logo_v4_300pxI would like to have more time to respond to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s recent piece on Secular Buddhism over at Secular Buddhism New Zealand, “Facing the Great Divide”, as well as to Stephen Batchelor’s lengthy response in the comments. Unfortunately time is short so I will be necessarily brief.

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Bodhi’s essay is something of an olive branch to secularism, particularly contrasted with his 1994 piece, “A Buddhist Response to Contemporary Dilemmas of Human Existence”, in which he talked about how “secularization invades the most sensitively private arenas of our lives, spurred on by a social order driven by the urge for power, profits and uniformity”, and found secularization responsible for “existential dislocation” and “moral degeneration”.

His new essay by contrast does at least go to some lengths to point out secularism’s advantages as well as its (perceived) disadvantages. Further, his new essay does not tar secularism with the brush of moral turpitude. In that it is an advance over the Nikāya approach to materialism as found in such suttas as the Apaṇṇaka and the Sandaka. We have got a long way if we have put the moral issues into the background.

Instead Bodhi is willing to countenance that

Secular Buddhism … opens doors to the Dharma for people inclined to the experiential emphasis of the hard sciences. Secular Buddhists have also devised new applications of the Dharma neglected or bypassed by the tradition, bringing Buddhist practices into such areas as health care, education, prison work and psychotherapy.

This is no small advance over his earlier suspicion, and should be lauded. Bodhi also notes that all forms of Buddhism, both Classical and Secular, could learn from the Abrahamic religions (and I would add secular activists) in their turn towards political and social activism. This is a point I cited Bodhi for in my “Buddhist Ethics for an Age of Technological Change”, over at Justin Whitaker’s blog.

The main problem with Bodhi’s essay, it will come as no surprise, comes in the section where he outlines what he sees as “the principal weakness of Secular Buddhism”, that is, scientific naturalism. In response he says,

[I]f Classical Buddhism holds fast to its original standpoint, it may well expand the horizons of science beyond materialist reductionism, opening the scientific mind to subtler dimensions of reality.

This is the stand of most traditional religious thinkers when confronted by modernity: the assumption that their anecdotal claims are as valid as data scientifically vetted, and the confidence that their tradition has enabled them to get in touch with realities unknown by science.

All that can be said in response is that Bodhi appears to be unaware of the depth of scientific understanding, as well as the decades-long unsuccessful attempts to find the kinds of “subtler dimensions of reality” mentioned in the classical texts.

As regards rebirth, I have outlined some of the evidence in a previous essay. Similar essays have been written responding to claims for ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, and other mythical abilities spoken of in the old texts.

Suffice to say that the days in which scientists were genuinely interested in such claimed phenomena are long gone; that field appears to be barren. While there is always the remote possibility of a future breakthrough, at this point we are well justified in assuming that no such breakthrough is forthcoming.

Stephen Batchelor

Now to turn, once again all too briefly, to Stephen Batchelor’s response: we are in agreement that the Four Noble Truths can perhaps best be understood as four tasks to be undertaken; indeed, Justin Whitaker and I have argued just that in a forthcoming paper. But this does not discount that the Buddha taught that these were to be believed and understood as well. Indeed, the first “task” that the Buddha put forward was that dukkha was to be understood; this he elaborated in the Chachakka Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 148) as understanding dukkha’s role in all of perceived reality.

I think Batchelor’s oft-stated claim that “the ancient Indian worldview is not intrinsic but extrinsic to the Buddha’s teaching”, as well as his related claim that the Buddha

was not an ontologist, who claimed that the way he saw the world corresponded to the way it ‘really’ is

are both forms of special pleading, however. It may well have been that the Buddha’s views on rebirth were not original to him; that does not establish that they were extrinsic to his dhamma. One may well say, and I do say, that they were not essential to that dhamma, in that one can understand the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of practice without them. But his belief in rebirth was not an excrescence any more than Aquinas’s belief in the divinity of Christ was an excrescence in his interpretation of Aristotle.

Further, the Buddha did quite emphatically claim that the way he saw the world corresponded to the way it ‘really’ was. For example when discussing dependent origination, the Buddha says a disciple understands it when he “has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is” (Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.20). And as regards the Noble Truths,

[T]hose ascetics and brahmins who do not understand as it really is: ‘This is suffering’; who do not understand as it really is: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; who do not understand as it really is: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; who do not understand as it really is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’: these I do not consider to be ascetics among ascetics or brahmins among brahmins, and these venerable ones do not, by realizing it for themselves with direct knowledge, enter and dwell in this very life, in the goal of asceticism or the goal of brahminhood. (SN 56.22; cf. DN i.83-4).

“As it really is” (yathābhūtaṃ) is in this case, among other things, a metaphysical claim. To say otherwise is, as I say, special pleading. The world displays the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. The world functions according to the law of dependent origination. To deny the metaphysical import of these claims I think is to be more influenced by the later, particularly Madhyamaka and Zen, traditions as well as Western post-modernism.

This is not to say that the Buddha “was an ontologist”, as Batchelor put it. He was first and foremost an ethicist, as we might say in the West, in the ancient Greek tradition of looking for the best sort of life. His ontology, his metaphysics, was always in the service of his ethics. But that is not to say he did not make ontological and other metaphysical claims.

Right understanding of these claims is skillful of course, but as Paul Williams said,

The teachings of the Buddha are held by the Buddhist tradition to work because they are factually true (not true because they work). … The ‘ought’ (pragmatic benefit) is never cut adrift from the ‘is’ (cognitive factual truth). Otherwise it would follow that the Buddha might be able to benefit beings (and thus bring them to enlightenment) even without seeing things the way they really are at all. And that is not Buddhism. (Williams, Tribe, and Wynne 2012: 28-9)

Now of course we have discovered that some of those apparent truths, such as claims of rebirth and extrasensory abilities, are almost certainly incorrect, so we discard them in our updating of the dhamma. Fortunately our practice is not significantly altered in doing so.

Finally, Batchelor brings up the case of the Soka Gakkai, and asks whether even they correspond to Bodhi’s understanding of “Classical Buddhism”. In an earlier piece on a debate between Batchelor and Ajahn Brahmali I made much the same point, only with regard to traditions such as the Vajrayana, in which sex and alcohol are allowed, in Zen which allows marriage, and even with regard to the Mahāyāna in general which is often strictly vegetarian. Vegetarianism in the early tradition is associated with Devadatta, the Buddha’s nefarious cousin.

The problem with defining Classical Buddhism in order to red-line Secular Buddhism is that one ends up ruling out many actual religious Buddhists.

I think the ‘definition game’, like the ‘identity game’, tends to promote egoism and clinging, and hence is not of terribly much use. It doesn’t really interest me to decide who is a “real Buddhist” and who is not. Scholarly accuracy matters, but what matters most is good practice, good will, kindness, generosity, and compassion.

It is in that spirit that I take Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay, and Batchelor’s response, in a positive light. They both constitute steps forward towards “promot[ing] fruitful exchanges between [Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism], undertaken in a shared quest for a wider understanding of the Dharma in its full range, relevance and depth.”



Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom, 2000).

Douglass Smith and Justin Whitaker, “Reading the Buddha as a Philosopher”, Philosophy East and West (forthcoming).

Paul Williams, Anthony Tribe, and Alexander Wynne, Buddhist Thought, 2nd Ed. (Routledge, 2012).

