or more?

    And the many thousands of years they fighted this
    determinism and free will war in philosophy.

    They simply fail to have the tools to solve anything
    in my not so humble opinion.

    I only trust natural sciences and not the soft sciences.
    And the Plate Tectonics show how slow natural science
    can be to adjust to new knowledge because they want
    enough evidence to change the consensus view on what
    they dare to say.

    Conscious is a very complex thing indeed. Will take a
    long time to figure out but it would be wrong to rely on
    subjective personal experiences to be the best way
    to solve it. These can maybe inspire research if
    statistically very many have same subjective personal
    experiences then these can have a common source in
    the body.

    Myths and metaphors and stories and subjective
    personal experiences can point to real phenomena
    that may later find natural causes for them.

    Christians say they feel the presence of Jesus or
    the Holy Spirit. As atheist one don’t trust that kind
    of interpretation but from a natural science point of
    view such experiences can inspire to look at the
    suggested “mirror” neurons that give maybe such
    subjective personal experiences a natural explanation.

    We don’t even know if “mirror neurons” really exist
    in the way that is suggested. Could be a too early
    claim or explanation. But functionally many do have
    experiences that would be best explained if such
    do exists.

    This relates to the claim that materialists are into
    the dreaded “scientism” error. To think that only
    natural science can give reliable answers.

    Not sure if biologism or scientism is the most hated
    thing one can be. But they are on par as something
    that is seen as so low that one lose ones human value
    if one see any merit in science as the best way to get
    reliable answers.

    I am maybe too naive. But what is the alternative.
    What else can give reliable answers?

    I have a lot of subjective personal experiences
    but I don’t trust them to be reliable at all.

    I still have to act based on many such despite
    that I don’t trust them because they are about
    things that science has not yet any consensus.

  4. David S says:

    Yes Candol, I think we are in agreement on all that. My point is that the term was created and defined by the “immaterialists” so it carries negative connotations. Would a Theravadan call themselves a Hinayanan? Never.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, David. Thank you for your kind words, and I understand what you’re saying. The term itself is of course something of a challenge, particularly as we have a single discussion about not only real world veracity of claims, and judgement about personal experiences. It is used in an often pejorative way, though of course that’s not my use of “materialist”.

      That was something both TL and I continued to explore during our conversation, that we really do need to acknowledge that we have different perspectives and expectations about even the words we use. And we may not come to resolution about those, but I’m encouraged by how well we were willing to have the dialogue and see where those boundaries are.

      Of course, I’m very proudly a scientific materialist! We’re perfectly capable of finding encouragement and interest in our stories, while not finding value in seeing them as accurate depictions of reality.

      One area we didn’t examine — and bear in mind, this was an hour and a half — is the scientific method, which is a process of discerning that which is accurate from that which is not. We remained on the stances of skepticism and materialism, rather than discussing the values of process. Which, like you, I find to be of tremendous value and perfectly in keeping with concepts of karma as cause and effect.

      More discussions will certainly follow, but that topic would be a good one. So would your question about how we come to our understandings, THAT would be awesome, and we barely scratched the surface on that one!

    • Candol says:

      David, i thought i said that i don’t think the word is created and defined by the materialists, so I am contradicting you.

      • David S says:

        Yes you did. We disagree. I will not be calling myself a materialist because as a label it represents misconceptions which I find not helpful towards communicating my position with more traditional Buddhists.

        • Candol says:

          I’m even confusing myself. I wrote it wrongly last time and couldn’t edit it.

          Quoting myself in my first post. “materialist. It is originally used by scientific thinkers and western philosophers as an argument against religious thinking if I recall correctly.”

  5. mufi says:

    Well, that was civil dialogue. Nice job, Ted!

    And now for some Monday morning quarter-backing… 🙂

    As with the others, “materialist” is not my first choice for a self-label, although I still see “materialism” used in the philosophy of mind, and, among scientific skeptics, Stephen Novella still uses it to describe the hypothesis that “the mind is what the brain does.” Insofar as that the brain is composed of matter (i.e. molecules and atoms), that seems fair enough, although “physicalist” seems a bit more flexible (e.g. allowing in energy and whatever other components of nature that physicists have yet to discover), and “naturalist” even more flexible than that.

