Secular Buddhism: Divisive Criticism Instead of Collaborative Dialogue Once Again

| September 24, 2017 | 39 Comments

Many years ago I took lifetime precepts at Bhavana Society under Bhante Gunaratana, and have renewed them several times. One in particular is challenging me lately:

Pisunavacha veramani sikkahapadam samadiyami.

I take the precept to abstain from divisive speech.

It’s with a heavy heart that I continue to stumble in this, especially in response to others who have also taken the precepts and do their best to live by these guides to conduct in our shared path, as I read such divisive words as:

… secularist ideology is shallow and arrogant …
… their failure to really understand …
… wrong-headed …
… you’re only betraying the shallowness of your own understanding …

I’d like to offer a few thoughts in response to an article on Sutta Central from which these words appear, “Why Secular Buddhism is Not True”, by Ajahn Sujato. There are a few starting points which may help understanding the perspective of this reply:

  • The views here are mine, and they reflect the attitude of a secular Buddhist. Please note the use of singular “a”. There is not one secular Buddhism in the same way there is not one Mahayana Buddhism, or one Vajrayana Buddhism. There may be common threads of ideas and practices, as well as a great deal of diversity in how we engage with the dhamma, and I do not speak for all secular Buddhists. Use of the term secular Buddhism should not be taken as a rigid and monolithic institution, but rather as a broad stroke that is understandably limited in its ability to capture a wide variety of ways one can be secular, and Buddhist.
  • I don’t know everything, and am prone to being unskillful as part of my human limitations. That includes sometimes occasionally imperfect use of terminology that may not always suit the context in a way that makes good and immediate sense to the reader, so my sincere apologies, the limits are more from me than from language.
  • One such languaging limitation is the respectful delineation and distinction of the stance of some critics of secular Buddhism. Again, use of any one term is as flawed as painting secular Buddhism with a single brush stroke. However, just as those with concerns about the secular approach reasonably landed on one term, I will follow that lead and those language constraints with the use of the term “orthodox” as defined thus: “(of a person or their views, especially religious or political ones, or other beliefs or practices) conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.”1 This is intended as a term of respect, honor, and as many secular Buddhists have our roots in orthodox forms, deep admiration.
  • Ajahn Sujato was a guest on The Secular Buddhist podcast some years ago for a conversation about the Authenticity project, and our shared lamenting about the difficulties ensuring Bhikkunis have a strong sangha enthusiastically supported by their communities. We had disagreements on other topics in a companionable, friendly way, it was a great honor to have him on the podcast, and honestly was terrific fun. In my experience he is a wonderfully intelligent, dedicated monastic who cares deeply for the integrity of the dhamma. Our differences shared here should not in any way be received as anything but the sharing of a different perspective, with the hope of elevating the level of discourse to a higher and more beneficial level.


In Ajahn Sujato’s article, there are many concerns raised about problems with a secular approach to Buddhism. This has come on the heels of similar critiques in the past several weeks, notably on the Western Buddhism group on Facebook2, as well as a few other online locations. Many of those topics match quite closely, and some appear to have very similar if not identical views which are incongruous with what I’ve come to know and practice as a secular person exploring Buddhism. I will limit responses here to principles raised in Ajahn Sujato’s piece for brevity, and any misunderstanding of his points are inadvertent and entirely my responsibility.

The Measuring Stick of True Buddhism

The first area I find perplexing is the suggestion that secular Buddhism isn’t measuring up. Who’s the arbiter, and what’s the measure? And if there is a standard, all other Buddhisms must be incorrect to some degree, so can there be clarity about which other Buddhisms are found to be lacking, and in what ways?

With continued abuse by clergy in religious institutions, most recently Sogyal Rinpoche’s in Buddhist circles, these are pertinent and I think relevant questions as we begin to explore in a more collaborative and meaningful fashion. One can easily dismiss a given religious figure as not being “really” Buddhist when they engage in such activities, but at what point are we using the No True Scotsman fallacy to excuse very real problems with very real Buddhists? I find that most statements about secular Buddhism may be rooted in understandable confusion about it, and that there are excellent opportunities to dialogue to come to better understanding instead of engaging in divisive speech about it.

The problem is not that the secularists present only a small part of Buddhism; it’s that they, implicitly or explicitly, regard their own small viewpoint as better. In doing so, they don’t just misrepresent the Dhamma, they undermine its transformative potential.

Perhaps it may help to examine some of these ideas, as they do not match my understanding or secular practice of Buddhism: I do not regard my viewpoint as better, it is simply the one which most closely and intimately engages with my cultural and personal context. Others are welcome to practice in whatever means is most helpful to them, and supports their journey on the path. Neither do I or other secular Buddhists I know misrepresent our interpretation and way of engaging with the dhamma as anything but that — our interpretation. We’re quite clear it is not the orthodox view, we do not claim it as Theravada, nor Vajrayana, nor anything but a secular approach to Buddhism.

I also do not view it as “small.” Secular Buddhism includes insights and practices from a variety of traditions, as we have found there can be many positive influences on one’s living the Buddha sasana. The entirety of the Pali canon is a core source for many of us, but it is not the only one. Neither do we exclude any part of that canon, we find value in all of it without having to take it in a literal fashion. As an example, rebirth can be interpreted in a number of very beneficial ways. The concept of inter-relatedness of all beings, that all have at one time been a friend, lover, parent, sibling, or child, can be a very powerful lesson in the cultivation of the Brahma Viharas. It can also be interpreted on a more immediate scale, as the present moment extinguishing of ignorance and arising of wisdom, extinguishes the formation of ossified identity.

This seems to be a sticking point that comes up many times, so if I might offer a reflection: the Jataka Tales are part of the Pali canon, filled with stories of talking animals as narrative vehicles for elucidation of particular teachings. I do not take them literally in the same way I do not take Aesop’s Fables to be literal truths, they are fun and interesting ways to carry relevant messages that can apply to my daily life. And yet, they are canonical, and there are fellow Buddhists who do find value in receiving the stories in a literal fashion.

Again, I have no problem with someone else accepting any and all of the canon literally. They are welcome to do so, especially if it helps them in some way in their walking the path, and my walking my own path doesn’t take away from that. My question to those who accept literal interpretations of various aspects of the canon, like rebirth, but do not accept it in other parts like the Jataka Tales, is this: What is the criteria for distinguishing between literal and representative?