No Comments

  1. Mark Knickelbine on July 8, 2015 at 9:07 am

    However, it’s worth noting that the “it” we’re supposed to see as it really is is the nature of human experience. Therefore, we don’t need to pierce some metaphysical reality in order to confirm that DO or the 4 truths are true. This is precisely why dharma practice does not require belief in the supernatural cosmology of ancient India in order to be effective — what we “see” is what’s right in front of us, namely our own lived experience.

    I agree that, it’s faults notwithstanding, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s piece is a huge step in the right direction, as much for its obvious intention of mutual understanding and shared values as for the arguments it articulates. It is hard to have a meaningful conversation with someone who fears you are trying to stamp out his religion — I hope there are more exchanges like BB and Stephen’s in our future. At any rate, I sure hope Ron Purser read it!

    • Doug Smith on July 8, 2015 at 9:26 am

      Agreed, Mark. No recondite cosmology necessary, although one does find it in the old texts.

      I would very much enjoy a discussion with Bhikkhu Bodhi, even here on our site.

  2. Jennifer Hawkins on July 9, 2015 at 4:24 am

    Thanks so much for writing this! I’ve been wondering where to find all of these essays / responses that I keep hearing about.

    The whole “conflict” (as it were) is still surprising to me.

  3. Michael Finley on July 9, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Again, an interesting piece, Doug. Even though I’m probably one of those whose interpretation of the suttas is influenced by my understanding of Nagarjuna (but not, I hope, post-modernism!), I really can’t quarrel with the tenor of your as always careful analysis.

    But, of course, I have caveats. They probably amount to much the same as Mark’s comments, but are more pedantic & less direct.

    I’d prefer to say that Gotama was not an ontologist, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an ontology. Don’t we all? (as well as speak prose). I think Gombrich had it mostly right when he wrote that Gotama was more concerned with “how” than “what.” Impermanence has practical, ethical consequences; the identity of the elements that transform in process of dependent arising really do not. Gombrich suggests that “ontology began to creep back into Buddhism” when the Abhidharma literature was elaborated. Gotama’s “truth” — the things he regarded as essential — may not have included a very definite ontology. He may have believed, or at least suspected, that it is possible in principle to comprehend all things as they “really” are. Or not. I’m inclined to think this question wasn’t part of his “truth.” This is perhaps one more example of a distinction we think is important that simply didn’t register with Gotama (which is not the same thing as asserting that he has no relevance to the discussion of them).

    Anyway, this much seems clear: Gotama did promise that a truth sufficient to “be not overwhelmed” could be found in practice, in action, from experience, without having to answer many of the “metaphysical” questions most religions insist on. This is what he told that “foolish man” Malunkyaputta. (But, again, this does not mean Gotama had no metaphysics).

    Thanks, by the way, for alerting me to Bodhi’s essay. Certainly a change of tone.

  4. Jennifer Hawkins on July 9, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    I just got done reading everything. I’m relieved that B. Bodhi has learned more about Secular Buddhism and has updated his perceptions.

    I’m also glad that S. Batchelor pointed out that Secular Buddhists look to the Pali Canon as much or more than some Traditional Buddhists. (Also, on how the Four Noble Truths are viewed as actions, etc.)

    As for karma and rebirth, I (at least) haven’t completely thrown them out. There is karma within this lifetime and a cycling of molecules and ideas (not to mention the changing of our “self” from moment to moment) that functions as rebirth impacted by the karma of our actions.

    ” Its values of restraint and fewness of desires challenges the rampant greed and self-seeking fostered by free-market capitalism. With its respect for the monastic life, it upholds the lifestyle that the Buddha himself made available by creating a monastic order governed by a stringent code of discipline” is also another passage that I’d argue against. Recognizing that craving (greed, etc) is the cause of dukkha, I seek to reduce my cravings and to minimize my possessions. I also consider a monastic life. I don’t think that Secular Buddhism precludes or reduces either of those ideals.

    Finally, I doubt that science is going to find psychic powers… although some ideas of the Traditional Cosmology have inspired work in physics.

    In spite of all of these things, we can work together and even learn from each other, so I praise B. Bodhi for his exortation to do so.

  5. Nick on July 15, 2015 at 2:21 am

    There is no relationship between psychic powers of the mind & the materialistic misunderstanding of post-mortem ‘rebirth’ or ‘reincarnation’. If the mind has psychic powers, this is merely the operation of another sense organ, i.e, the mind sense organ enhanced.

  6. Nick on July 15, 2015 at 2:28 am

    The Buddha was certainly an ontologist & not first and foremost an ethicist since he taught only insight into the true nature of reality rather than ethics alone can bring complete enlightenment & liberation. The Buddha taught, whether or not there is the arising & revelations of Tathagatas, the world displays the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness & non-self (AN 3:134) and the world functions according to the law of dependent origination (SN 12:20). The 3 characteristics & dependent origination are inherent in the world irrespective of experience of these inherent realities.

    • David S on July 15, 2015 at 6:17 pm

      Nick, I think I understand your point in general, but how you worded the part referencing dependent origination in relation to how “the world” functions and being inherent in it doesn’t sound quite on mark. Isn’t dependent origination not about the world, but about the human experience of suffering? Suffering isn’t in the world as much as arising in human experience.

      • mufi on July 16, 2015 at 7:42 am

        David, what Nick says is in line with what Doug says here:

        “As it really is” (yathābhūtaṃ) is in this case, among other things, a metaphysical claim. To say otherwise is, as I say, special pleading. The world displays the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. The world functions according to the law of dependent origination. To deny the metaphysical import of these claims I think is to be more influenced by the later, particularly Madhyamaka and Zen, traditions as well as Western post-modernism.

        That said, if there’s any middle ground between “the metaphysical import of these claims” and the metaphysically skeptical view that I tend towards, it must be that all such claims are bounded and shaped by finite human, sensory-motor experience, which – especially from an evolutionary standpoint – begs for great humility and uncertainty in this department.

        • David S on July 16, 2015 at 8:30 am

          Yes, thanks Mufi, I read the piece a few days ago and didn’t catch that replay, but it looks like Nick was not in agreement with Doug actually. He switched Doug’s view on its head. He is saying the opposite regarding ethics and ontology.

          As for my comment to Nick it applies to Doug’s statement as well, but Doug was at that point trying to tie suffering to traditionalist’s metaphysical views as both being experienced and known “as it is”. Although, I did not think the quote used represented what he was trying to tie together, because it too ONLY referenced suffering. One would have to drag the metaphysical into this quote to make it work in the argument being laid out (an argument that overall I would agree with). I agree that metaphysical notions of reincarnation can just as easily have been part of such notions as “the way it is”.

          Or did I miss what Doug was saying completely? Sometimes people use the word metaphysics is differing ways.

          • mufi on July 16, 2015 at 8:42 am

            David: Yes, what I meant was that their comments overlap, not that they agree 100%. I agree with Doug that the Dhamma is primarily ethical in its intent…it just happens to be framed according to an ancient Indian worldview, which comes as no surprise.

            I should add that my agreement here with these points does not depend on any particular prooftext cited above, but rather on my cumulative readings of the literature, both primary and secondary. I speak now only of the history, whereas my previous comment is more about the philosophy, in which it’s OK for us to part ways with Gotama or those early Buddhists who wrote in his name…so long as we aren’t putting words into their mouths, so to speak.

