Ajahn Brahmali on Secular Buddhism

| February 21, 2014 | 16 Comments

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.

Buddhist Rebirth

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).

Buddhist Awakening

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.

Buddhist Monasticism

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.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. As a long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tripiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma.

Comments (16)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    If Brahmali were not primarily interested in defending inherently religious aspects of traditional Theravadin belief, this talk would not be necessary. Invariably, one of the things traditionalists rail against in a secular dharma approach is its implied threat to the sangha (meaning the bhikkhu sangha). Although, as Doug points out, there is no intrinsic reason secularism and monasticism must be incompatable, the fear is clear enough: if we do not accept the traditional beliefs which the monastery exists to preserve, then we no longer need the monastery or its religious hierarchy.

    The fact that rebirth is not a preoccupation of the earliest Nikayas is a clear indication that at least some early Buddhists did not see it as central to the dharma.

    Lastly, Brahmali’s comments about awakening indicate the weakness of understanding it as “the end of suffering.” Awakening, as the First Discourse points out, is the end of craving, not the end of suffering. Gotama himself died, we are told, of a very painful bout of what may have been food poisoning or some other intestinal infection. The end of suffering cannot occur without the end of embodied human existence. Far from being a “beautiful idea” it is a typically anti-human religious belief. It inherently leads us to believe that our suffering is a problem that is optional (and is due to our insufficient zeal for practice). This is the very idea Gotama warns us against as being delusional. Let alone the fact that, if I am insensitive to suffering, I can’t feel any real compassion and have no motivation to respond to the suffering of others (it’s their karma, after all). What the dharma calls us to is not escape from suffering, but to be able to fully live this human life, just the way it is, free from the compulsion to grasp and escape, to lust and to hate. Free to respond to ourselves and the world with acceptance, kindness and compassion. Gotama’s refusal to embrace religious escapism is what made his dharma so radical, and what led institutional Buddhism to cook up its own brand of escapism after his death.

  2. mufi says:

    Doug, I’m glad to see another entry in your article series here!

    Labels such as “Buddhist” are not finally very meaningful, even within the tradition.

    I suppose that it’s as meaningful as “Jewish” or “Christian”, which has roots in the Pharisaic (later Rabbinic) and Nazarene sects, but I agree insofar as we may be working with language that’s of greater value to modern scholars than it is to practitioners of this or that dharma tradition.

    In more personal and frank terms, even if I were to freely label myself a “Buddhist”, I would not identify with Ajahn Brahmali and I would not expect him to identify with me (except in the trivial sense that we’re both human beings). Just because we both draw inspiration from the same sources on occasion, we should not allow ourselves to be fooled by a single word into believing that we follow the same paths in life, philosophically or practically.

  3. David S says:

    Thanks Doug for your detailed response and many interesting points.

    Oh those religious monastics! Brahmali thinks Buddhism isn’t a religion, by the same claim other religions make, that theirs are the TRUTH! A stance based in piousness and ego gratification. Me ‘right’, you ‘wrong’. Knowing is so calming isn’t it?

    Both his type of classic Buddhism and theism share a common psychology whereby they support a belief in the centrality of humans to the world. Theism’s God and Buddhist’s Awareness serve the same purpose. In this way both have the same religious assumptions built into them. Humans are very concerned with their future and only feel better thinking they will continue on somehow after death (or the deathless). Calming isn’t it?

    Brahmali doesn’t even approach the most problematic aspect of rebirth, which is that if it were true it would affirm the notion of a ’self’. More hoops he could arrange I suppose with parsing of selfdom’s essence into before and after enlightenment.

    He, like other Buddhist teachers, requests others to keep an open mind on rebirth, while his own is closed to the possibility that his rebirth vision experience was created by his mind and that there is no rebirth. His righteousness and piousness occlude that possibility from even entering his mind even as he asks us to open ours. Wow! Witness pious sanctity in action.

    He states that Buddhism doesn’t distinguish between the body and the mind. “When you die it is not as if it is just the mind leaving the body. When you die you are actually bringing with you a physical reality as well at the same time.” This is a classic position of solipsism that ignores the likelyhood that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the body. And even ignores the Buddhist model which describes consciousness as an aggregate experience.

