What follows below is taken from an email I received today from Geoff, regarding one of the threads on Sujato’s Blog. I thought this audience might be interested in the full response, and I’ll also see if I can find the spot on Sujato’s site to respond there as well. Many of the topics here are very relevant and core to secular Buddhist practice.

As you probably recall you spoke with Glenn Wallis on the issue of beliefs and knowledge on one of your podcasts. I should listen to the podcast again but as I recall you mostly focused on the theistic (“blind faith”) aspects of beliefs.

Yes, Glenn is a good friend who has been on the podcast a couple of times, and will be more in the future. The interview where we chatted about that topic is Episode 40.

As you would know the traditional Buddhist approach claims to be a little more nuanced. Bhikkhu Bodhi, for example, says we should start by testing the teachings in fairly straightforward ways to see in everyday life the existence of impermanence and hence inherent dissatisfaction etc. Once we have gained confidence that the Buddha was on to something, we are then encouraged to place faith in aspects of the teachings that are beyond immediate experience eg rebirth, realms of existence etc. This we are told will be revealed to us eventually through deep meditative states.

Yes, and I certainly do understand that position. Let me also make perfectly clear that the secular approach is merely another way to engage with the dhamma, one that is a natural growth from Western contemporary culture, which does have a strong secular inclination. As we see from recent surveys, the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008 as an example, people identifying as having no religion whatsoever are showing the most growth.

Secular Buddhism is a newly forming branch of Buddhism distinct from the other “big three” Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana, in that the practice and teaching is not dependent on that which is not in evidence in the natural world. We are still Buddhists, we are still engaged in the Eightfold Path, and do not presume to tell other practitioners what should be more fulfilling to them. That is a matter of their own experience in what is most beneficial to them.

Where secularists may diverge from Bikkhu Bodhi’s encouragement in how to practice the Buddha sasana is the part where we put our faith in things unseen. This is a transition from the meaning of the Pali saddha from “confidence” to “faith” in the Judeo-Christian sense (“While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18, King James translation). Though our experiences in what we’ve been told in the natural world are bearing out in the practice, which is wonderful, that does not mean that the concepts about what is not seen, what is not demonstrable in the natural world, are factually correct. Secularists are not denying that may be a possible reality, just that we don’t have any reliable way to show it, and therefore to speak of it as factually correct is not something we can do in good conscience. It is disingenuous to call such claims True when we cannot demonstrate them.

Why do we have this suspension of willingness to assert such claims? Because there is a history and planet full of such claims, many of which are in conflict, and cannot be logically factual. The televangelist speaks with the same faith in the historical veracity of Jesus walking on water, and the Biblical flood, that the Buddhist does about the existence of the Tusita heaven as the place Maitreya awaits his birth in the human realm, as the Hindu does about the literal existence of Ganesha, as Harold Camping did and still does predict the literal Rapture in 2011.

Secularists ask for evidence for any such claim because it is the only way to tell fact from fiction. If we do not have a common framework for verification, all claims are equally suspect.

At the same time we find people like Ajahn Sujato, being a ‘progressive’ Western educated monk, acknowledging (having to acknowledge?) the importance of science in understanding reality and the need for empirical verification.

We do, yes. And even more helpful in the dialogue, I think, is Ajahn Sujato’s friendliness in the discussions, however much he may disagree with our particular approach. That is the kind of open, non-judgemental communication I had hoped would be common from my fellow Buddhists, but the people who have been most open to positive, meaningful dialogue have been from the atheist and skeptic communities. This may be an indication that the problem is not between different flavors of Buddhist ideology, but between tradition and free inquiry. I see positive benefits to keeping the discussions friendly and sincere in a desire to understand, and if so, disagree with that same friendliness.

I am interested in your response to Sujato’s attempts to bridge this scientific evidence based approach with his claim to ‘knowledge’ (not just belief) in the existence of devas, various realms of existence & rebirth (as found in the Pali Canon). I have quoted some excerpts below from Sujato’s recent posts on his blog under the secular topics. Firstly part of his response to Glenn Wallis (after I had asked Sujato for his thoughts on Glenn’s Buddhist Manifesto article), followed by Sujato’s posting on his blog on my queries titled Secular Buddhism – some more bits:

Happy to respond below, though Glenn is much more adept with words!

Much appreciated any feedback (if you can find the time!) Again I want to say what an excellent site TSB is. Cheers – Geoff

Thank you. Tell all your friends 🙂


“The argument that belief in devas, etc. contradicts the Buddha’s anti-metaphysical position is also wrong. This point has been analyzed at length by the Buddhist empiricist philosopher David Kalupahana (whose excellent work seems to be unaccountably ignored by the secularists). The basic point is that the Buddhist treatment of such things as devas rigorously removes any truly metaphysical aspects – for example, they are not eternal, all-powerful, creators of the world, and so on. Devas are, in fact, conditioned, impermanent, suffering creatures very much like you or I in all spiritually important aspects. And, crucially, knowledge of such things is an empirical knowledge, derivable from the meditative extension of ordinary sensory faculties, and confirmable, in some cases, by reference to socially verifiable external facts (as in Ian Stevenson’s research).“

I’m happy to read David Kalupahana’s work that addresses this, I’ve just not been given the reference in the past. It is not an intentional avoidance, simply a lack of introduction to his work. What would be best? History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities?

