In my last post I looked at a talk given by Ajahn Brahmali on Secular Buddhism. Recently the Melbourne Insight Meditation Group released a debate that Brahmali had with Steven Batchelor on the same topic, which once again revolved around the central issue of rebirth. It raises interesting questions worthy of a follow-up post. (As in my last post, I will parenthetically cite rough locations in the video).

Although Brahmali was less than clear in his prior discussion, it seemed that he was claiming Secular Buddhists weren’t Buddhists at all, but instead “secularists with a bit of inspiration from Buddhism”. In his discussion with Batchelor he makes this clearer. He does not believe Batchelor is a Buddhist, since Batchelor rejects traditional rebirth. (1:14:00).

Brahmali is what some would term nowadays a “Protestant Buddhist” in that he looks to the original teachings of the Buddha, as most accurately found in the Nikāyas, for the content of the dhamma. (10:30, 1:07:00). His position is nuanced in that he does not take the Nikāyas to be uniformly credible; he is willing to countenance that they have been monkeyed with over time, however he along with most contemporary scholars of early Buddhism believe them to be broadly accurate as to the content of Siddhattha Gotama’s teachings. At the very least, there is nowhere else to look for those teachings, so there we must reside.

Brahmali’s opening premise is uncontroversial, even to Batchelor: the Buddha taught rebirth. It’s the second premise of his argument that deserves some scrutiny: he basically says that “Buddhism” is defined by what the Buddha taught in the Nikāyas. (E.g., 10:30, 1:07:00, 1:14:00) This determines his conclusion that any contemporary doctrine that does not teach rebirth is ipso facto not “Buddhism”.

But is “Buddhism” accurately defined as no more nor less than what the Buddha taught in the Nikāyas?

Here lies the problem: there are many forms of what scholars and practitioners consider “Buddhism” nowadays that do not follow anything very much like what the Buddha taught in the Nikāyas. Batchelor inadvertently brought one up at the end of the discussion (1:48:00), with the Zen aphorism, “Great doubt, great awakening. Little doubt, little awakening. No doubt, no awakening.” It’s a fascinating claim, but not what one finds in early texts. There the Buddha disdained the skeptical “eel wriggling” of those who took no positive positions (Dīgha Nikāya 1.2.23ff). More prosaically, doubt is one of the five hindrances that must be overcome simply to reach the first jhāna, not to mention full enlightenment.

In certain forms of esoteric Buddhism, sex, alcohol, and other practices forbidden in the Nikāyas (at the very least to monks and nuns) play central roles in the attainment of enlightenment. Zen monks are allowed to marry. Many Mahāyāna Buddhists mandate vegetarianism, which in the Nikāyas is associated with the Buddha’s evil cousin Devadatta.

On a more philosophical level, are Mahāyāna doctrines such as Yogācāra (mind-only) or the Tathāgatagarbha (Buddha nature) really consistent with the anatta (non-self) of the Nikāyas? Or do they rather reify the self as universal and eternal?

These are matters that have been debated in Buddhism for centuries. To be sure, proponents of each novel claim strive to find threads or suggestions of them in the earliest texts. In any compilation as extensive and heterogeneous as the Nikāyas one can find justification for quite a lot, though a careful reading would rule out much as apologetics.

How does this impact Secular Buddhism? Batchelor points almost exclusively to the Kalama Sutta (Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.65) as the Buddha’s “Charter of Free Inquiry” in Soma Thera’s words.

The Kalama Sutta is justly famous and deserves study, but it’s fair to say it’s also somewhat unusual. The Buddha wasn’t arguing that one should take reason and evidence wherever it might lead, as modern notions of scientific inquiry might do. Instead he was arguing that one should look to benefit and harm, and to the views of “the wise”, to inform belief and action.

As regards rebirth in particular, the Buddha argued prudentially. If there is rebirth and one acts from compassion, one can expect a good next life. If there is no rebirth, then one will live a life of ease anyway. This was intended to be a very basic teaching to a group of neophytes, the Kalamas, who knew nothing of the Buddha or his dhamma.

What did the Buddha have to say about rebirth to his more advanced audiences? I suggest looking back at a prior blog post on this topic: On a Belief that Sends You to Hell.

There I outline what is, to be fair, another of the Buddha’s prudential arguments: if you believe in rebirth, you are likely to act better than if you don’t. The key here is right action, stemming from right view.