          • David S on July 16, 2015 at 9:24 am

            Mufi, I too simply dragged what I understand of the pali texts into reading Doug’s piece to make it understandable. This writing is a hard piece to comment on for me because some points I agree with and some I do not (for very lengthy reasons).

            I too don’t think Gotoma was primarily an ethicist, even though ethics plays a part. So I am probably more in line with Nick, although I would not make statements that dependent origination is inherent to the world. I would agree with Doug because I think those who speak as if it is inherent to the world can do so based upon their experience, or rather their interpretation of their experience.

            Too bad that I fall short in discussions referencing ontology. I have yet to discern the ways this word is being used and what is intended by it. So I may be missing out on some aspects of what is being discussed.

            What seems most pertinent to Buddhism is how does one’s experience become interpreted. Much of the metaphysical claims seem to be based upon altered experiences. To get to these altered experiences one has to live an ethical life in order to make one’s mind be at peace. With the mind now conditioned by peace and brought into reflecting on its experience some rather odd perceptions can arise. How these have been interpreted or experienced is where much of this material comes out of. Call it metaphysical or not, it then becomes “the way things are” and all one’s experiences are then forever considered in relation to this new standard of “the way things are”.

            Without such experiences one can take others words on faith on these metaphysical notions, and a religion can be formed out of that faith. Or alternate interpretations take hold of the ethical portion and find “the way things are” through living an ethical life and how that brings peace. Both ways then reference the same material with differing standards of what “the way things are” actually means and thus the metaphysics of each way do not necessarily coincide.

            Depending on which frame one is talking from may sway how one thinks of the original interpretation of Gotoma. I agree with you that it is perfectly fine to part ways rather than put words into his mouth.

          • David S on July 16, 2015 at 9:34 am

            …and speaking of putting words into his mouth, it seems to me that is what SB does with the material, and Doug seems to be pushing back against SB in this piece to say Gotoma can be said to have held metaphysical notions.

            Or did I get all the views Doug was speaking for, as well as his own, mixed up?

  7. mufi on July 16, 2015 at 9:54 am

    David: I should let Doug speak for himself and simply state that I interpret his words here as echoing Pali scholars, like Richard Gombrich, who also emphasize Gotama’s ethical turn on the cosmological & soteriological themes of his day.

    That said, Secular Buddhists would hardly be the first “school” to remake the Buddha and his student in its own image, but I daresay that this tradition does not sit well with a modern “historical-critical” approach to the early texts, and I’ve gathered over the last few years of reading him that Doug would agree.

    • mufi on July 16, 2015 at 9:55 am

      That should say “and his students” (plural). I do miss the “Edit” feature that used to appear in these threads. 🙂

    • David S on July 16, 2015 at 10:11 am

      What I question though regarding the ethical turn is, is this aspect picked out only because it is the most easily experienced and understood part of what is being presented? We all can identify with how ethics affects our sense of experience. So is it solely because of this commonality that it is placed highest in relevance? I would think this is the case. Even a teacher would stress the most accessible first. Yet, even this turn then doesn’t necessarily correlate to ethics becoming the aim of Buddhism itself, nor its central understanding. It is just the most common experience with which people can enter into relation to Buddhist notions. The question remains, does one stop here or not? The texts do not stop there, over and over again they return to stories related to meditative altered states and interpretive discussions of such. It looks to me that the ethical aspect is in service to another aspect much less easily brought to one’s experience, hence all the references to the teachings being hard to fathom, hard to come to understand fully. In this way, I see SB and an academic liked Gombrich, left to ponder what in their experience they can relate to, ethics.

      • mufi on July 16, 2015 at 10:24 am

        I don’t think that’s true of Grombrich and other scholars, who are comparing texts and noting certain continuities and discontinuities. It is only in this context that my “ethical turn” reference above is meaningful.

        Still, I’m pretty sure that Gombrich would agree that the texts do not end there, which brings us back to the Buddha-Dhamma’s metaphysical dimension, i.e. the world “as it really is” (yathābhūtaṃ), as opposed to how it merely appears to be under various states of mind.

        • David S on July 16, 2015 at 12:21 pm

          If there was a noted “turn” to ethics could this have been caused by a teacher stressing what is most common and accessible? Over time the numbers of followers and the need to unite them could have strengthened the ethical dimension.

          • mufi on July 16, 2015 at 1:23 pm

            Despite the English translation, “common” and “accessible” are not words that spring to mind when I read the suttas. On the contrary, I get the sense that these are (for the most part) words written by monastics for monastics. It’s what they told themselves, in other words, when the illiterate masses weren’t within earshot.

            That said, from the rigid & detailed monastic codes (vinayas) to the relatively sparse five precepts that apply even to householders, there is a very strong ethical dimension to the Buddha-Dhamma, which is closely intertwined with metaphysical concepts like karma, samsara, and nibaana and indeed the Four Noble Truths.

            If Secular Buddhism has a problem, I would say that’s it: it’s not so easy to pull the Buddha’s ethics apart from his metaphysics…not without losing much of its family resemblance. This is a no less problem for liberal/secular versions of Abrahamic religions, in which Divine Command as the rationale for ethical behavior casts a long shadow.

          • David S on July 16, 2015 at 1:29 pm

            Yes, I am not suggesting a separation of ethics from the picture. I was more interested in this ‘turn’. I assume that Gombrich noted a ‘turning to ethics’ because it was spoken of more often. Given it is part of the 8fp the noted ‘turn’ must have been about speaking of this aspect more often. Is this what you see Gombrich as noting?

  8. Michael Finley on July 16, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    I think the so-called ethical turn is critical to understanding what Gotama & friends were on about. I also believe the concern with ethics can be largely explained by the change in north Indian society c. 4-600 BC — a transition from a purely village economy to a society organized about emerging urban centres, with an iron age technology, and bound together by the trade flowing along the Ganges and other rivers. This overturned the old religious norms, developed in an agricultural, village society. In a more complex, diverse society, it was no longer satisfactory to govern behaviour with simple, inflexible rules and sacrificial duties.

    The Vedic cosmic order (rita) was the physical order of the universe, the order of the sacrifice, and the moral law of the world. Sacrifices was necessary to maintain the order. Violation (anrita) of the cosmic order by incorrect behaviour, even if unintentional, also threatened its continence, leading to notions of dharma and karma as essential parts of the cosmic order.

    Gotama attacked this concept and rather drastically reshaped it to his own purposes. He introduced the notion that ethical consequences attach only to intentional behaviour, and the notion that consequences (karmic results) are not always simple or predictable. . . I could go on.

    At the very least, this project undermined the the notion of rita, the “metaphysical” foundation of the Vedic view of the world. The speculation that was rife at the time called everything into question, not just ethics. I think that there is a lot in the suttas that suggest Gotama wanted to be able to rest his views on observation & experience, not just received ideas of a cosmic order. But there is also much that suggests he believed good behaviour has good consequences because it conforms to the cosmic order.

    OK — back, more or less, to topic. I’d suggest that Gotama, as a practical ethicist, interested in how to live well & correctly in world in which he found himself, did not elaborate an ontology or metaphysics. He didn’t deliberately reject ontology & metaphysics, likely did not even recognize a conflict between experience and cosmic order as foundations of ethics. However, the focus of his interests led him to leave many questions we’d call metaphysical only cursorily examined.