The basic point made, however, is not correct in that it “rigorously removes any truly metaphysical aspects”. If that were so, there would be evidence. THAT is rigorous removal. Saying that invisible pink unicorns are not immortal doesn’t leap the gap of them being real, either; this is a flawed argument. Saying that God is not all powerful doesn’t *poof* him into existence, and it doesn’t do that for devas, either. We can suppose *any* kind of invisible and perhaps imaginary being we cannot detect externally, and give it whatever qualities we can conceive, including dukkha, anicca, and anatta.

Problem Number One, I would say, is that there is an expectation of a dichotomy between Buddhist metaphysics and naturalism. This is as false as Pascal’s Wager, which assumes a Christian God vs. atheism in its own false dichotomy, or Creationism vs. Evolution, which again assumes a Judeo-Christian ideology. The point of view is one’s own religious structure, and that means that every religious structure is equally correct, which they cannot be because they are in conflict.

The problem is not between Buddhist faith assertions and secularism, the *real* problem is between Buddhist faith assertions vs. Christian faith assertions vs. Hindu faith assertions vs. Islamic faith assertions vs. an endless number of faith assertions! Once *that* has been narrowed down in some impossible way, *then* we can talk about what is left vs. secularism.

Now, some will say they have seen devas. This is interesting, inspiring, a great story, but not evidence. People have seen lots of things that may not have been real, including angels and other beings from different (and again conflicting) pantheons. It does not mean that these people are lying or committing any kind of intentional misrepresentation. What we’re saying is that evidence is necessary to confirm such a belief, and in the absense of it, there are natural explanations for what people experience.

Problem Number Two, then, is once we’ve removed the false dichotomy of assertions between a particular faith vs. free inquiry, what is acceptable as evidence? Certainly people have very personally beneficial, positively transformative, and deeply meaningful experiences during meditation and other kinds of inspired moments. That is not in question, nor is it the intent of secular Buddhists to say one can’t and shouldn’t value such experiences. If they are beneficial to you, wholesome in their content and impact, fabulous. Secular Buddhism recognizes that not everyone is willing to accept such revelations’ explanations as being factually accurate, however.

This in itself opens secular Buddhism to others much more broadly than other traditions, which have a certain sense of necessary acceptance of “things unseen.” Those with other religious or non-religious traditions are welcome, and there is no expectation that they change their views. Secular Buddhism is about this world, and what is in evidence in human experience of the path that positively contributes to one’s engagement with this life. So it is not uncommon for atheists and skeptics to find this approach more suited to them, as would Hindus, Christians, etc.. One has exactly *zero* need to adopt any kind of culture, assertions, or religious tradition whatsoever with secular Buddhist practice.

Ah, Ian Stevenson’s book! As I’ve said elsewhere, these are cases even he acknowledged in his introduction were not evidence. They are stories. They are interesting, inspiring, cool as all get out. So are a lot of stories that may not be factually accurate, like Muhammad’s winged horse, loaves to fishes, or swallowing the ocean. Even Stevenson himself titled the book with the words “Suggestive of Reincarnation” — he did not say “Proving Reincarnation”. He was also a long time believer who did not have any kind of controls on his “studies”, some of which were done as interviews years after such events were reported to have happened. The fact is, and yes there is documented evidence, that memory is fallible and changes over time. What one says years after an event may not be an accurate retelling — how big was that fish Uncle Joe caught years ago? Like that!

Here’s an alternate and natural explanation: first, quite unintentional cold reading. Children making statements that adults put meaning into that may not be reflective of fact. The child says something interesting, the adult reads into it (as we see people do when John Edwards “speaks” to the dead). They may not even be aware this is what’s happening, as is the case with Facilitated Communication. Another aspect to this is the creation of false memories, as recounted in many scientifically controlled studies, that require a mere suggestion of the possibility, and a little bit of encouragement. How much more effective the creation of such memories under the conditions of meditative states!

Again, we’re not saying these are not convincing thoughts that arise, or that they are intentionally false. They *are* very realistic, they are totally without artifice, having had such thoughts arise in a quite convincing fashion in my own meditation. That doesn’t make them real, and this is a perfectly natural explanation for past life “memories.” I have an upcoming interview with Elizabeth Loftus on this very topic.

Also bear in mind that it is not very realistic to expect the brain to be a tape recorder. It isn’t. People who can’t remember their own childhood — or do, but incorrectly — are somehow remembering previous lives with much greater clarity? Using what as a storage medium after death? What is the evidence for the mechanism of that storage? In the natural world a damaged brain does not function normally, a truly dead one (not one that has an old wive’s tale about having been clinically dead for hours, but the person miraculously came back) does not function at all.

Problem Number Three is that we can’t accept someone’s personal experience, or even many people’s experiences, as evidence because of the inherent unreliability of the brain. If you don’t think that’s a valid statement, let’s take a look at some optical illusions, or the fact that many people are still preparing for Harold Camping’s predictions to come true because of the experiences they “know” they had with angels.

Note that the very language use is assertive: “… devas are, *in fact*…” No, they’re not. That’s an assertion not in evidence, and we can just as easily apply this thinking to any supposed being undetectable through any externally verifiable means. If it were fact, it would have evidence. Until then, this is an interesting idea and nothing more.


