I’ve recently been discussing with Anantacitta and some others the possibility of writing a collaborative book on Secular Buddhism, which could be used to help introduce it to newcomers. This general idea will be discussed in the steering committee shortly, but in the meantime I thought I would air some ideas about one of the central problems that would emerge in shaping such a book. There are some bits of it which might be relatively uncontroversial – e.g. a summary of the Buddha’s life or some of the basics on how to start meditation. The potentially controversial bit is defining Secular Buddhism. How should one introduce Secular Buddhist thinking? There has been plenty of debate on the basic principles of such thinking on this site. Enough to show that it would be a divisive move to try to define Secular Buddhism only in one way. So my suggestion is that we define it as a pluralism held within a degree of practical agreement.
The interesting question then is – what is the pluralism? What are the different possible ways of understanding Secular Buddhism? I thought I would try to get debate going to clarify this issue by attempting an analysis based on my own understanding of the different sets of ideas floating around that might loosely be called “Secular Buddhist”. I put this forward as a starting point for further discussion, not as an exhaustive or definitive list of any kind. I’m sure that the people advocating these positions will probably want to restate them in their own way, and there may also be other approaches that I haven’t thought of or come across. I will try to limit my critical discussion of positions I disagree with here to merely posing a few questions: this is not meant to be a philosophical tirade, but mainly an analysis.
My initial impression is that there are five sorts of Secular Buddhism, which differ in their starting points and sources of justification.
Naturalism is a term used to define Secular Buddhism in the gloss provided for newcomers both on this site and on the US site. I hope this changes soon, not just because I disagree with it, but because giving it this definitive status is inconsistent with the philosophical pluralism I am suggesting as a basic way of working together effectively.
Naturalism as I understand it appeals to the findings of science, with the assumption that science tells us about nature. When applied to the teachings of Buddhism, then, naturalism rejects what it regards as supernatural elements in traditional Buddhism – or at least fails to accept them as a basis of practice.
To quote the definition given on the US site in the FAQs (which I assume is written by Ted Meissner):
Naturalism is a term used to denote the physical universe. Essentially, it’s a demarkation between what can be shown, and what cannot. Supernatural assertions cannot be shown, and are therefore not a part of the natural universe. Again, this is not a denial of the supernatural, but is a recognition that without any measurable impacts on the natural universe, there is no way to discern what is true or false with regard to the supernatural. As such, it is not just a good idea, but necessary to suspend acceptance of those claims. Without such suspension, all such claims are equally true, which in light of conflicting claims is simply not possible.
Naturalistic interpretations of secular Buddhism can draw on a wide range of scientific and scholarly evidence that seems to be consistent with it in creating a consistent scientific world-view. Philosophically this approach also follows the traditions of analytic philosophy, and is represented by such books as ‘The Bodhisattva’s Brain’ by Owen Flanagan. This usually also implies materialism (or physicalism), truth-dependent views of meaning, and a strong distinction between facts and values. As an approach to Secular Buddhism, this has been developed by people like Mark Knickelbine and Douglass Smith on the US site, as well as apparently being the favoured approach of Ted Meissner and Dana Nourie. On this side of the Atlantic, Andrew Kennedy has his own ‘hylic’ version.
I would distil the key questions I think naturalist Secular Buddhists need to answer down to three:
- Why is nature treated as being ‘shown’, when we know so little of it, and that understanding so much shaped by our assumptions?
- How can naturalism be in any sense congruent with the core insights of Buddhism when the Buddha’s Middle Way rejects nihilism?
- How can naturalism satisfactorily explain the justification of morality or help to guide moral judgements?
Existentialist approaches to Buddhism have been expressed, for example, in Stephen Batchelor’s book ‘Alone with Others’, and by Seth Segall on the website The Existential Buddhist. More intellectually, there is a whole school of Japanese Philosophy (the Kyoto School) heavily influenced by Heidegger. The term ‘existential’ comes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that for human beings existence precedes essence: meaning that we shape our own meaning and purpose. The following quote from Seth Segall puts some of the implications well:
Existentialists believe that while the universe has no purpose, we can imbue our own lives with purpose. Meaning is something human beings create. As authors of our own existence, we ourselves can endow our lives with meaning. In Existentialism, meaning isn’t there to be found — it’s up to us to create it. This is both liberating and burdensome at the same time. Liberating, because we are not bound to accept meaning from an external authority. Burdensome, because if we fail to define a purpose, our lives are left meaningless.
It is easy to see how this perspective has often found affinities with the Zen tradition. Like Zen, it tends constantly towards the aesthetic and engagement with immediate experience. As a secularising of Buddhism, then, this approach engages with a modern state of lost meaning and purpose and tries to rediscover that meaning and purpose in a constructed immediacy.
