Over the past few months The Secular Buddhist podcast site and its blogs have received increased attention. We are grateful for that and welcome the many new secular Buddhists into the community. But surprisingly, at least to me, we’ve also gotten a lot of heat from traditional Buddhists. I’ve been both disappointed and surprised by this, which just shows I had made erroneous assumptions and stereotypes about Buddhists in general.

While I’ve had some 30 years of disdain and anger directed my way because I don’t believe in god, I didn’t expect the same treatment from Buddhists. There has been a battery of scathing articles about Secular Buddhism that had our paradigm and intentions completely wrong. So, when we commented, with as much Right Speech, as each of us was capable, and presented our views from a secular perspective, we met with anger, rudeness and accusations.

Additionally, traditional Buddhists have come to me, accusing me of ruining my own karma and the karma of others with my lack of belief in reincarnation. I have been accused of trying to anger other Buddhist by posting secular Buddhist articles and blogs in groups that are generically called Buddhism, and I have been told I don’t understand Buddhism, that I just don’t “get it”, I have no right to blog about it.

I’m hoping these attitudes are shared only by a small minority, but these accusations have piqued my interest. I’ve realized how truly easy it is to get attached to view, as Mr. Gotama pointed out, regardless of what the content of that view is.

I’d like to draw the attention of traditional Buddhist with this letter to you to clarify a few misconceptions, and to ask that that you draw upon your  own practice of the Eightfold path (or what you call your path) when dealing with us. Above all else, please keep the following in mind:

  • By practicing secular Buddhism we are in no way criticizing traditional schools such as Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Pure Land, etc.
  • While many of us left those traditions because we were not comfortable with some of the rituals, practices, or beliefs, we respect the traditions themselves. In fact, many of us gleaned useful practices and rituals we still engage in. Secular Buddhism in no way dictates how one practices.
  • Before forming an opinion about secular Buddhism, and especially before trashing it in a blog, please learn about it from those who practice it, and from sites that have good information on it. There is a lot of  secular Buddhist just think this or that which is dead wrong! Talk to us first.
  • We welcome anyone who wants to ask questions about secular Buddhism. We welcome healthy discussions, and are willing to explain our practices, our experiences, etc. But please, please practice mindfulness and right speech. Think about your own intentions before making accusations and assertions. All questions welcome.
  • Because most of us come from a scientific, reductionist approach, if you make a claim that something is true, we are going to ask you how we can test that claim and what evidence you have that the claim is probably true. Many of us do not consider the Pali Canon evidence any more than the bible or the koran. In fact, some of us, particularly me, view the canon and Buddhism from a mythological perspective, not a historical one. Some secular Buddhists do view Mr. Gotama and Buddhism as historic. So views vary within secular Buddhism. You are free to have whatever view you are comfortable with. Of course, we all need to examine our views mindfulness and look for attachments to them.

Through the centuries various schools of Buddhism have emerged. Buddhism gets morphed according to the needs of a particular society, rituals and religions are sometimes incorporated, and we all notice big differences in approaches to the practice. There are consistencies concerning the teachings concerning compassion, mindfulness, etc. that is what draws people to Buddhism. But secular Buddhism does NOT claim to have it right, to be the correct way to practice.

I suspect each school went through its growing pains, but because communication across countries, towns, etc. wasn’t what it is today, it wasn’t so easy for a Tibet Buddhist to criticize the Zen school or vice versa. But today we have the internet. Not only is it easy to learn about anything you want, it’s equally easy to discover and spread misinformation, inaccuracies, and it’s too easy to speak unmindfully, spontaneously, and with great insensitivity.

Everyone in all the Buddhist schools are a part of one huge community. And within the greater community are smaller ones that focus their practices in different ways according to the needs and growth of the communities and the individuals.

Secular Buddhist have no desire to do away with the traditional schools of Buddhism. We value their history, and their body of experience. But don’t get your robes in a twist because some of us don’t agree with all of it, because we don’t adhere to a certain belief system, because it seems like we  just don’t get it. Instead, try to recognize that many of Mr. Gotama’s teachings were secular. We choose to focus on this life, this world, because we are certain that there is life before death.

Don’t create more suffering by antagonizing secular Buddhists. We are all in this together, humble in wondering this wise, beautiful path, seeing into our experience, and letting go of attachments and craving.


Dana Nourie

No Comments

  1. TMcG on July 31, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    As a ‘moderate traditionalist’, I respect all flavours of Buddhism and welcome the exchanges that can grow out of our inquiring secular brethren.

    It’s through these exchanges where are able to best examine or judging minds, tendencies towards harsh speech or any other pitfalls that ‘proper’ Buddhists aren’t to engage in.

  2. The Secular Buddhist on July 31, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Very well stated, Dana. And to those who can engage in at least a cordial fashion, meaningful dialogue can progress. Friendly would be most welcome!

    Unfortunately, based on continued hammering for such a long time, I’m in a low point in confidence that this will occur with regularity. With disturbing regularity the Google searches I have configured bring back vitriolic rhetoric masquerading as concern, and bigotry under the guise of teaching. There is little to demonstrate kindness, compassion, or anything but antagonism by some people, and my own hope that we can view one another with metta is waning fast.

    This has become the same problem many of us have given up on in our Christian backgrounds, as Young Earth Creationists favor ancient stories while turning a blind eye to mountains of hard evidence for evolution. It is the core difference between fundamentalism and free inquiry; so many Buddhists pay lip service to investigation, when you *have* to reach their religious assertion. That’s not genuine. It’s dogmatism, and there isn’t any dealing with unreason.

    Maybe tomorrow will be a brighter day.

    • Jake on July 31, 2011 at 7:27 pm

      While it has surprised me to read comments from other Buddhists that are so vitriolic and dismissive (count me with Dana for inaccurately stereotyping Buddhists), I think that you might be drawing conclusions that aren’t entirely there.