    This last is, I think, were I differ from Doug. But Doug is, I think, quite right in suggesting that SB’s Gotama is not historically accurate. Gotama was not an empiricist critic of all metaphysics; The parts of the older philosophy he accepted (including rebirth, karma as cosmic order etc.)were not extrinsic to it; He was a philosophical innovator, but his ideas grew out of social & intellectual climate of his times.

    Because Gotama relied on experience, it is possible to extract a secular interpretation of his views without destroying their coherence. But there’s no purpose in denying the “metaphysics.”

    • Doug Smith on July 21, 2015 at 6:09 am

      Hello Michael, and thank you for your extensive and interesting comments! I’m sorry about the delay in responding; this summer I am away quite a bit.

      Re.: “Gotama, as a practical ethicist, interested in how to live well & correctly in world in which he found himself, did not elaborate an ontology or metaphysics. He didn’t deliberately reject ontology & metaphysics, likely did not even recognize a conflict between experience and cosmic order as foundations of ethics. However, the focus of his interests led him to leave many questions we’d call metaphysical only cursorily examined.”

      We are in complete agreement. I have a paper in revision now that argues the same: that Gotama’s metaphysics was deliberately incomplete, because he did not believe that metaphysical speculation (in which I include ontological speculation) was in and of itself of merit. What was necessary was to see clearly the relevant features of experienced reality: anicca, dukkha, anatta, as well as to understand their complex causal interrelation (paticcasamuppada). These were inter alia metaphysical claims, but further speculation along these lines was of no benefit.

      I think this puts Gotama in rather a unique place, philosophically.

      • Michael Finley on July 23, 2015 at 2:40 pm

        Doug, you wrote “I think this puts Gotama in rather a unique place, philosophically.”


  9. mufi on July 16, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    David, I can do no better than Michael’s account above, but if you prefer more details, then I recommend Gombrich’s “What the Buddha Thought.” Of course, he’s not the last and only word on the subject, but it’s a pretty good bet that he and his peers know more about this history than we do.

  10. Michael Finley on July 16, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    Yeah, I wish we had an edit function here — for example, among a dozen others in my last post, this mistype suggests a rather vivid image of the Cosmic Cow or whatever – I wrote that “incorrect behaviour . . .also threatened its continence” 🙂

  11. David S on July 16, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks Mufi and Michael. I was reading into Mufi’s reference to Gotoma’s ethical turn another whole thought! I’ll save you from the details.

    I am still mystified by the term ontology. When I look at what it says at Wikipedea I still do not see why Gotoma was not an ontologist and why it would be important to say so. Such a term and its distinctions are so modern and academic that I get the feeling that such language distorts the landscape of the original intention. I’m not saying it is bad to make modern distinctions, but do these add certain contextual ideas that are not part of what was being stressed when Gotoma taught?

    Here’s a couple of wiki quotes from ontology:
    [quote]In analytic philosophy, ontology deals with the determination whether categories of being are fundamental and discusses in what sense the items in those categories may be said to “be”.[/quote]
    [quote]…mind, instead of referring to an entity, refers to a collection of mental events experienced by a person…[/quote]

    It is difficult to know how words are being used (especially for me if they are wedded to the history of philosophy) when they can be so particular to their user’s definition and references. This is where Nick’s comment that Gotoma was an ontologist seems to me to be agreeable to my references. Yet others claim that this is not so, and that Gotoma was first and foremost an ethicist. But isn’t the ethical aspect in the service of acquiring an understanding that can be thought of as metaphysical in the sense of understanding the existence of the self?

    Here again is another term that can be used in many ways, metaphysics. Isn’t science an applied metaphysical understanding? I am in the habit of reserving the use of this word to represent spiritual answers that are based upon belief, but looking at its definition, it is a very general term.
    [quote]Another central branch of metaphysics is cosmology, the study of the origin, fundamental structure, nature, and dynamics of the universe.[/quote]

    Maybe the divorce between non-emperical thought and empirical thought unite when looking solely at what the nature of the questions they seek to know. Here we are after the separation has occurred, looking back at a time before such distinctions were part of the conversation.

    I can appreciate Doug’s thought:
    [quote]His ontology, his metaphysics, was always in the service of his ethics. But that is not to say he did not make ontological and other metaphysical claims.[/quote]
    Though, I am not so sure that Gotoma’s ethics were primary and the metaphysics in their service. The ethics of the path seem to lead towards concentration, which most often references the meditative states and their experiential knowledge.

    • mufi on July 17, 2015 at 6:43 am

      David: For the purposes of this conversation, I think the brief definitions contained within this quote from Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized suffice:

      Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left? My answer is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is, an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know and what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live.

      Within the three philosophical categories that Flanagan mentions, there are other terms or sub-categories, “ontology” and “cosmology” being examples from metaphysics. I won’t go into those here, but I find it helpful to bear in mind their context as part of “a theory about what there is and how it is.” Hope you find this much helpful.

      I’ll just add that my approach to the Buddhism differs somewhat from Flanagan’s “Buddhism Naturalized” in that I tend to focus more on the early stuff (e.g. the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon), which seems less systematic – and thereby less “philosophical” in the Western sense – and more literary…say, somewhere in between Plato’s Socratic dialogues and the Biblical narratives.

    • Doug Smith on July 21, 2015 at 6:19 am

      Hi David, and thanks for your valuable comments!

      When I echo Batchelor in saying that the Buddha wasn’t an ontologist what I mean is that he did not make ontology the focus of his philosophical program. The point wasn’t simply to find out the way things were (as one might say it was for Plato, for instance), but rather to respond to the world appropriately: “All I teach is dukkha and its cessation.”

      Along the way, the Buddha did elaborate an ontology, by which I mean he did say what kinds of things existed (e.g., the five aggregates), as well give as a metaphysic of dependent origination. These were not taken to be mere “conventional reality” as was, say, the self. (Indeed the distinction between conventional and ultimate reality post-dated the Buddha).

      You’re right to point out that the ethics leads towards concentration, and that concentration leads towards knowledge, but it is as it were a knowledge of skill, of knowing how to react to a world that is such-and-so, rather than simply a knowledge of the world as such-and-so. Developing a global attitude of non-clinging is the basic effort.

  12. mufi on July 17, 2015 at 9:18 am

    Re: the question “Isn’t science an applied metaphysical understanding?”, I would say “yes and no.” Yes, scientific methodology rests on a light and parsimonious set of metaphysical assumptions, but the methodology does not require anyone to believe that these assumptions are exhaustive and “true” in any absolute, ultimate, or transcendent sense. This means that it’s possible to be a good scientist, while also believing in God, karma, or a host of other supernatural metaphysical doctrines.

    As an aside, I happen to be sympathetic to a pragmatic and “embodied” view of our world, as philosopher Mark Johnson summarizes here in The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding:

    An embodied view of meaning looks for the origins and structures of meaning in the organic activities of embodied creatures in interaction with their changing environments. It sees meaning and all our higher functioning as growing out of and shaped by our abilities to perceive things, manipulate objects, move our bodies in space, and evaluate our situation. Its principle of continuity is that the “higher” develops from the “lower”, without introducing from the outside any new metaphysical kinds.

    Even this view is just that – a view – conceptualized on the basis of the cumulative sensory-motor experiences of finite sentient beings like ourselves.