    Whatever we call this view, this quote from Owen Flanagan (whom TL cited) seems apropos:

    …we can “bracket out the metaphysical questions about mind and matter…leaving aside the philosophical question of whether consciousness is ultimately physical.” [a quote from the Dalai Lama -mufi] But if we do in the spirit of thinking that mental events might be or turn out to be nonphysical and thus possessed of no causal powers, then we are being insincere. If all we were now doing in mind science was a mapping between the first personal and the brain, then maybe we could do the bracketing in good faith. But mind science is already much more advanced than that. We are now doing this sort of mapping while at the same time trying to figure out the causal relations among various components of mind and the relations among mind, brain, behavior, and the natural and social worlds. And there is a vast amount of research now about how higher cortical regions control lower brain regions, as well as the other way around. So neutrality of the metaphysics of mind not as William James would say “a live option.”

    • mufi says:

      PS: That last line should read:

      So neutrality of the metaphysics of mind is not, as William James would say, “a live option.”

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      *grin* Thanks, mufi. It was a fun talk, TL is very engaging.

      You’ve hit exactly upon why I really want to socialize the term naturalist, as it is the most comprehensive and, in my opinion, accurate. To me, materialist doesn’t just mean physical matter, but feelings, processes, results, energy, etc. — that is, the natural world. Most folks commenting here have the same issue, too.

      • Doug Smith Doug says:

        Exactly, Ted. A scientifically minded skeptic should allow the sciences to tell us which are the correct objects and properties in the universe. Psychology is a science, so it follows that there are psychological properties. But the existence of such properties depends on the existence of biological organisms, made up of cells, which are made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms.

        Further, wasn’t it the case that the Buddha eschewed making any determination about whether the mind was separate from the brain? If so, even traditional Buddhists really should have no issue with a scientific naturalism of this sort.

  6. mufi says:

    PPS: And, of course, when we speak of a secular or naturalized Buddhism, we’re not only speaking of a Buddhism that’s discarded the option of belief in a nonphysical (or “luminous”) consciousness. We’re also speaking of a Buddhism that has discarded a lot of other extravagant metaphysical baggage (e.g. belief in gods, demons, supernal realms, etc.). If that baggage is the baby, then I’ll stick with the bathwater, thank you.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Yep, I’m also interested in tossing out things we can’t unambiguously know. I’m just not going to insist that others eject their beliefs; they can follow whatever their tradition dictates.

      We’re not likely to dictate anything beyond “we’re happy to be convinced, please show us.”

      • mufi says:

        Ted: I’m just not going to insist that others eject their beliefs.

        Of course, that would be pointless and counter-productive. I think the best that we can do is to explain (politely) why we don’t share those beliefs, which you did.

        • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

          With you, yep. Actually, I’m hoping we can think about having a follow up to this talk with another where we specifically and candidly (and still politely and with friendliness!) discuss the points about which we clearly disagree.

  7. Doug Smith Doug says:

    Hey guys, excellent podcast. I enjoyed the back and forth discussion very much. A few points came up while I was listening, which I tried to jot down and then later write up a little about. They don’t have much to do with each other, so I just numbered them, I think in the order they came up.

    (1) Somewhere in the beginning there Ted, you said you were an agnostic about Buddhist rebirth. I think if as you suggests we consider Buddhist rebirth as like the tooth fairy, we aren’t really being agnostic about it. It’s fine to say we don’t believe in something, or that we’re atheist about it. That’s even though we’re open to evidence.

    I believe it’s sunny outside my window right now. Indeed, I’d say I *know* it’s sunny right now, where I am. I know it’s not raining. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t accept evidence that showed I was hallucinating, or that someone had faked up my window with a light box. In that sense I’d say you’re an ‘atheist’ (or a nonbeliever) in Buddhist rebirth. Or perhaps I missed a nuance there somewhere.

    (2) Somewhere around 20-22 mins. TL said that many of the Western philosophers he read didn’t provide practice-based alternatives, and that they seemed to him bad people. I agree about the former, but am not sure what he meant by the latter. People like Dan Dennett may not be perfect (none of us are), but they seem to me generally happy, well-rounded individuals.

    I’m sure there are some bad apples in there somewhere, but anyhow I can’t say that’s a reason to reject what they say. Was Newton really a great guy?

    (3) Re. the primacy of experience as versus ‘scientific materialism’: TL is right in noting that the mind/body problem is an active problem in modern philosophy, but not perhaps as he thinks. The issue is around the existence and status of “qualia” or qualitative experiences in a material world; AFAIK the vast majority of practicing philosophers of mind accept that if there are mental states, they are properties of the brain.

