Buddhism without Superstition: with Owen Flanagan, Julian Baggini, and Tim Lott

“Is it possible to take an ancient comprehensive philosophy like Buddhism, subtract the hocus pocus, and have a worthwhile philosophy for twenty-first-century scientifically informed secular thinkers?”

This was the quote, taken from Owen Flanagan’s recent book (see below), which served to open a discussion last Wednesday at Bristol’s “Festival of Ideas”. The event re-raised the age old question, “Buddhism, is it a religion, philosophy, or way of life?” (I wrote a bit about this topic last fall if you’d like to read more.) At the discussion, philosophers Owen Flanagan and Julian Baggini were joined by author Tim Lott to discuss the following:

Buddhism is often described as a philosophy rather than a religion, but many of its tenets, such as those of karma and rebirth, appear to be justified more by faith than scientific evidence. So can you accept any key Buddhist claims without taking on supernatural beliefs? Can Buddhism make sense within a thoroughgoing materialist worldview?

Being a somewhat introductory-level discussion of the topic and relatively short in length, it didn’t get as deep as I would have liked. Owen Flanagan was, for me at least, the major contributor, much of the discussion revolving around his 2011 book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Julian Baggini, himself well known for making philosophy accessible to a broader audience, acted as interviewer and conversation guide, interjecting his own thoughts on only a couple occasions. Tim Lott wound up being, in a sense, the odd man out as something of an Alan Wattsian and fan of Eastern philosophy, but saying little about Buddhism (though he brings up Zen from time to time).

As a popularizer, Watts a great introduction, and Flanagan likewise noted his debt to Watts and D.T. Suzuki for sparking an interest in Buddhism, but it would have been nice if Lott could have discussed some other aspects of Zen (or Buddhism in general) in addition to what he had learned from Watts.

But not to get too bogged down in criticism; endless citations of the latest translations and anthropological surveys might have simply lulled everyone to sleep. So having an Alan Wattsian on the panel may have helped provide the same kind of gripping introduction to the topic for the audience that both of these two men had. Flanagan, for his part, did a great job of relating his work on Buddhist philosophy and his experiences with the Dalai Lama and others he met through the Mind and Life Institute. He also pointed out the divides between Tibetan Buddhism and more East Asian Buddhisms (a topic discussed in the comments of a recent post here) that seemed to be coming up again and again even in this very discussion: that Tibetan Buddhism focuses on heavily intellectual/philosophical systems while Zen/etc focuses on non-duality and spontaneity. Interestingly, as he was desribing this in terms of process philosophy, Lott interrupted at first in agreement, but then saying, “not only is everything events, but there is only one event, and it is happening now.”

You’ll see Flanagan scratching his beard; and finally responding, “so, well, so, I’m not sure if I would climb on board with that way of putting it…” before going on.

Here are three videos from the event. I missed about 5 minutes at the end of the first one where they discuss one last topic (you can find that in the audio-only file below if you’re desperate). I do recommend the talk and finding out more about all three of these guys, especially for the new-comer to various aspects of Buddhism in the West. You may be disappointed by how little they actually talk about superstition (what exactly constitutes it, how it might change over time, etc), but the wide range of topics discussed should be interesting nonetheless. 

If you’re interested in more on Watts, Lott is your man; more on naturalizing (mainly Tibetan) Buddhist philosophy, check out Flanagan’s book; for lots of accessible Western philosophy, pick up some books from Baggini.

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  • cassyscrochet

    thoroughgoing materialist worldview?…..NOT possible if you truly want to understand the teachings, because its essence it not materialist.

    • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

      You might want to actually find out what these people think because “materialist” is just wrong. Flanagan takes two stances: neurophysicalism AND subjective realism. And the latter is not a materialist view at all!

      • mufi

        Having read a few of Flanagan’s books now, as well as watched the video above, I think this quote from The Bodhisattva’s Brain sums up Flanagan’s stance fairly well:

        There is no longer any need for bewilderment, befuddlement, or mysterianism from Buddhism or any other great spiritual tradition in the face of the overwhelming evidence that all experience takes place in our embodied nervous systems in the world, the natural world, the only world there is.

