Many years ago I took lifetime precepts at Bhavana Society under Bhante Gunaratana, and have renewed them several times. One in particular is challenging me lately:
Pisunavacha veramani sikkahapadam samadiyami.
I take the precept to abstain from divisive speech.
It’s with a heavy heart that I continue to stumble in this, especially in response to others who have also taken the precepts and do their best to live by these guides to conduct in our shared path, as I read such divisive words as:
… secularist ideology is shallow and arrogant …
… their failure to really understand …
… wrong-headed …
… you’re only betraying the shallowness of your own understanding …
I’d like to offer a few thoughts in response to an article on Sutta Central from which these words appear, “Why Secular Buddhism is Not True”, by Ajahn Sujato. There are a few starting points which may help understanding the perspective of this reply:
- The views here are mine, and they reflect the attitude of a secular Buddhist. Please note the use of singular “a”. There is not one secular Buddhism in the same way there is not one Mahayana Buddhism, or one Vajrayana Buddhism. There may be common threads of ideas and practices, as well as a great deal of diversity in how we engage with the dhamma, and I do not speak for all secular Buddhists. Use of the term secular Buddhism should not be taken as a rigid and monolithic institution, but rather as a broad stroke that is understandably limited in its ability to capture a wide variety of ways one can be secular, and Buddhist.
- I don’t know everything, and am prone to being unskillful as part of my human limitations. That includes sometimes occasionally imperfect use of terminology that may not always suit the context in a way that makes good and immediate sense to the reader, so my sincere apologies, the limits are more from me than from language.
- One such languaging limitation is the respectful delineation and distinction of the stance of some critics of secular Buddhism. Again, use of any one term is as flawed as painting secular Buddhism with a single brush stroke. However, just as those with concerns about the secular approach reasonably landed on one term, I will follow that lead and those language constraints with the use of the term “orthodox” as defined thus: “(of a person or their views, especially religious or political ones, or other beliefs or practices) conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.”1 This is intended as a term of respect, honor, and as many secular Buddhists have our roots in orthodox forms, deep admiration.
- Ajahn Sujato was a guest on The Secular Buddhist podcast some years ago for a conversation about the Authenticity project, and our shared lamenting about the difficulties ensuring Bhikkunis have a strong sangha enthusiastically supported by their communities. We had disagreements on other topics in a companionable, friendly way, it was a great honor to have him on the podcast, and honestly was terrific fun. In my experience he is a wonderfully intelligent, dedicated monastic who cares deeply for the integrity of the dhamma. Our differences shared here should not in any way be received as anything but the sharing of a different perspective, with the hope of elevating the level of discourse to a higher and more beneficial level.
In Ajahn Sujato’s article, there are many concerns raised about problems with a secular approach to Buddhism. This has come on the heels of similar critiques in the past several weeks, notably on the Western Buddhism group on Facebook2, as well as a few other online locations. Many of those topics match quite closely, and some appear to have very similar if not identical views which are incongruous with what I’ve come to know and practice as a secular person exploring Buddhism. I will limit responses here to principles raised in Ajahn Sujato’s piece for brevity, and any misunderstanding of his points are inadvertent and entirely my responsibility.
The Measuring Stick of True Buddhism
The first area I find perplexing is the suggestion that secular Buddhism isn’t measuring up. Who’s the arbiter, and what’s the measure? And if there is a standard, all other Buddhisms must be incorrect to some degree, so can there be clarity about which other Buddhisms are found to be lacking, and in what ways?
With continued abuse by clergy in religious institutions, most recently Sogyal Rinpoche’s in Buddhist circles, these are pertinent and I think relevant questions as we begin to explore in a more collaborative and meaningful fashion. One can easily dismiss a given religious figure as not being “really” Buddhist when they engage in such activities, but at what point are we using the No True Scotsman fallacy to excuse very real problems with very real Buddhists? I find that most statements about secular Buddhism may be rooted in understandable confusion about it, and that there are excellent opportunities to dialogue to come to better understanding instead of engaging in divisive speech about it.
The problem is not that the secularists present only a small part of Buddhism; it’s that they, implicitly or explicitly, regard their own small viewpoint as better. In doing so, they don’t just misrepresent the Dhamma, they undermine its transformative potential.