    He equates Western scientific concepts as the problem being brought into Buddhism, but even Buddhists through the ages have differed in their view. Not all Buddhists believed in rebirth. It isn’t an outside force creating the divergent views, it is that the method of practice itself produces differing experiences and thus differing interpretations.

    I agree with him that the notion that ‘science opposes Buddhism’ misses that they both make use of looking at cause and effect in understanding the way things are/the nature of reality. But his tool for doing so, the mind, is limited by how it functions. It can’t know what it can’t see, and much of consciousness operates outside of areas which one can even be aware of. Buddhism’s method and tool of investigation has inherent limitations, and will thus result in distortions in understanding.

    He makes false claims that science cannot bridge the gap in understanding the mind. Neuroscientists working with patients with either damage to the brain, or variations are indeed shedding light on the origin of perceptions within specific brain functions. Many of these perceptual qualities are not mentioned at all in Buddhism because they lay outside of awareness’ function.

    Given science’s insights into the human brain’s operations it is only natural that we advance our understanding by incorporating what is being learned into our understanding. The dissonance between new insights and the static unchanging beliefs of Buddhism cannot be resolved solely within the latter’s beliefs. Buddhism will have to incorporate new developments in understanding or be left in the category of religion. It is not surprising that traditional Buddhists are all for science when it appears to confirm their views but dead set against it when its claims counter it. It is a rigidity of thinking which will not end without change.

    As far as qualia goes, I’d say that within Buddhism the jhanas, with the dropping away of experience, show qualia’s aggregate nature. If, in a ‘lower’ jhana extremely moving feelings of reverence come about and when moving into a ‘higher’ jhana they drop away, then this calls into question the nature of other such experiential claims like rebirth visions. If such people claim to have witnessed and ‘felt’ the vision to be truly immanent in one’s experiential perception couldn’t this then be seen as an aggregate experience as well? And thus delusion? I think so.

    Brahmali would undoubtedly not understand it in this manner. I can understand why he wouldn’t given that his rebirth vision experience would simply confirm his understanding of what he was taught Buddhism was all about. No questions to ask oneself.

    …and his answers to questions…

    He is so foggy when he talks of people not needing to take rebirth on faith after talking entirely about rebirth as central to Buddhism. So Brahmali, most people will not know this right? More hoops… more holes.

    The answer to a Thai person was pitiful. His belief in kamma is itself a caste system and has supported the division of class within societies by giving it the status of ‘truth’. His was a sad answer to this far more complex earthly issue of power.

    His response to the idea of a dog being born as a human was that it is not something that is likely going to happen. Well isn’t that part of the Buddhist cosmology? And then he tries to address this, not by what the dog could do but by what a human could do for the dog. Again placing humans as the central acting force in this process. Human egoism again shows its face in his answers. Got it. We are the ones! The world is ours! There is a better existence somewhere else! But you have to be really really good.

    Mmm… where have I heard this before?

  4. WayneL140 says:

    Poor Brahmali, trying to argue both sides. It’s not a religion, but you have to have faith, which is the basis of religion. I had no choice ultimately. I had to disrobe because I knew I could never preach the gospel of rebirth, kamma, and that’s not even getting into devas, which he conveniently left out. There is a total separation between monastics and lay people which is never addressed. You can begin with the 4NT and 8FP, but once you get beyond suffering and end of suffering, everything begins to be piled on. Buddhism is very individual as each person finds his or her own singular path. This makes for a very poor religion which depends on group acceptance of tenets. The Ajahn is no more able to negotiate these problems than I was. He didn’t convince me any more than I was able to convince myself.

    As for rebirth, the mind is a product of the brain as light is the product of the light bulb. When the bulb burns out, the light goes out, the same as the mind stops when the brain dies. How anyone can think this continues after death is beyond my ability to fathom. Where does it go? How is it contained in life if it isn’t contained after death? Just silly, unless you have a faith which stops logic before the conclusion.

    For me, Buddhism has a perfection within it. All this religious stuff sullies the purity without necessity. Yet, like all religions, they draw lines which exclude me. As one lay person said, “Tan Don, you can’t take away all our beliefs! How can we live?” This was the moment I knew I was at the end of my monastic path.