        Whatever one chooses to label this view (“naturalism”, “physicalism”, “materialism”, etc.), it’s a bit too strong on the metaphysics for my taste (for example, it begs the question: How does he know that this is the only world there is?), but at least it’s grounded in human experience and scientific rigor.

        • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

          This is an excellent quote. Flanagan can be confident that this is the only world because there is no evidence any other world.

          And we Buddhists can see this in the light of the Sabba Sutta SN 35.23:

          At Sāvatthi: I will teach you the whole (sabbaṃ), monks. Listen to this. What, monks, is the whole? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and touches, the mind and mental phenomena: this, monks, is called ‘the whole’. If anyone says ‘I reject this whole, I will declare another whole’ that would just be hot air. Questioned about it, they wouldn’t be able to explain, and would become exasperated. Why is this? Because, monks, it has no object (avisaya).

          My translation. The idiom “sabbaṃ” most likely comes from the Upaniṣads where Sanskrit “idaṃ sarvaṃ” means ‘this whole’ and refers to Creation as understood by the Brahmins.

          My take on this is that the Buddha was reinforcing that his teaching was about *experience*. The experience (vedayita) that arises where object (visaya) and subject (indriya) come into contact in the light of discrimination (viññāna). And he was contrasting this with the idea of a really existent world or worlds, talk of which is just hot air.

          This is fairly consistent with Flanagan’s view.

          The next sutta in the SN he talks of the need to abandon (pahāna) everything (sabbaṃ). I’m still not sure what Flanagan makes of this.

          • mufi

            Well said.

            I don’t have any sutta quotes handy at the moment, so if memory serves, the Buddha’s understanding of what experience validates includes past lives and other beliefs that Flanagan rejects as supernatural hooey.

            But I also recall that Flanagan endorses Buddhist epistemology for its empiricism, which leads me to suspect that empiricists can be led by their experiences to a variety of conclusions, depending upon which interpretive framework (or cognitive model) and methodological assumptions they adopt.

            • mufi

              PS: I feel obliged to add that it’s possible – and arguably preferable – to remain agnostic about the metaphysical assumptions of naturalism, while still putting them to good use in the sciences and in common sense. At least here in the US, we tend to associate that stance with pragmatists, like William James and John Dewey.

              The Buddhist connection to pragmatism is not necessarily obvious to everyone – say, to traditionalists who harbor a more absolutist model – but I’d argue that a pragmatic approach to Buddhism is a valid one, nonetheless.

              • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

                It would depend on what you understand by the “metaphysical assumptions of naturalism”. I see a lot of assumptions attributed to naturalists but I think most of them are based on a 19th century understanding of science, at best.

                Labels like “naturalism” or “materialist” are hopelessly narrow and misleading. Flanagan has a naturalistic approach, but then he also subscribes to subjective realism. Which is different to some other philosophers of mind. This is distinct from behavirouralism or funcationalism. His views are different to those of representationlists like Thomas Metzinger.

                Most people in the 21st century think in ways that are flavoured by pragmatism. But also flavoured by scientific rationalism, Protestantism and Romanticism. People are complicated. No one is only a naturalist, or only a pragmatist. Even naturalists have faith; even pragmatists have metaphysical commitments.

                • mufi

                  Is there a difference between a “commitment” and an “assumption”, metaphysically speaking? I think so, and I’m tempted to describe it like so: our commitments are the assumptions to which we cling most tightly, in which case it’s a difference in degree rather than in kind. Whether or not it’s good or bad to be so committed is a normative question, which I don’t wish to explore here.

                  Besides, I had in mind the conceptual distinction between “metaphysical” and “methodological” naturalism, as described here. The latter is used to explain how religiously pious scientists, who have supernatural commitments, can nonetheless labor under naturalistic assumptions in their day jobs.

            • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

              The Canon is rather equivocal on past lives. They can be a source of knowledge and a source of eternalist delusions. Or they can be irrelevant. Past lives can explain specific present events, but on the other hand karma has no specificity. It’s all wildly contradictory.

