My Tweets

Dec 102012

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.

1. Naturalism

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:

  1. Why is nature treated as being ‘shown’, when we know so little of it, and that understanding so much shaped by our assumptions?
  2. How can naturalism be in any sense congruent with the core insights of Buddhism when the Buddha’s Middle Way rejects nihilism?
  3. How can naturalism satisfactorily explain the justification of morality or help to guide moral judgements?

2. Existentialism

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):

  1. How does this immediate focus on personal experience help to change the conditions of the wider world?
  2. As with naturalism, how can this justify moral approaches or help to guide moral action?

3. Postmodernism

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:

  1. How can postmodernist deconstruction support or justify any positive practice?
  2. 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.

For more details see my Middle Way Philosophy blog or website.

5. Neo-Traditionalism

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:

  1. Can fully critical and investigative perspectives really be made consistent, in practice, with the kinds of commitments made, explicitly or implicitly, in traditional Buddhism?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

  30 Responses to “Five sorts of Secular Buddhism?”

  1. Hi, Robert. Wonderful article, and I think this is a pretty good analysis of some of the various threads that could all be viewed as falling under the secular Buddhism umbrella. That in itself is what we were hoping would occur, that we find a great diversity in our secular sangha.

    And as we can expect, there are also variations in how we represent. You’re correct, I did write the lines about naturalism as I understand it for the SBA site. And as we’ve discussed in the past, that may not be quite the same interpretation of our friends here in the U.K. I rather like that we have such diversity, and hope that we continue to have ongoing and yet mutually supportive and encouraging dialogue and efforts.

    I would like to make a quick reply to your questions, to see if that sheds any light on them:

    1. Why is nature treated as being ‘shown’, when we know so little of it, and that understanding so much shaped by our assumptions?

    Robert, do you have a way to show the supernatural? Bear in mind, that includes things we would typically regard as fantasy. You’re quite right, we know very little about the natural world, but that doesn’t make supernatural (and un-demonstrable) assertions any more correct. You’re right, we do as human beings assume a lot — and naturalism is one way to help is discern which assumptions may be false from those that may be accurate. Provisionally, of course, as we are prone to error!

    2. How can naturalism be in any sense congruent with the core insights of Buddhism when the Buddha’s Middle Way rejects nihilism?

    That assumes the nihilism Gotama rejects is the nihilism as we typically define it. It isn’t, and naturalism doesn’t equate to nihilism in either view. Naturalism does not in any way reject cause and effect, and quite openly accepts it as demonstrable and patently obvious. Gotama was rejecting a nihilism that denied cause and effect, that our actions did not yield results. Preposterous. Abe Lincoln’s efforts, for example, have resulted in two movies just this year, one okay one, and another fascinating one with vampires :-) Also, please note that (contemporary) nihilism suggests the meaninglessness of life, which is not at all what secular Buddhism finds to be so — we create meaning. This is the problem with breaking it out into constituent parts, we tend to lose the value of how these components impact one another.

    3. How can naturalism satisfactorily explain the justification of morality or help to guide moral judgements?

    Well, if you look upon morality as including a sense of judgement about right and wrong, it doesn’t. But that’s not what we’re doing. There’s a discussion on the SBA site now about this, and how we distinguish morality from ethics. Without going into too much here, let’s simply say that it’s not morality (right and wrong) that guides us in our behavior, but the framework of cause and effect — altruistic actions are more likely to yield positive results. This is perfectly natural, we can observe this in the animal kingdom among social creatures as reciprocal altruism.