“Remember, empiricism as I understand it, and as presented in the Suttas, does not mean ‘direct experience only’. (This is a fallacy commonly found among certain modern meditation teachers, but clearly against the Suttas and the entire Buddhist tradition, in India at least.) It means ‘direct experience’ (paccakkha) and ‘inference’ (anumāna). What inference is exactly is hard to pin down. Practically, it means that we stay relatively close to experience. If I have never drunk wine, I will have hardly any idea what it tastes like. But if I have drunk wine regularly for many years, I may never have had a Chateaux de Chateaux (which I hear is very passable), but I will have a pretty good idea what it will taste like.

I don’t see any reason to expect there is such a thing as direct experience. Read Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel for more about that, it’s just too big to handle here!

Similarly, if I have recollected, say 3 or 4 past lives, it is not such a big leap to 30 or 40, or 300 or 400 lives. The basic fact of the thing is more or less the same.

I respectfully disagree here. Our memories in a single lifetime are not accurate and correct, why should we expect that even if they did somehow carry over that they would be viable?

This contrasts with what I have characterized as ‘metaphysical’ claims. The difference is precisely the difference between a very very big number and infinity. The Buddha claims to have exercised his memory over billions of years. The difference between that and our ordinary experience of time is very great, but not outside the capacities of inference. After all, geology and astrophysics claim to tell us what happened billions of years ago, relying on inference from fairly sketchy data.

Yes, but it is also data that is *in evidence*. It is also not a single human brain recounting all the data from billions of years, it is a set of hypothesis and theories coming from a set of data points. And it’s tentative, even with evidence, yet scientists are accused of hubris while fundamentalists of every religion claim they are absolutely correct with *no* evidence!

Most religious doctrines, however, speak of eternity. God, the soul, the atman, heaven, or whatever lasts not for mere billions of years, but literally forever. It is not possible, and never will be possible, to infer from the data available in this temporal world to ‘eternity’. Any claim to ‘know’ this eternity is a claim to know something that is utterly and absolutely outside any experience of consciousness.”

I would agree with that!

PS fantastic podcasts @ TSB eg with Glenn Wallis, Stephen Batchelor & Winton Higgins etc!!

I would agree with that, too 🙂

No Comments

  1. Dana Nourie on August 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Well said on all points!

  2. mknick on August 5, 2011 at 10:41 am

    I can remember quite vividly a dream I had a few nights ago. I can tell you where I was, what time of day it was, who else was there, and even what they wore and said. I can remember this dream in more detail than I can remember having dinner Sunday night. Memory is not evidence.

    Neither, for that matter, is any kind of experience. Neuroscientists tell us that the world we are aware of is just a model, and a pretty dumbed-down one at that, no more robust than necessary to facilitate our self-regulation. Nothing we can ever experience is outside this representational model — if you claim to have “experienced” the Deathless, the Eternal, the Mind of God, or whatever, that in itself is enough to suggest that you haven’t. Or as Mr. Gotama put it, conciousness depends on name and form, and name and form depend on conciousness — there’s no getting past it, no matter how exhilarating your experience might be. This is why repeated and repeatable observations are needed to let us know something is true, and sometimes even that is insufficient.

    I would think that metaphysical “knowledge” experienced during meditative states would be especially unreliable (which is why most teachers I’m aware of counsel students to discount such experiences). In my own practice, the more settled and open my mind is, the less my experience seems explicable in conceptual terms. What I am sometimes tempted to do, however, is to take some experience I had in that state and try to interpret it with my thinking mind (“Gee, was that second jhana?”) If you are imbedded in a setting that is preparing you to expect devas, past lives, the base of non-perception, or whatever, those concepts will imprint themselves on your interpretation of your meditative experience. This is why meditative techniques have been so useful for various spiritual charlatans to soften up the minds of thier acolytes to accept all manner of woo. Secular dharma practitioners try to use reason to prevent accidental or intentional delusion from creeping into our practice.

  3. poep sa frank jude on August 5, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Well said, Mark.

    I think many people either forget or ignore how frequently (and easily) ontological assumptions were — and are — made based upon ‘experiences’ that may not be born out by recent empirical study.

    Findings of cognitive science tell us that our bodies, brains, and environmental interactions provide the mostly unconscious basis for our sense of what is real. What cognitive science shows is that our sense of what is real begins with and depends upon our bodies, most especially our sensorimotor system, and the structures of our brains, which have been shaped by evolution and experience.

    Are you familiar with “Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson? They show why and how we can expect brains to create experiences that would make us seem to ‘leave the body’ or experience disembodied realms. They argue that categorization and primary order conceptualization, being a consequence of how we are embodied, cannot be ‘transcended’ or ‘left behind.’ Categorization is, for the most part, not conscious and rational; we categorize as we do because we have the brains and bodies we have and because we interact with the world in the way we do. In fact, not only do we not have full conscious control over how we categorize, we cannot have such control. Even when we think we are intentionally forming new categories, our neural unconscious categories enter into our choice of possible conscious categories. It is not merely that our bodies and brains determine that we will categorize; they also determine what kinds of categories we will have and what their structure will be.

    For instance, the fact that we have muscles and use them to apply force in certain ways leads to the formal structure of our system of causal concepts. Yet, we often think of ‘causality’ as something independently existing in the world. Our concepts of causes, conditions, actions, states and change represent ontic features of the world. These concepts are taken literally, not metaphorically, yet cognitive science shows how these concepts are metaphorically constructed, emerging from everyday bodily experiences. They arise from human biology.