In substance, this argument is identical to theistic arguments that claim atheism leads to immorality. There the argument is that atheists, not believing in divine reward and punishment, have no reason to behave morally, and so can be expected to kill, rape, lie, and steal.

This is why for the Buddha belief in rebirth is part of “right view”, albeit secondary to the “right view” that encompasses the Four Noble Truths themselves. Such an argument is inert in the case of someone like Batchelor who by all accounts is upstanding in his behavior, and could probably be himself counted as among “the wise”. Further, as Brahmali knows, there are many believers in rebirth (that is to say, practicing Buddhists) who are not so well behaved as Batchelor.

If the Buddha’s argument for this aspect of right view is prudential, then it’s not clear what force it has with those who think and act prudently without such a view. Just as atheists may be as ethically astute as the most saintly theists, so too those who deny rebirth may be as ethical as those who accept it. There may be those who need the spur of the supernatural to behave well, but if there are such, they are few. And at any rate is it particularly laudable to behave well because one expects future benefits for oneself? Isn’t it at least as laudable to behave well simply out of non-attached compassion here and now?

If this is correct, then the Buddha’s prudential argument for belief in rebirth has little force, at least with those who are prone to non-attached compassion without it.

I expect that this argument will correspond, at least in general outline, to the argument made by followers of esoteric Buddhist practices: that is, that so long as they remain consistent with compassion and non-attachment, there is no problem. And I think each of us has to decide for ourselves whether this is persuasive in any given context.

Nevertheless it would seem from Brahmali’s embrace of the Nikāyas that he should consider practitioners of Zen or Vajrāyāna, even perhaps some who embrace Yogācāra or the Tathāgatagarbha, not to be Buddhists any more than secularists would be. After all, they do not comport with the Buddha’s words in the Nikāyas. That would be a fair decision, if surprising.

It would not be fair to say that Secular Buddhism is somehow special in this regard. Now, Brahmali may respond that rebirth is inherent in the Noble Truths, and so a secular approach to the dhamma is particularly egregious. However craving is also inherent in the Noble Truths, as is right action, both of which are impinged upon by certain esoteric practices. (See for example Majjhima Nikāya 22.9). Right view is impinged upon by any claims of an eternal self. My point is that this is a slippery slope. Are the only real Buddhists Protestant Buddhist Theravādins who more or less follow the strict word of the Nikāyas? I doubt Brahmali would want to go so far, but he has no principled way not to, or so it seems.

Either way, this isn’t a debate that should much concern secular practitioners, or indeed Buddhists of any stripe. Although it may be personally hurtful to Batchelor to be considered a non-Buddhist (1:13:00), the desire to belong is just another form of craving. We fight and die over religious, national, even secular labels. (Soccer riots, anyone?) The question as to what counts, or who’s in and who’s out, may make a difference to who gets let in a particular door or who gets to wear a particular hat. But it makes no difference to progress along a path towards wisdom.


As a postscript, it’s worth spending a few sentences on Batchelor’s discussion about the Buddha’s views on truth and falsity. The Buddha propounded a broadly prudential dhamma, one intended to alleviate suffering first and foremost. But as Justin Whitaker argues, this does not mean he took truth to be problematic, nor that he was an anti-realist. Indeed, key to alleviating suffering for the Buddha was to see for oneself the way things are: to become deeply aware of suffering, inconstancy, and non-self. The downfall inherent in craving lies in its ill-fit with reality. We crave constancy, but constancy is nowhere to be found. That is the fault of reality, of the way things are. As Brahmali suggests in the debate (57:00), this is the root problem of our ignorance or delusion: that we are regularly out of touch with certain basic aspects of reality. In order to be able to act rationally or prudently we have to have a handle on reality, and to avoid wrong speech we must have a handle on truth and falsity.

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  1. Mark Knickelbine on April 8, 2014 at 11:10 am

    “Although it may be personally hurtful to Batchelor to be considered a non-Buddhist (1:13:00), the desire to belong is just another form of craving.”