Perhaps it may help to examine some of these ideas, as they do not match my understanding or secular practice of Buddhism: I do not regard my viewpoint as better, it is simply the one which most closely and intimately engages with my cultural and personal context. Others are welcome to practice in whatever means is most helpful to them, and supports their journey on the path. Neither do I or other secular Buddhists I know misrepresent our interpretation and way of engaging with the dhamma as anything but that — our interpretation. We’re quite clear it is not the orthodox view, we do not claim it as Theravada, nor Vajrayana, nor anything but a secular approach to Buddhism.
I also do not view it as “small.” Secular Buddhism includes insights and practices from a variety of traditions, as we have found there can be many positive influences on one’s living the Buddha sasana. The entirety of the Pali canon is a core source for many of us, but it is not the only one. Neither do we exclude any part of that canon, we find value in all of it without having to take it in a literal fashion. As an example, rebirth can be interpreted in a number of very beneficial ways. The concept of inter-relatedness of all beings, that all have at one time been a friend, lover, parent, sibling, or child, can be a very powerful lesson in the cultivation of the Brahma Viharas. It can also be interpreted on a more immediate scale, as the present moment extinguishing of ignorance and arising of wisdom, extinguishes the formation of ossified identity.
This seems to be a sticking point that comes up many times, so if I might offer a reflection: the Jataka Tales are part of the Pali canon, filled with stories of talking animals as narrative vehicles for elucidation of particular teachings. I do not take them literally in the same way I do not take Aesop’s Fables to be literal truths, they are fun and interesting ways to carry relevant messages that can apply to my daily life. And yet, they are canonical, and there are fellow Buddhists who do find value in receiving the stories in a literal fashion.
Again, I have no problem with someone else accepting any and all of the canon literally. They are welcome to do so, especially if it helps them in some way in their walking the path, and my walking my own path doesn’t take away from that. My question to those who accept literal interpretations of various aspects of the canon, like rebirth, but do not accept it in other parts like the Jataka Tales, is this: What is the criteria for distinguishing between literal and representative?
What Secular Buddhists Think
The key to secularist Buddhism is, of course, that it dismisses “religious” and “supernatural” ideas, most importantly rebirth, and addresses only what is claims are scientific and observable truths.
We do not dismiss them. Ajahn Sujato and anyone else who wishes to practice in a religious way, in an institution that matches their beliefs, are welcome to do so and have whatever beliefs resonate with them on a cultural, social, and personal level. That includes their acceptance of rebirth, the existence of devas, and anything else that is helpful to them.
We are claiming the same right to choose. It takes away nothing from others’ practice, we’re not asking anyone to change what they do.
The core problem to this is that the Buddha:
Accepted the reality of rebirth based on his own meditative experience
Placed this reality at the core of his teaching.
Secularists either ignore these inconveniences by dealing rather vaguely with “Buddhism” (by which they usually mean Buddhism as interpreted by moderns like themselves) or by trying to explain away the references to rebirth in the EBTs. I won’t go into the details of the latter project; suffice to say, it’s a failure. It doesn’t just get the points above wrong — it gets them catastrophically wrong. These things are not difficult, they are not things that can be interpreted away: they are bleeding obvious.
I agree that Gotama accepted the reality of rebirth, and that it’s core to Buddhism. I also agree that it is in the canon, and never have denied that obvious fact. Many secular Buddhists find that value with another interpretation of what it means to us in our lives, that’s all — we don’t deny the importance or its existence in the canon.
We do not, however, have to accept it as a reality any more than we have to accept talking animals of the Jataka, or Gotama’s canonical physical description, which includes among other less extraordinary features:
- Thousand-spoked wheel sign on feet
- Toes and fingers finely webbed
- Hands reaching below the knees
- Well-retracted male organ
- Golden-hued body
- Ten-foot aura around him
- Lion-shaped body
- Forty teeth
- Jaw like a lion
- White ūrṇā curl that emits light between eyebrows
- Fleshy protuberance on the crown of the head
Are these to be regarded as literal? If not, again, how does one distinguish between what is to be taken literally and what is not? If a reason is given, how does one distinguish that reason from the apologetics employed to justify supernatural claims in other religions?
