Ajahn Brahmali of Bodhinyana Monastery gave a talk on February 7, 2014 about Secular Buddhism. Brahmali is smart and well-spoken, and he represents a saṅgha that is at the liberal end of Theravadin monastic saṅghas (for example, they were instrumental in the ordaining of bhikkhunis, as against their more traditional Thai counterparts), so spending some time on this talk may be instructive.
I will provide parenthetical notations of roughly where points can be found in the accompanying YouTube video.
Brahmali begins by laying out the groundwork, which in many ways resembles what some scholars have termed “protestant Buddhism”: namely a focus on finding Buddhism in what the Buddha himself taught, as found in the canonical texts, rather than in patterns of practice. (5:00) For example, just because some Buddhists pray does not mean that prayer is a real or essential part of Buddhism. This is a controversial point within the scholarly community, but one that many contemporary Western practitioners find helpful: early Buddhist canonical texts are often (though not always) more down-to-earth and well-reasoned than ordinary patterns of practice.
One thread runs through much of the discourse that I believe stems from Brahmali’s teacher Ajahn Brahm’s own approach. It’s that the term “religion” is problematic, and that Buddhism in its pure form is not necessarily “religious”. Brahmali cites Ajahn Brahm as saying that Buddhism is a religion only for tax purposes.
What problem do Brahm and Brahmali have with religion? It seems to come down to faith, and in particular faith in a deity of some sort. If in order to be a religion, a belief system has to incorporate faith in a deity, then of course their sort of Nikāya-based Buddhism doesn’t fit.
But then given that he isn’t entirely onboard with viewing Buddhism as a religion, what are the problems Brahmali sees with an explicitly secular approach to Buddhism? He outlines three or four problems, of which lack of belief in rebirth is the one he gives the great majority of his time and emphasis. Secular Buddhists, of course, reject rebirth. Brahmali has several different responses.
First (20:00), Brahmali says that science doesn’t know anything really about the mind. It focuses on the material world. Consciousness is called the “hard problem”, in that coming up with an intelligible understanding of consciousness seems out of reach. Buddhism on the other hand, he says, focuses on mind and matter together. Science alone “cannot understand the mind” in the way that Buddhism can. (26:30) Since science tells us it knows nothing about the mind, we should leave the claims of science aside and be open to the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth.
Second (23:00), Brahmali says that some secularists claim that rebirth requires Cartesian dualism, and that there are problems with how the two different substances (matter and mind) could interact. Thus rebirth is impossible. However Buddhism rejects Cartesian dualism, and hence that problem doesn’t really arise.
Third (28:15), Brahmali says that there is anecdotal evidence for rebirth. Most powerful in his mind are the Buddha’s own words on the subject: he says he has seen rebirth for himself.
Fourth (29:00), Brahmali says that rebirth is central to the Buddha’s teachings. The Four Noble Truths are that rebirth is suffering, that craving leads to rebirth, that there is an end to rebirth, and that there is a path to the end of rebirth. The path begins with the Right View that there is rebirth. And of course the Buddha included recollection of past lives in his three ‘higher knowledges’ (34:30).
Brahmali says that secularists reject the notion that we can become completely awakened, or that we can end suffering completely. In response he says that the idea of ending suffering is “a beautiful idea … a bringer of hope, bringer of light.” He urges us, “Let’s practice this path and see where it goes.” (38:30)
Alongside this problem Brahmali says that secularists reject deep states of meditation, in favor of a mindfulness-only approach which he views as superficial.
Brahmali says that secularists reject the monastic saṅgha, but he says that the existence of a monastic path implies the possibility of true happiness outside of our ordinary worldly pursuits, much like the possibility of true awakening, which he says secularists reject.
Now having seen Brahmali’s arguments, let us go through some possible Secular Buddhist responses.
Secular Buddhism on Rebirth
I have already given a lengthy argument as to why there are good reasons to reject rebirth, and I won’t go through it again here. Instead I will respond simply to the points Brahmali has brought up.
First, it is not correct to claim that science only focuses on the material world. Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind, and ethology is the scientific study of animal minds through animal behavior. The correspondences between cognitive psychology, ethology, and neuroscience become more apparent by the day. The more we study the mind, the more we learn about how all mental facts depend upon facts about the brain.