This still to my mind leaves some more awkward questions (questions that could be asked about Zen as well as existentialism):
- How does this immediate focus on personal experience help to change the conditions of the wider world?
- As with naturalism, how can this justify moral approaches or help to guide moral action?
Postmodernism is a varied and elusive phenomenon of modern Western intellectual culture which appears more than anything to be characterised by absolute relativism: the refusal to accept any given value as better than another. Postmodernists often seem to think of themselves as skating across an exciting new world of endless surfaces with no depth. A postmodernist interpretation of Buddhism will stress Buddhist practice as one option amongst others, rather than making any claims about its superiority. Its emphasis will probably be critical, aesthetic, or ironic rather than constructive, and it will be just as dismissive of universal scientific claims as of moral ones.
I find some postmodernist influence in Stephen Batchelor’s work, particularly in his ironic approach in ‘Confessions of a Buddhist Atheism’. But perhaps the most thoroughgoing postmodernist sort-of Secular Buddhist on the internet is Glenn Wallis on Speculative non-Buddhism. Casting himself in the role of a Buddhist intellectual enfant terrible, Wallis, like most postmodernists, seems much clearer about what he doesn’t believe than what he does.
Postmodernists of any kind seem to have similar questions to answer to the above:
- How can postmodernist deconstruction support or justify any positive practice?
- How can a postmodernist even make sense of ethics, let alone justify or guide it?
4. Middle Way Philosophy
Now I come to my own perspective. I will just summarise it and leave others to ask the awkward questions.
Middle Way Philosophy tries to adapt some key insights of Buddhism to the conditions of the modern world, by focusing on the Middle Way as both an epistemological and moral principle. The Middle Way avoids both positive and negative forms of metaphysics, as illustrated in the Buddha’s ‘silence’, but this avoidance of absolute positions is taken to lead us towards provisionality and reliance on experience to justify our beliefs both in the scientific and moral spheres. This means that metaphysical Buddhist ideas like karma and nirvana cannot be accepted as the basis on which to practise the Buddha’s insights, but then nor can claims about nature or merely conventional moral ideas. The model of integration is used to explain how we can achieve incremental objectivity (make moral and spiritual progress) with universal aspirations framed within our experience, without absolute assumptions about how things are or are not.
This name is a coinage, but the best one I can suggest to describe a fifth view that I sometimes encounter in Secular Buddhist discussion, and perhaps even more often in traditional Buddhist responses to Secular Buddhism. This is to claim that Secular Buddhism is not actually anything different from the Buddhist tradition. It is claimed that the Buddhist tradition already says all the challenging things that Secular Buddhists might say about, say, karma, rebirth, or nirvana. If Buddhism is really just a practice that does not require belief in these things to start with, it is argued, what need do Secular Buddhists have to reject them? Secular Buddhism must then be no more than just another Buddhist school, a re-statement offering a new variation of many within the Buddhist tradition.
This would reflect much of what I have encountered of reactions of Secular Buddhism in the Triratna Buddhist movement, which already sees itself as a reforming ‘Western’ group. I have also encountered it on Secular Buddhist forums themselves though. One very interesting exponent of what I would see as quite a radical version of it is David Chapman, who says many of the things I have been saying about the Middle Way (though we disagree about ethics) but finds this compatible with commitment to Tantric Buddhism. Basically anyone who adopts Secular Buddhist approaches but remains committed to one or another school of traditional Buddhism qualifies as some form of neo-traditionalist.
The awkward questions that I think neo-traditionalists need to answer are as follows:
- Can fully critical and investigative perspectives really be made consistent, in practice, with the kinds of commitments made, explicitly or implicitly, in traditional Buddhism?
- Do critical perspectives that appear in traditional Buddhism (e.g. in the Diamond Sutra, which appears to question virtually everything) act more as spoilers than as real critical questions?
- Are the conservative perspectives often implied by traditional Buddhist ethics really acceptable or adequate for guiding lives in the modern world?
OK. This has turned out a bit longer than I anticipated. However, I repeat that this is only intended to be a stimulus. Apart from the probable corrections or additions about particular perspectives you might wish to give, I also have another important question. Is this good enough as a list of the main perspectives to be found in Secular Buddhism so far? If not, please suggest amendments.
There is also, of course, a more positive question: what unites Secular Buddhists with these different approaches? Any attempt to encapsulate this would have to be very practically focused – but it would be worth having a go at. I will not extend this discussion further by tackling it here – but it is also well worth discussing.