If you don’t accept Jesus as your savior, why not? What makes the Buddhist idea of rebirth more valid than the Christian Heaven, which also has people who return from the dead claiming to have seen it?
Secular Buddhism snorts out the gate roaring that it’s based on reality not faith. Yet its very first rhetorical move is to dismiss plain facts based on uncritical faith in its own ideology.
Again, and hopefully finally, we do not deny those facts.
There are three rational positions that secularists can take with regards to the teaching of rebirth in the suttas.
The Buddha taught rebirth, but rebirth is not real, so the Buddha was wrong.
The Buddha taught rebirth, and rebirth is real, so the Buddha was right.
The Buddha taught rebirth, and I don’t know whether rebirth is real, so I can’t say whether the Buddha was right.
The issue here is around the idea that “Buddha was wrong” if he taught it, and it’s not real. There are spiritual implications to this, of course. If Gotama was wrong, then perhaps the rest of the canon is wrong, too. An alternate and perhaps less condemning approach is the one secular Buddhists often take: that Gotama was a product of his time and culture. He may have had the same compelling experiences as many of us do during deep meditation, fed by assertions that such things are real, and received them with the same confirmation bias as he might be reasonably expected to.
As we know from something as simple as an optical illusion, perception is flawed, imperfect, and subject to error. Our brain is most certainly not a recording device.
What the Buddha came really strong down on, though, was when people misrepresented what he said. He could hardly have made his position on rebirth clearer: he stated it again and again and again, smack bang in the middle of pretty much all his core analyses of the problem of suffering.
I happen to agree. It’s in the canon, and though there are some who find other reasons for that to be so, I’m perfectly happy to accept that Gotama taught rebirth and believed it to be true. Where I differ is my acceptance whole cloth of what’s in the canon. Again, unless you accept talking animals and Gotama’s rather unusual appearance, you may not accept the entirety of the canon as written, either.
Nihilism and Kamma
One concept that frequently arises is the comparison of secular Buddhists to the Nihilists of the Pali Canon, those who do not accept a literal rebirth as true. This again employs the presumption of a simplistic binary formula: either one accepts literal rebirth and kamma, or one does not. Nihilists in the Canon are characterized as not just disbelieving in “again becoming” (punabbhava), but also disbelieving that actions having consequences.
That latter point is one with which I disagree; if the Nihilists of Gotama’s time didn’t believe in the first type of kamma3, it would have been a simple matter to demonstrate with tapping the knee to elicit a reflex, petting a dog or striking it, showing the probabilities of likely outcomes. Secular Buddhists most certainly do accept all three types of kamma, for example:
- First Type: Immediate. Abraham Lincoln frees slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Second Type: Later Within This Lifetime. Freed slaves join the Northern army.
- Third Type: After This Lifetime. People wear mourning badges after his death with a quote from his second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all”, and his influence continues today.
On a more personal level, setting your alarm leads to it going off in the morning. You may snooze or get up or go back to sleep, with appropriate consequences of continued sleeping in over time for your career, and eventually what you’re able to leave to your children upon death, impacting their lives.
The perspective I would like to share is that there are not one, but two concepts bundled in this concern about secular Buddhism. The first has to do with rebirth, the other with kamma. It is completely understandable that the two be inseparable for the orthdox Buddhist, as the rounds of literal rebirth and their ending is the most important fruit (phala) of volitional action (kamma). The perspective is different, however, when one is more focused on rebirth as a reference to what is experienced in a single lifetime. That opens kamma to being completely relevant from a secular perspective, just as rebirth is, observable directly in one’s immediate environment.
Secular Buddhism completely accepts kamma, volitional action resulting in phala, consequences. It is objectively demonstrable, unambiguous, and does not depend on a literal rebirth to show its influence on the world. For a more thorough examination of this topic, I recommend Doug Smith’s article, “On a Belief that Sends You to Hell“.
Bear this in mind when secularists say things like this, to quote the Vox article on Wright:
By “true” Wright means that Buddhism’s “diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” That diagnosis goes something like this: the human condition is defined by constant and ultimately inexplicable suffering.