    • Hi Ted,
      Thanks for this. Here are some quick responses to your points.
      1. Supernatural and natural assertions are both ontological ones that make assertions about what ultimately is the case, and thus both are ultimately impossible to ‘show’. I do think there is a lot more evidence for scientific theory than for supernatural assertions, but this is a matter of degree. My objection to naturalism here is that it makes an absolute distinction where our experience only gives grounds for an incremental one. I would suggest that provisionality is better practised by using an incremental framework in which some claims are better supported by experience than others. It’s not enough to adopt a naturalistic framework and then assert that it’s provisional: we need to be able to actually practise provisionality by matching the strength of beliefs to the strength of the evidence in all cases.
      2. The Buddha’s Middle Way involved the rejection of metaphysical views, including those of the materialists of his time. I do think that is incompatible with interpreting conditionality as a metaphysical claim about physical causes and effects in an ultimately real universe. Our understanding of conditionality and of causal relations needs to remain provisional, which means that we have to keep bearing in mind the ways in which our theories have constructed that understanding, rather than assuming that we have an understanding of ‘nature’.
      The Middle Way is not just to be reduced to a metaphysical claim about causality – it is both an ethical and a subtle epistemological position. As an ethical approach it depends precisely on us holding back from a claim to have understood the universe rather than on making such a claim. It is only in that way that we can take our ignorance into account sufficiently.
      3. You seem to be saying here that there are justified facts but not justified values: a basic assumption of analytic philosophy that I deeply object to – see my website for arguments. The analytic distinction between morality and ethics is just another version of the fact-value distinction. You can’t be guided by a fact: it is values that shape our lives, and values have to work with motives and responses to conditions, not just claims about what those conditions are like. I don’t see how this impoverished view of ethics can ever do justice to the central place of ethics in the Buddha’s insights, to its place in the threefold path or in the Middle Way.

      • Hi, Robert. You say, “1. Supernatural and natural assertions are both ontological ones that make assertions about what ultimately is the case, and thus both are ultimately impossible to ‘show’. ” I disagree — we can show, clearly, that objects fall at 32 feet / second / second. We can’t show that fairies exist. And if we do, I’ll be perfectly happy to change my understanding — until then, to say these two are equivalent is, pragmatically, demonstrably false.

        • Hi Ted, I am not claiming that the two are equivalent in their degree of demonstrability, only that both are at different points on a spectrum and that neither are absolute. The rate at which objects fall is provisionally acceptable within certain parameters and assumptions, but has only been shown in a limited patch of the universe, with fallible and approximate measurements, and on the assumption of other interacting theories of physics. How much recognition you give to this point is an important question of intellectual perspective and epistemological humility, and it’s clear from the history of science that over-certainty has betrayed us again and again.

          On the other side of your comparison, the meaning of ‘fairies’ in Western imagination and culture really has very little to do with the question of whether they ‘exist’ as physical objects in space. That would be a misunderstanding of their significance in the first place.

          Instead of worrying about whether things ‘exist’, which we can never establish by any means, I think it is far more fruitful to look at the way truth-claims function. The problem with belief in God is not about whether we can show that God exists, but whether revelatory claims are made that appeal to God’s authority from an absolute standpoint not subject to the examination of experience. Similarly with fairies or the Buddha’s enlightenment. Pragmatically, the question of whether either natural or supernatural objects exist, or whether claims are ultimately true, is just irrelevant. What makes a difference is how we change our desires, meanings and beliefs by appealing to these kinds of claims. In this respect, an absolute appeal to a scientific law can be just as dangerous as other metaphysical appeals: look for example at Herbert Spencer’s and then Nazism’s use of Darwinism. If we recognise that all scientific theories can only ever give us provisional results, making this a systematic part of our outlook, this is by far the best pragmatic way to prevent the abuse of scientific findings, and their metamorphosis into a new sort of revelation.

          • Here’s an article to clarify the misperception that the theory of evolution (it’s not called “Darwinism”) lead to Nazi ideals: And if you truly see that it is just irrelevant about whether claims are true, please note that I’m alive because I had surgery for cancer — I did not sacrifice a goat to Thor. When you include one supernatural assertion, you include them all, as the problem remains how you discern fact from fiction. Now, I do agree that there is certainly importance to what we do with our beliefs and our understandings as critical to not just our well being, but our very survival in a global community.