    That is, though the mind/body problem is an active problem, that is only insofar as the mind is looked upon as the sort of thing that is a property of (or “supervenes upon”) the brain.

    Why is this an important distinction? Because it follows from the fact that we know how the brain works at the synaptic level as a physical device. Among other things, mental states include desires and intentions (which have their own qualia) which cause actions. Those actions inter alia are physical occurrences in the brain. So anyone who wanted to claim that there were actively causal mental states that did not simply consist of physical states nor supervene directly upon them would be making a very considerable, empirical claim: viz., they would have to claim that by looking at the physical state of the brain at T1, one could not predict how it would look a second later at T2, if a mental decision had intervened in the interim.

    Unfortunately brain scientists like Libet and others have already been able to determine from brain scans that decisions occur in the brain long before conscious awareness of them percolates into the mind as a qualitative state. (E.g. see HERE). So it seems that in fact it is the objectively verifiable physical state which controls the subjective quale, not the reverse. And whatever the mind may be, if it is nonphysical, so far as we know it is in complete dependence upon its physical substrate.

    This is actually important. Given our current scientific understanding, it may well be that there are mental states, and so that in some sense of “materialism” materialism is false. That is, there may be some states that are not material states. But this doesn’t make a difference to the basic point, which is that science is the best way to gain knowledge about the world and indeed about these states themselves. (For one thing, we can even tell how they come about given previous physical conditions). For the material states are doing the causal work.

    It is always possible that future scientific experimentation will show that energy is not conserved in the brain and that hence there are outside forces involved, which Gilbert Ryle termed “the ghost in the machine”, but I submit the prior probability of this likelihood is very low for anyone who knows much about the state of the art of brain science.

    (4) TL suggested it would be possible to have systems in place so that communities of believers could have first-person experience of reality and not get lost in delusion. This is a nice thought, but there is no reason to believe it so, unless that system is science itself: one with recourse to intersubjective verification and disconfirmation.

    Because otherwise history reveals how very deluded individuals and even communities can get when looking into their own minds. Each religious tradition believes they gain insight into reality that way, and each has a different account of what they have found.

    (4) Ted, you also made the point that if person A could jack into person B’s feelings, they would be A’s feelings and not B’s. I don’t see why this is the case, and it brings to mind the wonderful thought experiments in Derek Parfit’s book _Reasons and Persons_. If I have an experience, that experience is mine; at least, insofar as we can say that persons exist at all, which is as much the Buddha’s point as Parfit’s. If A could jack into B’s thoughts completely, A and B would be the same person. (Insofar as we can say that persons exist at all …)

    (5) Re. the issue of ritual, I agree that there is no reason why a secular-minded Buddhist should necessarily eschew ritual. It should be up to the individual. And indeed, wasn’t it the Buddha who said that it was possible cling to rituals and rites (silabbatupadana)?

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Yep, good points, Doug. You’re right, there’s a distinction between belief and what we can demonstrate. I’m an atheist, just like someone else is a believer.

      On the practice side, it seemed to not be a statement so much about their being “bad” people, but about how they’re interacting with others. Of course, I may be subject to confirmation bias, and how do we measure antagonism is a legitimate pushback! I’m not really interested in pursuing it, but find our interactions here more constructive in general than what I find on non-practitioner blogs.

      Totally agree with you on the experience vs. scientific confirmation primacy issue. We see that experiences and memories are unreliable, fleeting, etc. — just as described in, say, the Dhammapada. Why would we accept an experience of flying over the city in an OBE when we can test the assertions made (and show them to be wrong). I’m with scientific materialism on claims about the natural world. How someone takes the experience, how they choose to have it impact their life, that’s up to them. Just insisting that I have to accept their story as an accurate reflection of the world? I’m not on board with that. Show me!

      • Doug Smith Doug says:

        Yes. Re. the “bad people” remark, I assume then that TL wasn’t talking about professional philosophers and their work? Because I don’t think academics are generally known for being nasty, or at least any more nasty than people in other disciplines. (Buddhist thinkers can get similarly abrasive at times, when pushed!)

        If his point was that online interactions with pro-‘materialist’ or pro-skeptic bloggers and forumites has been at times disappointing, I can certainly understand.