      How often, say, do you see Tibetan practitioners and bloggers examining American Zen practice, or vice versa? You may see some here and there, and I’d wager what you see may be negative or at least critical in nature – along the lines of “it’s fine if they think that way, but…x is what is missing from that practice that we feel is important”. But you don’t want to extrapolate from that information that “Tibetans in general are critical of Zenners”, because the fact is most members of both these practices calmly abide each other’s existence, and only people who for some reason feel compelled to “speak out” will be making the critical statements. You end up with what seems like an unfair balance of opinion, but it isn’t – not really.

      I think it’s like this with secular practice. Most – I daresay the vast overwhelming majority – of Buddhists of other practices will look at it and say “interesting – but, whatever”. Those who for some odd reason feel antagonized by the mere existence of secular Buddhism are thus free to post alone, making it look like that’s all you get from other Buddhists is negativity. Well, that’s all you hear, but it’s not all you’re getting.

      I’ll admit, though, that it WOULD be nice to have a discussion that doesn’t devolve into textual fistfighting. I suppose all we could do there is commit to leading by example and hope people catch on.

      • The Secular Buddhist on July 31, 2011 at 9:44 pm

        Hi, Jake. We may be a little put off by recent harsh and divisive speech, because we’ve decided to try to engage positively with those who blogged that way.

        You are quite correct, I think that most Buddhists of all stripes are perfectly content to practice and let practice! For them, we gratefully bow in sincere respect.

  3. Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on July 31, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    It seems to me the very term “Secular Buddhism” is an oxymoron. In fact, attaching the qualifier “secular” to any form of “-ism” is oxymoronic. Secular Scientism is oxymoronic. Secular Science, on the other hand, is merely redundant.

    Agnostic Buddhism, as a nom de guerre, works as a kind of declaration of one’s practical purpose for beginning with Buddhism to arrive systematically at home with one’s own buddhan secularity. It is reasonable and just that those who would need to wrap themselves in an -ism would react to what they see as a legitimate threat to their correctness.

    But I must also say that I find it unseemly that the Secular Buddhist would would deem it necessary or even appropriate to manage its impression.

    I have emblazoned on the back window of my van this personal declaration:

    “I would rather feel the buddha’s blisters on my feet than his footprints on my sandals.”

    In other words, I am as much a secular buddhist as Mr Gotama was a secular hindu. He didn’t complain to hindus. He simply found his own authentic way.

  4. star on August 1, 2011 at 2:27 am

    Just for perspective, traditional sects of Buddhists do diss other sects. You can find a talk Richard Gombrich gave on facing such challenges here: http://tinyurl.com/GombrichChallenge

    Most of us start up this practice because we’re far, far from the goal of enlightenment, not because we are especially cool-headed. We can hope that those who get exercised over others having different views and ways will come to notice the heat they feel and ask themselves about it. And (speaking for myself) the practice of learning to remain calm when being sniped at will undoubtedly come in handy even outside the blogosphere.

  5. Ratanadhammo on August 1, 2011 at 8:40 am

    Dear Dana,

    I need to apologize for the heat that I’ve brought to this discussion at another website. As you left a message for me at that site, I think that this post here may partly be a reaction to me.

    I do apologize for the heat.

    Still, I am sorry that several of you were more interested in focusing on my directness in my discussion of Batchelor while largely ignoring my efforts to shine light on what makes the view of secular Buddhism more limited than what the Buddha taught as presented in the Pali Canon.

    In the end, you have to at least concede that Batchelor’s teaching and your own assertions about awakening at this site are not what the Buddha taught as best we know it, i.e. as presented in the Pali Canon.

    There is the experience of the unconditioned in the teaching as presented in the Pali Canon, which is not even a goal of secular Buddhism and which is not even thought to exist because secular Buddhism demands evidence before there is a willingness to embrace the possibility of something beyond human reason, concepts, or sensory perceptions.

    And there is the fact that letting go of all the aggregates that convince us of self, i.e. the conditioned phenomena that probably tie us to the causes of suffering more than any other, is central to the teaching as presented in the Pali Canon, which is sorely missing from the discussions of secular Buddhism.

    In other words, secular Buddhism takes away the goal (the blissful experience of the unconditioned) and the means of achieving it (the teaching of anatta).

    There is a reason why we have the Three Jewels in Buddhism. We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha precisely because experiencing the unconditioned and experiencing conditioned reality without reference to self is so difficult and is so against our ingrained habits that it seems, well, impossible!

    I did write more than once at the other site that your efforts are clearly sincere. I appreciate your sincerity greatly.

    Less heat. More light.


    • The Secular Buddhist on August 1, 2011 at 10:30 am

      Ratanadhammo, you’re welcome here and I do appreciate your interest in positive dialogue. Thank you, that is very encouraging and is sincerely appreciated.

      And I agree with you, the goals of secular Buddhism and Theravada are not the same. Neither are the goals of Theravada with Mahayana, or Mahayana with secular Buddhism. And we also can agree that the best representation of what the Buddha may have said can be found in the Pali canon, it is why we find it so rich in teaching, so inspiring to our practice.

      You’re right, secularists do ask for evidence for a reason that is weighty for us, though certainly not everyone. Without it, any claim is equally true, including all claims for which you and I would likely share skepticism. We know that’s a challenge when speaking of nibbhana, and would of course prefer there be a way to show it unambiguously as being a fact. We’re happy to hear what that might be, we’re not closed to it at all.

      When someone says that our practice is lesser, however, we hear it with the same reaction as we hear racial epithets. Mahayana seems to have grown out of referring to other forms (like the Theravada you and I share, that is also part of my ongoing practice community) as being the “lesser vehicle”, I’d rather we not even start that divisive speech with regards to secular Buddhism.

      Yes, completely agree — More Light.

      With Metta


      • Ratanadhammo on August 1, 2011 at 11:26 am


        Thank you for welcoming me here. Whatever came before has passed. In the present, we can all always try to be more constructive in our discussions!

        Thank you for bringing up the idea of prejudice and discrimination. A point that I made in my respose to something that Dana had written about discrimination at another site upset me.