    “Living systems must categorize. Since we are neural beings, our categories are formed through our embodiment, What that means is that the categories we form are part of our experience! They are the structures that differentiate aspects of our experience into discernible kinds. Categorization is thus not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience. It is part of what our bodies and brains are constantly engaged in. We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, ‘get beyond’ our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.” Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1999, p. 19

    The very concept of the ‘unconditioned’ comes out of our embodied phenomenological experience. Our mistake, cognitive science seems to say, is we take it literally and draw some misguided conclusions. As they conclude, this has dramatic consequences for our understanding of religion and spirituality, which, in our culture – and throughout much of the East as well – has been defined in terms of disembodiment and transcendence of this world. What they (and I have long called for) is an alternative conception of embodied spirituality that begins to do justice to what people experience. There is another way – an embodied sense – to understand the experience of transcendence, of the ‘unconditioned’ or the ‘unborn.’ A mindful, embodied spirituality is a possibility, and I believe that Buddhist practice (but I think not tradition) can perhaps best provide a structure for creating it.

  4. Geoff on August 5, 2011 at 8:16 pm


    I’ve just seen your post.

    Thanks so much for giving me such a detailed response. I’ll read it carefully and have a good think about your points!!!

    (By the way, for the last 18 months I’ve been a regular attendee @ Bhante Sujato’s Friday night talks in North Sydney as well as listening to many of his podcasts. So I feel I have given him a good listening to!)


    Geoff (from Downunder)

  5. Ratanadhammo on August 6, 2011 at 11:43 am


    First, all your work on this website is truly impressive. You’ve done a great job presenting views that are informative and stimulating.

    I’m going to focus on one point in this post, partly because I think it touches on a few other comments you’ve made.

    Your view of saddha seems to conflate a few different things in a way that I don’t think were intended by the use of the term in the Pali Canon. One way to think of saddha is that once conditioned phenomena have been thoroughly investigated by means of sensory perception, cognitive processes, etc (i.e. all that stuff that can be proven by means of evidence and reason in the conventional sense), a willingness to trust the Buddha’s teaching on the unconditioned, on experience beyond sensory perception and cognitive processes, becomes possible.

    As I’ve said before, the insistence that nothing exists that cannot be verified by means of sensory perception and cognitive processes misses the main point of the Buddha’s teaching, which is that sense organs (rupā), sensation (vedanā), perception (saññā), mental formations (sankhāra), and consciousness (viññāna) are all aggregates and part of the conditioned phenomena and so cannot confirm anything other than the existence of other unsatisfactory (dukkha), impermanent (anicca), and compactless (anatta) conditioned phenomena.

    • The Secular Buddhist on August 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm

      Hi, Brian. Yes, I hear what you’re saying. It seems our disconnect may be a perception that comes attached to the secularists questioning of the non-evident. We don’t insist that no evidence means it doesn’t exist, not at all — that would be every bit as much a dogmatic claim.

      The secularists stance is like what I’m finding out about the Pyrrhonists (though I’m just starting a very limited reading on that topic, grain of salt is appropriate here!), which is that it cannot be determined, and so no judgement is adhered to. It’s not an insistence that such things don’t exist, just that in the absence of evidence, our practice isn’t going to be *dependent* on them.

      Does that make sense? It allows for the rest of traditional Buddhism to be completely meaningful and beneficial, perhaps through to a full ending of samsara. We just don’t find that idea to be contributory to our practice is all.

      I’m wondering if you could help me understand something else that’s been confusing me for some time now? We’ve been talking here and there about the importance of the goal of final nibbhana, as opposed to basic benefits in this lifetime. What are your thoughts about how that difference manifests in the practice itself?

      Thanks, Brian. I’m really grateful for your time and sincerity in these dialogues, and how you’re presenting the topics.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 6, 2011 at 3:11 pm


      Our conversations have helped me a lot. Thanks!

      Without the noble aggregate of virtue, there is a) no reduction of suffering (an important goal), and b) no possibility of experiencing the truth of anatta.

      In other words, cultivating the brahmaviharas is clearly important to a) making this world better in this lifetime (i.e. in this moment, and in this moment, and in this moment, and in this moment) by my becoming a more positive part of it, and b) developing spiritually such that a realization of the truth of anatta is possible.

      Most of my contributions to this discussion (even the ones that produced too much heat) were meant to emphasize the importance of all three characteristics of existence. My impression is that secular Buddhism focuses too much on the first two, which ultimately just traps you in it.

      If samsara is a trap, do I think I’ll get out of it (awaken)? I don’t think it matters. On the other hand, I think that my practice will be far more fruitful if I attempt to penetrate all three characteristics of existence in depth by accepting the unconditioned as the source of lasting bliss and attempting to understand it.

      My point has been that not only are both skillful thinking and skillful moral practices necessary, but that we should always remember that eventually both will have to be let go in a sense in order to achieve something more than just becoming better people.

      So, in addition to the noble aggregate of virtue and cultivating the brahmaviharas, I believe that the goal of vipassana and samadhi practices is to move from the suffering and impermanence to something beyond what we think we know as a result of unskillful habits (relying on sense gates, perception and memory, our flawed human concepts, etc).