        NB: I screwed up the numbering in my post, and my second #4 is incorrectly written. You had made the point that if A could jack into B’s feelings, the feelings would be *B*’s and not A’s. (I reversed them by accident, above).

        • mufi says:

          I know of a philosopher, Eric Schwitzgebel, who’s been researching a related topic (e.g. see The Relationship Between Moral Reflection and Moral Behavior section on his home page), but that’s still a work in progress.

          And, besides, I assumed that TL was simply generalizing from personal experience (i.e. anecdotes), which is neither reliable nor fair.

          Thanks for calling him on it, Doug.

          • Doug Smith Doug says:

            Well, also, it sounded to me like an ad hominem. I am sure I was misunderstanding his point, though, which is why I raised the issue.

          • mufi says:

            FWIW, I got the same impression.

            Also, I’m not sure that I agree that Western philosophy lacks a practical dimension (e.g. consider applied ethics), although I might agree that there’s a tendency in the West for praxis to be drowned by theory.

          • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

            My impression of TL’s intent on that, and mine certainly was, is that by “practice” we meant a way to improve on a personal level our mind states, to practice skillful means, if you will. Now of course our preferred core practice is meditation.

            I will openly confess a great deal of ignorance around other means from, say, Western philosophy, so you may be right, Mufi.

          • mufi says:

            Ted: Whether we realize it or not, we’re all indebted to one degree or another to Western philosophy – just given the historical continuum between natural philosophy & modern science and the categories that we all still use here (viz. physics, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics) to discuss and make sense of Buddhism.

            That said, I admit that I probably would not be drawn to (naturalized) Buddhism if I were completely satisfied with Western philosophy, which is, for the most part, still confined to the Academy, whose ongoing (highly abstract, intellectual) debates have made little impact on the daily lives of lay people like myself.

            Indeed, I think we have to look to Western religion (i.e. the Abrahamic faiths) – its contemplative traditions, in particular – in order to make a fair comparison with Buddhism.

          • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

            Good point, and agreed. We’re not always aware of the roots of what informs our attitudes and thoughts, it’s so embedded in our cultural upbringing.

          • Candol says:

            Mufi i think Alain de Botton’s book addresses some of your concerns with western thought. Ok its not about modern western philosophy so much as its about religion, particuiarly christianity. And in reading it i realised that there’s a lot more to christianity that could be useful if only it were not buried in disparate texts that a lay follower is never told about. I think its a strength of western buddhism that we have access to so many buddhist texts so we are not beholden to gatekeepers but can make our own decisions about how we practice and believe. It has to be said then that traditional buddhism in other cultures seems very similar to christianity and western philosophy on that level – ie in not making the teachings properly accessible to all who might be interested.

          • mufi says:

            Thanks, Candol. That de Botton book is still somewhere on my reading list.

            Just to clarify your statement “there’s a lot more to christianity that could be useful if only it were not buried in disparate texts that a lay follower is never told about.”, are you referring to the New Testament apocrypha?

  8. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    David, I agree with you, and I’m not a fan of D Dennet either. While I understand philosophy is a good starting point, we now have neuroscience, as well as psychology.

    I was surprised that TL said several times that the materialistic view just wasn’t logical, because Buddha focused so many of his teachings on the body and phenomena that we all can observe in our experience. While much of that experience is indeed subjective, Buddha was not suggesting we reach out to supernatural experiences, but instead what we can observe of our interactions with the world.

    Yes, materialist has a negative connotation from those who don’t understand it. I’m fine with being called a materialist. It IS the physical universe I am interested in, all that can be measured, and those experiences that are common to living creatures. I’m also interested in that which challenges measurement, such as quantum mechanics, but even there I want evidence of some kind.

    Consciousness beyond the life of the brain that is the source of it is never going to make sense to me. And what people continually seem to overlook is we can test consciousness. We do it every night when we go to sleep and we wake up. When we are put out for surgery, drugs take consciousness down, and through studying that process we are getting closer and closer to how the brain creates consciousness. At death, the brain dies, and we don’t see conscious dead people. For me that answers my questions about after death.

    • NaturalEntrust says:

      To Dana and to others
      I get surprised that some of you
      react that way to Dan Dennett.

      I started to read him about 1981 or so.
      He did came through to me as “buddhistic”
      I have no quote to back up that notion
      but the way he wrote gave me that impression.