The “hard problem” of which Brahmali speaks is the particularly philosophical issue of first-person qualitative experience, or “qualia”, and its role (if any) in a scientific understanding of the mind. Some philosophers such as Daniel Dennett believe this is an illusion masquerading as a problem, others disagree. But whatever the case, the status of first-person qualitative experience has nothing to do with rebirth.
Even were we to grant that science provided no essential insight into the true nature of the mind, that would not imply that the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth were correct. To argue in that fashion would be to resort to a fallacy known as the “argument from ignorance”. Those who argue from the fact that there are gaps in the fossil record to the existence of a creator deity make the same fallacy. Our ignorance of the facts does not imply anything about what we should believe instead. The most it could imply is that we should suspend judgment. But then, since we are never in possession of all the facts about any matter, surely we are able to judge under conditions of imperfect information, such as those provided by the sciences.
Further, Brahmali’s own views on this issue appear confused: in the Q&A following his talk (1:04:00) he takes a question about whether bacteria and viruses have minds. He suggests doing experiments to find out, and even gives consideration as to how those experiments might be carried out, such as poking them to see if they recoil from pain. In so doing, he shows that in fact he understands how science works to illuminate the mind, and how actual scientists might do experiments to illuminate mental functioning. Scientific study allows us to understand the mind by understanding the behavior evinced in physical beings. Just in the same way that we might poke a bacterium to see if it recoils, we might (and indeed do) excite neurons to see what verbal behavior they elicit. If Brahmali allows for the former, he should be aware of the latter.
Brahmali’s second argument is more successful. Indeed, one does not need to believe in Cartesian dualism to believe in Buddhist rebirth, and the use of Western substance dualism to understand Buddhist dhamma gets things wrong. But oddly in the Q&A period (57:15), Brahmali gives a short explanation of the distinction of mind and body that sounds straight from Pythagorean dualism: that the mind is constrained by or “imprisoned” in the physical body, and that it can escape that constraint through meditation. This seems to reify the dualism that he claims has no part in Buddhism.
Brahmali’s third argument amounts to an argument from authority: the Buddha said there was rebirth, so we should assume it is true. This is a classically religious move. One of the questioners responded by citing the Kalama Sutta (Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.65), where the Buddha said not to accept claims based on faith alone. That is the correct response. If indeed the Buddha had these experiences, we have no reason to accept them on his word alone unless and until we have these experiences ourselves. True, if we have no a priori reason to reject such claims, then perhaps we can accept them provisionally. The problem is that many of us believe we have good reason to reject them.
Brahmali’s fourth argument revolves around a reformulation of the Four Noble Truths in terms of rebirth. Of course, one can make such a reformulation, but doing so simply begs the question. The Buddha didn’t typically state the Four Noble Truths in terms of rebirth, but simply in terms of suffering (birth, sickness, old age, death), the cause of suffering (craving), the end of suffering (awakening), and the path to the end of suffering. None of that explicitly mentions rebirth. In order to argue that rebirth is “absolutely central” to the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Noble Truths, it seems as though one has to shoehorn it into passages where it isn’t typically found. That’s not a very convincing procedure.
Note that this isn’t to say that the Buddha didn’t believe that rebirth was part of the Four Noble Truths. He did. The question instead revolves around the “centrality” of that claim. Do the Four Noble Truths dissolve into irrelevancy when we remove rebirth? The Secular Buddhist claim is that they do not.
Brahmali is correct to note that belief in rebirth is typically part of “Right View”, which is the first step along the Eightfold Path. But here Brahmali catches himself in something of a quandary. The problem is that there are two possible responses to this state of affairs. The first response is simply to say that therefore anyone who doesn’t believe in rebirth isn’t really a Buddhist. They have “wrong view”. The second response is to fudge the issue and say that while this aspect of right view is pretty important to being a Buddhist, it isn’t absolutely essential.
Brahmali seems at first to accept both horns of this dilemma. After discussing the issue, he says that one doesn’t really have to accept rebirth, one simply has to “take it seriously” and not “reject it out of hand”. But he also says that “Rebirth is absolutely central, if you take it out the whole thing collapses and you have nothing.” Later he says that Secular Buddhism “isn’t Buddhism at all”. (42:00)
The problem is that both of these can’t be true. If it’s enough to “take rebirth seriously” and reject it, as many Secular Buddhists do, then on this criterion Secular Buddhism should be considered a kind of Buddhism. Then rebirth must be the sort of thing one can “take out” without collapsing Buddhism into nothing.