Of course, the Buddha’s actual “diagnosis of the human predicament” is not that suffering is a psychological tension you can overcome with some mindfulness courses. It is the fact that we are stuck in the endless transmigration of rebirth. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the EBTs should know this. By leaving out “superstitious” elements, the secularists aren’t just shedding Buddhism of unnecessary dross, they’re completely redefining the whole thing, starting with the four noble truths, in a way that has little to do with the Buddha’s intentions.
This wrong-headedness stems from the root conceit at the heart of the secularist program. The secularists are not prepared to question their own deep assumptions. They use materialist rationalism to critique Buddhism, but never imagine that Buddhism might critique materialist rationalism.
This is an essentially psychological, or better, existential lack. The secularist ideology is shallow and arrogant. It’s afraid to suspend it’s own self-view and deep beliefs. It uses its own rational self-image to dismiss things that are problematic: and this is why it remains blind to its own errors, and after many years is still unable to correct them.
The fact in question is nothing of the kind. If it were, there would be no discussion required. It is no more valid a belief than that of any other religious tradition, which also have those who are positively motivated by their ideological stance, and also have eye-witness testimonies.
Again, as I’ve stated many times, I’m happy to be convinced. Please provide evidence, not stories, not compelling personal and unsharable or untestable experiences. Those are not likely sufficient for you, either, as you do not accept them from other religious traditions. Secular Buddhists are not giving ourselves a hall pass for proving our points, while setting a higher standard for others. We recognize that there is a false dichotomy when it’s between secular or material vs. religious or non-material — there are other religious beliefs about what happens upon death, too, and each has equal value in the face of ambiguity.
We hold Buddhism accountable to the same standard we hold other religions and claims.
What to do with this? An arrogant person would simply dismiss the testimony of the other, assuming their own perspective to be the highest. A gullible person would blithely accept anything they’re told. But a rational person would inquire, ask as to details. They’d see whether the testimony held good, and check the person’s reliability. If it all checked out, they’d accept the claim provisionally, while still reserving final judgment: “Hopefully one day I’ll go there myself, and then I’ll know for sure.”
Exactly the point. The example from a Christian perspective is also valid, per Ajahn Sujato’s own criteria above.
It is true, in Buddhism, there are many things that are mere superstitions — magic amulets, mystical tattoos of protection, curses, astrology, and the like. These are not just non-rational, they are pre-rational. They are more primitive than rationality, and in many cases, more harmful. For Buddhists who are at this level of understanding, the appropriate course of action is not talk of transcendence, or even meditation, but to learn to apply principles of rationality and evidence, to learn to disentangle the true Dhamma from superstition.
But of course, such things are not a part of the Buddha’s teachings in the EBTs. Where they appear, they are usually dismissed, or at the very least marginalized. Belief in lucky charms is not the same kind of thing as acceptance of rebirth. But so long as the secularists simply dismiss rebirth, they will never understand this.
Again, we do not dismiss rebirth. We simply have no dependency on a literal interpretation of it; our practice stands up just fine if that turns out to be false. I can still do my very best to extinguish suffering within this very lifetime. The perspective of having just this one life actually provides some sense of urgency to do so, and perspective of my own limits as a human being.
I am also confident that e=mc2 would still be true if Einstein turned out not to have formulated it. The Four Noble Truths stand on their own not by virtue of being scripture or because a brilliant and enlightened person said so. It’s of value because it works, and that is unambiguously demonstrable, externally verifiable, and predictive — unlike literal rebirth.
Rebirth is an observable, empirical phenomenon, which can be understood as a simple extension of the same psychological principles we observe here and now. It no more requires metaphysics than does looking through a telescope.
Looking through a telescope is something anyone can do, and we see the same objects. Anyone can do it, no special attainments are required, and it can be done at any time. It is replicable, it is predictive. I do not find this to be the case with rebirth.
If you’re interested in actual Buddhist philosophy from a modern perspective, which is deeply grounded in a serious study of Buddhist texts and teachings, as integrated by people who have really studied modern philosophy, choose these writers, not the lightweights of Buddhist secularism.
