Owen Flanagan

Owen Flanagan speaks with us about his new book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized.

It’s not very often that I get a series of emails, FaceBook messages, and even Tweets about a new book that’s just come out, but recently that did occur. And because this is really a podcast for you, I listened, got the book, and the author has turned out to be not only generous with his time, but a terrific interview. So please do keep letting me know, as many of you do, about things you would like to hear about and people you would like me to interview, by clicking on the Contact button on the website, sending me a message on FaceBook, or using that new Twitter account I have set up, @SecularBuddhist.

This book particularly interested me because of the author’s merging of a comprehensive philosophical view, with the underlying naturalism that must underpin how such philosophy manifests in, say, neurological studies. There is a recognition that we are material beings in the universe, and that some interpretations of Buddhism are very stable and effective without reliance on the supernatural.

Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is the author of The Bodhisattva’s Brain, Consciousness Reconsidered, and The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Dunn Brother’s Infinite Black.

:: Discuss this episode ::


“I am interested in whether for us contemporary folk there is a useful and truthful philosophy in Buddhism, among the Buddhisms, that is compatible with the rest of knowledge as it now exists and specifically, because this is always a problem for spiritual traditions, whether Buddhism can be naturalized, tamed, and made compatible with a philosophy that is empirically responsible, and that does not embrace the low epistemic standards that permit all manner of superstition and nonsense, sometimes moral evil as well, in the name of tolerance, or, what is different, high spiritual attainment that warrants teleological suspension of the ethical in the hands of fanatics of all stripes.” — Owen Flanagan





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Music for This Episode

Shakuhachi Meditations

Shakuhachi Meditations

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez’s CD, Shakuhachi Meditations. The tracks used in this episode are:

  • Cross of Light

No Comments

  1. NaturalEntrust on July 28, 2012 at 7:56 am

    How can there be no comment to this podcast?
    Okay to us who don’t have English as first language
    it is hard to listen to a txt in a foreign tongue and
    to really get what they say. Reading is much more easy.

    I should have searched I started a thread today on
    something I read in the intro to this book.

    • Ted Meissner on July 28, 2012 at 11:32 am

      Might have been one of the episodes that came out before we really had active Comments on our pages. I do keep reminding people in the podcast, though.

      We also do have volunteers working on transcribing episodes, but of course, that’s just started and it will be challenging to keep up!

  2. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 16, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    I listened to this podcast today, twice. I have the book, although I haven’t gotten all the way through it. It’s heavy lifting. When I listened to the podcast, I went to the book’s index. One reference to vipasanna, and the one reference to mindfulness was in the notes. I have to ask: How can anyone take seriously a book on Buddhism that pays so little attention to mindfulness practice, and what attention is paid blows it off?

    Is Buddhism the monastics or the lay people? Can we start there?

    • mufi on September 18, 2013 at 9:40 am

      How can anyone take seriously a book on Buddhism that pays so little attention to mindfulness practice, and what attention is paid blows it off?

      Very simply: One recognizes that Buddhism cannot be reduced to mindfulness practice (at least not without serious loss of content).

      The truth of the matter is that Buddhism (like Western philosophy & religion) traditionally makes a lot of assertions about how the world really is. To make these assertions sound more provisional, we might call them “theories” (as in: “the theory of karmic law” or “the theory of impermanence”, etc.), although more often than not, they are simply dogmas – as in the kinds of artifacts that religion scholars study.

      But, either way, these assertions are open to the kind of critical analysis to which Flanagan subjects them. If that’s not to your taste, then I recommend skipping it.

      • Gatasaro Bhikku on September 18, 2013 at 11:59 am

        [quote]How can anyone take seriously a book on Buddhism that pays so little attention to mindfulness practice, and what attention is paid blows it off?[/quote]

        [quote]Very simply: One recognizes that Buddhism cannot be reduced to mindfulness practice (at least not without serious loss of content).

        The truth of the matter is that Buddhism (like Western philosophy & religion) traditionally makes a lot of assertions about how the world really is. To make these assertions sound more provisional, we might call them “theories” (as in: “the theory of karmic law” or “the theory of impermanence”, etc.), although more often than not, they are simply dogmas – as in the kinds of artifacts that religion scholars study.

        But, either way, these assertions are open to the kind of critical analysis to which Flanagan subjects them. If that’s not to your taste, then I recommend skipping it.[/quote]

        If this were lima beans, then I could take your advice easily. I don’t like lima beans. If this were medicine, then would you give the same advice?

        I am assuming you are giving me this advice because you are a kind and caring person who practices very hard. This has given you an open heart so you give the best advice you can give. I am fortunate to get your advice. Let me ask you a question?

        Did you give me this advice after a period of thought? Was this after your meditation practice or before? If before, would you give different advice after? Would it make no difference? Is this why you gave the advice you gave, because you find no value in the practice of mindfulness meditation?

        If so, then I can certainly see why you would say I shouldn’t ask such questions. But if the man is an expert on Buddhism, then perhaps he can answer my questions. If he finds no value in sitting, then the value must be in the Pali canon? We can forego sitting and read what the Buddha said and become enlightened. There is much more value here.