    I can only imagine if Gotama would accept this account, were he alive today. Perhaps not.

  13. Michael Finley on July 17, 2015 at 11:06 am

    David, you wrote “I am still mystified by the term ontology. When I look at what it says at Wikipedea I still do not see why Gotoma was not an ontologist and why it would be important to say so.”

    I agree with Mufi’s comments, but let me try to directly answer this question — though I think you’re quite right to ask if it’s really very important to do so.

    Webster’s says that an ontology is a “ theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence.” In other words, ontology is concerned about what “ultimately” or “really” exists– Mind? Matter? Separate elementary “things”? Processes rather than things?

    In the suttas, the objects of ordinary experience, “compound things,” are said to be composed of simpler elements, which are in constant flux. I think there is probably general agreement that Gotama’s interest in this analysis was primarily to demonstrate that there is no permanent self. The suttas don’t go much further, don’t (at least unambiguously) tell us how far the decomposition of compound things can be taken, whether there are simple “ultimate” elements. This is why it’s possible to argue that Gotama didn’t develop a full ontology, or wasn’t interested in the question of what “ultimately” exists.

    After Gotama, the Abhidharma literature did develop a full-blown ontology, trying to extract lists of fundamental existents (dharmas) from the suttas. Some schools took the decomposition of compound things down to what amounted to atomic dharma. Nagarjuna, on the other hand, rejected the Abhidharmist ontology. The implication he took from the suttas was that everything exists only in relation to other things; there are no essential existents like the Abhidharmist atomic dharmas.

    But does any of this make much difference? Nagarjuna and the Abhidharmists thought so. We moderns , like Stephen Batchelor, are probably more comfortable with a view that avoids speculating about the ultimate nature of things. However, I think a strong case can be made that it does not. Does it matter if the flux of things is composed of atoms in motion, or if even the atoms themselves are impermanent? Either way, there is no permanent self.

    Apologies to Doug for straying so far from his essay — which clearly inspired us to thoght.

    • mufi on July 17, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      Either way, there is no permanent self.

      At least in a manner of speaking. The (absolute) truth of the matter is itself a subject of metaphysical speculation and debate.

  14. Michael Finley on July 17, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Did I have to add “Either way, there is no permanent self to be found in the Abhidharmist or Madhyamika ontology, or in the view attributed by Gotama by those who believe he had no ontology?” This was not “a subject of metaphysical speculation and debate” among any of the above.

  15. Anagarika on July 21, 2015 at 11:16 am

    I want to mention that I have been a steady listener to the Secular Buddhist podcasts during my 30 minutes travels by car each day, and am grateful for the variety and quality of these podcast discussions, all of which are well moderated by Ted M. David Loy and Ron Purser this morning, along with a good cup of coffee, was quite a good start to the day.

    From my point of view, we need to be careful about dismissing the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth and kamma as nonscientific, or so well into the realm of metaphysics as to be comfortably dismissed. These teachings on kamma and rebirth are quite integral to all of the Buddha’s other teachings; he was not simply adopting beliefs of his time and north Indian culture, and as we know his teachings in these areas challenged the Vedic beliefs of those times.

    If we see the Buddha in the light of someone enlightened, and having had these rarefied experiences that lead his Dhamma, I feel we need to either embrace these teachings as a whole cloth as the Buddha instructed, or to view certain aspects of the teaching, such as rebirth, with at worst, an agnostic eye. Contrary to the implications in Douglass’ thoughtful article, science has indeed been exploring issues of rebirth (see the U Va studies http://www.medicine.virginia.edu/clinical/departments/psychiatry/sections/cspp/dops/home-page) and exploring consciousness as something outside the realm of brain cell function. Neuroscience and phsysics, rather than rejecting some of these issues, is slowly investigating these concepts further, and with vigor.

    Thank you, Ted, and all of your fine guests, for providing this platform for illuminating thought and discussion. And, a tip of the hat to the Buddha, who foresaw that some would not embrace his Dhamma fully. Perhaps my faith borne of confidence in these teachings has persuaded me, but the Dhamma in its fullest measure seems to me sufficiently rational, evidence based, and pragmatic that it needs little to no modern ‘secular’ fine tuning, and to minimize the impact of kamma and rebirth on the Dhamma seems to be like a discussion of Einsteinian relativity without E=mc2.

    Even with all of the thoughtful debate on these issues, to the extent that we all act with more ethics, wisdom and effort at release from our ‘defilements,’ and promote kindness and compassion in ourselves and others, we are all part of the same team, all kalyana mitta. And for that, I am grateful.

    • Doug Smith on July 21, 2015 at 11:40 am

      Hello Anagarika, and thanks for the kind words. Yes, the U Va. Division of Perceptual Studies is perhaps the highest profile unit in the world devoted to this research, particularly after Princeton’s PEAR shut down in 2007. It was begun by Ian Stevenson, whose questionable work I cited in my essay on rebirth.

      UVa’s DPS is staffed by a handful of people and so far as I can tell has no scientific visibility, and few if any other labs are doing similar work. It is the very definition of “fringe science”, which is to say scientific research that is not taken seriously within the scientific community, and that is therefore not worth our taking seriously.

  16. Anagarika on July 21, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    “It is the very definition of “fringe science”, which is to say scientific research that is not taken seriously within the scientific community, and that is therefore not worth our taking seriously.”

    Douglass, why must we view such research with such dismissive terms? I feel that it might be useful to take the UVa research seriously, even if it proves not to provide evidentiary support of literal rebirth. The history of science has been littered with seemingly improbable theories that later proved correct, and while we may gain no further insights into these issues in our lifetimes, it seems to me to dismiss them outright is no less scientific than to accept them without investigation. I’m comfortable rejecting the possibility of an Easter Bunny; there is general acceptance in the scientific community that the EB is a fabrication, and our experience and sense of what is known and reliably true can comfortably reject the Easter Bunny as being real.

    But, do we reject rebirth outright? Do we reject the idea of consciousness outside of brain activity as a fabrication? Do we reject some theories proposed in quantum physics, such a multiverses? Do we agree that the “Big Bang” explains the start of our universe, or is there another explanation yet unknown that does not depend on a singularity in order to support itself?

    The Buddha of the Suttas seemed very much disinterested in discussing kamma and rebirth in metaphysical terms, and often refused to entertain these questions about what does or doesn’t get reborn, from disciples and guests. The point of rebirth in the Buddha’s teaching was that it was inherently necessary to his teachings on causality; it was part of the chain of causality that linked with dependent origination and kamma.

    So, I suppose all that I am suggesting is that, like theories of the Big Bang,” we do accept or reject any serious inquiry without keeping an open mind, and a willingness to accept that today’s “fringe science” might be tomorrow’s Higgs Boson. As Ven. Thanissaro summarized: ” Only if we’re willing to submit to the test of appropriate attention, abandoning the presuppositions that distort our thinking about issues like karma and rebirth, will we be able to make full use of the Canon’s tools for gaining total release.” The Buddha gave us these tools and explained in non-metaphysical terms why they are important; it is up to each of us to decide whether his roadmap is the gold standard for this journey through life, or whether our own dilutions and adaptations take precedence.