I continue to be dismayed by Ajahn Sujato’s dismissive characterizations of secular Buddhists on a personal level. It is one of the difficulties in formulating this reply, and I fail to see how such words are not divisive. This is not the same as the samma vaca of words that are necessary, true, but not well received. Rather, this is an unnecessary disparagement that hinders friendly conversation and sharing of differing perspectives, and I would ask that the level of discourse be raised without continued condescension.
And just as scientists connect the many diverse phenomena with explanatory inferences which we call “scientific theories”, the Buddha drew together his observations in overarching theories such as dependent origination.
Theory has a much different meaning in science than suggested here. They are the highest standard; the concept of “just” a theory does not apply in science. If rebirth is to be taken on the same level as scientific theory, that’s great, I’d really and truly like to see that happen. That means the progress from Fact, to Hypothesis, to Law, and then to Theory.
The problem is that the foundational facts do not measure up to scientific rigor and process. That’s okay, they don’t have to in order to be of value to Buddhists who can take them on faith or interpret them in ways that are helpful, so I would like to suggest that none of us are well served by trying to make these equivalent.
It does, however, show that the secularist dismissal of rebirth as metaphysics or superstition is wrong-headed. If they want to fulfill their claims of making a truly rational, scientific account of Buddhism, they must start by accepting that rebirth is an empirical theory, and investigate it as such.
The person making the positive claim bears the burden of proof:
This then requires consideration of the evidence regarding rebirth and other non-materialistic phenomena. I won’t discuss this here; suffice to say I think there’s plenty of evidence to question the materialist position.
Another video much better than I could ever articulate, regarding faith in evidence for non-materialist claims:
Perhaps the most disappointing outcome, for me, of the secularist philosophy is that it undermines the capacity for Buddhism to make a real difference. It seems to me that one of the most damaging and toxic legacies of the West is dualism: mind vs. body, faith vs. reason, religion vs. science, fact vs. value. This is not only a debilitating intellectual fallacy, it has catastrophic effects on our society, underlying the whole fundamentalist rejection of science, including climate change denial, which threatens the very survival of our civilization.
There is simply no comparison between controlled, falsifiable, and externally demonstrable predictive evidence about global warming with a belief in what happens when you die. The article disparages materialist views, and then indicates that science is being rejected by fundamentalists. I agree, the article does it throughout, and after having done so places the blame on materialists.
We should recognize that the Dhamma … has never made enemies out of emotions and reason, faith and science. If we are to heal the wounds of our broken and bleeding world, surely this is where we must start.
Natalie Quli wrote, “A theoretical approach that subtly or explicitly privileges as more authentic those Buddhisms predating Western contact can distort the way we characterize Buddhists, as changes tend to be framed in terms of decline and loss rather than adaptation or creativity…. To develop a methodology capable of deep listening, I suggest we begin to dismantle those theoretical foundations that interpret change as pollution.”4
So what would it take for orthodox Buddhists to accept the reality of secular Buddhism? There may be no such acceptance, and there doesn’t have to be; secular Buddhists do not need the permission of orthodoxy to practice and live the dhamma in our lives, and orthodox Buddhists do not need to accept what we do.
What I do ask is that when there are disagreements about what Buddhism is, we come together as Buddhists to share our perspectives, our insights, and our practices. The alternatives are to be further divided and even more distant, if not openly acrimonious which is how I and many other secular Buddhists have taken Ajahn Sujato’s article. We can learn from one another without disparagement, honoring one another as people in the face of disagreement about ideas, and embodying the truths of Buddhism in our words, actions, and through what is in our hearts.
1 Online dictionary definition of “orthodox”
2 I would like to thank Tim Bowman in particular for his outstanding moderation of that community’s guideline, “We do not disrespect, disparage, belittle, or ridicule other Buddhist traditions, schools, or sects or their teachers or members.” There were a number of comments that required frequent attention, and the moderators on that wonderfully active group handle it with amazing dedication.
3 “And what is the result of kamma? The result of kamma is of three sorts, I tell you: that which arises right here & now, that which arises later [in this lifetime], and that which arises following that.”, Nibbedhika Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 6.63.
4Quli, Natalie E., 2009. “Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for ‘Tradition’ in Buddhist Studies.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol.16, p. 7.