        While I strongly disagree with people who discriminate against the LGBT community, my coming so close to calling them “haters” bothered me. It made me step back and look at my contribution to the heat in other parts of the discussion. Regarding my comment that people who discriminate against the LGBT community are filled with hate, I thought about what the Buddha said concerning the kilesas – the three poisons of greed, hate and delusion – as a way of justifying my comment that there are some beings who are filled with hate. Anyway, whether my comment that they are filled with hate was appropriate or not, my reaction to it helped me.

        I’ll have more time later to make a couple of points about what I see as the purpose of meditation practice, which will be in regard to your skepticism when it comes to the unconditioned.


      • Ratanadhammo on August 1, 2011 at 12:02 pm

        I’d like to respond to this part of your comment:

        The goals of secular Buddhism and Theravada are not the same. Neither are the goals of Theravada with Mahayana, or Mahayana with secular Buddhism

        Speaking in very broad terms, Theravada and Mahayana goals are not so dissimilar: they both assert that liberating insight and compassion are two sides of the same coin.

        And Mahayana and secular Buddhism both have a emphasis on compassion, though some Mahayana schools appear to lean toward devotional practices (eg. visualization techniques can look a lot like devotional practices) and secular Buddhists might benefit from contemplating the Heart Sutra’s emphasis on the ultimately conditioned and impermanent (“empty”) nature of every part of themselves that can have contact with, perceive, or cognize the unconditioned, i.e. none of which can sense, comprehend, or know the unconditioned.

        This brings me back to what I said earlier about what I see as the purpose of meditation practice, which very much regards your skepticism when it comes to the unconditioned.

        I’ll write more later.

  6. mknick on August 1, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Brian —

    I would invite you to go to Dharmaseed.org and listen to Batchelor’s talks. You will hear hour after hour devoted to “letting go of all the aggregates that convince us of self, i.e. the conditioned phenomena that probably tie us to the causes of suffering,” as you put it, and also on the practice of Zen forms leading to the awareness of anatta. So neither of these things is missing from Secular Buddhism. What is missing is the assumption that not-self or the cessation of suffering are grand, transcendental absolutes available only to monastics and then only over many lifetimes. We see value, not in dehumanizing abstracts, but in the experience of practice in the here and now of this human life. We see the essence of the practice as being one of carefully observing, through mindfulness, how conditioned arising manifests itself in our moment to moment experience; that experience leads to the dropping away of grasping and aversion, and from there to the freedom to live life in a different way. This may seem like small potatoes to you; to me it has been a tremendously transformative experience, and one that makes it clear just how much practice still holds in store for me. I don’t need grand, mythological goals that no one can demonstrate to me, or the notion that somehow the very nature of human existance (dukkha) can be brought to a halt in some way other than death. The gift of the dharma I’ve realized in my own experience has been precious enough — if it gets 50% better than this it will be damn near miraculous!

    • Ratanadhammo on August 1, 2011 at 3:25 pm

      Thank you for this very thoughtful comment.

      I’m not sure where the idea that monastics think that the cessation of suffering is only for them comes from.

      The distinction you seem to be making is between the reduction of suffering and the cessation of suffering, and I don’t believe that any monk or nun would disagree with you in the slightest about the importance of reducing suffering in this world or about the need to do so as best we can in every moment.

      I think a difference between you and me is that you seem to be concerned primarily with the practical aspects of Buddhist thought and I am concerned with more than the practical aspects. For example, in practice, something being “dehumanized” sounds horrible. In my own day-to-day experience in the world, I try to be compassionate and sympathetic to all, not just humans! But the Buddha did not teach that humanity is the measure or that humanity is the figurative or literal center of experience.

      Putting aside our day-to-day lives and the way we’d like the world to be, to humanize something is to make it, well, more like you, a self, an idea (the “human”), to put all the importance on being human, the human condition, etc. It’s nothing more a construct that makes you more comfortable in samsaric existence.

      If that’s the limit of your goals, that’s fine. On the other hand, saying that such goals are the sum total of what the Buddha taught or would be teaching if he were alive today is just wrong. This latter point is the main problem with Batchelor.

      To seek the bliss of experiencing the unconditioned isn’t about heightened consciousness. It isn’t about finding happiness in anything of the impermanent phenomena, no matter how appealing the ideas. it’s about moving beyond consciousness entirely. It’s about recognizing that you or your humanity are not the center of existence.

      • Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on August 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm

        Please do not use the term “you” where I have to read it since I am highly skeptical that you have attained any of the supernatural powers of enlightenment, and do be more careful to ensure that the persons you are addressing here concur with your use of the pronoun “we”. You do not have my permission to include me in any group to which you imagine you belong.

      • mknick on August 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm

        Again, please listen to what Batchelor is actually saying. I have read his books and listened to all of his online talks, and I am unaware of his claiming that “that such goals are the sum total of what the Buddha taught or would be teaching if he were alive today.” We is at great pains to indicate that his presentation is an interpretation of certain key ideas in the Canon, and his attempt to read them in light of contemporary Western world view. He points out frequently where and how what he is saying is at variance from traditional interpretations of the texts. No one who treats the Pali texts with any integrity can be a sutta-thumper, and Batchelor bends over backwards to make this clear to his audiences.

        The human condition is what we have to work from. It is the model of the world we have, arising from the contact of the physical world with the human body-mind. I think Gotama makes that clear by his emphasis on applying mindfulness to the aggregates affected by clinging. I know that the “extinction of consciousness” is associated often with nirvana in the suttas, but the only such extinction in evidence is the death or impairment of the central nervous system. Therefore, I have to set aside such a goal as something irrelevant to the human condition (as I would set aside holding the sun and moon in my hands). Insisting on such a goal would be to privelege the metaphysical and transcendental over the present and immediate realities of human existance, and is therefore dehumanizing. I may see through the fiction of the self, but I’ll always be a human being (until my elements go their separate ways).