      The four rupa jhanas are possible within secular Buddhism, but what could possibly be the point of the arupa jhanas in your practice? Beyond that, there is what is sometimes called the ninth jhana. The entire point of practice at these levels of concentration is to move beyond all perception based on conditioned phenomena and the aggregates of self.

      The Buddha could have been a world-class physicist. In some ways, he was a psychologist who can still put Freud and Jung to shame. But he recognized something about existence that modern physics and modern psychology can never discover until its practitioners let go of certain assumptions and, well, dogmas of their practices.

      • The Secular Buddhist on August 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm

        Hi, Brian. In alignment with what Dana has said, secular practice is inclusive of the three characteristics as being accurate references to existential dissatisfaction, the delusion of the concept of a monolithic self, and permanence is not in evidence.

        On the jhanas, yes, though there are mundane and supra mundane levels, only the first four are included as the final component of the eightfold path. Though the others certainly can be practiced and did as you said predate the Buddha, they were found to be non-contributory to enlightenment. At least that’s what Bhante Gunaratana has said when I’ve asked about this in retreat. One could even attain liberation without doing jhana meditation, but it was characterized as a “dry” attainment. His book The Path of Serenity and Insight: An Explanation of the Buddhist Jhanas is a very scholarly work on the jhanas, not the light treatment in his popular newer works. Loved it!

  6. Ratanadhammo on August 6, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Hi Dana,

    I’ll try to clarify terms that I maybe skipped over too quickly.

    The brahmaviharas are the four immeasurables: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

    The khandhas are any and all aggregates, but the five aggregates of self are the ones that I was talking about in particular. They are the five that we cling when we attach to self as a point of reference for sensation, grasping, and clinging, in other words, papañca, all the spinning that we do as we try to make sense of the world that we’re not really seeing correctly in the first place.

    This is what makes anatta so important!

    Our notion that the Buddha taught nine jhanas comes from, among other places, the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (The Noble Search), MN 26. You’ll have to just skip over the part where the Buddha talks about Brahma Sahampati to get to the part about the meditative states.

    These meditation practices were around before the Buddha learned them. Ajahn Brahm has argued that the reason why others failed to awaken is because they were doing something different, even though it had the same name. Even then, they only got to the 8th jhana of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. I think the key is that the Buddha penetrated anatta in depth, i.e. he found that nothing about the observer is any more permanent or substantial than the conditioned phenomena that are being observed, and so he acheived what others could not by reaching the experience of what is sometimes called the 9th jhana:

    Then again the monk, with the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, enters & remains in the cessation of perception & feeling. And, having seen [that] with discernment, his mental fermentations are completely ended.

    I think that the Buddha taught that this was not Nibbana, but the way to Nibbana.

  7. Dana Nourie on August 6, 2011 at 9:07 pm


    Sorry I don’t know some of the terms you used in that last post, and I’m a bit confused on what it is you think we are leaving out of our practice. We do focus strongly on the aggregates, their arising and passing, and not self.

    Also, I just wanted to point out Buddha was clear that going through all the jhanas was not the path to awakening. People of his time had accomplished that, as had he, and he said that was not what awake was. He seemed to place more importance on the first 4 jhanas, but I could be wrong.

    And lastly I want to emphasize, we have to be especially careful not to cling to any experience in meditation, even the jhanas, as Buddha repeated pointed out, as it is a process of letting go. We also have to be careful of strange experiences during meditation as I think it’s quite possible in deeper states of meditation the brain starts doing some funky things we need to be skeptical of.

    I’m not implying anything in particular, just saying, memory and subjective experience is not always trustworthy or correct. Belief and desire can be a big driver of “created” experience and memories.

    Thank you for clarifying and engaging in this conversation with us. We can all learn from each other:-) I’m interested in having to clarify some of the terms above into plain English for those of us who don’t know those pali terms. Thanks!

  8. poep sa frank jude on August 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    While there is no denying that the Buddhist meditative tradition kept the formless jhanas, I think Ajahn Brahm’s argument is mostly sectarian ‘one-upmanship’ at best.

    Throughout the tradition, the formless jhanas are de-emphasized as the way to liberation, perhaps most notably in the parinibbana-sutta, where much is made of the Buddha going up through the jhanas, then back down, and then back up to the fourth, from whence he ‘entered parinibbana.’

    The formless jhanas add ‘juice’ to practice, and are very healing and nurturing, but I do not believe they are necessary for liberation.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm

      As I understand it, none of the jhanas are necessary for liberation. Still, all the jhanas (the formless jhanas, in particular), I think, are important for realizing selflessness, alongside cultivating the brahmaviharas (four immeasurables). In other words, they are important for practice to lead fruitfully to viewing conditioned phenomena without reference to self. Only at that point can the unconditioned be experienced.

      • poep sa frank jude on August 7, 2011 at 10:49 pm

        Oh, I must have mis-read your comment! I agree that none of the jhanas are necessary for liberation. I was specifically addressing what I thought you were saying — which was that they were necessary, and not merely the first four, but all eight (or nine).

        I don’t even think they are completely necessary for realizing anatta. The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, with deep observation/analytical meditation on impermanence leads to this realization.

        That said, I do think they — and yes the brahmaviharas — are essential for a fully comprehensive, integrated practice.


