Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis speaks with us today about his book The Trouble with Buddhism: How the Buddhist Tradition Has Betrayed its Own Insights.

It seems that there continues to be a deep divide between traditional approaches to Buddhism, and secular approaches to Buddhism. It’s not our practice, we all do essentially the same kinds of activities, the same kinds of meditation, and we all make our sincerest efforts to be mindful and use right speech, for example. There are some variations, of course, but whether one lights incense or chants doesn’t seem to raise ire as much as a philosophical disagreement about assertions not in evidence. Usually, this centers around concepts of literal rebirth, or the possibility — let alone testability — of enlightenment.

One reason secular practice continues to set aside claims about past lives is that, so far, they do not have a reliable and unambiguous means of demonstrating the causative relationship between what are so far at most, interesting stories. If it were clear and unambiguous, if one could demonstrate that relationship in conditions which control for our human tendencies to overspeak our case, to misremember and reinterpret inaccurate stories from accurate reflections of the real world, it wouldn’t be a problem! But it is. And other traditions from Buddhism have their own stories about what happens upon the ending of physical life, and they find them equally compelling.

Sincere, honest, free inquiry is the appoach many of us who have a secular practice, take. Stories, though they can be inspiring and helpful, are not facts, and if you accept your own without evidence, you must also accept other stories without evidence. Out of a genuine interest in ascertaining what is true from what is false, we can only begin the journey based on what we can mutually agree to and show one another. But traditional attitudes commonly disparage that as not having enough faith, and being a lesser path. Despite Buddha’s own admonishment to question.

Robert M. Ellis graduated from Cambridge University, UK 1989, and got his Ph.D. from Lancaster University, UK 2001. He has taught in colleges and universities, and now works as a distance learning tutor of philosophy, religious studies, critical thinking and politics. Robert is also author of A Theory of Moral Objectivity, The Trouble with Buddhism, and A New Buddhist Ethics, as well as educational resources and occasional creative writing.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Lumbini.

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Music for This Episode


Chikuzen Shakuhachi Series

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from the Chikuzen Shakuhachi Series, Volume 1, courtesy of Tai Hei Shakuhachi. The tracks used in this episode are:

  • Track 8 :: Tamuke

No Comments

  1. Mark Knickelbine on March 6, 2012 at 9:19 am

    I have to admit a bit of disappointment with this episode. You never got around to asking him what he means when he uses the phrase Middle Way. It sounds like he is going beyond how Gotama used the term — i.e., an alternative to either hedonism and asceticism — and has some kind of general philosophical principle in mind.

  2. Ted Meissner on March 6, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Hi, Mark. Hopefully Robert can address that very question here on the page, he is happily active online and then you can have the engagement directly.

  3. Robert M. Ellis on March 9, 2012 at 3:44 am

    I tried to post here earlier but there was a technical problem.
    You can find my definition of the Middle Way on .

  4. Robert M. Ellis on March 9, 2012 at 3:44 am

    I tried to post here earlier but there was a technical problem.
    You can find my definition of the Middle Way on .

  5. Linda on March 11, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    Thank you to Robert for sharing your views in conversation with Ted. I especially appreciated your thoughts on “hard agnosticism”.

    It seems to me that the Buddha’s approach was to demonstrate by living example just how strongly he felt about not holding views by refusing to engage in debates over metaphysics. What is, to me, really beautiful about the way he put his stance into practice is that it remains a vivid demonstration of the principal that holding a belief — any belief, even if it is a belief that something doesn’t exist — and engaging in debates over it is divisive and unnecessary — he proves his conviction about this by sticking to the program he lays out. Arguing about things not in evidence rarely changes minds, and adds significantly to the misery in the world. He was constantly telling us to just concentrate on and work with that which we can directly experience, and counselling us to refuse to worry about, or argue over the things that are beyond experience precisely because doing so increases dukkha.

    It can be a challenge to maintain an agnostic stance when we do have an expectation that certain things are probable (like when life ends, it ends, and there is nothing of us that continues; or perhaps that rebirth seems logical as it allows consciousness to evolve) but in refusing to debate endlessly over unprovable things, we have so much more energy to direct to taking care of the things we can understand and learn from through cause and effect — making those wise choices every moment, as Ted mentions at the end of his podcasts. Those choices are based on visible, testable realities which, though experiential and, consequently, not precisely measurable, we have much more information about them than about speculative metaphysics.

    But beyond even that is the way that sticking to an agnostic stance opens up our ability to talk to those whose beliefs or tendencies might be different from our own. If we just stick to the here and now, we have a great deal of common ground we can talk about. As soon as we start debating, we’re back in the unresolvable black hole of divisive arguments over unprovable things. To secular Buddhists it’s quite clear that assertions over things not in evidence are a problem — and those who tell us not believing in these is wrong are being divisive. It might be less obvious (but still true) that when we assert unprovable things (there is no rebirth, god, or whatever) we are doing the same thing. We are convinced we are in the right because it’s a fact that you can’t prove a negative, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are arguing for something for which there is no evidence — so both sides are in the realm of the unprovable.

    It is far a far more generous stance to just refrain from arguing over whether there is or is not rebirth, is or is not a God, and stick to looking at how holding views affects practice.

    • David Chou on July 26, 2013 at 8:18 am

      “Moderation in everything” they say…even, I say, moderation itself.

  6. Robert M. Ellis on March 15, 2012 at 4:21 am

    I very much agree with you here, Linda, especially over the way an agnostic stance can support meaningful dialogue with people of all persuasions. However, such helpful dialogue depends on being able to distinguish the meaningful aspects of their views from the metaphysical assertions. I think a certain decisiveness is needed (hence the hard agnosticism) in rejecting the polarities of metaphysical debate to enable helpful dialogue to occur. In order to reach the stage of hard agnosticism a certain amount of even-handed critical discussion of the metaphysical positions might also be needed. It is the even-handedness that I think is important here and that I sometimes find missing from secular Buddhism as I have encountered it so far – if criticising theism we need to criticise atheism too, and when criticising the dogmas of religion also criticise the dogmas of scientism. I don’t think we can just refrain from arguing – it is the way we argue that requires reflection and skill. Argument needs to be supportive of practical goals rather than engaged in just for its own sake or as part of a power-struggle.

    This relates to the blog entry I put up recently on the UK Secular Buddhism site ( on the Middle Way as a potential core principal for secular Buddhism.

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