        Perhaps I should listen only to learned men who have done nothing all their lives but read the scriptures. Surely they are enlightened and need not sit. I can learn all I need by listening to dhamma talks, right? This is a better way to get to what Buddhism is?

        Now, please, I’m not being a smart-monk here. I agree with you that if all we did was mindfulness meditation we would surely lose so much. Like the Four Noble Truth? Is this what you mean? Is this what you thought I was saying? One only needs to sit?

        You are right. Surely we would lose much from Buddhism if it were only mindfulness meditation. I am sure it helps many people, but MBSR only helps to a point. What is lost is the moral teachings of the Buddha. I agree with you. I cannot argue this point. Maybe I would get more moral grounding if I were to not practice awareness so I can be better prepared for the times when I am faced with moral dilemmas, after all, I have been reading and listening a lot. Surely when situations arise when moral questions are presented, there was no need for a mindful way of handling them. This is Buddhism after all, and there is no real need for mindful meditation because there is so much richness that can be seen without mindfulness.

        It would have been so much better for the Buddha if he had books and tapes to read and listen to instead of the time he had to sit in meditation. He would have gotten there so much quicker if he had not said I’m going to sit under this tree and not get up until I have changed my way of thinking. But he did.

        Well, I thought I had a question for you, but I guess I answered it for myself. I might have answered it differently if I hadn’t sat first, but I saw no need to do it. No doubt you would have given me better answers. I should have given you the opportunity to reply to my first question. Did you give me your advice after you sat?


        • mufi on September 18, 2013 at 12:29 pm

          I’ve not meditated since yesterday afternoon, as per my usual routine.

          Would I give you the same advice tomorrow, after my next sitting? Probably.

          After all, I’ve meditated dozens (if not hundreds) of times since I read Flanagan’s book, and while I’ve recommended it numerous times (on this site, in particular), I also recognize that it’s probably not for everyone. What book is?

          • mufi on September 19, 2013 at 9:31 am

            Next day (with one more notch in my meditation belt :-)), same answer.

            But I now feel obliged to add that, while I would concede that the wisdom tradition of Western philosophy (e.g. of the kind that Flanagan represents) is generally strong in theory and weak in practical advice, I also see the dilemma between mindfulness practice and philosophical analysis as a false one.

            In other words, we can have both (and, in fact, Flanagan is also a lay practitioner, when he’s not doing his day-job). What’s more, Buddhism (at least since the Abhidhamma, and carried on through the Madhyamaka schools of Mahayana Buddhism) offers us both.

            That’s not to say that we necessarily need both, or either for that matter, but the bounty is there for us to enjoy, nonetheless.


  3. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 19, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    I’m so glad you sat on this. We do not disagree, mufi, I promise you. I’m a monk. The last thing you’ll get out of me is that all of which you speak is not important. My point is, one of us isn’t getting it–Dr. Flanagan or me, if he’s sitting. He needs a good teacher. 🙂

    My point is, and I will eventually make this point very loudly in a different place, is that Buddhism starts with sitting and mindfulness meditation. The mindfulness. Not only the meditation, but this specific type. Mindfulness is the key. Mindfulness is what changes the mind.

    When you bring your mind back to your breath, over and over, thousands and thousands of times, you are training the mind and training the trainer to control it. This causes awareness to happen. When that happens, the mind gets rebooted to a different mindset. Now we got a whole new ballgame.

    When you practice mindfulness, in time, you can catch emotions as they arise before they cause a thought. Anger arises, but “I’m angry” does not become a thought. As Ajahn Dune said, “I see anger. I just don’t pick it up.”

    This is what the Buddha was teaching. I’m sure he probably thought this was easy to get, or so hard very few would get it. Turns out very few did. There are reasons for that, but that’s going to take time. Buddhism begins with mindfulness meditation. That’s where it starts. All the great stuff comes as the practice develops.

    This is what the great teachers practice. It is what they have learned, but find difficult to teach. It takes time, but it comes to everyone who practices. (I think. I have no data on this, yet. Still searching for studies on mindfulness meditation, specifically genetic expression.)

    I’m glad you sat on it. Good things happen when one sits.


    Than Don

  4. Mark Knickelbine on September 19, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Don —

    I agree with you that mindfulness is the one indespensible element of Buddhism, at least as it was originally taught. When we read the earliest texts, such as the Dhammapada and the Sutta Nipatta, we see that the emphasis on mind training is very pronounced, and as you point out, mindfulness is the technique Gotama taught to train the mind. It is also the key to Buddhist ethics, because without mindful investigation we cannot develop the Right View upon which Right Speech and Action are based.

    That is why you guys are wrong about your assesment of MBSR. Mindful awareness of our relationship to others is a central component of MBSR training, and in fact it is the only setting in which I ever received specific training and practice regarding it (admonitions in dharma talks don’t count – I mean literal practice observing the arising of mind states and the avoidance of reactivity in relationship). Sitting in silence with downcast eyes may be great for developing concentration but it does not provide actual practice in using mindfulness to bring equanimity and compassion into our dealings with people. Every MBSR student gets a chance to learn and practice these skills.