    • David S on July 22, 2015 at 10:36 am

      I do not see why belief in rebirth is important. In the texts what is consistently stated is that direct experience is what one’s knowledge rests upon. Preconceived notions such as traditional Theravandans hold could lead them into those very preconceptions through the lens of interpretation, but this doesn’t appear to me to validate them any more than any preconceived notions would. So one’s experience is what one bases one’s knowledge upon. If one doesn’t have any experience to validates one’s preconceptions, that preconception alone would not be a basis of knowledge according to the principle of direct experience.

      As for the “science of reincarnation” article it has this to say,

      “Scientists have long known that matter like electrons and protons produces events only when observed.”

      Here we have a classic mistaken notion made popular by a short-sighted and anthropomorphic choice of wording. In the famous double slit experiment what is a physical setup is mistakenly described as something that ‘observes’. Yet, no human observation took place. It was an experimental setup that changed the outcome. Far from revealing a connection between human consciousness and matter, the experiment makes me think more along the line that the model of matter as objects is not correct. It also makes me think that at such small scales the notion of separateness and time are shown to be inaccurate. So the current models simply do not work. This doesn’t place human consciousness in the center of reality. This mistaken desire to be in the center is a very human desire, but it also creates many mistaken thoughts. history has many examples of such notions.

  17. Anagarika on July 22, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    David, we may not be breaking any new ground in this discussion. One thing that seems clear is that Ted’s SBA blog is an excellent forum for the exchange of ideas, many different and valuable ideas. I accept your view that you do not see that consideration of rebirth is important. I cannot rule it out, based on experience and the available science, not to mention that a strong measure of confidence in the Buddha’s insights leads me to trust this teaching, along with all of the other profound and credible teachings in the Pali Suttas attributable to the Buddha.

    Part of my approach is to suggest that at some point, once we reject certain fundamental Dhamma teachings, we may no longer be in the realm of Buddhism, but into something else. That “something else” may be certainly valid and useful. My only concern is that when we are focused on “Buddhism,” we have some clarity as to what that means; perhaps in the modern West (and the East as well) Buddhism means different things to different people, and this has been true for many hundreds of years.

    Did the Buddha teach literal rebirth? I believe it is clear that he did; the references in the Suttas are unmistakably clear on that point. The Buddha was clear that he was not adopting the beliefs of the Vedic Brahmins, and other prominent teachers of the time, on the nature of what occurs after breakup of the body, or what it is that survives after death. Rebirth was integral to his teachings on kamma, dependent origination, and in a sense, all of his Dhamma. It is fundamental, and so, to reject it seems to me akin to rejecting E=mc2 when discussing Einsteinian relativity. Without E=mc2, we lose the foundation of some of Einstein’s theories; such is the case with the rejection of rebirth in my view; once rejected, we are not longer in the realm of Buddhism, but something close to it. And that is good.

    As I have said before, we are all on the same team, and to the extent that any of these views and/or practices bring us closer to release from suffering, and closer to compassion, ethics and wisdom, we are all doing better than most of the population. We have far more that unifies us than separates us, and to that end, these SBA exchanges are very valuable.

  18. mufi on July 23, 2015 at 7:44 am

    Anagarika, I hope that no one here has suggested that you should “rule out” rebirth. Whatever “rules” we pick up from personal experience or from studying the sciences are indicative at best. That said, I second Doug’s plug for his essay on rebirth, which I consider a strong argument in favor of thinking skeptically on the matter.

    Otherwise, I think you and I basically agree about what the Buddha (or at least those who wrote in his name) taught, so lest this become a dispute over the “Buddhist” label, let me assure you that I don’t carry the label myself, although I will occasionally cite a Buddhist teaching, if and when I deem it relevant to a situation. Whether the historical Buddha would have deemed that particular teaching as “integral” is not my concern.

  19. Anagarika on July 23, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Mufi, I reread Douglass’ article that you cited and agree that he makes the case for a proper science based approach to the issue of rebirth. He notes at the end: “It is for reasons such as these that any contemporary, scientifically informed Buddhist practice should reject belief in rebirth and its associated kammic causation. The Path is rich enough without them.” And on this point, I certainly can offer no counterpoint.

    By way of example, just today I was listening to Ted’s interview of Prof. Charles Prebish, a noted scholar of American Buddhism. Along with his descriptions of his investigations of American Buddhism, he mentioned in the early part of his interview an absorption or “out of body experience” that drove him to seek out his former master, a Chinese monk, for an explanation of the experience. One might think that a scholar would be quick to rule out his experience as an unusual function of his brain, or a psychological response to a highly concentrated state, but for him, it seems to have had a transformative quality on his practice and motivation toward scholarship. He seems to have no explanation for the experience, and perhaps at the moment we have none through the portal of scientific analysis alone.

    In any case, I agree it is good to be skeptical, and to investigate. There is much that science can teach us, and I submit that there is much that science has no hope of understanding in its present state. It seems we agree that we each approach these early texts through the lens of our experience and our relative fidelity to current (underdeveloped) science. These varied approaches and varied lenses really do contribute to an excellent discussion, part of what makes these SBA podcasts so compelling.

  20. Michael Finley on July 23, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    One thing that made this little discussion of rebirth more productive than most is that no one has suggested that those of us who do not think rebirth necessary or likely of “cherry-picking.” Speaking for myself, but I suspect for many around here, I do not regard the dhamma is something that I can pick and choice from on the basis of whim or predilection. (Not that there aren’t some ideas in Buddhism that don’t deserve to be widely disseminated even among those who are not remotely “Buddhist.”). I could not in conscience call myself a Buddhist (of any sort), or even a person fundamentally influenced by Buddhism, if I thought re-birth was so central to Gotama’s thought that the whole thing would come tumbling down into incoherence without it. But Gotama did not teach that the goal is a favourable rebirth or rebirth in a better realm. The goal is overcoming dukkha, in this and any other lives that may exist. This contrasts with my relationship to Christianity. Belief in the divinity of Christ, that he died for our sins, seems absolutely essential to be a Christian. (Though an unbeliever like me can still admire the Golden Rule).

    Anagarika, in the end, I think you have pointed to the common ground. It is worth quoting Doug’s conclusion again, for emphasis. Even if the “scientifically informed” reject rebirth, “the Path is rich enough without them.”

  21. Michael Finley on July 23, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    By all the saints & all that’s holy, I do wish I could edit what I write 🙂

  22. mufi on July 24, 2015 at 7:36 am

    Anagarika: You might already have detected that a diversity of opinions among the comments here. If we agree on anything, it’s on a practice that emphasizes secular/this-worldly benefits and on a skeptical stance towards supernatural claims, which in a Buddhist context includes rebirth/samsara, kamma, and nibbana.

    Where you and I seem to agree, though others here not so much, is on the centrality of rebirth, karma, and nirvana to the teachings of early Buddhists. While it’s certainly possible – if not practical – to creatively reinterpret these ideas along pragmatic and naturalistic lines, I doubt that the early Buddhists would have appreciated this move, an objection that’s seemingly channeled by their orthodox descendants today. Seeking common ground, as you have demonstrated, seems the best way to resolve whatever conflicts may ensue from these variant interests in the Buddha-Dhamma.