What Secular Buddhists Think

The key to secularist Buddhism is, of course, that it dismisses “religious” and “supernatural” ideas, most importantly rebirth, and addresses only what is claims are scientific and observable truths.

We do not dismiss them. Ajahn Sujato and anyone else who wishes to practice in a religious way, in an institution that matches their beliefs, are welcome to do so and have whatever beliefs resonate with them on a cultural, social, and personal level. That includes their acceptance of rebirth, the existence of devas, and anything else that is helpful to them.

We are claiming the same right to choose. It takes away nothing from others’ practice, we’re not asking anyone to change what they do.

The core problem to this is that the Buddha:

Accepted the reality of rebirth based on his own meditative experience
Placed this reality at the core of his teaching.

Secularists either ignore these inconveniences by dealing rather vaguely with “Buddhism” (by which they usually mean Buddhism as interpreted by moderns like themselves) or by trying to explain away the references to rebirth in the EBTs. I won’t go into the details of the latter project; suffice to say, it’s a failure. It doesn’t just get the points above wrong — it gets them catastrophically wrong. These things are not difficult, they are not things that can be interpreted away: they are bleeding obvious.

I agree that Gotama accepted the reality of rebirth, and that it’s core to Buddhism. I also agree that it is in the canon, and never have denied that obvious fact. Many secular Buddhists find that value with another interpretation of what it means to us in our lives, that’s all — we don’t deny the importance or its existence in the canon.

We do not, however, have to accept it as a reality any more than we have to accept talking animals of the Jataka, or Gotama’s canonical physical description, which includes among other less extraordinary features:

  • Thousand-spoked wheel sign on feet
  • Toes and fingers finely webbed
  • Hands reaching below the knees
  • Well-retracted male organ
  • Golden-hued body
  • Ten-foot aura around him
  • Lion-shaped body
  • Forty teeth
  • Jaw like a lion
  • White ūrṇā curl that emits light between eyebrows
  • Fleshy protuberance on the crown of the head

Are these to be regarded as literal? If not, again, how does one distinguish between what is to be taken literally and what is not? If a reason is given, how does one distinguish that reason from the apologetics employed to justify supernatural claims in other religions?

If you don’t accept Jesus as your savior, why not? What makes the Buddhist idea of rebirth more valid than the Christian Heaven, which also has people who return from the dead claiming to have seen it?

Secular Buddhism snorts out the gate roaring that it’s based on reality not faith. Yet its very first rhetorical move is to dismiss plain facts based on uncritical faith in its own ideology.

Again, and hopefully finally, we do not deny those facts.


There are three rational positions that secularists can take with regards to the teaching of rebirth in the suttas.

The Buddha taught rebirth, but rebirth is not real, so the Buddha was wrong.
The Buddha taught rebirth, and rebirth is real, so the Buddha was right.
The Buddha taught rebirth, and I don’t know whether rebirth is real, so I can’t say whether the Buddha was right.

The issue here is around the idea that “Buddha was wrong” if he taught it, and it’s not real. There are spiritual implications to this, of course. If Gotama was wrong, then perhaps the rest of the canon is wrong, too. An alternate and perhaps less condemning approach is the one secular Buddhists often take: that Gotama was a product of his time and culture. He may have had the same compelling experiences as many of us do during deep meditation, fed by assertions that such things are real, and received them with the same confirmation bias as he might be reasonably expected to.

As we know from something as simple as an optical illusion, perception is flawed, imperfect, and subject to error. Our brain is most certainly not a recording device.

What the Buddha came really strong down on, though, was when people misrepresented what he said. He could hardly have made his position on rebirth clearer: he stated it again and again and again, smack bang in the middle of pretty much all his core analyses of the problem of suffering.

I happen to agree. It’s in the canon, and though there are some who find other reasons for that to be so, I’m perfectly happy to accept that Gotama taught rebirth and believed it to be true. Where I differ is my acceptance whole cloth of what’s in the canon. Again, unless you accept talking animals and Gotama’s rather unusual appearance, you may not accept the entirety of the canon as written, either.

Nihilism and Kamma

One concept that frequently arises is the comparison of secular Buddhists to the Nihilists of the Pali Canon, those who do not accept a literal rebirth as true. This again employs the presumption of a simplistic binary formula: either one accepts literal rebirth and kamma, or one does not. Nihilists in the Canon are characterized as not just disbelieving in “again becoming” (punabbhava), but also disbelieving that actions having consequences.

That latter point is one with which I disagree; if the Nihilists of Gotama’s time didn’t believe in the first type of kamma3, it would have been a simple matter to demonstrate with tapping the knee to elicit a reflex, petting a dog or striking it, showing the probabilities of likely outcomes. Secular Buddhists most certainly do accept all three types of kamma, for example:

  1. First Type: Immediate. Abraham Lincoln frees slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.
  2. Second Type: Later Within This Lifetime. Freed slaves join the Northern army.
  3. Third Type: After This Lifetime. People wear mourning badges after his death with a quote from his second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all”, and his influence continues today.

On a more personal level, setting your alarm leads to it going off in the morning. You may snooze or get up or go back to sleep, with appropriate consequences of continued sleeping in over time for your career, and eventually what you’re able to leave to your children upon death, impacting their lives.

The perspective I would like to share is that there are not one, but two concepts bundled in this concern about secular Buddhism. The first has to do with rebirth, the other with kamma. It is completely understandable that the two be inseparable for the orthdox Buddhist, as the rounds of literal rebirth and their ending is the most important fruit (phala) of volitional action (kamma). The perspective is different, however, when one is more focused on rebirth as a reference to what is experienced in a single lifetime. That opens kamma to being completely relevant from a secular perspective, just as rebirth is, observable directly in one’s immediate environment.

Secular Buddhism completely accepts kamma, volitional action resulting in phala, consequences. It is objectively demonstrable, unambiguous, and does not depend on a literal rebirth to show its influence on the world. For a more thorough examination of this topic, I recommend Doug Smith’s article, “On a Belief that Sends You to Hell“.

Bear this in mind when secularists say things like this, to quote the Vox article on Wright:

By “true” Wright means that Buddhism’s “diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” That diagnosis goes something like this: the human condition is defined by constant and ultimately inexplicable suffering.