      • Ratanadhammo on August 7, 2011 at 11:38 pm

        Agreed! Still, my original point was that the formless jhanas seem to have a purpose that is at odds with secular Buddhism in that they are part of an effort to experience something beyond sensory perception and cognitive functions.

  9. poep sa frank jude on August 8, 2011 at 9:41 am


    Ah! But to even say “experience something beyond sensory perception and cognitive functions” points to my original point above: we are ALWAYS experiencing through the body, even the feeling of transcendence of body or cognitive functions is based upon having the neural system we have!

    What is ‘transcended’ in the formless jhanas is the typical relation to cognitive functions. We experience a exquisitely refined, subtle feeling. The ‘mistake’ is to reify this into an ontic ‘realm’ of some sort.

    “Living systems must categorize. Since we are neural beings, our categories are formed through our embodiment, What that means is that the categories we form are part of our experience! They are the structures that differentiate aspects of our experience into discernible kinds. Categorization is thus not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience. It is part of what our bodies and brains are constantly engaged in. We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, ‘get beyond’ our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.” Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1999, p. 19

    The very concept of the ‘unconditioned’ comes out of our embodied phenomenological experience. Our mistake, cognitive science seems to say, is we take it literally and draw some misguided conclusions. As they conclude, this has dramatic consequences for our understanding of religion and spirituality, which, in our culture – and throughout much of the East as well – has been defined in terms of disembodiment and transcendence of this world. What they (and I have long called for) is an alternative conception of embodied spirituality that begins to do justice to what people experience. There is another way – an embodied sense – to understand the experience of transcendence, of the ‘unconditioned’ or the ‘unborn.’ A mindful, embodied spirituality is a possibility, and I believe that Buddhist practice (but I think not tradition) can perhaps best provide a structure for creating it.

    Thus, I DO believe the ‘formless’ jhanas can and do have a place/purpose for Secular Buddhist practice. But they do not point to — or serve as — evidence for such ‘realms of existence.’ That goes for the Brahma-viharas. The traditional cosmology has these as literally ‘heavenly realms of existence.’ They are part of the cosmological model for samsara. I think it enough to see them as metaphorically, psychologically ‘heavenly,’ and most certainly integral for personality transformation.


    • Ratanadhammo on August 8, 2011 at 11:54 am

      I’m going to need to reread this comment a couple of times. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 9, 2011 at 2:05 am

      You are presenting very sophisticated analyses that ultimately amount to what the Buddha already covered.

      From passages like the one you quoted, you conclude:

      we are ALWAYS experiencing through the body,

      The Buddha taught that an awakening is possible such that an experience is possible that is based, in part, on a recognition that the body is just one of five aggregates of self. It is based on such a recognition because it is not enough to know that the body is just an aggregate of conditioned phenomena, but that there must also be a penetration of this truth in depth through practice. This experience would transcend all perception that requires reference to self as a necessary part of the experience, and thus gives rise to yathabhutañanadassana (knowledge and vision of things as they are).

      And you conclude:

      A mindful, embodied spirituality is a possibility.

      Yes, prior to Gotama’s awakening, a lot of spiritual beings thought exactly the same thing. And it is possible. But, as Gotama discovered, it’s also limited spirituality. He discovered something more profound.

  10. Sabio Lantz on August 8, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Very nice job bringing it back to the simplicity of evidence when empirical claims are made. People often make empirical claims but I don’t think they understand that they are empirical. Or, they want their cake and eat it too — that is, make an empirical claim and then run to escape clauses like “the finger pointing at the moon” .

  11. The Secular Buddhist on August 8, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    Nicely said, Frankjude. Thank you for very adeptly putting this idea into words, that we are in this fathom long body, and concepts about what is outside it are concepts *within* it. Our experiences which feel otherwise still are part of this body/mind process. And wonderful quote from Lakoff and Johnson! I’ve been using Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel to help with my own understanding of some of the findings on mind, but will check this out, too.

    • poep sa frank jude on August 8, 2011 at 11:42 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Ted. I just read the review of Metzinger’s books and feel I must add them to my “To Read List!” It seems quite in sync with the work of Lakoff and Johnson, as well as D’Amasio. (Do you know his work?).

      I’ve a paper on “Not-Self” on my Zen Naturalism site: http://zennaturalism.blogspot.com/2010/03/going-against-stream-not-self-teaching.html

      where I utilize the work of these cognitive and neural researchers. Here’s a short excerpt that seems relevant to this discussion:

      Perhaps the most basic unquestioned assumption people tend to hold that is challenged by the teaching of not-Self is that they have a Self and they know what it is. Until they are asked what it even means to say “I have a Self,” or “I am a Self,” they have rarely given it much thought. When finally asked, they tend toward statements referring to an “inner life.” Cognitive scientists have shown that the felt sense of an “inner life” is based on a fundamental distinction between what they call the Subject and one or more Selves. “The Subject is the locus of consciousness, subjective experience, reason, will, and our ‘essence,’ everything that makes us who we uniquely are. There is at least one Self and possibly more. The Selves consist of everything else about us – our bodies, our social roles, our histories, and so on.” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 268) For most people, what Lakoff and Johnson call “the Subject” is what they mean by the “Self.” Often, they distinguish this “Self” as their “True Self” from their “small self.”