      What is it he has written that give you and
      others the notion that he would be anti-
      buddhist or something.

      Now I may be very biased but he came through
      to me as Buddhist that I failed to trust what he say.

      Hmm I guess that can be interpreted in the wrong way.

  9. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Perhaps I’m just obtuse, but all of the handwringing about “the hard problem of consciousness” seems to come down to this. The “mind body problem” is only a problem because it contains its own insolvability. As soon as you pose it, you have assumed that the mind and the body are two different things, and in fact two different kinds of things. “Qualia” is just another concept used to push off the ultimate reckoning, that mind/body dualism is a meme so deeply foundational to much of human culture that it is difficult to see beyond it, even for those of us who can no longer see how it could possibly be true. Nevertheless, it’s just an idea — a myth, if you will — that a growing mountain of evidence is giving the lie to. If we abandon the dualistic meme and accept that there is no reason why we need to posit mind as an extraphysical substance, the philosophical problems go away.

  10. TL says:

    There is a lot to respond to from everyone’s reactions to Ted’s and my dialogue. Firstly, it has certainly got me thinking and pondering about what I believe in and how I’ve come to those conclusions. I really enjoyed the discussion and would have liked to explore some of the issues further. (In particular the question of verifiability (or proof or evidence) is crucial both for science and for Buddhist practice. I would have liked to talk more about that.)

    I did want to clarify how I see “dialogue”. A dialogue (for me) is a spirit of inquiring into what someone else is thinking and believing with a view to deepening and fine tuning my own understanding. That is what I’m really interested in, and Ted seemed to be on the same wave-length with me in that. I’m not very keen on a more debate style, which makes me too nervous. And I’m don’t really want try to convince anyone of anything either. I have enough trouble working out my own crazy life and ideas. Dialogue for me has a kind of relaxation in it, which I also like to have in my practice—a sort of openness that can still have plenty of precision and rigor. Anyway, I thought that might put our talk into a context for everyone. The metaphor I prefer is not so much about sport (too much of a contest) but rather like dancing, which has a quality of moving together and getting to know each other.

    So now to some of the juicy issues people have raised. In talking with Ted I really wanted to find out more why he characterised himself (in a previous email to me) as an “avowed materialist”. It does seem to be the case that “materialist” can carry a pejorative connotation, especially when used by those who haven’t come to that conclusion. And you guys are saying that “physicalist” or “naturalist” are more neutral terms? Hmmm. Maybe because they not so easily conflated with “materialism”? But anyway, for me the conclusion that the universe is only populated by “stuff” and that everything can be reduced to “stuff” is a sticking point. (Putting aside the problem of what we actually mean by stuff.) I know that the physicalist conclusion can me more sophisticated than that (Daniel Dennet, Churchlands, Crick, etc) but for me it still boils down to a version of explaining consciousness away. I am more persuaded by Chalmers, Nagel, Varela, Lakoff-Johnson, than I am by Dennett and others (This has nothing to do with their qualities as humans but just the arguments.) For me there is something about “experience” or “qualia” that is in need of explanation, and the reductionist move doesn’t do it for me. I should say I’m also not satisfied with the standard dualistic explanations. They have their own problems as everyone knows. I don’t think the mind-brain issue is solvable by saying, “well it is caused by how we view the problem. If we stop viewing it that way the problem goes away.” Not for me anyway. I know that is a HUGE simplification. My point is that when I get to the end of even the most sophisticated physicalist arguments I find I’m not persuaded. Perhaps it is because I don’t understand the arguments well enough. Maybe. But I don’t think so. It seems to me that exactly how the subjective relates to the physical is still getting worked out. The contemplative traditions are of great interest to many neuroscientists particularly because the practices have proven to be so powerful over several millennia.

    I’m still open to a naturalistic explanation of consciousness that is dualistic in the sense of William James’s suggestion (and others) that the physical (brain) perhaps constrains, channels, limits, consciousness (mind). It is obvious that the brain and consciousness are intimately connected so that is not the issue. It is also obvious that there are various “levels” or “degrees” of consciousness, so it is not that consciousness disappears in deep sleep, or coma, or brain injury, but more that it changes in the way it is manifested. And we all know that correlation is not causation. The Buddhist argument about the irreducibility of the consciousness to the physical (Dharmakirti—“effects can only come from like causes” etc.) is credible to me at one level (the logical). On the other hand I don’t quite see how consciousness could exist without a physical base or how we could study or “measure” such a consciousness if it did exist. That does seem to be a big problem. But I’m not prepared to exclude the possibility that very refined first person inquiry (samadhi) might shed some light on that (at least for the person doing the inquiring). I don’t want to exclude that just yet. Seems too early to chuck out that possibility. First person accounts and study seem to me to be crucial (“babies” and not bath water) for a complete study of consciousness.

