What Might the Buddha Say About Secular Buddhism?

| August 28, 2017 | 10 Comments

What might the Buddha have thought about secular approaches to Buddhism? We will take a look at arguments found in a couple of early texts, the Apaṇṇaka and Sandaka Suttas, as jumping-off points. Our trip will take us through perhaps the earliest known materialist philosopher, as well as Blaise Pascal’s wager for the existence of God. Then we will look at six possible responses to those arguments, taking inspiration from the Buddha’s famous discourse to the Kālāmas, his discourse to the Householders of the Bamboo Gate, plus much more. It’s a jam-packed episode!

For Bhikkhu Bodhi’s discussion of this see his book The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, pp. 13-15.


Sutta selections:

Apaṇṇaka Sutta: MN 60

Sandaka Sutta: MN 76

Discourse to the Kālāmas: AN 3.65

Discourse to the Householders of the Bamboo Gate: SN 55.7 (Unfortunately appears not to exist in an online translation. It is translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his above book as well as his translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya).


Some previous writings of mine on this topic:

On a Belief that Sends You to Hell

The Buddha and Kesakambalī 

Was the Buddha an Anti-Realist?  (pp. 164-166).

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He 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. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (10)

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  1. m.miller says:

    To me, the original question (what might the Buddha say about Secular Buddhism?) isn’t all that interesting. I suppose that’s because it seems a little too close to the endless debates over who is a “real” or “true” Buddhist/Christian/Hindu/Jew/Muslim that seem so tiresome to me.

    The question posed about halfway through the video (why do we have to assume that materialists/secularists have to be unethical?) is far more critical and interesting to me. Here, I’m content to accept the second and third assurances of the Kalama Sutta:

    “if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires.

    “If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?’ This is the third assurance he acquires.” (Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1994; accessed from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html)

    The thing that I think is missing in the argument so far is looking at the results of ethical actions that reach beyond myself. Much of the video is dedicated to “what results will I reap from my actions” which can be answered with the above assurances even from a secular perspective. But, even if my consciousness is destroyed at death, the effects of my actions can last well beyond my annihilation. Meaning the actions I take can either increase or decrease suffering in the world around me (as well as within me). If that is a realization I take seriously, than it would seem I have a responsibility to consider how my actions will affect others – which, hopefully, leads to acting with ethical intentions.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks for your comment! Yes you’re absolutely right that part of the ethical story has to be what consequences our actions will have after we are gone, and keeping that in mind is one way that we can aim towards ethical action.

      As to the general question of ethics, some of the discussion around Buddhism has involved whether it is or is not a variety of consequentialism. I think the rough consensus, stemming from folks like Damien Keown, is that it isn’t, but rather that it’s a kind of virtue ethics. That is, that ethics has less to do with consequences than it has to do with the kind of mind we manifest when taking actions.

      I don’t think the case is entirely clear, and in fact have argued that there are aspects of both consequentialism and virtue ethics (and other ethical systems as well) within Buddhism, but anyhow it’s something to consider.

      • m.miller says:

        It would seem to me this is another example of the Buddha’s teaching representing the Middle Way – a bridge of sorts between ethics being solely about inherent virtue and solely about consequences. I’ll use beneficial speech as an example of how I think Buddhism fits both virtue and consequentialist ethics. In the Abhaya Sutta, beneficial speech is described as: factual, true, beneficial, endearing and agreeable to others. It is important to note that the speech must have all of these characteristics in order to qualify as right/beneficial. It would seem some of these characteristics are virtuous in-and-of themselves (factual and true, for example) while other characteristics are more based in how that speech will be received (will others benefit from it and find it endearing/agreeable so as to promote harmony rather than discord?) – in other words, its consequences. So it would seem to me that beneficial speech would need to be inherently virtuous and intended to bring about beneficial consequences at the same time.

  2. Jason Malfatto says:

    One of the arguments I recall offhand for virtue ethics – over and above consequentialism and deontology (rule-based ethics) – is that any serious concept of a virtuous character will have concerns for consequences and rules baked right into it.

    That sounds about right, as far as it goes, though we should bear in mind its limitations (for example, in politics, where the criteria for a wise decision depends on other variables besides the characters of the decision-makers, including social outcomes and also individual & cultural ideologies).

    This much seems to apply to early Buddhist notions of virtue & vice, as much as it does to their Greco-Roman counterparts (i.e. the traditional source of these competing theories).

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Yes, I think that’s right, which reflects m.miller’s good point above re. the Abhaya Sutta.

      In fact one of the things I don’t think the Buddha would have cared about were the first principles of his ethical theory. (Is it really a virtue ethics, a consequentialism, a deontology, etc.?) That gets into topics that are of entirely theoretical interest and that have no real practical consequences.

      Of course, one can always cook up examples, artificial or otherwise, where there are conflicts between what a consequentialist and a virtue-ethics picture might tell you what to do. Or where one or the other theory might be stymied in a particular case, e.g. where a conflict arises between two virtues or some such thing. But I don’t think this necessarily would have worried the Buddha, nor should it worry us in the larger scheme of things. Do the best you can under the circumstances. If there is no easy answer, then there’s no easy answer. Who ever said that ethical conclusions always had to be clear and uncomplex?

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        Agreed, although I now feel obliged to add that: whereas, much earlier on, the Chinese merged Buddhism with Taoism and the Japanese with Shintoism, Westerners are liable to do very much the same with Western tradition. So to spot parallels with Hellenistic virtue ethics or to other normative theories of Western origin seems par for the course and harmless enough, albeit *only* theoretical.

        On the other hand, I wonder if philosophers would have more of an impact on the culture today – particularly in anglophone countries – had they not ceded notions of virtue and vice to religion – particularly Christianity – for so long. That concern may explain some of the professional pushback against consequentialism and deontology that one finds today in the field (e.g. charges of their being psychologically unrealistic and irrelevant to daily life, as reported in Owen Flanagan’s latest book, A Geography of Morals).

        If so, then Buddhism’s virtue-ethical characteristics are a definite asset, not only for the religious family but also for the secular-philosophical offshoots.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Yes, thanks Jason.

          I think the resonance that folks like Keown find with virtue ethics and Buddhism is that virtue ethics understands ethics as a source of personal betterment and a way to find the best sort of life, as versus understanding ethics as formulae for what we ought to do and not do. (As is the case in consequentialist and deontological systems).

          Contemporary philosophy has tended to be very influenced by the sciences — generally a very good thing, IMO — but when it comes to ethics this has tended to mean looking for some algorithm that tells us how to behave properly under all circumstances. It’s a theoretically interesting enterprise but with very little practical human benefit. Perhaps it will help our AI overlords someday …

  3. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Re an ethical algorithm — Who was it who wrote (to paraphase) “If ethical questions were easy, we wouldn’t need to talk about them so much.”

    As for Gotama, how could anyone as concerned with cause and effect not be a consequentialist? And didn’t Gotama rail against the Brahman notion that virtue lay in performing the rituals, without concern for actual human consequences?

    But how could anyone as concerned as Gotama with cultivating wisdom and virtue, with leading the good life as a goal in itself, not be an advocate of virtue ethics? Was there any direct appeal to analysis of the consequences (for others)of following the 8FP?

    The circumstances that framed the modern definitions of virtue ethics and consequentialism are historically specfic. Sure, they have utlity in discussing Buddhist ethics, but must be used with care, not set up as universal categories. (I guess I think stressing the virtue ethics affinities of Gotama’s ethics is particularly useful in our time because it is a corrective to the sort of impersonal calculation of benefits and detriments that sometimes undermines both public policy and individual assessment of responsibility for effects of actions on others.

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