Of course, the Buddha’s actual “diagnosis of the human predicament” is not that suffering is a psychological tension you can overcome with some mindfulness courses. It is the fact that we are stuck in the endless transmigration of rebirth. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the EBTs should know this. By leaving out “superstitious” elements, the secularists aren’t just shedding Buddhism of unnecessary dross, they’re completely redefining the whole thing, starting with the four noble truths, in a way that has little to do with the Buddha’s intentions.

This wrong-headedness stems from the root conceit at the heart of the secularist program. The secularists are not prepared to question their own deep assumptions. They use materialist rationalism to critique Buddhism, but never imagine that Buddhism might critique materialist rationalism.

This is an essentially psychological, or better, existential lack. The secularist ideology is shallow and arrogant. It’s afraid to suspend it’s own self-view and deep beliefs. It uses its own rational self-image to dismiss things that are problematic: and this is why it remains blind to its own errors, and after many years is still unable to correct them.

The fact in question is nothing of the kind. If it were, there would be no discussion required. It is no more valid a belief than that of any other religious tradition, which also have those who are positively motivated by their ideological stance, and also have eye-witness testimonies.

Again, as I’ve stated many times, I’m happy to be convinced. Please provide evidence, not stories, not compelling personal and unsharable or untestable experiences. Those are not likely sufficient for you, either, as you do not accept them from other religious traditions. Secular Buddhists are not giving ourselves a hall pass for proving our points, while setting a higher standard for others. We recognize that there is a false dichotomy when it’s between secular or material vs. religious or non-material — there are other religious beliefs about what happens upon death, too, and each has equal value in the face of ambiguity.

We hold Buddhism accountable to the same standard we hold other religions and claims.

What to do with this? An arrogant person would simply dismiss the testimony of the other, assuming their own perspective to be the highest. A gullible person would blithely accept anything they’re told. But a rational person would inquire, ask as to details. They’d see whether the testimony held good, and check the person’s reliability. If it all checked out, they’d accept the claim provisionally, while still reserving final judgment: “Hopefully one day I’ll go there myself, and then I’ll know for sure.”

Exactly the point. The example from a Christian perspective is also valid, per Ajahn Sujato’s own criteria above.

It is true, in Buddhism, there are many things that are mere superstitions — magic amulets, mystical tattoos of protection, curses, astrology, and the like. These are not just non-rational, they are pre-rational. They are more primitive than rationality, and in many cases, more harmful. For Buddhists who are at this level of understanding, the appropriate course of action is not talk of transcendence, or even meditation, but to learn to apply principles of rationality and evidence, to learn to disentangle the true Dhamma from superstition.

But of course, such things are not a part of the Buddha’s teachings in the EBTs. Where they appear, they are usually dismissed, or at the very least marginalized. Belief in lucky charms is not the same kind of thing as acceptance of rebirth. But so long as the secularists simply dismiss rebirth, they will never understand this.

Again, we do not dismiss rebirth. We simply have no dependency on a literal interpretation of it; our practice stands up just fine if that turns out to be false. I can still do my very best to extinguish suffering within this very lifetime. The perspective of having just this one life actually provides some sense of urgency to do so, and perspective of my own limits as a human being.

I am also confident that e=mc2 would still be true if Einstein turned out not to have formulated it. The Four Noble Truths stand on their own not by virtue of being scripture or because a brilliant and enlightened person said so. It’s of value because it works, and that is unambiguously demonstrable, externally verifiable, and predictive — unlike literal rebirth.

Rebirth is an observable, empirical phenomenon, which can be understood as a simple extension of the same psychological principles we observe here and now. It no more requires metaphysics than does looking through a telescope.

Looking through a telescope is something anyone can do, and we see the same objects. Anyone can do it, no special attainments are required, and it can be done at any time. It is replicable, it is predictive. I do not find this to be the case with rebirth.

If you’re interested in actual Buddhist philosophy from a modern perspective, which is deeply grounded in a serious study of Buddhist texts and teachings, as integrated by people who have really studied modern philosophy, choose these writers, not the lightweights of Buddhist secularism.

I continue to be dismayed by Ajahn Sujato’s dismissive characterizations of secular Buddhists on a personal level. It is one of the difficulties in formulating this reply, and I fail to see how such words are not divisive. This is not the same as the samma vaca of words that are necessary, true, but not well received. Rather, this is an unnecessary disparagement that hinders friendly conversation and sharing of differing perspectives, and I would ask that the level of discourse be raised without continued condescension.

And just as scientists connect the many diverse phenomena with explanatory inferences which we call “scientific theories”, the Buddha drew together his observations in overarching theories such as dependent origination.

Theory has a much different meaning in science than suggested here. They are the highest standard; the concept of “just” a theory does not apply in science. If rebirth is to be taken on the same level as scientific theory, that’s great, I’d really and truly like to see that happen. That means the progress from Fact, to Hypothesis, to Law, and then to Theory.

The problem is that the foundational facts do not measure up to scientific rigor and process. That’s okay, they don’t have to in order to be of value to Buddhists who can take them on faith or interpret them in ways that are helpful, so I would like to suggest that none of us are well served by trying to make these equivalent.

It does, however, show that the secularist dismissal of rebirth as metaphysics or superstition is wrong-headed. If they want to fulfill their claims of making a truly rational, scientific account of Buddhism, they must start by accepting that rebirth is an empirical theory, and investigate it as such.

The person making the positive claim bears the burden of proof:

This then requires consideration of the evidence regarding rebirth and other non-materialistic phenomena. I won’t discuss this here; suffice to say I think there’s plenty of evidence to question the materialist position.

Another video much better than I could ever articulate, regarding faith in evidence for non-materialist claims:

Perhaps the most disappointing outcome, for me, of the secularist philosophy is that it undermines the capacity for Buddhism to make a real difference. It seems to me that one of the most damaging and toxic legacies of the West is dualism: mind vs. body, faith vs. reason, religion vs. science, fact vs. value. This is not only a debilitating intellectual fallacy, it has catastrophic effects on our society, underlying the whole fundamentalist rejection of science, including climate change denial, which threatens the very survival of our civilization.

There is simply no comparison between controlled, falsifiable, and externally demonstrable predictive evidence about global warming with a belief in what happens when you die. The article disparages materialist views, and then indicates that science is being rejected by fundamentalists. I agree, the article does it throughout, and after having done so places the blame on materialists.

We should recognize that the Dhamma … has never made enemies out of emotions and reason, faith and science. If we are to heal the wounds of our broken and bleeding world, surely this is where we must start.