      Cognitive science seems to say that this “Subject/Self,” or as I notate it, “Self/self” distinction is far from arbitrary, but in fact expresses apparently universal experiences of an “inner life.” The metaphors for conceptualizing our inner lives are grounded in universal experiences (from learning how to manipulate and control objects as well as our body, to the disparity we may feel between our conscious values and the values implicit in our behavior, to the inner dialog and internal monitoring we engage in) that appear to be unavoidable, arising as they do from common experience. What is most revealing about this is that each metaphor conceptualizes the Self (Subject) as being person-like, with an existence separate and independent from the self (body/mind/social roles etc.). Thus the Self takes on a metaphysical import.

      “…the very way that we normally conceptualize our inner lives is inconsistent with what we know scientifically about the nature of mind. In our system for conceptualizing our inner lives, there is always a Subject that is the locus of reason and that metaphorically has an existence independent of the body. … this contradicts the fundamental findings of cognitive science. And yet, the conceptualization of such a Subject arises around the world uniformly on the basis of apparently universal and unchangeable experiences. If this is true, it means that we all grow up with a view of our inner lives that is mostly unconscious, used every day of our lives in our self-understanding, and yet both internally inconsistent and incompatible with what we have learned from the scientific study of the mind. (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 268)

      The neuroscience researcher, Antonio Damasio, in “The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness,” describes how the sense or feeling of an inner self that is conceptualized as “an observer, a perceiver, a knower, a thinker and a potential actor” arises. (Damasio, 1999: 10/11) Briefly, he asserts that first there is a totally unconscious “interconnected and temporarily coherent collection of neural patterns which represent the state of the organism, moment by moment” which he calls the “proto-self.” Then, a “second-order nonverbal account occurs whenever an object modifies the proto-self.” This “core self can be triggered by any object” but it too is transient, ceaselessly recreated for each and every object with which the brain interacts. (Damasio, 1999: 17/174)

      However, the traditional notion of self is linked to identity and the collection of unique facts that characterize a person. Damasio calls this the “autobiographical self” that depends upon “autobiographical memory that is constituted by implicit memories of multiple instances of individual experience of the past and of the anticipated future.” (Damasio, 1999: 174) Each of the two higher order “selves” requires the lower order ones in order to manifest.

      “When we discover what we are made of and how we are put together, we discover a ceaseless process of building up and tearing down…. It is astonishing that we have a sense of self at all, that we have – that most of us have, some of us have – some continuity of structure and function that constitutes identity, some stable traits of behavior we call a personality….

      … the brain reconstructs the sense of self moment by moment. We do not have a self sculpted in stone and, like stone, resistant to the ravages of time. Our sense of self is a state of the organism, the result of certain components operating in a certain manner and interacting in a certain way, within certain parameters. It is another construction, a vulnerable pattern of integrated operations whose consequence is to generate the mental representation of a living being.” (Damasio, 1999: 144/145)

  12. The Secular Buddhist on August 9, 2011 at 3:32 am

    Excellent analysis. You may also like Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, and I’ll have to check out D’Amasio.

    This all boils down to the recognition that our perception of self is a delusion, incorrect in conclusion about it being distinct from the foundational processes which understandably lead to that erroneous notion. Gotama used the language of his day, he did not have the benefit of brain scans and neurological experimentation. That contemporary findings align is terrific, and that there is a codified practice for fully grasping this in a beneficial way is why secular Buddhism appeals to many of us.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 9, 2011 at 6:34 am

      It’s an excellent analysis that adds up to nothing more than what we already knew because of the Buddha’s teaching.

      The most sophisticated descriptions of samsaric phenomena don’t change the fact that they’re samsaric phenomena, and to insist that we’re stuck in experiencing samsaric phenomena by means of perceptions that are the result of unskillful thinking about conditioned (samsaric) phenomena is to reject what the Buddha taught about our true potential.

      The reason why secular Buddhism appeals to so many is because it keeps people in what is familiar to us all.

      • poep sa frank jude on August 9, 2011 at 9:42 am

        Brian, you seem to miss the point that all this construction happens way before any ‘thinking’ happens, skillful or unskillful. Ironically, what this tells us is that as embodied neural beings, we cannot keep from thinking that there is some “unborn,” or “unconditioned state.” But that doesn’t mean it’s so.

        And it’s inaccurate to think Secular Buddhism appeals because “it keeps people in what is familiar to us all.” It is through such analysis — and the meditative practices we’ve already spoken about above — that allows us to ‘go against the stream’ of this conditioning to the extent that in seeing how our conditioned state IS conditioned — in understanding that through and through — we find freedom from being completely determined by it. But this change in perception is not some metaphysical, transcendent order but is itself an embodied realization. From the secular perspective, to take the extra step and reify this experience into some ontic reality goes further than the evidence and can be criticized as ‘unskillful thinking,’ even deluded thinking!

        Some here with-hold such judgements and take a more agnostic stance. They seem to say that there may well be a totally ‘unconditioned state,’ but as there can be no evidence for it, they are not willing to base their whole practice on what would only be an unfounded belief. They are basically saying that practice ultimately does not depend on such beliefs. For instance, regarding life-to-life (literal) rebirth and ethics: traditional Buddhism bases ethics on the belief in such rebirth, but secularists not only show that this is not necessary, we question whether an ethic based upon belief in rebirth can truly be called ‘ethical.’