        As far as the priveleging of bhikkhus, this is another topic on which the suttas are multivalent. There are passages that indicate that nirvana is available to everyone; there are others that imply that the household life is so uncondusive to awakening that the best thing householders can do is live a moral life, give to the monks and hope for a better rebirth. Often when speaking to housholders, Gotama doesn’t even suggest the possibility. This attitude is reflected in the Theravadin commentarial tradition and is present today in the commentaries of Bhikku Boddhi.

      • Ratanadhammo on August 2, 2011 at 5:50 pm

        According to the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2), the Buddha didn’t hold back at all when speaking to a householder about the Dhamma and, when the householder failed to see the Dhamma, the Buddha said it was the result of his having killed his father rather than the result of anything to do with his being a householder.

        You are correct, though, that the Theravadin teaching is that laypeople can achieve stream-entry, but that, for someone rooted in worldly concerns, reaching arahantship is thought to be unlikely.

        Anyway, for one who does not think awakening is even possible, why does it even matter?

        As I wrote to Ted in another comment (it’s below this one), having awakening to the unconditioned and the complete cessation of suffering as measures for one’s practice matters more than whether one achieves the goal.

        • Sean on January 30, 2014 at 10:14 am

          I recognize that this conversation (being 3 years old now) is ancient, in terms of the web, but perhaps it may be acceptable for me to comment anyway. If not, my regrets.

          Also, I aim here only to alleviate my own confusion and perhaps the confusion of others, and I mean absolutely no disrespect at all, either personally or to any other group of religious peoples!

          > According to the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2),
          > the Buddha didn’t hold back at all when
          > speaking to a householder about the Dhamma
          > and, when the householder failed to see the
          > Dhamma, the Buddha said it was the result of
          > his having killed his father rather than the
          > result of anything to do with his being a
          > householder…

          Except that (I think) this may be problematic position, even from a (so-called) “orthodox” perspective: I might argue that a broad view of the Tathāgata’s comments in the tipitaka largely seem to indicate that a particular kind of monasticism (undertaken in a human rebirth in particular) is by far the most efficacious route to (liberation|enlightenment|awakening|nirvāṇa).

          Practically speaking, I think the Buddha’s message is that attainment *in this lifetime* requires monastic commitment (in my opinion, I am more than open to alternate interpretations and/or corrections).

          > for someone rooted in worldly concerns,
          > reaching arahantship is thought to be unlikely.

          In fact I think it would be considered so unlikely that the point would be functionally moot. The Buddha (was|is) (from an “orthodox” perspective) the only pratyekabuddha of our aeon…isn’t that correct?

          > Anyway, for one who does not think awakening is even possible,
          > why does it even matter?

          I cannot speak for the OP or even for anyone other than myself, but I have been accused (complimented?) of being a “secular” Buddhist, and the answer to this question is as follows:
          Epistemologically speaking, one doesn’t even “know” what nirvāṇa *is*, to begin with, because the Tathāgata expressed very little about what is is positively, other than saying that it is moksha (liberation) from dukkha (suffering, unacceptability, etc). The remainder is a rather clinical discussion of what it is *not.*
          For this reason, many of “us” are functionally agnostic, despite the fact that we may personally identify as atheists, but of course identity is so empty as to be (from a Buddhist perspective, I might argue) meaningless. So it still matters (at least to some of “us.”)

          You may be getting that I rather dislike the term “secular” Buddhists.
          There are Buddhists, and there are unBuddhists or non-Buddhists or whatever, but even Buddhists wracked with doubt should still be respected enough by other sentient beings, in my opinion, to be called Buddhists.

          (Nobody is accusing Mother Teresa of not being a Christian.)

          Imagine, for a moment, a priest in the Catholic church turning away a penitent man who is wracked with doubt.
          Not working for you? Me either, because, well, they do not do that (that I know of).

          > As I wrote to Ted in another comment (it’s below this one),
          > having awakening to the unconditioned and
          > the complete cessation of suffering as measures
          > for one’s practice matters more than whether one achieves the goal.

          Wait, don’t the vast majority of monastic Buddhists consider achieving the goal to be the very point? Isn’t the cessation of suffering the very point? I am confused, my apologies.

          Namaste, friend. Your insight is very valuable.

  7. Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on August 1, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Please do not use the term “you” where I have to read it since I am highly skeptical that you have attained any of the supernatural powers of enlightenment, and do be more careful to ensure that the persons you are addressing here concur with your use of the pronoun “we”. You do not have my permission to include me in any group to which you imagine you belong.

    • The Secular Buddhist on August 1, 2011 at 3:54 pm

      Hi, Yasei. I’m sorry, not sure which this is in reference to? My apologies if I’ve caused offense, none was intended if this was something I’ve said.

      • Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on August 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm

        My apologies to you. My response belongs to RatanaDhammo’s last post.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm


      I’m not trying to label anyone. Pronouns and words are imperfect by their nature, but we have to use them to the best of our abilities. If you feel like someone’s grouping you, there is a reasonable expectation that you will consider whether or not the problem is your oversensitivity and not the fault of the person who is using words in the best way he or she can in the process of trying to understand something. I really am not trying to start fights here. I was trying to understand something.

      Anyway, let me put your skepticism about my having achieved any of the supernatural powers of enlightenment to rest. I haven’t.

      Btw, do you even believe that any of the supernatural powers of enlightenment exist? If not, then wouldn’t your skepticism about whether or not I’ve achieved any be something of an oxymoron?

      • Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on August 1, 2011 at 5:36 pm

        To answer your question regarding the existence of supernatural powers, we would have to agree on the meaning of the words “existence” and of “supernatural”.

        My statement that I doubted you possessed the supernatural powers was in the declarative form of one who would have to possess such “supernatural powers” in order to make such a statement truthfully.

        If you can agree that was a silly statement, then you can understand how silly it is to speak as if you have accurately read the mind (its motives, models, etc) of someone whose words you have just interpreted from within the framework of your own karma.