    Ajahn Brahmali wants to have it both ways. I couldn’t do it.

  5. Simon says:

    Many thanks to all for the interesting post and comments. Remembering that the Buddha also held that these metaphysical speculations aren’t particularly useful. Fun perhaps, and maybe instructive though ;-)

    Perhaps another way of approaching the rebirth issue, for me anyway, is to accept that the Buddha taught it, but to question what he meant by the term. The Ayacana Sutta has the post-enlightenment Buddha saying “This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise.” And ” What is abstruse, subtle, deep, hard to see, going against the flow …”

    The standard interpretation of rebirth as multi-life reincarnation seems to me to be neither particularly hard to realise, abstruse, visible only to the wise or at all subtle. Nor, as I think Batchelor and others have argued, does it go against the flow of the Buddha’s times: reincarnation was intrinsic to many contemporary beliefs.

    What is hard to realise because it is so subtle and contrary to our experience of ourselves, is the constant moment to moment recreation of our consciousness of identity, and the pangs and personal perils that attend its arising. This interpretation of rebirth seems to me much more congruent with the aggregate nature of our experiences, that David S points out as a central feature of Buddhist psychology, and with the 3 factors of impermanence, un-satisfactoriness and non-self.

    Rebirth as a constant process within this lifetime, a phenomenon which can be seen into, seems to me a much more useful construct than the persistence of a non-existent self across multiple lifetimes.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Simon, that’s a great reading of that passage from Ayacana Sutta! This is the interpretation of our dharma sister Linda Blanchard — that the rebirth Gotama is talking about is the recreation of the egoic self that defines itself as it encounters its experience of the world. The problem with using rebirth as a metaphor in this way, however, is that in a world where so many people take the concept literally, misinterpretations are bound to occur. Clearly by the time many of the suttas in Samyutta Nikaya are being composed, that (mis)interpretation is is full force, and if Gotama really intended rebirth as a metaphor the composers of many of the texts in Majhima and Digha Nikayas appear unaware of it.

    • David S says:

      Good post Simon. I would like to also point out that regardless of one’s interpretation and personal experience it is clear that people are having experiences in meditation of jhanas and rebirth (Brahmali). Such meditative states are also very subtle to teach and difficult to achieve/reach.

      Although a humanist perspective may make sense, one can’t deny that these other states are equally part of Buddhist teachings. And because of this they can’t be ignored simply because one hasn’t experienced them or found those teachings to have no current utility. There is an obvious ‘shamanistic’ side to Buddhism as well. In my opinion all attempts to reframe the discussion in purely secular terms fall short until the discussion includes such states as well.

  6. David S says:

    I’d like to add another commentary. I find Brahmali’s account of having experienced ‘rebirth’ very problematic within Buddhism’s own form. I have no need to doubt him that he ‘witnessed’ a vision of some sort, that it felt vividly real, that it confirmed his outlook, and changed how he lives. But the teachers I’ve had express the basic formula in Buddhism is that one is to know the six sense-bases and to not attach to them, thus reducing dukkha, and this will lead one to the ‘end goal’. So, if this is the method all along why is it when someone comes to experience such a thing as ‘rebirth’ it isn’t understood to simply be another mind-based event and not attach to it? Why do they then attach to this experience and not to daily sense experience? It seems like an all out failure to follow the ‘path’.

    Oh I do understand why all right, in basic human terms. If it does produce such a dramatically moving vision/experience it would require an even greater detachment to not simply believe it at face value. It appears to be immensely gratifying and meaningful. The believers seem to explain away this sort of contradiction in terms of oh it is unexplainable, non-dualistic, this awareness/mind is not a human mind, blah blah blah…. It may be though a critical failure point, whereby one discontinues to follow within the Buddhist form itself and they cross over into Hinduism/Jainism with a possible deviation from them only in terms of finality. Could the Buddha have done this as well? Or could later practitioners have become confused as much as anyone as to the intentions behind all the stories?

    Using the techniques of meditation it seems to me result in many varying experiences, which result in many varying interpretations of the material. It is interesting to me though that all the effort towards detachment is just ignored and all talk of aggregates thrown aside at this point.