      • Ratanadhammo on August 9, 2011 at 10:42 am

        With the idea of the need to find approaches to going against the stream (as you ironically put it!), I completely agree. When you put it that way, what you’re saying makes sense.

        Frankly, if we’re going to make the effort to think in a new way the goal, then Tibetan Buddhism with all its visualization techniques and devotional practices is also meant to accomplish the same thing.

        Rejecting or accepting the metaphysical just isn’t that important if that’s the totality of your goal.

        I see learning the teaching as it’s presented in the Pali Canon as part of the effort to accomplish that goal, though I see it as more complete.

        We might just have to agree to disagree on this point.

        You wrote:

        you seem to miss the point that all this construction happens way before any ‘thinking’ happens, skillful or unskillful.

        Not at all. Saṅkhāras (conditioned phenomena) are inherently unable to satisfy. It’s not just a problem of our perceptions of them. (I think the notion that the problem is our perceptions of samsara is more or less what Thich Nhat Hanh’s Interbeing asserts, and I don’t agree with it.)

        I’m not sure how you concluded that I am missing the point that all this construction happens way before any ‘thinking’ happens, skillful or unskillful, from what I wrote. Did you see everything I wrote about the three characteristics of existence?

        I do think, on the other hand, that we have the potential to see all saṅkhāras for what they are, to learn how to deal with them skillfully, and to arrive at experience beyond them, which is what the Buddha’s teaching in the Pali Canon is all about.

        From what I can tell, secular Buddhism remains stuck in the saṅkhāras with what, I suppose, amounts to sophisticated, but ultimately circular, thinking based on observations and extensive logical formulations regarding, well, saṅkhāras.

  13. NaturalEntrust on July 26, 2012 at 4:25 am

    Glenn Wallis on his WordPress blog wrote this in his
    Buddhist Manifesto.

    “My overarching premise is this: Gotama was an unsurpassed scientist of the real. He expounded with lucidity and precision (1) our human situation and (2) an effective means for awakening to that situation with clarity and equanimity. Gotama, as Emerson said of Plato “knew the cardinal facts.” He is the arrival on the human scene of an uncanny precision and intelligence; he accurately divided and defined the categories of human existence. And like all good scientists, he kept it simple.”

    Glenn also has a text about The Problem with Beliefs

    The thread I respond to now is about that view. I took the quote from
    Glenn Wallis Buddhist Manifesto as an example what I think is such a
    belief and not an example of any verifiable knowledge.

    I know too little to dare to have a definite idea about what personal
    experience is about. I am highly skeptical to an trust in subjective
    personal experience as something to refer to as true or The Truth.

    Gotama had these subjective personal experiences too did he not?

    Some would say that the proof is in the pudding. Gotama describe
    what to do to get rid of the Dukkha and for him it worked. So if we
    all of us just follow his good advises then we would also get rid of
    the clinging to what gives us Dukkha.

    I am skeptical. Those who believe in Jesus have very similar claims.

    If one follow their advices then one would get the personal experience
    that it is true or rather The Truth. And many many do confirm that as
    a subjective personal experience it is what gets felt as true for the
    believer in Christ.

    I mean where is the difference? Both read about somebody who had
    subjective personal experience a long long time ago and then do as
    that person recommended and they all get that subjective personal
    experience that confirm that what the Master or Teacher is right.

    I am very skeptical to subjective personal experience and that is
    ironically based on my own very subjective personal experience 🙂

    • Ted Meissner on July 26, 2012 at 4:43 am

      As a skeptic, NaturalEntrust, I agree completely. We should not accept someone’s word for it, but put it to the test to build our own confidence in the veracity of the claim, or find that it is not in alignment with what we experience.

      Of course the problem with experiential claims is that we do not have an external means of verification. And so we’re faced with a decision: Do we simply deny all experience as irrelevant because we can’t do that check, or do we accept that we can only see for ourselves, knowing that is fraught with potential misrepresentation about reality?

      These claims can’t be measured like we do in the hard sciences. And we can hard line it, and thereby deny ourselves some very rich and beneficial experiences along with the woo, or we can do our best to learn about what is really going on in the mind. Here, we choose to see what our own investigation shows us (not merely accept the words we find in an old text), and see what science of varying types and strengths (psychological and fMRI’s come to mind, so to speak) can indicate as being of value.

      Do we accept this idea of suffering? Upon investigation, provisional acceptance seems appropriate. It’s not saying there is no joy, but that if we adhere to the impermanent and transitory experiences for it, we’re going to have problems. And those who have continually suggested that we’re not being critical enough have yet to provide any evidence — experiential or otherwise — to demonstrate that is not a fairly common experience with daily living.

      As for claims about past lives, there we find a more reasonable explanation: the mind is not perfect, we can create false memories, and when our pattern seeing brains put those experiences together with random things in the real world, we make a mistake and think it’s a past life. If Gotama existed, and did indeed have this belief (though there is reason to suggest he didn’t, it’s not the topic of this thread!), my own expectation is that he was also subject to this human limitation and was, in a nutshell, wrong.

      Which of course makes me something of a heretic to traditional Buddhists. That’s okay. Puts me in the bucket with Galileo and a lot of other forward thinkers who dared to challenge the position of traditional understanding’s priviledge in our society with other, more rational views.

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