        Clairvoyance, Clairaudience, Mind-Reading – also: Knowing Past Lives, Flying Through the Air, Stopping Deluded Thoughts – are the Six Supernatural Powers.

        The undisciplined use of the words “YOU” and “WE” to refer to one who is not physically present to the speaker, can allow one who is listening remotely by natural means to wonder if he or she is to infer that the speaker is in possession of such Supernatural Powers as are not otherwise available in an online chat format.

        I have recently discovered the differences between a) believing beliefs, b) believing without beliefs, c) disbelieving beliefs, and d) disbelieving believing.

        I mention that because these observations are in the background of my participation in this thread and may resolve some confusion as to whence I come. Also, they seem pertinent to matters of contention between those who would associate them selves as Secular compared to those who would associate themselves with religion.

        With respect to your question whether skepticism is oxymoronic, I would merely say that any working hypothesis is just a belief that one is choosing to riddle with doubt.

        Referring to beliefs in Supernatural Powers while riddling them with doubt, merely makes of them “working hypotheses” that there may be some “natural” explanation for some dharma that one has merely mislabeled for lack of an otherwise penetrating empirical understanding.

        I hope the foregoing suitably clarifies.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 1, 2011 at 5:28 pm

      Gianni, I just reread my comment with the “you” in it. I was clearly talking to and, when writing “you,” about mknick. I’m sorry, but I’m really not interested in arguing, and even less so in arguing over nothing.

      • Ratanadhammo on August 1, 2011 at 5:59 pm


        We most certainly are not talking about things of no importance. I think that’s something that most of those who’ve involved in this discussion can agree.

        The Buddha used the words “I” and “me” and “you” etc all the time. It’s not a problem to use words for conventional conversation.

      • Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on August 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm

        I would agree that arguing over nothing is silly. And, I have found that arguing generally requires either attacking or defending or both. It seems to me that the thrusts and parries between Ratanadhammo et al entail both attacking and defending over matters of no significance, i.e. nothing.

        It doesn’t matter that your use of the word “you” was not directed towards “ME” personally but rather “mcnick” personally.

        One who claims to be buddhan in one’s outlook, howeverso secularly or religiously, is entitled to conclude that speech which includes such “impersonations” as “YOU” and “WE” is not seemingly buddhan.

  8. Dana Nourie on August 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm


    Thank you so much for responding to this blog and to our concerns. I’m not sure where you get the impression we are dehumanizing through practice. While our focus is indeed on practice instead of following dogma, compassion and concern is utmost in our hearts and rolls out of recognizing not-self, letting go of attachments, etc.

    That is what we strongly have in common with the other traditions. Additionally, letting go is a big part of our practice. We’ve only just started the blogs here, but if you read through you’ll see we share basics that are also in other traditions. What differs is that we focus on this life, this world. Mr. Gotama stressed this as well, repeatedly, and I really don’t think he’d have an issue with our practice.

    All traditions and secular Buddhism are walking this path, and some of us are coming in from different directions. Like I said, we are not trying to convert traditionalists, we are not trying to do away with the other traditions. We are happy to support those who want a secular path, and glad to answer questions for those who want to understand, but by all means you are free to enjoy whichever tradition you have chosen for yourself.

    The reason you were being challenged on the other forum was because of the criticisms you had made, and erroneous assumptions, and some of us were trying to explain our side.

    Metta . . .

    • Ratanadhammo on August 1, 2011 at 5:18 pm

      Hi Dana,

      I think it’s fair to say that there was heat coming from multiple sides on the other forum. I am responsible for my contribution to it. I was upset after my response to you. Sorry.

      I do not have the impression at all that you are dehumanizing through practice. I was responding above to mknick, who wrote “we see value, not in dehumanizing abstracts, but in the experience of practice.” I interpreted that comment to mean that the notion of the unconditioned is a dehumanizing abstract and that I have little or no interest in the experience of practice. That’s not true! I might not have expressed my point clearly enough.

      I think that making the unconditioned the goal reminds us that we are capable of continually trying to attach ourselves to seemingly endless conditioned phenomena randomly in a vain search for lasting happiness or we are capable of trying to attach ourselves to a set of high-minded ideals, which is what I see secular Buddhism doing.

      In the end, attachment even to those high-minded ideals comes from attachment to self and can leave one bitter or angry about all kinds of things. For example, in the comment to which I was responding above, I think there may have been a hint of bitterness toward – maybe even anger at – monastics. Anway, those kinds of feelings can come out of attachment to self and out of the need for attachment to high-minded ideals, and they can result in violence given the circumstances.

      • The Secular Buddhist on August 1, 2011 at 9:55 pm

        Hi, Brian. Again, thank you for this discussion, and I am sincerely glad you’re here engaging in this dialogue. It helps me understand your position with much greater depth, having your explain it with the attention you’re giving to the discussion.

        Sorry for answering indirectly, WordPress seems to limit replies on a single thread!

        Agreed, that broadly the Theravada and Mahayana goals are really about ending suffering on a samsaric scale. One has it as somewhat inevitable for the practitioner upon stream entry at most seven more ‘again becomings’, and another vows to put off one’s own full realization until all beings are there, too. Ah, yes, very familiar with the Heart Sutra, it is of great benefit — that was the first sutra I studied, my first education and practice was in Soto Zen.

        On your reply to Mark, that idea of cessation only being for monastics is I think a holdover from just the rarity of laity becoming arahants. What, maybe six times in the canon? Something not too common! Just a guess that’s where the idea seems to be coming from, but could be wrong.

        Yes, you hit it on the head, our difference is “you seem to be concerned primarily with the practical aspects of Buddhist thought and I am concerned with more than the practical aspects.” That’s it, precisely. And I see nothing wrong with being concerned with more than practical aspects, it’s a perfectly valid way to take the path and one that is discussed throughout the canon. Oh, and *completely* with you on compassion for not just humans, but all sentient beings. I get worms out of puddles after rain, and always take spiders outside instead of killing them. Mosquitoes too… most of the time. Metta practice has been extremely helpful in this ongoing development of compassion for other beings.