              Buddhist epistemology cannot be considered empirical since it largely consists of observing things that no one else can observe, i.e. mental events. And from the Buddhist point of view these are not even subjective, but only the product of overlapping subject and object. Nor do mental events fit into the astiā/nāstitā ‘existence/non-existence’ duality. This is so far from empiricism that the label can only be applied by an extreme procrustean process, usually applied to both Buddhism and empiricism at the same time. .

              • mufi

                I’m not sure that I follow you here, so I’ll just say this: If you endorse what Flanagan calls “neurophenomenology” – roughly, a cross-disciplinary project that researches and interprets correlations between first-person/phenomenal events and third-person/neural (and behavioral) events – then I think you two are basically on the same page, even if you disagree that “empiricist” is an apt description of it (given the “no one else can observe” nature of its first-person aspect) or of traditional Buddhist epistemology, for that matter.

  • ShameonMe

    For a fan of Buddhism, as I would take Flanagan to be, is it really necessary to describe essential teachings in the Dhama as “hocus pocus”? It is in Buddhism whether you like it or not. You can can take or leave the cosmology with gods and hells but the Buddha very clearly was not a materialist and spoke against the naturalist “you die and dissolve into the elements” worldview.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    The word “superstition” needs some serious unpacking, given how closely tied it tends to be to a Eurocentric, materialist worldview. Furthermore, I have to say that there seems no shortage of hostility towards faith amongst convert Buddhists. Which in my view is more about their desire to be rid of anything that appears similar to the Judeo-Christian world, than it does with faith itself as an experience and part of the path.

    Overall, I’ve grown a little tired of those folks who insist on scientific
    evidence for everything, and reject that which their rational brains
    can’t handle.I don’t know if any of these guys fall into this category, but that seems to be what “secular Buddhists” are prone to be about from what I’ve seen.

  • TonyCr

    This is nothing new. Try reading Buddhasasa Bhikku.

  • urownexperience

    Without rebirth and karma, it is not Buddhism. Call it something else. Please. And yes, Buddhism IS a religion. If you don’t like religion, do something else. Buddhism is not interested in compromising in order to gain members. Do as you wish.

    • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

      History is against you here. Buddhism has *always* compromised in order to gain members. What do you think the Vedic gods Brahmā and Indra (aka Sakka) are doing in our scriptures? Why is the Buddha’s life story tuned to appeal to an audience of Brahmins? Why is Lord Śiva converted to Buddhism in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra? And so on throughout our history.

      Which version of karma and rebirth are you defending here anyway? There are so many to choose from.

      • urownexperience

        Do as you wish. I really don’t care.

        • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

          Obviously you do care or you wouldn’t have commented.

  • Timothy Fitzpatrick

    As a prior post points out, these are not new ideas… Very smart men pose the same questions regarding Buddhism all over the world unbeknownst to one another time after time. None of the authors are arahants or enlightened… It makes me see the wisdom of the Thai Forest Tradition… wherein not a lot of time is spent on intellectual analysis and debate, but a lot of time on the practice of meditation and steps to awakening…

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    Hi Justin, from the comments I wondered if anyone had watched the videos. To date:

    1/3 = 11 views
    2/3 = 4 views
    3/3 = 10 views.

    So people mainly seem to be reacting to your write up.

    I’m trying to read Flanagan’s book at the moment and finding it terribly dull. And I’m not convinced by his understanding of Buddhism.

    It is interesting how polarised Buddhism is becoming over the issue of neurophysicalism and subjective realism as Flanagan describes his take on consciousness. But as dull as I find Flanagan, I don’t we can afford to ignore him and his colleagues, or just dismiss them as “materialists” (with the implied matter/spirit duality that haunts most Western Buddhism).

    Any kind of afterlife now seems implausible. This has major implications for how we understand Buddhism. I’d be far more interested to see some mainstream Buddhists debating this material. What are the implications, how have Buddhists in the past responded to philosophical challenges, what might Buddhism look like if it is “naturalised”. I think most Buddhists are in denial about how much of Buddhism involves a “black box” mechanism or “and then a miracle happens”. It probably won’t help much to use inflammatory but rather vague terms like “superstitious”.