  7. David S says:

    Here’s one more commentary…

    The Buddhism of Brahmali’s stated belief/vision is of literal rebirth right?
    This he believes to be true for all humankind.
    Life is suffering.
    Escape from suffering the desire.
    The end of rebirth the goal.

    The result of such a structure and the desired goal would, if everyone achieved the goal, be the extinction of the human species. Right?

    I wonder if he talks of this long term result to his followers? And if not, then why not?

    Such a truthful disclosure would probably turn-off many life loving people. His Buddhism would probably not be supported if he spoke of such an end result.

    • mufi says:

      David, I think that depends on how one interprets “nibbana.” To quote David Webster:

      Is nibbana the final release in the sense of being released from the burden of existence? I do not think it is. First, the nature of nibbana is contentious, and whatever view we may take, it is explicitly not annihilation…Otherwise the religious quest of Buddhism would become equivalent with an attempt to fulfill a vibhava-tanha – a craving for non-being. The question on the status of a tathagata after death is one that the Buddha, at S.IV.375, will not declare an answer to.

      In other words, the ultimate goal of ending the cycle of birth and death does not necessarily entail the end of conscious experience – at least according to this religious wordlview (of which we secular-empiricist types have grounds to be skeptical).

      • David S says:

        Hi Mufi.

        Oh sure you are right, it does all depend on how one interprets Buddhism’s terms. I don’t agree with Brahmali’s stated rebirth view either.

        I am simply taking Brahmali’s stance on rebirth ending as the goal, and equating the result of such a goal with the end of humankind. It would indeed be the result of his beliefs. Of course this result could be added to by a view that one continues on after death in a state of the “deathless” but this wouldn’t change the result of humankind being extinct in such a belief system.

        Doesn’t his belief system follow this course in an ultimate sense?

        • mufi says:

          David, let’s draw an analogy to Christian belief: If the Apocalypse were to arrive and all humans were killed and sorted to a postmortem destination of either Heaven or Hell, would we say that humankind has gone extinct?

          In a strictly biological or materialistic sense, I suppose that we would. After all, human life as we know it would then be extinguished in the event.

          But, in another sense of ‘life’, which is subjective experience, life would seem to migrate to some other plane of existence. So, in that sense, we would not suddenly go ‘extinct’ but would instead persist in different forms.

          Maybe a similar logic works for nibbana, whereby according to a strictly biological or materialistic model, we are indeed talking about extinction as a goal, but that still doesn’t entail the end of subjective experience – only the end of subjective experience as we know it.

          Does that make sense?

          • David S says:

            Yes. That is what I was talking of, physical extinction, with an “added” view” of the deathless state.

            So funny to me though because all the description of consciousness as an aggregate experience is miraculously shunned when talking of “awareness” in Buddhism. Seems a bit short in scope, but it remains standing because the experience one can have stops short as well. Any ‘knowing’ must be within consciousness, so consciousness can not ‘know’ without itself being active. This is my fundamental critique of Buddhist experience supposedly proving to oneself it is all true! Ha. Maybe for them but surely not for me.

            Buddhism is a deep form of solipsistic phenomenology and thus limited by the tool of its investigation.

  8. Michael Finley says:

    So, let me see if I have this right — Even though the suttas keep pointing me toward peace & equanimity “in this life and the next,” I’m supposed to believe the first part is trivial, and focus on the second part? Even though I know the advice is good “in this life”, while “the next” is strictly anecdotal?

  9. fatmonky says:

    In the Buddhist suttas, there is a distinction made between believing in rebirth out of faith, and direct experience.

    And I think that what Brahmali said in this talk wasn’t that one should believe in rebirth out of hand, but rather that one should not discount the possibility until one’s meditation has advanced to the stage where one can see for oneself.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Then he goes on to describe why literal rebirth is intrinsically necessary to Gotama’s teaching, and says that if you don’t believe in it you aren’t practicing Buddhism. The “keep an open mind” thing is just a dodge to put an end to critical thinking on the topic. He could end the debate by saying “I know rebirth is real because I have achieved the Four Knowledges and here’s who I used to be.” He doesn’t because he hasn’t and neither has anybody he knows. Gotama is recorded as having made fun of such people.

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