          • Just stepping in here for the first time, having read your piece, Robert, which in general I found quite enjoyable. There is one small matter I’ll get to below, but I think a couple of points need to be made first.

            Re.: “… but has only been shown in a limited patch of the universe, …”

            This is a version of Hume’s famous problem of induction. The thing about this argument is that it proves too much: it isn’t an argument against “science” per se, but about learning from experience. How small is that “limited patch”? Very small, indeed, both in time and space. All our experience occurred in particular spots, and it all occurred in the past. If there is a skeptical problem, it ramifies.

            Who is to say that anything we learned in the past, in these precisely delimited spots, matters to here and now? It is true that certain particular people who drank hemlock in the past have died of it, but what am I to learn from that? The future may be completely different. Perhaps things have changed and hemlock is the only thing that can keep me alive now.

            Again, this has nothing in particular to do with science: Aristotle could have asked the same question.

            Further, it’s true that in the past some people have witnessed anicca, dukkha, anatta, and the law of dependent origination, but that’s all over there and back then. What can I learn from that if now is completely different? Perhaps this second will reveal to me my atman.

            The effectiveness of the Buddha’s path depends as much on the possibility of learning from experience as does contemporary science. Skeptical arguments against learning are as fatal for it as they are for us.

            As to Godwin’s Law: I’m sure you know this, but it bears repeating anyway. It’s about as unfair to saddle evolutionary science with the crimes perpetrated by Nazi pseudoscience as it is to saddle Buddhism with the Nazi ideology of the Aryan race.

            The background issue I wanted to get at, though, was about “metaphysics”. The Buddha had his metaphysics: it involved some things we now consider quite reasonable, and others we do not. In the first category are claims like anicca, dukkha, and anatta, as well as the law of dependent origination. In the latter category are claims like literal rebirth and effective karmic causation. The question is how we distinguish these two in a principled manner. The only way I know of to do so is through contemporary science: the former sort are roughly compatible with an understanding of the world as found in our scientific theories, the latter sort are not.

          • Hi Ted and Doug,
            ‘Darwinism’ is a widely used way of referring to the specifically Darwinian theory of evolution – I don’t see what’s wrong with that. I was also not claiming that Darwinism inevitably leads to Nazism or anything of that kind – only that this is an example of the abuse of scientific findings appropriated for ideological purposes – surely you would agree with that? – and that understanding science in a more provisional and less ideological way helps to avoid the danger of such appropriation.

            You both seem to make the mistake of taking sceptical arguments as absolute negative arguments which somehow threaten all accepted scientific theory. They do nothing of the kind – all they do is remind us of the non-absolute status of accepted scientific theories. We need scepticism, and we need to take it seriously, in order not to get over-attached to our beliefs.

            I am greatly in favour of scientific method and in admiration of its achievements – and very glad that it has helped to keep you still with us, Ted. But it is an abuse of scientific method to at any point forget its provisionality. I also think that scientific method has important parallels with the Buddha’s Middle Way. The difference between us is that I take the Buddha’s Middle Way as my starting point and understand scientific method in its terms – as a process – rather that taking the findings of science as a justification for metaphysical assertions that are in conflict with the Buddha’s Middle Way.

          • Hi Robert, and thanks for the reply. Absolutely agree: all scientific results are always and only provisional. Indeed, so are all belief- and knowledge-claims. I hope we didn’t claim otherwise! Every assertion I make should be taken to include the preamble: “I believe based on the best evidence and reasoning available to me …”

          • Then the implication of what we seem to agree about, Doug, is surely that neither scientific findings nor acceptable Buddhist claims can be metaphysical: for they make claims, not about what ultimately is, but about how things appear to be so far. That incidentally means that dukkha, anicca etc are only acceptable claims if they are not taken metaphysically as statements about the universe. The Buddha’s findings seem far less important than his method – his method being encapsulated by the provisionality of the Middle Way – just as scientific findings are far less important than the provisional scientific method. The method can be applied afresh in all circumstances, whereas the findings may no longer be correct in new circumstances.