Natalie Quli wrote, “A theoretical approach that subtly or explicitly privileges as more authentic those Buddhisms predating Western contact can distort the way we characterize Buddhists, as changes tend to be framed in terms of decline and loss rather than adaptation or creativity…. To develop a methodology capable of deep listening, I suggest we begin to dismantle those theoretical foundations that interpret change as pollution.”4

So what would it take for orthodox Buddhists to accept the reality of secular Buddhism? There may be no such acceptance, and there doesn’t have to be; secular Buddhists do not need the permission of orthodoxy to practice and live the dhamma in our lives, and orthodox Buddhists do not need to accept what we do.

What I do ask is that when there are disagreements about what Buddhism is, we come together as Buddhists to share our perspectives, our insights, and our practices. The alternatives are to be further divided and even more distant, if not openly acrimonious which is how I and many other secular Buddhists have taken Ajahn Sujato’s article. We can learn from one another without disparagement, honoring one another as people in the face of disagreement about ideas, and embodying the truths of Buddhism in our words, actions, and through what is in our hearts.

1 Online dictionary definition of “orthodox”
2 I would like to thank Tim Bowman in particular for his outstanding moderation of that community’s guideline, “We do not disrespect, disparage, belittle, or ridicule other Buddhist traditions, schools, or sects or their teachers or members.” There were a number of comments that required frequent attention, and the moderators on that wonderfully active group handle it with amazing dedication.
3 “And what is the result of kamma? The result of kamma is of three sorts, I tell you: that which arises right here & now, that which arises later [in this lifetime], and that which arises following that.”, Nibbedhika Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 6.63.
4Quli, Natalie E., 2009. “Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for ‘Tradition’ in Buddhist Studies.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol.16, p. 7.

Category: Articles

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 (39)

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  1. Jason Malfatto says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Ted. I have two things to add:

    1) a link to Doug’s excellent article on this site, “A Secular Evaluation of Rebirth”, which speaks directly to the rational and empirical arguments alluded to above, and

    2) my strong suspicion that the connection between Ajahn Sujato’s part in the Authenticity project and his claim that rebirth does not merely feature in the EBT’s, but is actually “at the core of his teaching”, is no accident.

    On the latter point, it is wise for practitioners to practice skepticism (in the sense of critical thinking and/or suspending judgment) in regards to questions of “authenticity” in the EBT’s (i.e. which teachings among them the Buddha actually did teach) and, by extension, in regards to questions of which teachings he believed were “core” to his Dhamma.

    These are secular (historical) questions in the sense that they do not entail beliefs in other-worldly (supernatural) claims, and yet they still risk inviting attachment to views that may or may not be true and, even to the extent that they are, can serve as dogmatic hindrances to personal experimentation and (dis)confirmation. Hold them for a while if we must, but then let’s hold them lightly.

  2. I don’t think this article does anything much to address the conflicts it is intended to address, because on the one hand it shrinks from disagreement by offering only relativist avoidance of it (conceding far too much in the process), and on the other only offers its opponents’ case consideration on its own (naturalistic) terms (in the process failing to use criticism as an opportunity to really examine its own assumptions). As usual, the possibility that the Middle Way might offer an appropriate way for Buddhists to resolve their differences is not even considered.

    The relativism can be illustrated by this: “Again, I have no problem with someone else accepting any and all of the canon literally. They are welcome to do so, especially if it helps them in some way in their walking the path, and my walking my own path doesn’t take away from that.” How is taking the canon literally going to help anyone on their path? On the contrary, it’s likely to provide a basis of dogmatic attachment that is not open to the examination of experience. Merely shrinking from disagreement in this way is also not going to encourage any dogmatic traditionalist to re-examine their assumptions. So this concedes far too much.

    On the other hand, you invite opponents to offer their arguments only on the kind of terms that you would consider acceptable, in particular using the burden of proof argument in the familiar naturalistic way that assumes anyone with a different view has to make all the running and you have nothing to learn from them. There is an insistence on a scientific basis of theoretical judgement despite the fact that science is a formal social process that can only be applied to a very small minority of judgements. This is bound to reinforce the traditionalist perception of a narrow materialistic basis of judgement. Instead of dismissing others’ ‘stories’ as not scientific enough, how about looking more closely at the helpful meaning that may be behind them, and indeed what sorts of argument they can indeed justify? Why not explore a bit more of the embodied and Jungian approaches that could help you find common ground, even if that disturbs the assumptions of the naturalism that Doug favours?

    Engaging with opponents is a worthy objective, but only if you’re prepared to be genuinely challenged. That means learning as much as possible from your opponents in a dialectical fashion, rather than adopting the easy relativist way out that privatises the spiritual path. I think it also means actively seeking out third way alternatives with the recognition that your group does not have all the answers. The Buddha did not teach the Middle Way for a bit of mild diversion after a hard day in the laboratory – it was basic to the insight he offered.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Robert, you are missing the point. We start from naturalism because it is the only basis for deriving objective truth. It does so over and over again, from discovering the evidence of the Big Bang many years after the original hypothesis, to creating the computer Sujato uses to denigrate science. Secular Buddhism does not exist because we have terribly misinterpreted the Pali texts. It exists because people want to take advantage of the life-transforming insights and practices the Buddhist traditions offer us without having to pretend that there is some reality other than one that has at least the potential of being objectively demonstrated. We are not trying to convert anyone, and so Ted has no reason to try to talk Sujato out of his supernatural beliefs. There is no point in arguing with someone who does not need evidence to support his truth statements, and Ted wisely avoids doing so. But secular mindfulness is positively transforming the lives of many thousands of people who would not embrace it if they had to take on ancient Indian cosmology in order to do so. It would be nice if orthodox individuals would at least grant that this is so, and a good thing to be encouraged, rather than attacking us as arrogant imposters.

      • Hi Mark. Your second sentence clearly illustrates the over-certainty that I am talking about. Your other assumptions also illustrate the unnecessary polarisation of the discussion with the traditionalists, into which you have apparently immediately tried to slot me. I didn’t say anything about Pali texts, and the last thing I would do is appeal to them (unlike many articles on this site, which seem to set far too much store by them). Avoiding claims about ‘reality’ is exactly the issue, but I’m suggesting you try harder to avoid mirroring the traditionalists in this regard, and rather adopt the kind of provisionality that marks scientific *practice* (not results) at its best. I agree very much that mindfulness is transforming people’s lives positively, so the whole point is to help people engage with it (along with other helpful practices) not only without Indian cosmology, but also without other types of unnecessary baggage. I’m not orthodox by any stretch of the imagination, and I didn’t accuse anyone of being an arrogant imposter.