    This is essentially the point. After reading and listening to much of Stephen, I get the sense that he has a deeply religious sensibility and wants to be seen primarily as a Buddhist theologian, albiet a radical one. He put off as long as he could embracing the A Word, I think because he did not wish to offend the kind of traditional Buddhists with whom he lived and practiced for so many years. It prevents him from seeing how this argument can so quickly become pointless. Brahmali and other Theravadins may not wish to say that Protestant Buddhism is the only real Buddhism, but that is of course what they believe. As you point out, that leaves most of those who have called themselves Buddhist over the centuries out in the cold. To me, this argument has only one point — do we see the secular development of mindfulness as an extension of the evolution of Buddhist thought, or don’t we? I don’t see how anyone familiar with the development of secular mindfulness could reasonably say that it isn’t. As a matter of intellectual honesty, then, Brahmali’s position isn’t tenable. However, when it comes to practice, lables don’t matter, and there are hundred of thousands of people who are training their bodyminds to cultivate equanimity, wisdom and compassion who have no desire to be called Buddhists.

    • Judy-M on April 25, 2014 at 7:45 pm

      I grew up a Modern Orthodox Jew, even practiced Chassidism for a while, and now I am exploring Buddhism – that being said, I appreciate this whole conversation, and find it kind of ironic yet funny simultaneously – the reason that I was drawn to Buddhism was I thought that it was more inclusive if you will of those who thought differently — and maybe it does – but I think when you deal with things that place older history with modern history you land up in this jam

  2. Carl H on April 8, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    I think it was Richard Gombrich who pointed out that it would be impossible to base a consistent teaching on the entirety of the Nikayas due to the conflicting teachings that are found there. Everyone picks and chooses those teachings that speak to them. SB admits to this. As far as being considered a “Buddhist”, the info I’ve come across is that the terms Buddhism and Buddhist, didn’t exist 200-250 years ago. I study and try to practice the teachings that have been passed on and that speak to me, whether that qualifies me as a Buddhist seems beside the point.

  3. Judy-M on April 25, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    This might sound like a hokey thing to say – but it seems very parallel to some of the issues with Judaism – the Ultra Orthodox Jews do not consider the Reform Jews or the Reconstructionist Jews as equals – on a variety of levels – rebirth ironically is one of them (I won’t even venture into my other issues with ultra orthodox Judaism regarding women) – that being said – I think it is fairly commendable that the this debate even happened.

  4. Michael Finley on April 27, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    I was going to say something about the tolerance of Buddhism, and I do think that Buddhists have generally been remarkably tolerant of one anothers’ beliefs and even of other religions. I was going to extol the story of Upali, a wealthy and prominent Jain, who debated with Gotama, and was converted to his view. Here’s the tale as told by Ven. Narada (The Buddha and His Teachings):

    Upali . . . expressed his desire to become a follower of the Buddha. But the Buddha advised him, saying . . . “make a thorough investigation. It is well for a distinguished man like you to make a thorough investigation [before committing himself]. Upali, who was overwhelmed with joy at this unexpected utterance of the Buddha, said: “Lord, if I had become a follower of another teacher, his followers would have taken me round the streets in procession . . . [that I] had renounced [my] former religion and had embraced theirs. . .” Though Upali became a Buddhist by conviction, the Buddha, quite in keeping with his boundless compassion and perfect tolerance, advised him to [continue his financial] support [of] his former religious teacher . . . .

    But when I looked up the source of the story, the Upali Sutta,, I found something a bit less uplifting. Whether or not Gotama had “perfect tolerance,” his redactors were not above partisanship. While the substance of Narada’s version is in the sutta, it adds a somewhat nasty dig at the Jain leader Mahavira or Niganthanataputta. According to the sutta, when told of Upali’s defection, he was “not able to hear the honour accorded to” Gotama, and “vomited hot blood.”

  5. WayneL140 on April 28, 2014 at 9:11 am

    This was an interesting example of Buddhist religion opposed to Buddhist philosophy. Religion simply keeps stating the same thing over and over and insisting that one must believe this “truth” or else one is not a part of the group. Buddhism, in my opinion, fails as a religion, but succeeds magnificently as a personal way for an individual to live peacefully and in harmony with those who do not see things the same way. Brahmali is passionate in his beliefs, but wrong in his insistence that it is his way or no way. This I’ve always thought was the reason Christians burn witches and Muslims blow up stuff. Where is the morality in that?

    My basic feeling is any belief system prior to 1859 should be relegated to the antique it is and dismissed. Anything which cannot change is doomed. I change my mind when the facts change. That is the central premise one should follow. Ignorance is the enemy.

  6. Michael Finley on April 28, 2014 at 10:18 am

    Wayne wrote : “Buddhism, in my opinion, fails as a religion, but succeeds magnificently as a personal way for an individual to live peacefully and in harmony with those who do not see things the same way”

    I love it !

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