    Recently, I’ve been thinking that it might not be physicalism (given our evolving understanding the “physical”) but rather reductionism that is the problem for me. Evan Thompson seems to be taking a more sophisticated physicalist position that is entirely naturalistic but also not reductionistic. That is interesting and giving me more food for contemplation. Another thing I’ve been wondering—does naturalism have to mean physicalism?

    On the other issues discussed (“bad philosophers”) keep in mind that I was answering Ted’s query about my decision to become a monk and practice Buddhism in that way. So I was talking about my personal journey; I wasn’t really trying to make any “truth” claims. In my own (superficial and ad hoc) exploration of western psychology and philosophy I wasn’t at all impressed by the practice that flowed out of all the intellectual stuff. In fact, I was often disappointed by the discrepancy between the ideas and the practice. Of course this happens too in the Buddhist world, but in my experience, less so. Over the years I have noticed that Buddhist practice does seem to have a bigger positive impact on practitioners than the study of Western philosophy and psychology. Most importantly throughout my own life, my own struggle with suffering has been more profoundly affected by my Buddhist studies and practices than by my study of psychology or philosophy. And I’ve been much more impressed by the Buddhist master and students I’ve met than with the master therapists, scientists and philosophers. That is why I’ve kept up with my Buddhist studies and practice so enthusiastically (and joyfully even) and also why I wanted to try out a more “full on” ordained path. To stress again that is a personal, subjective sharing with no implication intended of this being a universal “truth.”

    A comment re Daniel Dennett occurs to me. There is certainly no way I can tell that he could be characterized as anti-Buddhist. Quite the contrary all his work supports many Buddhist conclusions, most particularly that the self doesn’t exist at all in the way we most commonly conceive it (as a permanent solid “thing”). The issue is all about Chalmers so called “hard problem”. Some of my close Buddhist friends are “Dennettians” (for want of a better term) and use his work to deepen their Buddhist understanding of what “non-self” really means.

    Anyway, I’ve been sitting here typing for quite a while and as usual the rest of life is calling! I know I haven’t engaged with what everyone was saying in their posts, but I did want to join in the conversation thrown up by my dance with Ted. It was enjoyable moving together as we did and I was surprised how much rapport we had even though we had only just met. I’m sending all good wishes to you all for further fruitful explorations on the path.

    • mufi says:

      TL: These terms (i.e. physicalism, materialism, naturalism, reductionism, monism, and dualism) can be vexingly subtle. A philosopher (viz. Massimo Pigliucci) once recommended that I sort these out on the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy site, but it requires a bit of a time investment. To keep things simple (and in keeping with my habit of quoting Owen Flanagan here), here’s another quote from The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized:

      Naturalism comes in many varieties, but the entry-level union card – David Hume is our hero – expresses solidarity with this motto: “Just say no to the supernatural.” Rebirths, heavens, hells, creator gods, teams of gods, village demons, miracles, divine retributions in the form of plagues, earthquakes, tsunamis are things naturalists don’t believe in. What there is,and all there is, is natural stuff, and everything that happens has some set of natural causes that produce it – although we may not be able to figure out what these causes are or were. Why be a naturalist? World historical evidence suggests that naturalism, vague as it is, keeps being vindicated, while the zones “explained” by the supernatural get smaller everyday. Naturalism is a good bet.

      As far as I’m aware, all of the philosophers and scientists that you mentioned (viz. Chalmers, Nagel, Varela, Lakoff-Johnson, as well as Daniel Dennet, Churchlands, Crick, etc.) are naturalists in the “entry-level” sense that Flanagan describes, even though they differ on various details (e.g. concerning monism vs. dualism and/or reductionism vs. holism). I myself am a fan of Lakoff & Johnson, although I don’t think of them as being much at odds with Dennett or the Churchlands (e.g. they certainly acknowledge the neural level of description, albeit, along with phenomenological and cognitive-unconscious levels), and I they reject dualism, which seems more at odds with Chalmers.