        Whenever I try to make any kind of point about the limitations of the assumed view that tends to dominate on this site, the response slots straight into a polarised pattern in which I’m immediately assumed to be on ‘the other side’. Anything I write about the Middle Way is resolutely ignored, as though the Middle Way did not exist, or the Buddha had nothing to say about it. Do you not think the Middle Way is important, or that you should be trying to practise it in the way you approach these questions? I let these issues go for a few months or years, then sometimes I try again to see if attitudes have changed at all (especially as Ted seems to have softened a bit recently) – but, no, if your response is anything to go by, it seems the same certainties rule. I still remain incredulous that the very people who are re-thinking Buddhism in so many positive ways have got so stuck in this one.

        • Jason Malfatto says:


          Ajahn Sujato claimed that “rebirth is an empirical theory, and [that we should] investigate it as such.”

          Or as Hume put it: “A Wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

          So far so good (or yay for empiricism!).

          But what happens if someone evaluates the evidence for rebirth and finds it wanting? or finds that the evidence better supports a competing theory (say, that the mind dies with the body)? Is that a necessary barrier to entry into the Buddhist family?

          As someone who abstains from taking Buddhist vows – who also bets against literal rebirth, so to speak, and without the need of certainty – the question is of little concern. But I can still respect others’ decisions to do so, based on the appeal of other Buddhist teachings (like the Middle Way).

          • Hi Jason, What does it mean to ‘respect’ someone’s decision to adopt a dogmatic belief? Does it mean that we respect their social and political right to do so, or that we continue to respect them as a person? Both of those, of course, I’d support too, but I think we need to be much more careful about ‘respecting’ of a kind that might be interpreted as meaning that such a choice is as good as any other choice. I would have thought that anyone who is trying to follow a spiritual path with an acknowledged moral dimension would want to avoid such implicit relativism, that fails to follow through on what one can justifiably believe to be right in the circumstances.

            Personally I also think that the claim that rebirth is an empirical theory is nonsensical. Rebirth can have various kinds of symbolic significance and thus become meaningful to us by standing for our identification with a future self, but the supposed ‘evidence’ for it depends on a set of assumptions that are not open to experiential examination. The problem here, then, is one of confused thinking, where one should not go along with the theological tendency to flip between metaphysical and empirical modes of argument.

            If such confusions are the cost of an entry ticket into ‘the Buddhist family’, why does anyone even want to be in such a family? Surely it is much better to identify the crucial insights of the Buddha and live them, rather than worrying about such labels? Why are secular Buddhists even bothering to argue about such things, the point of which is only to be admitted to a ‘family’ that is of dubious value because defined in terms of confused dogmas?

            At risk of being a bore, let me come back to the Buddha’s Middle Way in the form of his silence when confronted by opposed metaphysical absolutes. He did not take a position on the existence of the self or not, the beginning or end of the universe or not, but rather maintained agnosticism. Surely this is by far the most genuinely ‘Buddhist’ response, i.e. based on the core insights of the Buddha’s Middle Way, when confronted by metaphysical claims about rebirth. If traditionalists don’t recognise why rebirth claims are metaphysical, then it’s necessary to become a whole lot clearer about metaphysics and the Middle Way and how they work so as to be able to explain it to them, and then hopefully create more common ground based on that Middle Way. But you can’t do that without a lot more study and discussion of the Middle Way itself as a distinctive approach, rather than just relying on mainstream naturalism and assuming that this is compatible with the Buddha’s insights.

            • Jason Malfatto says:

              Robert: Echoing Michael’s reply to you below, I don’t see it as obvious that secular Buddhists (like Ted and the rest of the regulars here) have adopted a “dogmatic belief”, so you may interpret my use of ‘respect’ above in a more charitable spirit.

              More weakly, I don’t mind that some individuals choose to identify as Buddhists, even though I do not, as I prefer a more eclectic approach to philosophy. So, while it’s fair to say that I’ve taken some Buddhism on board, it’s also fair to hyphenate the ‘Buddhist’ label, along with others, in my case. Ted and the rest seem more focused and committed to the Buddha-Dharma than I am. I can recognize benefits in that approach, even as I choose to forgo them (though it seems that one benefit of the approach that I take is that orthodox critics of unorthodox Buddhisms fail to land on me).

              On the (less personal) topic of whether rebirth is an empirical theory, I suspect that we both share some intuition of what counts in Ajahn Sujato’s mind as evidence for rebirth: for example, accounts of past-life recollections and out-of-body-experiences.

              What’s more, philosopher of mind Evan Thompson evaluates empirical arguments like these in his book “Waking, Dreaming, Being” and finds them wanting. Has he committed a category mistake for even bothering to do so? I don’t think so. Perhaps in the Buddha’s setting these were very compelling arguments. In our time, however, not so much – or at least not so much among Thompson’s tribe of scientifically literate philosophers and lay folks (like myself) who read them.

              • Jason Malfatto says:

                I feel obliged to add: that “accounts of past-life recollections and out-of-body-experiences” recount actual (subjective/sensorimotor) phenomena is not in question. What is in question is how to interpret those phenomena – e.g. as genuine memories of real events (as real or genuine, say, as my memory of having seen a group of deer by the roadside yesterday) or as illusions generated by an active embodied mind (like the dreams I’ve experienced of flying like Superman).

                Even if the weight of evidence (including that of modern neuroscience) favors the latter theory (as I believe it does), that in itself does not rule out the logical possibility of rebirth. But it does refute a certain kind of argument for that belief – an empirical kind – which may or may not affect one’s confidence in it: for example, depending on the strength of one’s commitment to a tradition that insists on its status as a core belief.

              • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

                Jason, re identifying as a Buddhist. Quite optional, IMO. I guess I’m willing to call myself an unorthodox or secular Buddhist in the same way I’m also willing to label myself as a humanist, a democratic socialist, a Darwinist etc. etc. Using these labels makes a statement, useful in some contexts. For example, if I want to set mysef apart from Creationism, the Darwinist label makes a point, but, of course, I wouldn’t want to insist on it in a cotext that might suggest I reject post-Darwinist evolutionary theory. Using the socialist label helps to distinguish support for such things as universa health care (though up here in Canada it isn’t really regarded as socialist anymore)from tinkering with the system. It does not mean I adher strictly to any particular political platform. Calling myself a Buddhist recognizes that I think there are elements of Gotama’s dharma that don’t get the play in main-stream humanism I think they deserve. But if I let these labels define me, with mysef or others, if I attach to them,that would be, well hardly Buddhist.