    If you don’t already have too much to read, you might try Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Coming to Our Senses” in which he talks at length about the relationship between MBSR and ethics, morality, and social engagement. Quotes Gotama plenty, by the way.

    • mufi on September 19, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      Mark: That is why you guys are wrong about your assesment of MBSR.

      Not sure who “you guys” refers to, but just to be clear: I have a lot respect for Kabat-Zinn (having read & listened to him for years) and plan to enroll (finally!) in a MBSR course in early 2014.

      • Mark Knickelbine on September 20, 2013 at 7:42 am

        mufi, that’s great! I guess I was interpreting “One recognizes that Buddhism cannot be reduced to mindfulness practice (at least not without serious loss of content” as being consonant with Don’s MBSR statement.

  5. mufi on September 19, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Don: Buddhism starts with sitting and mindfulness meditation…

    As far as I understand Flanagan’s personal story, that’s where he started, as well, which might explain why he bothered to write this book, given how often other members of his “tribe” (his term, referring to Western philosophers of the analytic and naturalist traditions) simply ignore or make short shrift of Buddhist thought.

    That said, I would agree that The Bodhisattva’s Brain is not about mindfulness meditation, but then neither are the books (and articles & talks) of Stephen Batchelor that have become so foundational to Secular Buddhism.

    These, I’d say, belong in the same category.

  6. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Mark, I am happy to be wrong about MBSR. Most of what I’ve read touts the therapeutic value, and we’ve noted steps very carefully around the word Buddha. (Maybe he uses my names of Sidd or The Dude?) I certainly understand why, given my own families vehement objections to my recent choices. I am very sympathetic with Jon in that for both of us, without mindfulness there is nothing. I was not on this path before I started mindfulness meditation so I owe my mind to it.

    Frankly, if there is a moral component to MBSR, and there probably is or it wouldn’t work as well as it does, I think but no more. I see absolutely no difference in what I’m doing and “secular” Buddhism. If people don’t need the woo woo, don’t bother. I don’t and wouldn’t teach it to any degree. I wouldn’t tell people they were silly if they believed in rebirth or even God. I don’t care. Not my business. I’m in the business of healing people’s lives in this life. That’s enough work for me. But I can’t do anything for someone who will not sit. Nothing happens until one sits.

  7. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 19, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Mufi, I’m a card carrying member of the Stephen Batchelor fan club. In fact, if you put my work beside his you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of differences, esp in outcome. As well as John Peacock and others. But I know Stephen still does a lot meditation. He knows the value of it. I would sincerely doubt he and I would have any disagreement at all.

    It’s the act of bringing the mind back to the breath that is the key. Not the breath. Not so much being mindful, but the moment of realizing where your mind is and bringing it back. That is the act of being mindful. It’s the training. Over and over and over, until it becomes your default operating system. Your brain is rebooting. Your perceptions have changed. Your thinking has changed. Your emotional stability has improved. And at whatever point we agree on the end of suffering is possible? Maybe? Theoretically? (and someday provable.)

    It all started with sitting and starting a mindful practice.

  8. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 19, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    BTW, my mentor, collaborator, and toughest critic has known Owen for 30 years and says he’s a very bright guy. I agree. I’m just sorry he didn’t speak with Jon Kabat-Zinn or Stephen. (I wish I had known of JKZ when I literally lived over the hill from his office. Not kidding. Within a mile just over a very big hill.) alas bad timing

    • mufi on September 19, 2013 at 2:14 pm

      I actually prefer to Flanagan’s writing to Batchelor’s, but then I guess there’s no accounting for taste. 🙂

      • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 5:05 am

        Having lumped together works by Stephen Batchelor and Owen Flanagan, I feel obliged to add an important distinction: While both authors have practiced Buddhist-style mindfulness meditation to one degree or another, and both have written positively about Buddhist thought, Batchelor identifies as a Buddhist, whereas Flanagan does not.

        Some folks may see that as a distinction without a difference – as in: “They both practice! What’s in a label?” To them, I recommend that they consider what Justin Whitaker recently wrote in his blog – this part in particular:

        Scholars have had different ideas about how to define a Buddhist, especially in the West, but for now Charles Prebish’s definition of anyone who self-identifies as a Buddhist is widely accepted. Prebish writes in his latest book on American Buddhism:

        My solution in 1979 tried to simplify the problem as much as possible. I am convinced that it remains correct and workable today, although some additional problems can now be noted, as we shall shortly see. If we define a Buddhist as someone who says “I am a Buddhist,” when questioned about their most important pursuit, we not only abandon our attachment to ritual formulas like the three jewels or five vows of the laity, that are neither workable nor even uniformly followed, but we also provide more than a little freedom for American Buddhist groups – a freedom in which they can develop a procedure that is consistent with their own self- image and mission. In other words, what appears initially as an outrageously simplistic definition of Buddhist affiliation serves the double purpose of providing a new standard and a simple method of professing Buddhist commitment while at the same time imposing a renewed sense of seriousness on all Buddhist groups. It also acknowledges that not all of these “self-styled Buddhists” necessarily join Buddhist communities. Some might practice their entire lives in isolation as solitary Buddhists. Equally, it doesn’t suppose to judge or evaluate the quality of an individual’s religious membership in a specific Buddhist community or even their commitment to the Buddhist tradition. These latter points, though, do have profound implications for an individual’s Buddhist practice, as we will see in the chapter on Buddhist practice.