          • Hi again Robert,

            I’m not sure what you mean by “metaphysics”. I take metaphysical claims to be those claims as to existence or structure made in a theory. So the metaphysical claims of our scientific theories have to do with the existence of things like quarks, and structures like quantum-mechanical probability distributions. The theories say: there exist quarks, and these quarks are interrelated by probability distributions.

            Similarly, the Buddha’s metaphysical claims were about the existence of things like the aggregates and structures like dependent origination.

            All of these claims are provisional upon the evidence.

        • Hi Doug,
          If the scientific theories you mention can be increasingly justified by greater amounts of evidence, I would not regard them as metaphysical. See for more on my stipulations.

          My account of metaphysics has developed from an attempt to understand the Middle Way from a practical perspective, inspired for example by the Buddha’s ‘silence’ on metaphysical questions. It does not pretend to be compatible with that in analytic philosophy. The stipulations are justified by a practical purpose: defining metaphysics in such a way helps us to make sense of the justification of beliefs through experience, including moral beliefs rather than excluding them. Basically anything in experience can be justified to some varying extent, whereas metaphysics, being absolute, is not capable of any non-dogmatic justification.

          • OK, Robert. My sense is that you have an idiosyncratic definition of ‘metaphysics’. I suppose that’s fine so long as we know what we’re talking about.

            Generally speaking, metaphysics is the study of what exists and how it is interrelated. The only way we know about that is by doing experimentation and reasoning. Those are the basis for our theories, whether we’re the Buddha or Isaac Newton. Our theories reveal our claims about what exists and how it is interrelated.

            There may be some who make “absolute” claims without evidence, but there’s no arguing such claims, and they must be dismissed as not having been demonstrated.

            This has nothing to do with metaphysics per se, however; it has to do with unsupported claims, which is how I take accusations of “being absolute”.

            Or to put it another way, clearly 1+1 = 2 is an “absolute” claim in some sense of the word; it could not be false. But neither is it problematic on that ground. Hence the problem must come not in its being claimed necessarily true, but rather in its purported justification, which in the case of mathematics is good, but in the case of someone claiming to have an atman is not.

            • Hi Doug,
              Sorry about the delay in responding,but my first reply was swallowed up by technical problems on the site.

              My account of metaphysics may be ‘idiosyncratic’ in comparison with that in analytic philosophy, but it’s not appeared out of nowhere. It is an interpretation of the Buddha’s ‘silence’ (avyakrta).

              The basic issue seems to be whether one takes the distinction between ultimate reality and provisional ‘reality’ as an object of theory seriously. Kant made the distinction clear (between phenomenon and noumenon), but it takes psychological input (e.g. McGilchrist’s ‘Master & his Emissary’) to help make us fully aware of the dangers of our coherent left-brain construction of reality, and the effects of the over-dominance of the left-brain, which takes this construction too absolutely and literally if there is insufficient connection with the right brain.

              Of course, it would be possible to use another word, but we need some label for the over-absolutised representations created by the left hemisphere and implicitly or explicitly believed to be ultimate. How dogmatic or provisional we are depends on psychological states, but there are some kinds of claims that can only be held dogmatically because of the (metaphysical, absolute, dualistic) form they take. Metaphysics is not just a matter of unsupported claims: these claims are also dependent on an abstracted concept of truth, polarised against their opposites and incapable of incremental analysis.

              I do not agree that 1+1=2 could not be false. We may not be able to use a conceptual scheme in which it is false, but that doesn’t prove that there isn’t one. Mathematics is just a coherent conceptual scheme that we use ot interpret the universe, but Korner proved that there can be no proof of a single universal conceptual scheme. You can turn maths into a Platonic metaphysical absolute if you want, or you can just take it as a useful tool we use. I prefer the latter for practical reasons.