                Does this make sense?

                • Jason Malfatto says:

                  Makes sense to me, Michael. What’s more, it jibes well with my comment above re: hyphenated labels.

                  Speaking of which, I found it interesting that Ajahn Sujato singled out Robert Wright in his critique of secular Buddhism. Presumably, that’s because Wright’s latest book, Why Buddhism is True, is on bestseller’s lists. But Wright disavows Buddhist identity, secular or otherwise, in the book:

                  I don’t call myself a Buddhist, because traditional Buddhism has so many dimensions -of belief, of ritual- that I haven’t adopted. I don’t believe in reincarnation or related notions of karma, and I don’t bow before the statue of the Buddha upon entering the meditation hall, much less pray to him or to any Buddhist deities. Calling myself a Buddhist, it seems to me, would almost be disrespectful to the many Buddhists, in Asia and elsewhere, who inherited and sustain a rich and beautiful religious tradition.

                  I harbor similar reservations to the label, but it appears that Wright’s respectful disavowal of it still winds him up lumped together with “the lightweights of Buddhist secularism.” 🙂

                  • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

                    We seem to be on much the same wave-length, Jason. However, I’m not sure I believe secular and other non-traditional Buddhisms disrespect traditional Buddhisms. Buddhisms have always evolved and adapted, crossed cultural lines. Is secular Buddhism more disrespectful than say, Zen, of older versions of the dharma? I don’t think there’s a problem of cultural appropriation here. Ideas are intellectual products and, perhaps unlike some other elements of culture, are meant to be borrowed, shared, adapted. Otherwise they are just cultural curiosities, inaccessible to other cultures. That would truly disrespect them as intellectual products.

                    • Jason Malfatto says:

                      Cultural appropriation is a valid concern, I think, but yes: if early East-Asian adopters of the Buddha-Dharma once shared it, then you wouldn’t know it nowadays.

                      But that is not my only reason. I’m also one to pick my battles and a turf battle with Buddhist traditionalists is not one that interests me all that much.

                      Plus there’s that eclectic approach I mentioned, which tends to constrain opportunities for calling attention to any one influence. Of course, this site/forum tends to accentuate the Buddhist influence.

  3. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Robert, I appreciate your problem with setting up scientific naturalism as absolute truth. But I believe you nonetheless miss a crucial point about the secular Buddhist project and its relation to Gotama’s views. Many (I suspect most) of us do not start from certainty about the natural world or any absolutes, scientific or otherwise. Like Gotama, we are interested in coming to terms with the existential (aka “spiritual”) questions that plague us, in finding a satisfactory basis for living the good life. For this purpose, many of us take an essentially parsimonious approach. We look for satisfactory answers without swallowing the metaphysical and speculative camels that most religion and much philosophy require. Our naturalism or empiricism really amounts to this: We seek the answers in what can be known from experience. This is one of our principal debts to Gotama (though we might not always agree with what he believed could be verified from experience). This approach was of course not unique to him (or always rigourously followed by him), but it was a remakable insight in the 5th C., and was so well stated that it still resonates today.

    There are of course other philosophical questions — for example we might argue (or agree) about the ultimate status of scientific truth — but answering these questions is apparently not relevent to the present project.

    I know this is quoted very often around here, but it’s still worth repeating:

    “So, as I said, Kalamas: Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.'”
    (Kalama Sutta)

    • Hi Michael, The approach you take sounds fine from that description. Seeking the answers that can be justified (I’d rather say ‘justified’ than ‘known’) from experience is also exactly what I’m trying to do in Middle Way Philosophy. However, it’s curious how the attitudes that emerge in a debate with traditionalists put any such attitudes to the test, and perhaps make it clearer to what extent they have actually been thought out. Assumptions emerge in opposition that might not emerge in positive statement. Have we learnt enough from the Buddha or from spiritual practice to be able to navigate the tests of such conflicts effectively, in a way that really tries to get to the heart of the Buddha’s project as an integrator and peacemaker? The polarisations I see so much of in the article above and in other past material on this site, as well as Mark’s response to my post, seem most unlikely to be unrelated to the simultaneous ignoring of that whole facet of the Buddha’s teaching that is particularly directed at the effective navigating of conflicting beliefs, and to the degree of resistance that I meet whenever I suggest giving a bit more attention to that facet.

  4. Nick Nick says:

    The Pali suttas teach ‘birth’ (‘jati’) is the production of the idea, convention or self-view of ‘beings’ (SN 12.2; SN 23.2; SN 5.10; SN 22.81; etc). Therefore, ‘re-birth’ (for which no one literal Pali word exists but is a pathetic translation by translators) is simply the re-arising of self-view in the mind. The Buddha did teach about ‘re-birth’, ‘re-birth’ is something very real but ‘re-birth’ does not mean past & future lives as depicted in the Jataka, which were composed hundreds of years after the Buddha. Come on Secular Buddhists! Get with reality!

  5. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Robert, we may not be very far apart, but I’m not sure I really said anything much different than Mark’s post, nor do I see much evidence of the “polarisations [you] see so much of in the article above and in other past material on this site.”

    I will count the “discoveries” of modern science as part of the experience I draw on. This does not mean that I start from an essentially metaphysical view of the ultimate ontological truth of those discoveries (Like Gotama, I’d like to avoid ontology as much as possible). Scientific inquiry, properly conducted, is usually pragmatic in practice, allergic to absolute truths.

    If I understand you correctly, I think you may be setting up a straw man when you seem to suggest that secular Buddhism deviates from the middle way by treating scientific truth as an absolute. It does not, and most of us, I think, do not approach science in that way.

    In fact, by appearing to equate scientific inquiry with a kind of scientism, I fear you may risk setting up a new polarity & finding youself closer to a pole than the middle. I really intend this last statement as friendly criticism. I’ve read and discussed your middle way for a while now, and find it interesting and provoking. But I thing you are making unneccessary opponents by assuming too much about how secular Buddhists understand and use naturalism. There is a midde way, but I don’t think secular Buddhists are headed out of it.