        Indeed, the willingness to openly identify as a Buddhist might be what ultimately distinguishes a Secular Buddhist from someone who practices Buddhist-based mindfulness (or Hindu-based yoga, for that matter), yet identifies more with some other identity group (e.g. Christians, Jews, atheists, secular humanists, etc.).

        • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 6:46 am

          PS: By this standard, Jon Kabat-Zinn is not a Buddhist, either (secular or otherwise), as documented here:

          Kabat-Zinn is trained in Buddhism and espouses its principles, but he does not identify himself as a Buddhist. “People don’t need any more identifications than they already have,” he says.

  9. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 20, 2013 at 9:55 am

    A Mahayana would say that we all have Buddha nature, so whether we identify as Buddhist or not is irrelevant. I don’t know what this means to this conversation, but I thought I’d throw that out there. As I said, I don’t exactly know where Owen was going or if he got there. Simply couldn’t really get far in his book, even after a number of tries. If I didn’t have a pile of books to read, I would try again. Maybe. I do know, I think, where Stephen is going, and it’s the same street I’m working on, as are a number of other people who aren’t even talking about Buddhism. The difference is everything I am working on starts with mindfulness meditation. Perhaps meditating does not help every person understand the Dhamma, but I would be hugely surprised if someone can without it.

    Owen talks about “eudemonia.” I really do believe that if this is something a Buddhist has–deeply–it comes from a process not an epiphany, and it begins with MM. I’m really trying to make this clear. So far, I’ve heard people say I’m wrong, that MM is not the centerpiece of Buddhism, but haven’t heard anyone say what else is. Not sure I have a clue what this means, but it has to mean something.

    I submit that MM is the difference between Buddhism and everything else. Without meditation practice, it is no different at all from anything from scholarship to superstition.

    I just had a conversation with a Thai lady wearing a diamond cross. She prayed to Jesus that her husband would get lucky and he won the cross on a slot machine and gave it to her for Christmas. She said she was meditating. Was she?

    • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 10:19 am

      Don: So far, I’ve heard people say I’m wrong, that MM is not the centerpiece of Buddhism, but haven’t heard anyone say what else is.

      That’s because there isn’t a centerpiece. You’re generalizing from your own situated encounter of Buddhism, even though most Buddhists throughout history and around the world today have never practiced MM and would likely deem it presumptuous to do so.

      Meanwhile, we find MM practitioners like Kabat-Zinn (and myself, btw) who do not self-identify as Buddhists.

      Go figure. 🙂

  10. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 20, 2013 at 11:51 am

    If you do not think of yourself as Buddhist, then how do you know what Buddhist is? I eat cows, but I don’t know what it is to be a cow. Again, you say I’m wrong, but you can’t say what it is. If there is no centerpiece, then it is malleable. It has no base? Do you really think so?

    Yes, most who say they are Buddhists, grow up as Buddhists, even come to the temple and bring us food, do not meditate. Not even all monks. But do you see how strong the practice is, to hold together all those people? 🙂

    Tell me, mufi, do you know why men (sadly only men) become monks, what is their mission, and why the laypeople support us?

    • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 12:29 pm

      If there is no centerpiece, then it is malleable. It has no base? Do you really think so?

      I think it’s malleable enough to produce the varieties of Buddhism that religion scholars study for a living, and who in my experience tend to arrive at the definition given above that anyone who self-identifies as a Buddhist is a Buddhist, whether they meditate or not, agree or disagree on what qualifies as Buddhism’s essence, core, or centerpiece.

      I doubt that many Buddhists themselves see it that way, however, given a narrower lens and a sectarian belief system that asserts that their Buddhism is the Buddhism.

      Tell me, mufi, do you know why men (sadly only men) become monks, what is their mission, and why the laypeople support us?

      Only what I’ve read or heard from others (including Batchelor).

  11. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 20, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Please understand, I’m trying to learn from you. You aren’t helping me by giving me answers. I know you have read a lot, and you say that you know things. I’m still learning. Maybe other people don’t know what the centerpiece is if I were to ask them? What is the centerpiece of your belief system, then?

    I wasn’t asking what Stephen’s reason, or even my reason. I was asking if you know the system at all? Do you know what the purpose for becoming a monk is, and why the people come to the temple every day and bring us food, or why they support the monks in Asia?

    If I think someone is wrong and say they are wrong, then I must have a reason. If you say that what I’m saying is wrong, then you must know what is right? Yes? So, educate me? I’m just a new monk trying to learn. I can tell you what has been told to me, if you are interested.

    • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 1:04 pm

      You’re asking the wrong guy. I’ve just related what I’ve picked up from religion scholars, as it relates to your “centerpiece” assertion. Frankly, I’m not interested in going much further in this discussion than that.

      For that matter, I’m not sure where this general fixation on “centerpieces” comes from, but I don’t seem to share it.