        We’re also in agreement that experiencing the unconditioned, tabling for the moment what we mean by that, isn’t about finding happiness in conditioned things, or heightened consciousness. I would suggest that in our conventional frame of reference, releasing long held misperceptions and with them the suffering they bring is still a “pleasant abiding” that is a wholesome one. That is what I was referring to when I wrote about living happier lives — the skillful application of our practice resulting in piti sukha. You and I both expect from experience that it too will drop away, but one needs to start from a point that traverses that initial pleasant abiding. That’s all I meant there, as people with years of study in the depths of the teaching is not the majority of people who would be introduced to Buddhism through this basic podcast.

        On a personal note, I actually do depend quite a lot on the local monastics, and monastic friends in other states, and count them as friends. I honor them as people, respect them as teachers, and am grateful for them sharing their understanding and practice with me. We do diverge on certain issues, but have found wonderful and positive avenues of discussion over years of study of the dhamma together.

        This is my hope for us, for all of us.



      • Ratanadhammo on August 1, 2011 at 11:22 pm

        The Buddha seems to have thought it important to have the expectation that experience based on conditioned phenomena will drop away, even for those still holding to conventional frames of reference. My point, in part, is that having such an expectation is far more important for every practitioner than whether it is ever achieved.

        You wrote:

        I would suggest that in our conventional frame of reference, releasing long held misperceptions and with them the suffering they bring is still a “pleasant abiding” that is a wholesome one.

        Doesn’t this amount to limiting the goal to the reduction of suffering? A deeper reduction of suffering and a more fulfilling practice can be achieved by making the cessation of suffering the goal and the measure by which we evaluate our moment-to-moment experience. The ultimate cessation of suffering does not have to achieved at all for it to still be an imporant part of practice.

  9. Dana Nourie on August 1, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Ah, ok! Brain, again I want to thank you for coming here and making amends as you have and giving us the chance for a more productive, peaceful conversation. We really do appreciate it.

  10. star on August 1, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    For me the difference lies not really, not specifically, in whether only monastics can achieve the furthest ends of the paths, but whether anyone can in a lifetime. If the premise is that the Buddha meant literally that it takes many, many lifetimes to get far enough with this practice to get within striking distance of liberation, then that is not something an ordinary person is likely to achieve within a householder’s alotted time to focus on the tasks — it would be a task better suited to a monastic. I don’t think any of us are saying that monastics say only monastics can be liberated. What I see is references to our (background, personal) discussions that if the belief is that it takes many lifetimes, a monastic has a better chance to get there.

    What I also see is that in the conversations we are having, here, there, everywhere, about the differences between traditional interpretations and innovative considerations, each of us has a tendency to define some aspect that the other is concerned with as the Worst Possible Case Scenario of what is being said about that concept, and then deny that. “You say there is no liberation! Nonsense! Where does that leave Buddhism!” when what’s actually being said is, “We don’t believe there is some mystical sort of liberation that can only be achieved over many lifetimes.” But then we say, “Liberation! Nonsense! How can one ever become completely free of suffering!” when maybe what the Buddha was talking about was not being completely free of all forms of suffering, but of a very specific sort of suffering.

    We need to stop setting up straw men who are extreme examples of what the other guy might be trying to say and knocking those down, and try to hear — really hear — the precise and usually quite subtle differences in understanding that are being discussed.

    I do see a tendency in Secular Buddhists to outright deny any possibility of… whatever: rebirth, liberation, the end of dukkha. Maybe what’s meant is not a denial but to express “unlikelihood” given the speaker’s understanding of what they perceive these concepts to mean to those to whom they mean a lot — the cry is “Show me the evidence!” (and the answering cry is “Faith in the Buddha! Look at our teachers! Our lineage!”) — but denying possibilities for things without evidence is also clinging to a view, and it’s a clinging that fosters divisiveness without necessity. Why can’t we just allow for possibilities, and point out that clinging to certainty about things we haven’t, ourselves, experienced, is, in any case, unhelpful? I’m sure most of us recognize that doggedly aiming for and striving hard, really hard, for liberation as if we know exactly what the goal is and where we are headed and what we need to do to get there — is a hindrance?

    • The Secular Buddhist on August 2, 2011 at 7:21 am

      Linda, we on the secular side may have given a wrong impression, I’m sorry if that happened. We do not deny such possibilities, but do not see it as being likely in that we see no evidence for it. You’re right, it would be dogmatic to deny what can’t be proven — you can’t prove a negative.

      That being said, I quite actively do not think the god of the Judeo Christian faith exists for the reason that there is no evidence for it, and the logical impossibility of being infinitely powerful, aware, and compassionate while there is demonstrable suffering in the world. It is enough for me to say that with a degree of conviction. I feel the same way about rebirth. Happy to be convinced otherwise, just asking for something more reliable than stories and experiences during altered states of mind — as I would ask anyone making any kind of claim about life after death, of any variety. That is a *reasonable* thing to ask, as all claims cannot be true.

  11. Dana Nourie on August 2, 2011 at 8:00 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with Ted. I won’t deny the existence of god, the possibility of rebirth, or the existence of unicorns, Puff the Magic Dragon, or trolls, but I’m not wasting my time on any of them until I see some compelling evidence.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 2, 2011 at 8:14 am

      Please remember that the Buddha taught that there is something beyond the six sense gates and beyond human cognitive abilities that is more profound and lasting than anything that can be placed in front of you in the form of evidence.

      Besides, every one of the things that you mentioned exists as a result of our imagination, which is what enables us to come up with things like the possibility that the earth goes around the sun and that we are all made up of subatomic particles, at least physically.