              • Hello Robert,

                Well, as for the Buddha’s silence, I don’t think it has anything to do with metaphysics. It has to do with asking irrelevant questions. As I say, the Buddha has a robust metaphysical view.

                As for simple addition, the reason it cannot be false is that its falsity *provably* implies a contradiction. And from a contradiction, everything follows. So please, let’s not go there.

                Re. “over absolutized representations”: it may be that we need a word for such things, but I think we have one. It’s called “dogma”, not “metaphysics”. “Dogma” is an epithet, that is, one with negative value built in, not an objective description per se.

              • Hi Doug, I think we’re getting to the point of just contradicting each other here. The last sentence of each of your paragraphs is asserted – implicitly on the basis of a tradition of thinking that I don’t accept. Your last assertion depends on the fact-value distinction, which I also don’t accept. An objective account for me is one that includes values, not one that excludes them.

                If you’re not willing to critically examine your premises, I suggest we leave the debate here. I do feel that we may have got a bit further this time than in previous online encounters.

  2. Dear Robert, The caturlakshana (four marks ef existence) in secular Advayavada are: the impermanence and emptiness of all things, the existential suffering of the unenlightened, and progress. Kind regards, John Willemsens, Advayavada Foundation Amsterdam.

  3. Posted on behalf of Glen Wallis.
    I really, really hope you will do your homework before you characterize my critical work as “postmodern.” Two points. First,the only mode of thought I despise more than postmodernism is fundamentalism. In fact, the former might just be a “liberal” variety of the more conservative latter. I suggest you have a look at, say Terry Eagleton’s “The Illusions of Postmodernism” to get a sense of many of my objections. Please, dig deeper into our critique before you characterize in so erroneously. Invoking in spiritu ludi does not a postmodernist make. I wonder if you are conflating postmodernism with deconstruction. My (our) work does employ some aspects of the latter, but certainly not the former. To put it bluntly: I believe in truth. I reject “absolute relativism: the refusal to accept any given value as better than another.” I argue for better-this and better-that all the time. Second, if you see in speculative non-buddhism a variety of Secular Buddhism, you do not understand what we’re up to. Please, do your homework–and be more careful! Careful is better. Responsible thinking reveals more of the truth… Glenn Wallis

    • Hi Glenn,
      Thanks for your corrections. As I’ve stated in another post below, I’m happy to accept anyone’s corrections about what they stand for. It may be that you shouldn’t have been given as an example of postmodernism, and perhaps postmodernism shouldn’t have been given a separate category of Secular Buddhism at all, due to an absence of Secular Buddhists who clearly identify themselves as postmodernists.

  4. Posted on behalf of David Chapman.
    Hmm. I don’t think I’d subscribe to any of what’s attributed to me there. Regarding the awkward questions: 1. Can fully critical and investigative perspectives really be made consistent, in practice, with the kinds of commitments made, explicitly or implicitly, in traditional Buddhism? Answer: No. (So, I am not a traditionalist, neo- or otherwise.) 2. 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? Answer: Not sure what you mean by spoilers. There are critical traditions within traditional Buddhisms that are of some value and worth understanding. Are they adequate? No. 3. Are the conservative perspectives often implied by traditional Buddhist ethics really acceptable or adequate for guiding lives in the modern world? Answer: No. Traditional Buddhist ethics have less than zero value for us. Also, modern Buddhist ethics are just modern secular ethics dressed up with some spurious scriptural quotes, which add no value. Buddhism has nothing to teach us about ethics. We should stop pretending otherwise.

    • Hi David,
      The basic way I wanted to define a neo-traditionalist was someone who adopted many Secular Buddhist questioning approaches (which I think you do) whilst maintaining a commitment to a traditional Buddhist school (which I believe you do). Within that overall definition there is obviously going to be a lot of variation – possibly too much for it to just be one coherent category. The features and problems I suggested are obviously not typical of your approach in other ways, but there may still be questions one could ask about how your commitment to a Tantric School relates to your Secular Buddhist type questions. And I did say that we disagreed about ethics!