    • Hi Michael, It’s great to hear you express approbation for the Middle Way. I really think it’s the first time I’ve read anyone doing so explicitly on this site. Argue about the nature of the Middle Way by all means, but valuing it in the first place is a large part of the issue. But if secular Buddhists really value the Middle Way, where are the articles on it on this site? Where are the podcast interviews about it? Where is it being used as a basis of judgement?

      I’ve no desire to set up straw men, but I’m also clear that the test of a position lies in its use. If I’m wrong about scientific truth being used as an absolute even when Mark writes something like “We start from naturalism because it is the only basis for deriving objective truth.” then I’m happy to be so. But please give me evidence. Just give me one example, on this website, of the Middle Way being *used* as a basis of judgement on a central issue – of someone following the provisional methods of science rather than appealing to its results, for example, or seeking the ambiguous ground between one absolute belief and another, as opposed to merely rejecting an absolute belief and leaving it at that?

      • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

        Robert, thanks for the clarification. I think you may have generated more interest around here than you know! I remember at least one protracted discussion here in which your middle way figured prominently. Mufi where are you? (he was recommending articles by you).

        Of course, I can’t speak for Mark, and apologize in advance if I’m on a wildly different tangent, but I suspect most secular Buddhists and fellow travelers mean something like “verified by observation or experience” when they talk about “objective truth”, taking “verified” here in a weaker sense than “absolutely established” in a metaphysical sense. Most of us just aren’t very interested speculating about the ultimate ontological status of experience. But I think there is more concern with the proposition that, in so far as we can know anything, “the only basis for deriving” this knowledge is experience, observation. Authority, scripture, speculation have all proven to be dead ends. Scientific inquiry (as opposed to theories of science) is a subset of this approach. Or, perhaps better said, a scientific frame of mind is more interested in phenomena than ontology.

        I hope that clarifies my view to some extent.

        • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

          I meant to add to the observation that “Most of us just aren’t very interested speculating about the ultimate ontological status of experience” (or any other essentially metaphysical questions) that in fact a central appeal of Buddhism is the prospect that we can come to terms with the universe, find enlightenment if you will, without having to answer these questions, without the speculative views relgion usually requires.

        • Jason Malfatto says:

          Mufi where are you?

          I’m here, Michael: just switched my handler from nickname to legal name.

          Most of us just aren’t very interested speculating about the ultimate ontological status of experience

          The key word here (for me, at least) is “ultimate”, as I work from conventional (or folk) ontological assumptions every day, first and foremost: that other minds (besides my own) exist (i.e. solipsism is false).

          I also don’t mind admitting a kind of “physicalist” assumption about the basis of experience, though biology seems the more apt level of analysis than physics, when speaking of its embodied/neural basis. There is, after all, a lot of scientific evidence in its favor and it also seems to favor (in Buddhist psychological terms) the “annihilationist” position more so than the “eternalist” one (Middle Way, notwithstanding).

          But none of these assumptions demand total certainty: just a willingness to take them on board (to wager on them, so to speak) and, when challenged, to defend them as rationally and empirically supported: more so than their alternatives.

  6. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I guess we are naive ontologists without knowing it. Much like Moliere’s Bourgeois gentilhomme who was surprised and thrilled to discover he’d been speaking prose all his life.

    • Indeed, Michael, very often. I wouldn’t exclude myself from ‘we’ there either. Naïve ontology is another way of saying absolutisation – or, much less precisely, the traditional Buddhist greed, hatred and delusion. But the issue seems to be how much practical attention we give to avoiding naïve ontology, whether we recognise its negative as well as its positive forms, and whether we focus sufficiently on working with the everyday biases that are its products.

    • Jason Malfatto says:

      Michael: I dare say that we can barely function without some model of reality – say, a set of criteria by which to distinguish between the real and the fake threats and opportunities that our environment has to offer us.

      And I use ‘us’ because I make the ontological assumption that you are every bit as real as I am (i.e. solipsism is false), as inexact as these signifiers are. I doubt that I could take you seriously as an object of empathy and compassion if I believed you were only a fiction, after all.

      That might explain why even philosophers who elevate ethics above other problem domains (e.g. certain Stoics come readily to mind), nonetheless at least dabble in metaphysics. The trick, I think, is to practice epistemic humility in all domains of knowledge and wisdom, especially as the domain increases in speculation.

  7. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Yes, Robert naïve ontology can be absolutism. A “things are much as they are (or seem)” attitude certainly encourages delusion in Gotama’s sense, discourages reflection on the human condition. So we should avoid too many naive assumptions about the nature of things, and particularly our self-nature. But as Jason suggests, some assumptions are necessary. I’d add, for example, the assumption that I have free will, least I be (inevitably :)) reduced to catatonia. But I suppose that when these things are examined and accepted as pragmatic, provisional notions, they are no longer naive.

    Because I know that there are limits on what can be known with certainty, I want to avoid making more assumptions than necessary, and (perhaps even more importantly) want avoid creating speculative entities and views which I persuade myself are required to live well. Yes, Jason “the trick is to practice epistemic humility in all domains* of knowledge.”

    *But once I’ve accepted the need for humility, I think I can probably safely speculate about things not too directly related to eudaemonia — quantum mechanics, cosmology, what Donald Trump really thinks ….

    • I disagree with the assumptions about ontology being made here, which confuse absolute with provisional assumptions. Ontology is absolute because it is beyond experience, and ontological claims are either true or false, not a matter of incremental probability based on evidence. Provisional assumptions, however, are held with openness to alternatives, which implies that we accept them as a matter of degree. It is not possible to hold an ontological view provisionally, and far from needing to make ontological assumptions for provisional belief, they are incompatible with it – unless you’re one of those philosophers who speaks of ‘ontology’ but actually means a type of analysis. This is an unorthodox philosophical position I know, but I make no apologies for it. The orthodox assumption that all beliefs are somehow ‘metaphysical’ has held us back long enough with its unnecessary and absolute barrier between philosophy and psychology, and complete ignoring of the *way* in which we hold beliefs.

  8. Incidentally, perhaps we’re now getting into a better illustration of how naturalistic approaches are not so Middle Way after all, and why in practice they often distract people from it. Provisionality isn’t just some sort of optional extra added to an ‘ontological’ assumption that has to be metaphysical. That’s what naturalism tends to do in my experience – it hangs onto the idea that metaphysics is somehow legitimate in some cases, because it confuses absolute thinking with basic assumptions and categorisations. In practice, we may not be able to avoid all absolutisations, but that’s not because of some a priori rule that we have to think in them.