      • The Secular Buddhist on August 2, 2011 at 12:07 pm

        Hi, Brian. The Buddha and many other religious figures and philosophers have suggested that (“Horatio” 🙂 ), but that doesn’t make it factually correct. It may be, sure! Heck, I would like it to be! But how can one tell which is which in this lifetime, other than by reference to the natural world? I just don’t see what frame of common reference we can have to things that cannot be referenced. That’s the problem — we say one thing, someone else says something else, and there is no way to demonstrate which is correct. In good conscience I cannot accept my preferred belief over another, it’s what I find problematic when someone does that for their own beliefs. I need to live by that code, too.

        And you’re right, those things are in our imagination. But some of them can be tested, because we’ve imagined what is factually correct in the natural world, along with things that might not be.

    • Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on August 2, 2011 at 11:22 am

      I was having a brief chat with Stephen Batchelor in March 2010 as he was working his way towards the publication of his latest book. I told him what I thought about God.

      “God is a three letter word that stands for everything that I do not know at this moment.”

      He smiled broadly and said “I am going to steal that!”

      This formulation allows me to speak to and truly engage others who prefer more to conceptualize their God. At least I think that is so, since I have never known one who prays to their God because they already KNOW what is happening.

      This formulation also allows me to practice forms without also having to identify with their lineages.

      • Ratanadhammo on August 2, 2011 at 11:50 am


        Take a look at the eternalist views presented by the Buddha in the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1). His teaching as presented in the Pali Canon addresses this very point, though the terms he used are different.

  12. Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on August 2, 2011 at 10:17 am

    It seems to me that this whole thread – starting with A Letter to Traditional Buddhists – is wrong headed because by turning the discourse into a “class action” it is, itself, tending to reduce Secular Buddhism into just another Tradition.

    No form of Buddhism is buddhan that does not wholly embrace skepticism. Secular Buddhists need also to be skeptical of Secular Buddhism.

    While I disagree with anyone who says “The Buddha SAID”, I can point to some of the earliest records that support the inherence of skepsis. Take, for example, the sermon to the Kalamas.

    Do not believe in anything simply
    Because you have heard it.

    Do not believe in traditions just because they
    Have been handed down for many generations.

    Do not believe in anything just because it is
    Spoken and rumored by many.

    Do not believe in anything simply because
    It is found written in your sacred texts.

    Do not believe in anything merely on the authority
    Of your teachers and elders.

    But after observation and evaluation,
    When you find anything that agrees with reason
    And is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all
    Then accept it and live up to it.

    Buddha – From Kalama Sutta
    Anguttara Nikaya
    Vol 1,188 –193

    The message for me here is “Believing is important, but believing in the immediacy of experience and not just believing Beliefs instead.”

    Taking heed, what use can there possibly be to be for any Secular Buddhist to defend himself or herself against the opinions of what he characterizes as Traditional Buddhists?

    I call myself a Feral Monk – but I practice Soto Zen because I find its forms are useful instruments for penetrating my innermost self, or true nature. Others like the more sybaritic approach of Vajrayana. So long as Beliefs are seen merely as instruments and not as statements of ultimate reality, anyone can be buddhan in thought, word, and deed – free from all that ancient twisted karma, born of body, speech, and mind.

    I sincerely hope I do not ever again have to read in The Secular Buddhist any such Class Action Brief either for or against any class of Buddhist practice such as we have been diddling with these past couple of days.

    A Letter to Traditional Buddhists was an unfortunate excursion into practicing the very defilements it was purporting to correct.

    I am very glad for the welcoming of all that has nevertheless emerged.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 2, 2011 at 11:53 am

      The Buddha also followed the teachings of two teachers as far as they would take him and practiced asceticism and self-mortification as far as that practice would take him before he concluded that they were incomplete.

      He didn’t just practice randomly or by the pick-and-choose-bits-from-here-and bits-from-there method.

      I’d write more about the balance in his insight into the Five Spiritual Faculties, but I have to run.

    • mknick on August 3, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      “So long as Beliefs are seen merely as instruments and not as statements of ultimate reality . . .”

      That’s just it. If you don’t think something is real and true, then you don’t believe it. You may, however, wish to believe it and try hard to ignore your doubts about it. Or you may pretend to believe it without really believing. The reason we seek a secular form of dharma practice is that we do not wish to pretend to believe things for which there is no evidence, which violate our sense of reason, and which tend to lead to unnecessary suffering.

      Dana’s post may very well reify an “us vs. them” dichotomy, but all language rests on such dualities. Her post would not have been written, however, if traditionalists weren’t first oversimplifying and distorting our practice and then attributing all kinds of intellectual and character flaws to us, in forums large and small. We are humans; when we are attacked we tend to try to justify ourselves. So I suspect you will be seeing such statements here again.

      • Ratanadhammo on August 3, 2011 at 5:15 pm

        I’m trying not to get into anything about my different view of Batchelor, nor do I think it’s helpful for us to get into an argument about whether the problems of secular Buddhism amount to “traditionalists … oversimplifying and distorting [your] practice and then attributing all kinds of intellectual and character flaws to [you].”

        I will say that I too have been hit with all manner of nonsense about what I do and do not think and do and do not believe by secular Buddhists based on the “you’re a traditionalist” argument. It doesn’t matter, except that the people doing the hitting appear to be unwilling to read or think about what I am saying.

        No one is asking you to pretend to believe anything. My point has always been that everyone should treat the teaching as it is in the Pali Canon with respect.

        I would also ask you to believe what you can confirm, accept the possibility of what seems reasonable enough (even though can’t confirm it yet), and remain open to rethinking everything and anything that you think in this moment that you know for sure to be true or that you think in this moment that you know for sure to be untrue.

        Mostly, the Buddha’s teaching is about recognizing our habitual patterns of thinking and trying to replace those that need replacing with more skillful practices.

  13. Dana Nourie on August 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Gianni, that is called the argument from ignorance. I just say, I don’t know.

    • Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on August 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm

      Dana –

      Could you please reference your “that” and describe what you mean in this case by “ignorance”?