      • Posted on behalf of David Chapman.
        I’d like to thank Robert for mentioning me in the original article, and hope my initial response didn’t sound unfriendly. Using the contact form to comment on a blog is peculiar, and I think I will leave this as my last comment here. (I understand that you want to keep trolls out; some useful comments may also be lost as a consequence.) I’m not sure how I’d categorize myself, or whether a useful set of categories can be found. I draw on certain aspects of Buddhist tradition; but so do all Buddhists, by definition. I don’t think I’m distinctive in this way, any more than secular Zen or Vipassana practitioners (who draw on other Buddhist traditions).

  5. Hi, I’m just going to make a general note here that I’m happy to accept all corrections about what people say they stand for. Please take that for granted. As regards the summary of positions and the basic classification, I’m very interested in any amendments that you think should be made. As I said the classification is only intended as a stimulus or starting point. Should postmodernism be removed altogether? Should David have his own new category? Is the secular Advayavada a new category?

    The awkward questions are a sideshow that I would want to keep separate from the overall schema. I hope to engage with the various responses about the questions, but may not do so all at once.

    • Robert, though I appreciate the effort, perhaps you can help us understand

      1) What is the point of creating these divisions?
      2) Why not let our own words stand for what we stand for?


      • Hi Ted,
        As I just said above, I do want to let people’s own words stand for what they stand for. That’s why I’m glad that people have responded to correct me when they feel that to be necessary.

        I assume by ‘divisions’ you mean the 5 classifications. The point of this was just to get a conceptual handle on ways in which we disagree, particularly so that in projects like the book I’m proposing, we can have some kind of agreed way of representing Secular Buddhism as a whole fairly. I don’t think it’s fair to just represent Secular Buddhism as essentially naturalist as you have done. If we can come up with a rough classification that there is some consensus over, then it becomes more feasible and realistic to think of Secular Buddhism as a pluralism held within a measure of practical agreement.

        You haven’t responded to my point about the definitive presentation of Secular Buddhism as naturalism, which I think is by far the most important one here. You say that you’re happy that Secular Buddhism is pluralistic, but how can that be compatible with presenting it only in terms of one philosophical framework?

        • Hi, Robert, sorry for the delay, suffering from the same technical issues Anantacitta has now sorted out.

          We are presenting naturalism as a key quality of our approach, and of course others vary. We’re not insisting on anything, and have been expressing clear in our conversations with our partners in the SBUK Steering Committee that we encourage the formation of your own approach that may not be naturalistic. The SBA, however, will have that factor included.

          I also wanted to respond to your earlier statement, “‘Darwinism’ is a widely used way of referring to the specifically Darwinian theory of evolution.” It is not. It is a manipulative attempt to put the theory of evolution on the same level as religious -isms, and thereby hinder it with the same shortcoming: the failings of the key representative are failings of the view. That is not the case. Please understand that our context here in the U.S. may be different, as we are under a constant onslaught to have Creationism (one of the -isms I’m referring to) taught as science, when it is clearly not science.

          I must also disagree with your assessment that evolution is an “example of the abuse of scientific findings appropriated for ideological purposes”. It was not, that is a misunderstanding of history. Darwin’s books were *burned* by the Nazis, Hitler used religious fiat to justify his atrocities. Please review the link provided earlier which clarifies this.

          Finally, both Doug and I do take scientific findings as provisional, that is utterly inherent in the method. We are *happy* to be convinced that our understanding is incorrect, and to suggest that we be convinced based on an echoing lack of evidence of any kind is simply ridiculous for any human being to do.

          • Hi Ted,
            I wonder how many non-naturalistic American Secular Buddhists there may be who are put off by the lack of pluralism in your definition?