But I think instead that what Brahmali may really be saying is that any rejection of rebirth is ipso facto rejection “out of hand”, and that to take rebirth seriously one in fact must accept it. In that case, one cannot be a Buddhist without believing in rebirth. If this is what Brahmali is saying, he does so indirectly.
Secular Buddhism on Awakening and Monasticism
Unlike with rebirth, there is less airspace between traditional and Secular Buddhism on the issues of awakening and the monastic saṅgha than Brahmali may realize. Of course, the traditional notion of awakening has aspects that apply to this life, and aspects that apply to supposed future lives. Leaving the latter issues aside as having been dealt with already, awakening as such is not a particular problem in a secular context. Seen as a goal to strive for, it may be a spur to action. Nor should one simply equate Secular Buddhism with a mindfulness-only approach to practice. There are secular teachers like Leigh Brasington who focus their teachings on meditative concentration and the jhānas.
Brahmali notes that the idea of ending suffering is “a beautiful idea”, but if there is anything that the Buddha teaches us it is that we are all too prone to cling to things we see as beautiful. Beauty can deceive. So the fact that awakening is beautiful is by itself no reason to believe that it is possible. Nevertheless I imagine that anyone who has done meditation, or who has traveled enough of the path to consider him or herself a Secular Buddhist, will have seen progress of some sort. Whether that progress is towards a real, achievable end, or simply towards a (beautiful) theoretical ideal makes no difference to practice. And insofar as grasping the goal can itself become a hindrance, perhaps it is better to focus just on the next step anyway.
As regards the monastic saṅgha, I don’t see that a secularist need have any particular problem with more extreme or dedicated forms of practice so long as they are undertaken freely and do not harm oneself or others. True, some may feel that wearing special clothes or taking vows are incompatible with a secular approach to life. I’m sure some secularists would find the concept unsettling. They might feel that a “secular monastic” is an oxymoron. But is it any more so than “Secular Buddhism” itself? If a secular approach is one that simply involves a focus on this-life practice and a rejection of unproven supernaturalist claims about rebirth and the like, then it should be compatible with robes and (at least certain kinds of) vows.
I am not an expert on the Theravada Pāṭimokkha, but apart from the bare issue of holding to a naturalized interpretation of the dhamma, which might promote criticism by traditional-minded monks, there appears to be nothing in the vows that would conflict with a secular approach. That said, a glance at them reveals they would only be of interest to the most dedicated practitioner.
The question is more whether and to what extent a secular practitioner would be allowed in a monastic saṅgha, and whether they would be allowed to profess a secularized dhamma. I don’t know the answer to those questions. But if those were problems, they would be problems for traditional monasticism rather than secularism.
At any rate, Brahmali’s concern is to show that within a Secular Buddhist approach true happiness is achievable outside of ordinary worldly pursuits. I don’t see why this should be a problem, unless by “secular” we mean “lay”. It’s true that that is one interpretation of the word, but it need not be the only such interpretation.
Religion or Secularism?
Brahmali seems to have an odd ambivalence about religion and secularism. He believes that Buddhism is a religion in name only, and he seems to embrace the secular ideal of belief based upon investigation. He even claims (44:30) that “we are all Secular Buddhists and religious Buddhists in a way.”
He claims to be against divisiveness in Buddhism (something that, after all, is prohibited by his Pāṭimokkha vows), but it seems for him the only way to gather all together is to toe the traditional line about rebirth, even though one has not seen it for oneself, and even though our best scientific understanding weighs heavily against it being true. The difference between this approach to “Right View” and traditional Western notions of religious faith is hard to discern.
Are Secular Buddhists really not Buddhists at all, but simply “secularists with a bit of inspiration from Buddhism” as Brahmali puts it? (42:30) I think that’s hard to say about people like Stephen Batchelor, who is arguably as dedicated and knowledgeable a practitioner as Brahmali himself. I don’t see that the exclusionary approach does anyone any favors.
Labels such as “Buddhist” are not finally very meaningful, even within the tradition. So often the problem with religions, as with any in-group that has its emblems, colors, and flags, is that of conceit: comparing oneself with others. Surely the earnestness of one’s practice is more skillful than making comparisons.