  12. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 20, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Understood you don’t share it, and I certainly do understand that you don’t want to answer my questions. If you know why you think I’m wrong, then I wish you would share it with me. If you don’t want to tell me, of course you can refuse to tell me. If you don’t know, then why are you saying I’m wrong? I’m not obsessed. I see quite clearly what I’m saying and think it to be true. I’ve explained to you why I think it is true. If you don’t understand, then you can ask me questions as I have asked you questions. I assume our purpose here is to share knowledge. You must have much more than I do because you keep saying I’m wrong. You must think you know why I’m wrong, otherwise, why would you say I’m wrong? You have answered the only question which I did not ask? I didn’t ask if I’m right or wrong. You supplied the answer and do so still. Therefore I must ask you what your answer is, or think you just answer without really knowing. Would you like to support your disagreement, or just say because “I believe you wrong” with no evidence to back it up. This doesn’t bode well for the strength of your position, I’m afraid.

    I don’t expect you to answer. I think you’re pretty clear here. I’m not trying to win an argument. I didn’t even get to present much of an argument. How do you argue with “because, shut up”?


    • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      Assert that flight is the essence of being a bird, and I will try to point you in the direction of a flightless bird.

      Assert that meditation is the essence of being a Buddhist, and I will try to point you in the direction of a Buddhist who does not meditate.

      But, in both cases, I am dependent upon expert testimony, as I am neither a biologist nor a religion scholar.

      And, in my experience, religion scholars (like Charles Prebish, quoted by Justin Whitaker above) do not judge a person’s status as a Buddhist by whether or not s/he meditates. Rather, they judge it by whether or not they identify as Buddhist.

      Simply put: I wager that the scholars are right and you are wrong.

  13. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 20, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Well, if you are going to assert that I would have been better going to school than becoming a monk so I could have gotten answers, what kind of answers would I have gotten? I spend four hours a day doing meditation. Would this mean I may know more from experience than a scholar would know from reading in a library? Would you trust a driving instructor to tell you about road conditions if all he had was a map instead of a truck driver who travels the road every day? Should I ask the flightless bird about flight?

    • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm

      If one’s goal is to learn about Buddhism as an historical and sociological phenomenon, then, yes, I’d say that academic study is an appropriate choice. If, however, one’s goal is to meditate for long hours, then the monastic life seems a more appropriate choice.

      As a lay person (both in relation to academic scholars of Buddhism and in relation to Buddhist monastics), I choose neither option, although that hasn’t stopped me from picking up a few tidbits from both camps.

  14. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 20, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Ah, that’s a very good answer. I agree with it, absolutely. To answer a question I asked you, the duty of a monk is to achieve enlightenment. (I didn’t make up the job description, or it would have been different.) The lay people believe they receive merit by supporting the monk’s efforts. This is the system and has been since the Buddha’s time. Any scholar would know this if he has any handle on Buddhism. Historically, how does one achieve enlightenment? If you aren’t sure, it’s meditation practice. No other way. Just ask any monk. Now, you can say this isn’t your way and I’d say it isn’t my way either. So we are in agreement all around.

    Now, since you didn’t answer about the flightless bird you brought up, let us try one more analogy. I love them. They are great for understanding.

    What is a Christmas tree? Is it any pine tree? Is the trunk, the branches, the pine needles? Is the lights, the ornaments, the star on top? What happens if the Christmas tree has no base? Does it not fall over? Is it still a Christmas tree? Even with all the beautiful things on the tree, without the base, it is not a Christmas tree. It’s a mess. (I’ve had enough of them fall over to know.)

    This is what I’ve been saying, and this analogy was brought to you by this afternoon’s meditation.


    • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 5:43 pm

      Thanks for doing me the favor of answering your question. No arguments there!

      In the same spirit, here’s my response to Justin’s Prebish quote:

      [This definition of a Buddhist would] seem to resolve a difficulty with Secular Buddhism, given what a radical break that “school” (for lack of a better term) makes with certain traditional doctrines (rebirth being the one to get the most attention).

      Not sure how many traditionalists accept that definition, however.

      To which he replied:

      Yep; the definition is from a scholar of American Buddhism to solve the problem of “who is a Buddhist” in America/the West. It could be said that the answer itself reflects American individualist culture in a way that, as you point out, many traditionalists would disagree with.

      So, whether one is “right” or “wrong” in this discussion seems to depend on one’s vantage point.

      Also, consider this:

      The problem with the word “Buddhism” though is that it encompasses much more than “the teachings of the Buddha.” It can encompass all official or semi-official practices and teachings that have emerged, among people who call themselves Buddhists, since the time of the Buddha…

      Really we need to use separate terms when we’re talking about Buddhism as the teaching of the Buddha and Buddhism as “the stuff Buddhists do and teach.” The term Buddhism is actually quite new, and a western invention, and, as we’ve seen, ambiguous. It’s probably better to talk about “the Buddhadharma” (a traditional term meaning “the teaching of the Buddha”) and save the word “Buddhism” for the cultural phenomena that have arisen from those teachings, even though they sometimes contradict them.


  15. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 20, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t think you have any idea what my tradition is. Call me, when you, yourself, on your own, have answered a question I’ve asked.


    • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 8:09 pm

      I don’t follow you here, but no matter.

  16. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 20, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    I apologize, mufi. I feel like a bully, asking you all these questions when you don’t have answers. I believe you have said you don’t have a group to practice with and have not been able to afford to attend a retreat. So let me make an offer to you. Come out to Las Vegas and spend a week here. You can stay in the monastery free. We eat great food, and I’m sure the Thais will be very happy to give you a plate. We can sit together, do walking meditation, and talk about the Dhamma all night if you wish. You can experience living as a monk. Put on a white shirt and white pants and come out. Flights to LV aren’t that much if you book in advance. Maybe you will find answers to your own questions.


    • mufi on September 20, 2013 at 9:14 pm

      No need to apologize, but I do wish that you would be clearer about which questions you’re referring to. It’s true that I claim no expertise in this area, but I think that I at least know enough to point you in the right direction (that is, in the direction of sources that I deem reliable and trustworthy), assuming that you are sincerely interested in pursuing answers (as opposed to merely scoring polemical points).

      Thanks, again, for the invitation, but while it’s easy enough (and only slightly irresponsible) for me to type up and submit brief comments like these, it would be very difficult (and rather more irresponsible) for me to take you up on your invitation. (Have I mentioned that I’m the primary bread-winner in a family of four?) Instead, I choose a path of considerably less resistance.

  17. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 21, 2013 at 4:55 am

    I had to look up “polemical.” I will bow to your opinion of me as being argumentative. I am sorry you feel this way about me. I promise, I have only tried to ascertain what it is YOU think and not what someone you admire thinks. The question I asked was “if not, what is?”

    I understand why you think I’m arguing. I made a statement and you said it was not correct. I’ve asked you to offer proof that it is not correct and you have offered none. I’m a monk. I practice every day. My teacher has been a monk for more than fifty years. For you, this isn’t Buddhist. You insist that people who observe us and study dusty writing is greater. Buddhism is doing. Buddhism is practicing. Buddhism is not polemical. This is something academics do. Not monks. If you learn nothing else today, you need to learn this. Or stop talking about things you don’t know anything about. You may know words I don’t. You may think secular is before Buddhism on purpose, but without the latter, the former has no meaning at all. You may know many more things than I do, but you do not know Buddhism. I say this with understanding that this is exactly where we began, in reverse. You made a statement–No it is not sitting–and I’m saying you’re wrong. There is no proof I can give that will make you understand. For that, I apologize. My job is to teach the Dhamma. In this case, I have failed.

    • mufi on September 21, 2013 at 5:34 am

      Here’s how I see it: You’re telling me “what Buddhism means to you (or perhaps to your teacher and/or your order).” While that’s interesting (and may even serve as data for academic study), it’s too narrow in scope to answer the broader question that I raised above – which is, “who is a Buddhist?” I’ll stick with the religion scholars (like Whitaker and Prebish) on that one.

      Yes, I think you’re arguing, but to my mind that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the quality of the argument.

  18. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 21, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Ah I’m NOT saying WHO is a Buddhist. That would be a judgment on my part and goes against the teachings of the Buddha. We should do everything in our power to practice being NON-judgmental. I can see where you would oppose my viewpoint if this is what you think I’ve been saying. It is not.

    I said, Meditation Practice is the base upon which Buddhism rests. Everything sits on top of sitting. The Christmas tree is not the parts or the ornaments hanging on the tree, but the whole tree, which can only be seen if there is a base upon which the tree sits. See? Sits. Not WHO sits. That is up to every individual, but if you can find a scholar who says that Sidd has said you don’t have to meditate to become enlightened, please point him out. If you find a scholar who says that Buddhism is NOT about enlightenment, then, again, please direct me. This is someone who is standing against 2500 years of tradition. Now, I’m not saying this is what you are saying, or quoting, only that this is what I am saying. Buddism begins with a meditation practice. It is the central practice of Buddhism. Of this there is no doubt, or shouldn’t be any doubt.

    So PLEASE go back and look at all my posts, including the one you objected to in another thread where we both said the same thing. For some reason I am unable to communicate with you. I think I know why, and it sadly is not something either one of us can help.

    I wish you well in your pursuits. One last thing, since you brought up the beautiful analogy about flightless birds still being birds. If he wants to know what it means to be a bird, would the wise man be better to ask an auk or a hawk?


    • mufi on September 21, 2013 at 9:35 am

      I’ll try one more time, using the following excerpt from religion scholar David McMahan’s book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (pp. 183-4) as a springboard:

      Most casual observers and many ardent practitioners of Buddhism, particularly in the West, would identify meditation as the essential Buddhist practice. Yet, as noted, while meditation has always been considered necessary to achieving awakening, only a small minority of Buddhist actually practice it in any serious way. The vast majority of Asian Buddhists have practiced the dharma through ethics, ritual, and service to the sangha. Although provisions have sometime been made for laity to practice meditation – and some important figures have explicitly advocated it – it has generally been considered an arduous endeavor taken up by small number of monastics who specialize in contemplative practice.