  14. Dana Nourie on August 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    By “that” I mean you calling what you don’t know god. THAT is called the classic argument from ignorance, which is a stance that is often used by people for the explanation of god. They explain what they know, and when they get to what they don’t know, instead of saying “i don’t know” they say god did it. The more we know, the farther the argument from ignorance gets pushed out.

    Neil Tyson explains the argument from ignorance really well in this video he did on UFOs:

    • Ratanadhammo on August 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm


      One use of the notion of causes and conditions of all samsaric phenomena is that it helps us to think at the most basic level – cause and effect – from moment to moment. The belief in a divine being as a source for the physical and moral order has something to do with a search for meaning as a way to explain, as you say, what is difficult to understand. As Ajahn Punnadhammo puts it, belief in a god has a similar problem to belief in nihilism: arbitrariness. The Buddha thought of the divine as being part of samsaric existence. I think he was probably right in more way than one!

    • Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on August 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm

      Dana –

      You are wrong in my case, but this has exposed the extent to which you believe your own imputations and probably of your projections of self onto the minds of others.

  15. Dana Nourie on August 2, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    I totally agree, Brian. Everything arises from conditions, including people’s beliefs:-)

  16. aruna on August 15, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Dear dana,its new to me this secular buddhism.true as time changes we need to look at things differrently.i wouldnt say scientifically because scientific discoveries do change with new discoveries.
    I agree with you as long as the core teachings of buddhism are not adulterated.nobody can prove that the dhamma is true.you have to discover it by your own effort.
    If you dont believe in pali canons you cant take anything in buddhism into account.we learnt about the four noble truths,the eightfold path to purification and even nirvana without tha canons.so what exactly do you not agree in the canons.
    As regards rituals i believe there is a lot of grounds to disagree.
    This is not a critism.i would like to know more about the secular buddhists view of buddhism.
    Theruwan saranai.

  17. gmc0201 on September 10, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Hear, hear. I recently read a thread of comments where Buddhist Geeks (who got me interested in this whole mishegoss a year or so ago) was alternately trashed and defended by pepole with in many cases little knowledge of what BG does or is. Coming from a Christian background as many Westerners do, I can’t say I’m unfamiliar with sectarian slash and burn mentalities, but the emphasis on lineage (even more than orthodoxy or orthopraxy) was disappointing. I’m trying to stay equanimous and recognize they all (like I and all things) arise and pass away -and are the results of conditional, dependent origination. (I probably said some of that wrong, but if not, you grt the idea – WTF.) The religious who identify (or get their sense of worth) primarily from the identification with a past or an authority figure will always flame (or burn at stakes) anyone who stresses the substance of the teaching/message. I was a Protestant Christian for years (ordained in supposedly/marginally apostolic succession –
    that lineage) and feel similarly protest-ant now that I am finding meaning in buddhisty concepts and practices. Buddhist Tea Partiers deserve no more deference or credence than their Christian counterparts.

  18. The Naked Monk (@thenakedmonk) on September 10, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    People use religion to either find consolation and answers to life’s mystery or as an acknowledgement that life is unfathomable. The first lot (the vast majority), is clearly going to get bogged down in words and forms and will jump to the defense of their own version of the ‘real’ faith. New Buddhists are surprised and often disappointed to find that other Buddhists fall into this formalism just as easily as believers in any other faith.
    This is not about secular versus religious Buddhists. It’s just about people. Treat them tenderly.

    • leebert on November 5, 2012 at 9:29 am

      Hey NM… It comes down to skillful means.

      In the Lotus Sutra there’s the parable of the house on fire – whatever means it takes to help people find refuge. Now I see that parable as a bit of an alibi for reifying beliefs – ala spiritual materialism – where I myself might demur.

      If, however, I encapsulate its message into context of the cultural mind in which it arose I can find its commonality & not rejoin with equal-and-opposite reaction. I can also see the problem as viewed by my counterparts, where falter & demur on my views.

      The burden falls upon us, as the functional equiv. of a reform movement, to not draw attention to the differences any more than necessary. And when it is necessary, when we are pressed to defend a position, to perform the task with as much equanimity as we can muster (feigned aplomb works too).

      We can identify those from the other schools, too, who also know how to observe right speech while engaging in argument. Aspersion & polemics are the domain of the fearful – whether they are fearful of loss of status, accepting the unacceptable or apognoses. Not to become smug, or condescend, but there’s a freedom in recognizing, in another, the suffering of mental culture at that level.

      Maintaining such a standard, while navigating our way forward in search of our own Dharmic birthright seems in a way to be unfair – that the reformers have to do a better job of engaging & practicing than the orthodox (who themselves were once the heterodox, heretics, etc.). It’s been said that one person’s belief is another person’s heresy – but when we get out of the entire problem of the business of belief – esp. vicarious beliefs in religion – and to statements of direct experience, then we’ll find the common ground that’ll ameliorate concerns about differences & perceived threats.

      I’ll stop there… 🙂

  19. leebert on November 5, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Even Buddhists do it. Argue, misapprehend, & misassess threat. That’s ego’s job, to assess threat, problem solve.

    I’ve argued the brief *for* reincarnation, but not as a reified perpetualism, but as a metaphor for openness, contiguous with the doctrines of anatman (openness to other), annica (rebirth) & sunya (openness). It’s already a very narrow line to teach the view of reincarnation ala the metaphorical salt in the Ganges, and to plainly state that reifying reincarnation past that is, in fact, erroneous.

    To further secularize it, and plainly state that it is not much more than a functional metaphor, and not an iron-clad item of faith, seems too much for traditionalists to bear. Just because Gautama urged the adoption of the safe bet doesn’t mean he mandated it.

    At a psychological level, this reaction is a familiar one. If we’re to consult the Skandhas, the list of aggregates & all their declensions, surely we’re observing ego’s threat-assessment engine from other elements of the Big Tent.

    And mind you, you’re certain to find yourself the object of aspersion from certain sects within Buddhism (I won’t name names, but you probably know them already). There’ll always be contention & controversy when we branch out beyond the boundaries of culture and belief.

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