  23. Anagarika on July 24, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    Mufi, Michael and all, thanks for your thoughtful posts. I agree that the goal needs to be common ground, as it seems true that we have more common ground in these issues than intransigent disagreements. As Buddhism meets and meshes with the west, there may be a natural inclination to make it more accessible, more resonant with a reason and/or science based perspective. I suppose I am more vested in what may be a traditional or orthodox counterbalance of sorts, making some effort to protect (in my view) the Dhamma from too much, as you well put it, “creative interpretation.”

    Perhaps I draw from one of the Buddha’s final admonitions to his monks and nuns, at a time they were fearing his impending death and having no successor abbot appointed to lead the Sangha, to let the Dhamma be the teacher and the guide. In this sense, it seems the Buddha saw his Dhamma as the best resource for the teachings and perhaps did not want to leave these teachings to others to reinterpret or refashion.

    Out of a lively debate and discussion I see nothing but good arising. We all know that the Buddha himself engaged in these debates with Brahmins and kings and others; he did not sequester himself in a cave surrounded only by his disciples. Through this engagement we all benefit, and our practices strengthen. It is my hope that one way the Dhamma survives is through this active engagement, as one of the Buddha’s fears was the evaporation over time of his Dhamma. Even when we disagree, we are doing our part to keep this Dhamma alive and vibrant, and that is a terrific thing.

    • Mark Knickelbine on July 30, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      The way this resolves for me is remembering that, although “dhamma” has a lot of potential definitions, what Gotama was clearly directing us to do was to pay careful attention to the nature of our own lived experience. So when he left us only the dhamma as our guide and light, what he meant was not some collection of doctrines but our diligent effort to see our experience as it really is — if we can do that, wisdom will be revealed to us, regardless of how some texts were transmitted over time or the vagaries of changing religious institutions. The truth of the dhamma is the truth of embodied human experience in this world, and that is why Buddhism has successfully crossed so many cultural boundaries and lasted two millennia plus. That’s also why it is transforming the lives of people who have never heard a word of Pali and have no idea what they are doing originated in ancient India.

  24. Mal on August 4, 2015 at 3:25 am

    I don’t believe in “reincarnation” or “other realms”, but have no problems with Bodhi’s statement:

    “Classical Buddhism … may well expand the horizons of science beyond materialist reductionism, opening the scientific mind to subtler dimensions of reality.”

    He *might* be right. He might not. I don’t care either way.

    You say: “Bodhi appears to be unaware of the depth of scientific understanding, as well as the decades-long unsuccessful attempts to find the kinds of “subtler dimensions of reality” mentioned in the classical texts.”

    How do you know that science has any real depth of understanding in these matters? Why do you think a few decades of trying to find “subtler dimensions” is anything more than scratching the surface? It took two thousands years for scientists to discover the rather unsubtle fact that the earth goes round the sun, rather than vice versa.

    Is Batchelor’s stress on “the Four Noble Truths as four tasks to be undertaken” anything new? For instance, the classical statement of the first truth is “life is dukkha”. Hasn’t the “task” always been to understand this?

    I don’t see that “as it really is” has to indicate a metaphysical claim, it could be an assesment of the pragmatic value of a certain stance. For instance, if a couple fall out one might say, “we don’t love each other and need to get a divorce, that’s the reality here.” Not a metaphysical claim, but a skilful, pragmatic, assesment and task assignment, that should lead to less suffering (as with the Buddha’s statements…)

    • Mark Knickelbine on August 4, 2015 at 11:21 am

      A few decades? Newton himself searched for evidence of supernatural realms and was a devoted fan of alchemy. Edison actually built a machine to communicate with the spirit world. If some of the brightest human minds failed to find any evidence of a non-material reality, there might be good reason why.

      And there is. The only thing science can observe is the observable. If we can observe a phenomenon, it is only because it has an impact on the physical world — which in turn means that it is not non-material. A non-material reality would be one that we could know nothing about, and therefore it would be absolutely irrelevant to human existence. Neither Buddhism nor anything else will “expand the horizons of science” beyond the realm of human knowledge.

      • Mal on August 4, 2015 at 1:26 pm

        Newton didn’t meditate, “building a machine” isn’t (perhaps) the best approach. Scientists, like everyone, can observe their own consciousness, even though consciousness has no direct impact on the physical world, or vice versa. Consciousness is a non-material reality, but we certainly know about it. It is certainly relevant to our experience,. It *may* be that after death we can only have an existence in the world of consciousness, the spirit realm. In that space you might find the “hungry ghosts” and “God realms” that Classical Buddhists talk about. I have had no experience of these realms myself, and reserve my opinion about their actual existence (as I do about Christian heaven, Hindu Brahman, etc.,…) But to dismiss the possibility of these out of hand is to be as dogmatic and closed minded as a strict religious fundamentalist is about other religions.

        • Mark Knickelbine on August 4, 2015 at 2:50 pm

          How do you know that consciousness is non-material reality? Our language, reflecting as it does the Western conception of spirit/soul/mind as a homunculus driving a meat machine, is constructed that way, but there is absolutely no reason to believe that what we call consciousness is not a physical process.

          • Mal on August 5, 2015 at 3:28 am

            *Absolutely* no reason? To me, that seems dogmatic. For me, there’s no obvious reason to believe that consciousness isn’t a physical process. *But* there’s also no reason to believe that it is a physical process. I’m with Colin McGinn & his fellow Mysterians on this issue. (And the Buddha, isn’t there a Sutta where he goes silent on these metaphysical imponderables? Good attitude! Less stressful…)

          • Mark Knickelbine on August 6, 2015 at 8:47 am

            There’s absolutely a reason to believe it’s a physical process, since we never see any evidence of consciousness separate from a functioning central nervous system. No one can propose an observable process whereby consciousness could exist separately from a living organism, which means that there is every reason to believe that consciousness is a process of a living organism and not some non-physical stuff.

        • Mark Knickelbine on August 4, 2015 at 2:54 pm

          And to dismiss the possibility out of hand is merely to recognize that knowledge is constructed by repeatable observation and the outcomes we may predict from it. I don’t have to posit anything that I can’t demonstrate, and so my certainty that there is no supernatural reality has nothing to do with religious fundamentalism.

          • Mal on August 5, 2015 at 3:33 am

            I answered that last post, I don’t dismiss it out of hand. I just cant see a solution to this “hard problem of consciousness”. Fortunately, the Buddha indicates I don’t need to see solutions to metaphysical problems to pursue the main task Of Secular and Classical Buddhists – the end of suffering through the eradication of craving. Fortunately, I don’t crave an answer to this issue.

          • Mark Knickelbine on August 6, 2015 at 8:50 am

            . . . nor do I, since it was as settled as it will ever be long ago. What I desire, and sometimes I guess crave, is a practice community where one doesn’t have to pretend that it wasn’t settled long ago, and that’s why we’re here.

          • mufi on August 6, 2015 at 11:05 am

            Mark & Mal: I guess that our agreement (or lack thereof) hinges largely on the “hardness” of consciousness. At least from this layperson’s perspective, cognitive science is a research program that’s made tremendous progress on the basis that consciousness is analogous to biological processes, like digestion and respiration. Of course, this project has limitations, but then so too do all human endeavors, such that “mysterian” arguments about the “hardness of consciousness” have long struck me as examples of special pleading, for whatever motive – be it religious or secular conviction. Fortunately, these arguments seem to have had little or no impact on cognitive science.