      Today, however, throughout Asia as well as the West, many lay Buddhists and Buddhist sympathizers – not to mention Christians, Jews, Hindus, and secular people – now practice various forms of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness techniques. While the practices of most Buddhists throughout the world still consist primarily of following its ethical precepts and performing rituals for gaining karmic merit, a growing number of educated, middle-class men and women in Asia and the West now consider meditation essential to their practice of Buddhism.

      Do you wish to dispute any of the statements in this excerpt?

      In any case, bear in mind that it is only a descriptive account, based on McMahan’s studies of historical and contemporary trends in Buddhism, and at no point tries to prescribe what a Buddhist’s practice should be in order for it to qualify as “Buddhist” or “centrally Buddhist.”

      However, he does say that “the vast majority of Asian Buddhists” who do not meditate and instead practice “ethics, ritual, and service to the sangha” nonetheless “have practiced the dharma.”

      Such “dharma practice” may not be the “centerpiece” in your view, or according to the doctrines of your monastic order (or those of Buddhist monastic orders, in general), but I feel no obligation to adopt that view myself, especially given its implication that the practices of “the vast majority of Asian Buddhists” are somehow less Buddhist than meditation, and especially given that I do not self-identify as a Buddhist, yet I nonetheless meditate.

  19. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 21, 2013 at 9:41 am

    “while meditation has always been considered necessary to achieving awakening”

    the end

    • mufi on September 21, 2013 at 10:07 am

      More like the beginning, as apparently “the vast majority” of Buddhists have come to practice the dharma in a way that replaces the goal of “achieving awakening” with that of “gaining karmic merit.”

  20. mufi on September 21, 2013 at 11:37 am

    In other words, for the vast majority of Buddhists, it’s fair to say that “gaining karmic merit” via non-meditative means is the centerpiece of their practice.

    Meanwhile, we now have multitudes of people who practice mindfulness meditation, whose understanding of “awakening” may bear only a superficial resemblance to a traditional understanding. Are they by that fact alone Buddhists, too?

    Nope. Not unless they also identify as such.

  21. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 21, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Where did you get the data for that assertion?

    • mufi on September 21, 2013 at 1:17 pm

      From McMahan’s book, quoted above.

      You’re free to reject that source, of course, but then you didn’t mind helping yourself to it when it said something you like.

  22. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 22, 2013 at 4:22 am

    “In other words, for the vast majority of Buddhists, it’s fair to say that “gaining karmic merit” via non-meditative means is the centerpiece of their practice.”

    I’m fairly confident you have no experience in what this means, and even less on what it implies. I’m very confident I have no idea what your own beliefs are, beyond skepticism of anything not written by someone who has your confidence. So I will ask again, knowing you haven’t answered so far and therefore unlikely to in the future as far as this conversation goes:

    If not meditation, then is this above, karmic merit, the centerpiece in your mind?

    I’m not very adept at Judaism, but would the Torah be considered the centerpiece? (I would hardly argue with a rabbi, regardless of the answer.) Is the four gospels of the New Testament the centerpiece of Christianity? (Again, I would accept the answer of a priest more than a scholar.) So I suppose it wouldn’t be out of the realm to say the Pali canon, in comparison, until you might say that millions don’t follow the suttas. For monks, the Vinaya is the moral centerpiece, but meditation is the practice. So would prayer be the centerpiece of Judaism and Christianity?

    These are not difficult questions, my friend. Why are you struggling with them? What, in your opinion, is the centerpiece of Buddhism? Not what people call themselves. Not what any scholar says. Not even what the Thais who practice merit-making would say. Perhaps what would Buddha say? But more, I would very much like to know what YOU say is the centerpiece?

    In this day and age, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so reluctant to give his own opinion, esp when so ready to disagree.

    Best wishes.

  23. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 22, 2013 at 4:52 am

    Mufi, perhaps you need further information from my why I think meditation is the centerpiece, although I have tried, I think, to do that already. The difference between Buddhism and all other religions is the Buddha uses meditation to understand his teachings. Many, when asked, might say that nibbana (nirvana) is the centerpiece, as it may be the goal. Those who practice merit-making most likely understand that this is not the path to heaven, at least they should. Pure Land Buddhists might agree with you, and they may say heaven is the centerpiece. But the Buddha was pretty clear on how to reach nibbana. One has to clear away all the kilesas and have a pure mind. There is only one way to achieve this. Meditation.

    I made a statement at one point which may be why you disagree with me so strongly, but let me go back to it. I said “You have much knowledge, but little wisdom.” You said I was being arrogant. You didn’t understand the meaning of what I was saying. There is all the knowledge in the world written in books, but none of this is wisdom. Wisdom–as taught by the Buddha–is what is experienced by the mind. When you practice meditation, you experience many things. Nama rupa is one of the first, the separation of mind from body. When you see that body is not mind and mind is not body, this is wisdom. Without meditation, this is an abstract concept. Through meditation, this is understood. The same with impermanence. One can read about it, but to experience it, one must meditate to see it.