      Anyway, insofar as Secular Buddhists bring naturalism to the table, one can expect a diversity of opinions on such details.

    • David S says:

      Hi TL.

      In reading your thoughts it seems that you come to the question regarding the basis of consciousness with an underlying reservation for it having a being “other than” and originating “somewhere else than” which you do not explain nor account for. What brings you to this? What is the basis of this understanding? When I ponder such possibilities it includes a base desire to exist more permanently, and beyond this I have nothing else to base it on.

      TL, “First person accounts and study seem to me to be crucial (“babies” and not bath water) for a complete study of consciousness.”

      Tricky thing about the study of consciousness through meditation is that it can only reveal the effects. Reducing knowledge to studying this phenomenology of meditation and consciousness is limited by what consciousness can know and how it knows. Neurological studies are showing variations to consciousness which are not first person accessible. This is very interesting. In reading of various patient’s minds functioning differently than the norm reveals the ways in which the brain works to construct perceptions. What this shows is that there are far more functions operating beyond awareness and before awareness. So the means of meditation and first person accounts have inherent limits to what can be known.

      However, this doesn’t negate the very important understandings which can occur within what one is aware of. Many helpful things can be known by seeing the cause and effects of one’s thinking, feelings, sensations, etc… all the intrapersonal and interpersonal experiences. On the other hand, samadhi concentration states can reflect effects of functions but not necessarily reveal their basis. So it depends on the knowledge one is seeking whether or not meditation, or first person awareness, can be helpful in discerning any particular understanding.

    • Doug Smith Doug says:

      Re. naturalism, I think mufi’s reply is good; ‘naturalism’ is usually contrasted with the supernatural, which it rejects.
      There is a question as to whether naturalism implies some reductionist conclusion. My feeling is that basically it does, in that all the causal powers of things referred to by higher level concepts depend on the causal powers of things referred to by lower level concepts. (E.g., the causal powers of cells depend on the causal powers of molecules). This may not satisfy all self-described naturalists, but at some level they must assume the unity of nature, or else the exclusion of the supernatural would seem ad hoc.

      “Physicalism” is usually the claim that all that exist are physical things. This would seem (inter alia) to assert that there are no biological things, which I think goes too far. Similarly, “materialism” is usually the claim that all that exist are material things. Again, if we allow there to be mental states which are covered in psychology, we will have to reject (at least this form of) materialism.

      Now, the question is why a Buddhist should be concerned with reductionism. Which Buddhist tenets are threatened by it? One might argue that rebirth and active karmic causation are, but if so the argument for this would be lengthy.

      And anyhow, didn’t the Buddha specifically refuse to state whether the soul and the body were the same or different? Now, one might as a Buddhist take from MN63 the position that such issues are fundamentally unresolvable.

      But one might just as well assume that these were issues the Buddha believed were immaterial to the ends of attaining true happiness. As such they might be open to a scientific answer that would be of no real importance either way to the dharma. So what if the mind and body are the same? So what if mental states reduce to physical ones? Does this demonstrate the inaccuracy of anicca, anatta or dukkha? Not at all, indeed if anything it seems to support them. Does it demonstrate the falsity or impossibility of magga or nirvana? I don’t see how. And if not, why reject it? Accept reductionism as at least one plausible interpretation of scientific results, and move on.

      • Candol says:

        “And anyhow, didn’t the Buddha specifically refuse to state whether the soul and the body were the same or different? Now, one might as a Buddhist take from MN63 the position that such issues are fundamentally unresolvable.” Anatta means no soul as much as it means not-self. Atta is soul or self and its an eternal essential thing (obviously i don’t mean a thing with any materiality). Soul in christian terms is also permanent so i don’t understand why you seem to be suggesting that a soul is just a passing temporary thing.

        To me materialism doesn’t rule out biological processes. According to wikipedia (which is good enough for me) materialism states that all is matter and energy. It was interesting to read the definition and distinction of physical which says materialism doesn’t account of for gravity. But it seems that except for those professionally engaged with these questions, ie for the lay person, they are all pretty much the same thing and are at least sympathetic to each other which cannot be said for a belief in the supernatural, rebirth, karma and the like as listed in Mufi’s excellent quote from Flanagan above.