            Lastly, is it not “reductionist” to reduce all of the Pali Canon to a few verses that present an agnostic stance on metaphysics? or to reduce all of Buddhism to the Pali Canon? After all, Secular Buddhism strikes me as a fish swimming against a Buddhist tide that seems quite “gnostic” about the supernatural status of consciousness, such that even if the Canon were consistently agnostic on the matter (to be clear: I think not), the message seems to have been lost on most actual Buddhists.

          • Mal on August 24, 2015 at 2:41 am

            IMHO the “hard problem of consciousness” is in no way settled. In fact, I can see no way it can be settled, and can’t see it as anything but unsolvable. But I may be wrong about that. But I am happy, like Keats, to live in the presence of unsolved, and perhaps unsolvable, mysteries. But if you’re sure it is solved, and that gives you peace of mind, then no problem! We both have peace of mind.

          • mufi on August 24, 2015 at 8:27 am

            Mal: I feel like you just put words into my and/or Mark’s mouth(s), but then I guess that’s what miscommunication or misunderstanding usually feels like.

            Perhaps it’s best if I just refer you to Massimo Pigliucci’s essay, “What Hard Problem?”. Even if you disagree with him, then at least you’ll have a taste for an opposing view – in this case, that “the idea of a hard problem of consciousness arises from a category mistake” – and without my taking up a lot more space in this thread.

          • Mal on August 25, 2015 at 8:59 am

            Massimo Pigliucci’s essay “What hard problem?” did nothing to convince me that there isn’t a hard problem.

  25. Michael Finley on August 6, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    “a Buddhist tide that seems quite “gnostic” about the supernatural status of consciousness . . . ?” I’d say “gnostic” (in the sense of knowledge through insight), but not necessarily “supernatural.”

    • mufi on August 6, 2015 at 5:00 pm

      We say differently, then.

      What’s more, I’d say that Buddhism is rife with supernaturalism…it’s what makes Secular Buddhism stand out from the herd.

  26. Michael Finley on August 6, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Actually, I think the suttas are as clear (as they ever get) that consciousness is not separate from the body, no different than the other impermanent stuff of the world.

    In the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38), a monk expresses the “pernicious viewpoint” that “as I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is just this consciousness that runs and wanders on [from birth to birth], not another.”

    Gotama’s reply is scathing: “”And to whom, worthless man, do you understand me to have taught the Dhamma like that? Haven’t I, in many ways, said of dependently co-arisen consciousness, ‘Apart from a requisite condition, there is no coming-into-play of consciousness’?”

    He goes on in elaborates in terms that don’t leave much room for the “hard problem of consciousness:”

    “Consciousness, monks, is classified simply by the requisite condition in dependence on which it arises. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the eye & forms is classified simply as eye-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the ear & sounds is classified simply as ear-consciousness. . . . [and so on]”

    The discussion of consciousness in this sutta is not an aberration. It is repeated elsewhere, and I do not think it is contradicted in any substantial way.

    The sutta goes on to discuss the origin of consciousness the origin of suffering, and the way to end suffering. Most of it could be accepted by secular, naturalistic Buddhists or non-Buddhist mindfulness practitioners. It is something that can be taken from the suttas without apology, a coherent account in itself of the way to live “without being overwhelmed.”

    BUT – and this is important — the suttas certainly do not “reduce” to this, or exhaust what Gotama thought was relevant or true. In fact, the naturalism of MN 38 is compromised, to say the least, by some of suttas that seem to agree with its account of consciousness. SN 25, for example, after affirming that “eye-consciousness is inconstant, changeable, alterable,” and dependent on conditions, then tells that:

    “”One who has conviction & belief that these phenomena are this way is called a faith-follower: one who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry shades. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream-entry.”

  27. Michael Finley on August 6, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Mufi, our last posts crossed. So I’ll add the perhaps obvious — my point isn’t that Buddhism isn’t “rife with supernaturalism” (the suttas are full of it,) but that Gotama didn’t seem much inclined to endow consciousness with supernatural characteristics, or even to suggest it exists separate from the body.

    Ok — there is probably an implied point that is less obvious and more contentious — that Buddhism is also rife with naturalism.

  28. mufi on August 7, 2015 at 5:45 am

    Michael: I understood what you meant and (especially in this context) I reckon that we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

    That said, suffice it to say that, as I understand early Buddhist doctrines of karma, samsara, and nirvana – as taught to me indirectly by religious and secular scholars alike (B. Bodhi and Gombrich are exemplary here) – they are (a) what we would nowadays term “supernatural” (e.g. they exceed a modern scientific/naturalistic account of causation), and (b) suggest something about consciousness/mind – particularly, that an individual mind can survive bodily death (e.g. be reborn into another realm of existence or persist in an enlightened “deathless” state for eternity).

    I attribute these supernatural doctrines to the Gotama character of the Pali Canon (just as the scholars I mentioned do) and I interpret his Four Noble Truths in their light. More to the point (and in continuity with my recent comments above), I reckon that’s what most Buddhists (or at least Theravadins) do, although of course they bring their own baggage to the party, as well. 😉

  29. Michael Finley on August 7, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Mufi, I can agree to disagree, but not without gnawing on the bone one last time 🙂

    As I’ve suggested before, the natural/supernatural distinction wasn’t one Gotama would likely have recognized. My interest here is not to defend a thoroughly naturalistic notion of Gotama, but to understand his conception of consciousness. When I call G’s conception “naturalistic,” I mean that in substance, we’d classify it as naturalistic. I don’t think this was because G preferred naturalism per se, but because he was trying to distinguish his views from Vedic and Upanishadic notions of self and consciousness, which we’d much more easily classify as supernatural.

    If consciousness is separate from the body, survives death, it is at least a very slippery slope to a permanent self, and a concept of nirvana in which the individual consciousness merges with Brahma. This explains why G was so hard on the poor monk (later tradition says he was an expert in recitation of the Jakata tales, which may have seduced him) who thought consciousness transmigrates.

    Again, the “naturalism” of G.’s account of consciousness is fortuitous. He was not committed to leaving the supernatural out. In fact, there is, somewhat hidden, in the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta, a blatantly supernatural element. In the middle of a description of how consciousness arises as the infant develops (providing an alternative to transmigration of consciousness), he inserts the notion of the gandhabba:

    “there is the case where there is a union of the mother & father, and the mother is in her season, but a gandhabba is not present, nor is there a descent of an embryo. But when there is a union of the mother & father, the mother is in her season, and a gandhabba is present, then with this union of three things the descent of the embryo occurs.”

    This gandhabba is not explained here, and might be sluffed over by a reader looking for naturalism, but it is in fact what is reborn. The Abhidharma suggests it is the last moment of thought, or the residue of attitudes that travels between lives. The whole idea is rather unsatisfactory and seems to have later been largely ignored , even by the orthodox. I think what it demonstrates is G’s rather confused effort to find some sort of answer to the question “what reincarnates” that avoided the notion of a self/consciousness wandering on. I’d like to think he was bothered by his own sophistry, but I don’t think he was bothered by what we’d call the supernaturalism of the attempted solution.

    I suppose that the gandhabba, if not Consciousness with a capital C is undeniably a mental element of some sort that exists apart from the body. To this extent, Gotama’s notion of consciousness does seem to have been affected by notions of karma and rebirth. But G seems to have tried to deny the necessary inference, or keep it as isolated from his analysis of consciousness as possible.

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