    I have no problem with scholarship, studying the religion. There is nothing wrong with someone studying Christianity and not being a Christian. There is nothing wrong with saying you are Buddhist and not having the first idea what it is all about. But, as a monk, I better have a pretty good idea of what I’m doing or I’m going to be teaching the wrong things to people who see my robes and believe I have knowledge. If you understand merit-making, the highest is becoming a monk and trying to reach nibbana. This is what the Thais respect, and their dana is how they gain merit, but they know that to reach nibbana, they have to sit. So they would much rather bring food to the temple so I can sit in leisure. They think I meditate for them.

    One day you should go to a Thai temple, but I promise just because you go doesn’t mean you will know. I have now been a monk only three months and am still learning what it means to be a monk, but I have learned that I didn’t know anything before I actually started to live the acetic life. It’s very hard. Very hard. You can take my word for it, which would give you knowledge, but until you have lived it for awhile, you haven’t gained the wisdom you would have if you had experienced it first hand.

    This might not be clear to you, but it is the best I can do. I absolutely believe that it was meditation that started this with the Buddha’s enlightenment, and it was monks who spent time meditating who continued this. No monk would say he is the centerpiece, but the Dhamma which is. And the only way to truly see the Dhamma, to be wise, to experience it, is to sit. All else is ornaments on the tree.


  24. mufi on September 22, 2013 at 8:05 am

    What, in your opinion, is the centerpiece of Buddhism? Not what people call themselves. Not what any scholar says.

    I’ve already told you my opinion: There is no centerpiece.

    Now, if you ask me for evidence/data to support my opinion, as you’ve done repeatedly in this conversation, then of course I’m going to cite the scholars who have informed it. After all, their work is my evidence/data.

    I understand if you disagree, but then please don’t act like I’ve evaded your question, just because you don’t like my answer.

  25. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 22, 2013 at 8:14 am

    My apologies. I didn’t see this answer. It is an answer, I guess, and I have no position on whether to agree or disagree, since there is nothing with which to argue. Then, if there is no centerpiece, then do you think Buddhism is or is not a religion? Do other religions have any centerpiece? Can a religion exist if it is just what each person decides individually? If Buddhism is not a religion, then what is it?

  26. mufi on September 22, 2013 at 8:15 am

    PS: I also stated my (scholar-informed) opinion that “gaining karmic merit” via non-meditative means is “the centerpiece” of practice for the vast majority of Buddhists, but that’s just another way of saying that most Buddhists don’t meditate – rather, they observe the dharma in a primarily ethical and ritualistic way. For the minority of Buddhists who do meditate, the bulk of their “dharma practice” may very well be meditation. But it’s a mistake to confuse these two groups.

  27. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 22, 2013 at 8:30 am

    So are you saying that either one or both are Buddhists? I don’t understand. Where would you put enlightenment? Since, as a skeptic or a secular, you might not believe in enlightenment, so does this mean that enlightenment is not part of the Buddha’s teachings, which is the Dhamma, if one goes by the scriptures, unless the scriptures aren’t Buddhism. You are beginning to confuse me. I am starting to see there is not a centerpiece. What do Buddhists believe in?

    • mufi on September 22, 2013 at 8:49 am

      I thought we were talking about practice (e.g. meditation vs. ethical or ritual observance), as opposed to belief or doctrine. (Yes, the two overlap, but these distinctions are meaningful, nonetheless).

      That said, I would not be surprised to meet a self-described Buddhist – I’ll call him “Charlie” – who rejects one or more traditional doctrines. (Just look where we’re having this conversation!) And, if I believed in an essential and eternal Buddhism/Dhamma, I might be tempted to dismiss his claim to Buddhist identity as inauthentic (or worse). What’s more likely, in my case, is that I might struggle to recognize a family resemblance between Charlie’s beliefs and those of most other Buddhists.

      But families evolve over time, such that I may bear very little resemblance to one or more of my ancient ancestors.

  28. Gatasaro Bhikku on September 22, 2013 at 9:11 am

    So do you not believe in Truth? I don’t want to say Ultimate Truth as opposed to something just being normally true. But Truth as a basis of moral judgment? Is the definition of religion is something with a moral base we call Truth? I didn’t see where you said Buddhism is or is not a religion. I’m just trying to find something you and I share in common. So far, I can’t seem to find common ground with you.

    • mufi on September 22, 2013 at 9:44 am

      I agree with Batchelor: Buddhism is a religion (or perhaps a family of religions).

      I associate the capital ‘T’ in “Truth” with “Ultimate Truth”, about which I’m agnostic, so I’m not sure that I know what you’re after here.

      But, if by that, you were to mean a conventional, common-sense sort of truth, with a lower-case ‘t’, then sure I believe in that. After all, even these statements about what I do or do not believe are in a sense truth propositions. They’re subject to revision, of course, but at least for the moment, it feels right to say what I’m saying.

      And I reckon that’s true (!) of morality, as well. I can identify certain patterns in myself and in the world in general (e.g. leading to the outcome that all human societies prohibit murder or theft – at least with respect to their “in-group”), which are by definition non-arbitrary. But I simply take it as given that I, and other beings like me, feel strongly that certain conditions should hold, while others should not.

      I suppose one could characterize such moral sentiments as “cravings” and “aversions”, but then they are of a kind that I don’t mind grasping. 😉

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