        • Doug Smith Doug says:

          I didn’t mean to suggest that the self existed as an eternal soul. That term (“soul”) came from the translation to which I linked. The problem is that “soul” can have various meanings; it can mean something unchanging and eternal or it can just mean the mind, the aggregate of mental states. I take it that in MN63 the “soul” at issue is in the latter sense of the term.

          Materialism doesn’t rule out biological processes, since biological processes are material processes. What rules out biological processes as such is “physicalism”, since physicalism claims that the only real objects and processes are those mentioned in physics.

          I suppose for a non specialist all these terms tend to blend together (naturalism, physicalism, materialism); but I think when the discussion deepens, we begin to require finer distinctions.

    • Doug Smith Doug says:

      I should add: thanks, TL, for your lengthy and well-stated response.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      One of the reasons our dance may have gone so well, TL, is our shared inclination towards dialogue in a genuine and enthusiastic manner. I am also averse to the debate format, which seems to have as a key attribute the concept of winning, or convincing the other person or wider audience of one side versus another.

      When one is ascertaining a fact about the real world, that makes sense. Two plus two equals four, we can demonstrate that, and show that understanding to be correct. When one is describing what ideas are meaningful to us, in our complex and unique perspective, that becomes less useful.

      Where I hope we continue to dance is in our learning more about these practices, and how they can contribute or harm one’s development and opening of our minds — that is a lifetime of bridge building *together*.

  11. NaturalEntrust says:

    Hi TL,

    I am more of a Guest than being a practicing Buddhist.
    So my comment should be seen as a Guest that shares
    his or her views in an open dialog indeed.

    I don’t like debates either. I am not good at dancing
    but a brotherly dance could be cool to have.

    You wrote
    quote
    I know that the physicalist conclusion can me more sophisticated than that (Daniel Dennet, Churchlands, Crick, etc) but for me it still boils down to a version of explaining consciousness away. I am more persuaded by Chalmers, Nagel, Varela, Lakoff-Johnson, than I am by Dennett and others (This has nothing to do with their qualities as humans but just the arguments.) For me there is something about “experience” or “qualia” that is in need of explanation, and the reductionist move doesn’t do it for me. I should say I’m also not satisfied with the standard dualistic explanations. They have their own problems as everyone knows. I don’t think the mind-brain issue is solvable by saying, “well it is caused by how we view the problem. If we stop viewing it that way the problem goes away.” Not for me anyway. I know that is a HUGE simplification. My point is that when I get to the end of even the most sophisticated physicalist arguments I find I’m not persuaded.
    Quote ends there.

    I am a kind of Anti-Philosophy guy. I’ve read Dennett and Churchlands have books
    since I started reading about Phil 1979 or so. I also two of Lakoff-Johnson and
    have read Varela and read essays online by Chalmers.

    But I can not say I really know or grasp what any of all these authors say.

    I fail to be on that abstract concept or context level.
    The problem is that it does not help us if we are
    not persuaded by their arguments.

    Still for us as persons that settle the things for us.

    But it fail to further the dialog with them. It could
    allow us maybe to do a dialog dance but then
    that one would be about how it feels for us and
    what would persuade us. Another level.

    So despite that I am a strong Anti-Philosophy guy
    I would side with Dennett and Churchlands against
    Chalmers and Valera and others so our dance can
    be friendly sharing instead of angry arguing.

    You would share how it feels to read and think
    and feel like Chalmers do and I can share how
    I feel more like Dennett and Churchlands even
    if I know almost nothing about them other than
    owing a few books by them.

    Consciousness to me then emerge out of
    what the body/brain does in response to
    all there is. What goes on in my body that
    I become aware of and what I can understand
    goes on within other persons that I interact
    with or only get aware of as individuals in a crowd.

    Like Glenn pointed out. I also get aware of
    that when people meet it almost instantly
    start a form of informal hierarchy adjustment.

    Mostly maybe not consciously but some
    persons maybe are aware of it and them
    using that as a tool or them exploiting it
    as an opportunity to climb on the ladder

    I’ve been bullied all my life and that makes
    me cautious to such groupishness games.

    Seen from that perspective it could be
    unfair to Chalmers and Varela to see
    them as climbers that make use of
    that “qualia” argument to climb up
    the social ladder?

    It is just a dancing dialog move
    that I make and you can make a
    gentle response that allow us to
    still have a friendly dialog dance 🙂

    Eric the Natural Entrust guy Sweden.

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