            Having taken a closer look at the link you gave than I had before, I agree that my example of the Nazi abuse of Darwinian theory is less straightforward than I was assuming. However, I was not at all criticising Darwinian theory, as you seem to be assuming, but only pointing out that, like any other scientific theory, it could be abused if not taken provisionally enough. If Darwinian theory has been abused by the Nazis it would not have been the fault of Darwininan theory, so there’s no need to leap to its defence. Even if it’s unclear that Hitler’s ideas of the survival of the superior race were Darwinian in any meaningful sense, this was only intended as one example of the abuse of scientific theory. Are you claiming that scientific theory in general can’t be abused when not taken provisionally?
            Because that was the totality of my point. You really don’t have to go into automatic anti-creationist mode just because I mention Darwin, especially as you recognise that the evolution vs Creationist debate does not have the same intensity in the UK as it does in the US. The internet is an international medium – you need to adapt to other people’s cultural assumptions as well as they yours.

            As regards provisionality, the issue is whether we are really working to create the conditions for provisionality, not just that we agree it is a good idea. The scientific method provides a tradition of safeguards to try to support provisionality, but they all work at a social level. There is not much attention to the provisionality of psychological states that could enhance the provisionality of scientists. This is where I think Buddhism has much to offer. However, if those who appeal to science are not prepared to recognise the danger of dogmatism in the interpretation of science then they cannot learn from Buddhist approaches. The label “science” and the rejection of “religion” is not a magic talisman against dogma: you have to look at what actually happens in the formation of beliefs.

  6. Now the comments seem to have died down, and given that I’m about to go away on retreat, it seems a good time to summarise the conclusions I’ve reached from the various comments that have been made, and also some further thoughts of my own that they have sparked off.

    It seems to me that I have made two mistakes. One was to think of existentialism and postmodernism as distinct types of secular Buddhism, when they are merely influences that may shape Secular Buddhist perspectives in various ways. The other was to think of neo-traditionalism as a comparable category to the others. But any kind of secular Buddhist is likely to try to combine Western thinking with Buddhism in some way or another, so one could have neo-traditionalist Existentialists, neo-traditionalist Naturalists etc, as well as ones that denied any substantial influence from Western philosophy (perhaps disingenuously).

    I was also ignorant about Secular Advayavada. John Willemsens didn’t reply to my request for further information, but a search turns up his main site at . Without having studied this in much depth as yet, my initial impression is of a very metaphysical interpretation of the Middle Way heavily influenced by Continental Philosophy in the traditions of Spinoza and perhaps Hegel.

    So I’d suggest we really need two different intersecting ways of classifying Secular Buddhists. One is in terms of their attitude to the tradition – whether they try to work within it or outside it. That distinguishes neo-traditionalists from – well, let’s call them separatists – defined as those who want Secular Buddhism to be organised in a way that is completely separate from Buddhist traditions. The other is in terms of their dominant form of Western influence. Those who are mainly influenced by science, humanism and analytic philosophy represent a naturalist strand of Secular Buddhism. Those mainly influenced by Continental Philosophy represent an alternative strand, which could take a metaphysical or existentialist or deconstructionist approach. My own approach is to try an remain equidistant between analytic and Continental traditions – a tough job given the cultural certainty with which those from different traditions tend to argue.

    The analysis of Secular Buddhism that seems to make most sense thus seems to mirror existing lines of intellectual debate in Western civilisation. I guess that’s no surprise really, but it saddens me a little. People in the West often take up Buddhism in the apparent belief that it is something completely new, but then end up creating an only slightly different version of an old cultural phenomenon: an old wine in a new bottle. Scientific positivism is really nothing new – it’s been going since August Comte in the nineteenth century. Monistic metaphysics is nothing new either. Adding a bit of meditation to these Western perspectives is really not going to change the world very much, even if it makes our lives a little more interesting and our personal experience a little fuller. Personally I’m convinced that the insights of the Buddha have a lot more to offer than this.

  7. Hi Robert
    i’m a bit late in adding to this but wanted to say that i think a book that introduces -the plurality of- secular Buddhism probably needs to be an edited series of ‘essays’ by a range of people.