  9. Jason Malfatto says:

    A model of reality need not be absolute. It can be approximate, provisional, pragmatic, and all that good stuff that we associate with epistemic humility.

    That said, can words like ‘ontological’ and ‘metaphysical’ refer to (cognitive) models such as these (be they formal or informal, sophisticated or folksy)? I think so, or at least I seem to recall philosophers using them that way.

    In any case, that is how I intended them above.

    • My post below was actually composed before you posted this. Yes, philosophers and others do try to use the terms ontological and metaphysical as though they could be provisional. In my view they cause a great deal of confusion by doing so.

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        Robert: I’m unaware of the confusion to which you refer (after all, the provisionality message was not lost, even on a simple lay person like myself), but these are merely words. Inasmuch as they mislead, then I suppose that teachers like yourself have your work cut out for you.

  10. OK, so you don’t have a clue what I’m on about. Let’s come back to Ted’s article. Let me just try to summarise the issues as I see them. It’s OK to criticise divisive criticism over collaborative dialogue if you have a model for how collaborative dialogue ought to work. This, crucially, involves accepting the provisionality of your own view, and you can then quite reasonably point out the dogmatism in others’ views. However, if your own view as it is being applied, implicitly or explicitly, involves the belief that science tells you how the world is – rather than science following the Middle Way in demonstrating useful methods for overcoming delusion and addressing conditions – then you will be simply adding more divisive criticism of your own. I’m not at all convinced that the naturalism commonly assumed on this website (not necessarily in Jason and Michael’s more thoughtful but marginal contributions) is not doing that. My impression that it isn’t is based on several things: the attitude to the Middle Way in Buddhism (a complete lack of interest in it), the focus on results of science rather than method, the lack of interest in alternative developments in science (such as systems theory, brain lateralisation, integrative psychology etc) that might provide a critical perspective on the hard science/ analytic philosophy model that tends to dominate, the continuing impression of one-sided participation in secularist v religious debates, the appeal to a supposed burden of proof, the ethical relativism, and so on. Those are all impressions, and obviously I haven’t monitored all your output. Do what you will with those impressions.

  11. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I’m not confused. Clearly an ontological statement can be believed, disbelieved, or uncertain. In the last case, I can, if I think it useful to do so, treat it as true and draw implications. Or — better I think — I can admit my uncertainty and stll try to find the way to live wisely in the world as I experience it, without believing I have to answer unanswerable questions in order to do so.

    In so far as science (results and method) is at least a partial descrrption of my world, I accept it. That’s all.


    “Malunkyaputta did you ever say to me, ‘Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One and [in return] he will declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal, or not eternal'{etc.] …. Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone? “And why are [such questions] undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life.” (MN 63)

  12. Mark Knickelbine says:

    I would strongly advise everyone reading this thread to check out “Fantasyland” by Kurt Andersen. He demonstrates how the wholesale rejection of materialism by American culture, from academia to politics and certainly religion, in the 1960s and 70s created the conditions for the alternative facts, fake news, digital conspiracy echo chamber, it’s OK for the president to lie, etc., situation that is on the verge of destroying American democracy today. When we can no longer agree on the facts, or even that there is a reality, then there is no basis for restraining any kind of nonsense, including fascism and Trump. And it is those, like Trump, for whom reality is most inconvenient who will exploit our gullibility. Insisting on evidence is more than just the rational thing to do — it is vital if we are going to rescue our culture.

    • Jason Malfatto says:

      Mark: I realize (as Ted once put it) that we tend “to get bunched up in words” here, but I do think there is a meaningful difference between “materialism” and “empiricism.” Your reference to “insisting on evidence” is very much in line with the latter, but the latter does not necessarily entail the former.

      And so far I’m just talking about “materialism” as a metaphysical doctrine (e.g. “that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications”). Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s false. On that question I plead agnostic, since no amount of evidence can exhaust the logical possibilities.

      But the situation gets more serious (as in ethically charged) with the more common sense of “materialism” in popular culture (e.g. “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values”). If only for this reason, I have a hard time reconciling that word with the Dharma, which so clearly does not place such high value on material possessions and physical comfort.

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        PS: So we might say that it’s no accident that so many dharma teachers nowadays are alumni or children of the hippie counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s.

  13. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Mark, I hope you don’t suspect me of trying to give license to relying on anything but “the facts, and nothing but the facts.” To underline, if I’m skeptical about metaphysical & ontological ultimates, it’s because I don’t think speculation on such things is necessary or particularly useful. Don’t want to get hung on words, but for this reason, I think I prefer “naturalism” to “materialism,” though in practice there’s probably not much difference.

    Still, I’ve long been attracted to Galen Strawson’s “real naturalism,” which he isn’t afraid to call metaphysical or physicalist:

    “I’m a naturalist, an out-and-out naturalist, a philosophical or metaphysical naturalist, a naturalist about concrete reality. I don’t think anything supernatural or otherwise non-natural exists. ….”

    Not only a strong defense of an essentially materialistic view, but also argues convincingly that consciousness/experience exists — a thorough going naturalist or naturalist sees consciousness as a physical phenomenon. The so-called “hard problem” of mind–body or matter–consciousness is, according to Strawson, no problem at all:

    Anyway, this thread went off on a tangent, not really where Ted intended to point us, I fear. So I want to add that Ted’s article is a fine contribution to justifying the secular Buddhist project.

    • Jason Malfatto says:

      Michael: So long as we can all agree that one is not a better person (or, on more Buddhist terms, further along the path) just because one embraces this metaphysical view or that, then I’m satisfied.

      I interpreted Ted to being saying more or less the same. I’m not so sure that Mark agrees, however, given his last comment, which makes out a “rejection of materialism” to be a fast road to “fascism and Trump.”

      One need not harbor an aversion to materialism (as some religious adherents, both orthodox and new-agey, apparently do) in order to recognize the absurdity of that premise. One need only recognize moral common ground between people of various beliefs and non-beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality (a.k.a. Reality). It’s why (to hearken back to earlier threads about Buddhist politics & economics) we can reasonably call an orthodox monk like Bikkhu Bodhi (not to mention with many other religious adherents) allies in the cause against such malignant forces.

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