    • justinwhitaker

      Jayarava – agreed; not many people seem to be ‘examining for themselves’ the content provided by these three men. I’d be curious about who (perhaps Baggini, as it seemed that he was the ‘organise’) chose the term ‘superstition’ – as I think that word alone probably sets off all sorts of emotions and narratives for people, perhaps more so than my write-up.

      Yes, Buddhists are polarized, but no more so than the good old days of Pudgalavadins vs Sautantikas or Kamalashila vs Mohoyen. The more things change…

      But yes, I do think we (those interested in the whole of ‘Buddhism’) need to take Flanagan and other materialists very seriously, as their form of the Dharma may well be the dominant one in years and decades to come.

      • justinwhitaker

        Ah yes, and I should add Rupert Gethin’s quick review of Flanagan’s book (really wishing Rupert could have been on the panel, but such is life):

        http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/417718.article

        • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

          I see you refer to Flanagan as a materialist. But he’s not really is he? Or at least the label is hopelessly simplistic and clumsy for communicating his point of view.

          Anyway I do agree that we have to come to terms with neuro-physicalism (as Flanagan calls it), and preferably embrace it. The scientist/neuro-philosopher I’d most like to meet is Thomas Metzinger. I’ve found his work much more engaging that Flanagan’s.

          Interestingly the Triratna Order is discussing Rebirth at the moment. There’s quite a divergence of opinion, but a basic split between those who believe and those afraid of being criticised. It’s a bit of an uneven match at present, but I’m composing an essay called “The Eight Main Problems with Karma and Rebirth” that should balance things up a bit.

    • Seth Zuiho Segall

      One person’s “terribly dull” is another person’s scintillating. For what it’s worth, here’s my review of Owen’s book: http://bit.ly/u8hhjE

      • justinwhitaker

        Wonderful! Thanks for sharing this Seth! It’s good to see this (again) and David’s response via the comments as well.

  • Chan Gardner

    Whether you accept rebirth or not, just live an ethical life. Then it doesn’t matter which is true.

  • Diwakar Pendharkar

    Buddha NEVER believed in Re-birth . Probably Buddhism is world’s first Religion or Philosophy ( whatever we describe it ) which allowed ,rather asked people to have scientific approach. Buddha taught to ask questions to seek answers . Buddha only taught Satya ( ie Ultimate Truth ) and Dhamma ( ie correct deeds ie Karma ). He did not even discuss about existence of God ( which why many call Buddha as atheist ) . In a way , Buddha’s teachings ( people called it Buddism , a religion ) were like Pure Water which could get mixed with almost anything ( ie any religion , any culture , any region or country ) . So it was easy to pollute it with wrong group of people. And thats what happened after 1500 yrs of its establishment in ancient India . Its a bitter Truth that Buddhism was diluted rather polluted by Hinduism and then attacked by Islam and then almost vanished from its origin ie India. Modern age calls Buddha’s philosophy as impractical , that’s because its difficult to follow ways of TRUTH & Dhamma in present age of Capitalist economy. Anyone can be Buddha if he attains the great qualities of THE Buddha.

    • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

      All the evidence is against you. The earliest records we have of the Buddha’s teaching show him talking about, and teaching about karma and rebirth. Karma and rebirth are ALWAYS are part of Buddhism (todate). Though I don’t think they can survive the European Enlightenment.

      There was nothing particular scientific about Buddhism until science was invented in the 1600s.

      It never ceases to amaze me that people can see Buddhism as completely unconnected to any form of Buddhism as we know it. Buddhism with no input whatsoever from actual Buddhism. It’s quite a strange phenomenon. I wonder if other religions suffer from this?

      • Diwakar Pendharkar

        Which evidences you are talking abut? As I mentioned, Buddhism was diluted by many groups in India and China/Japan and that’s why we see many forms of Buddhism. The worst thing was in India where Hinduism adopted most of Buddha’s philosophies and then finally declared him as one of the Avatars of Vishnu; the Hindu God!Almost all evidences of Buddhism & it’s existence were destroyed /removed by orthodox kings/brahmins in India -post Ashoka dynasty and many Moghul rulers when they stared invading with brutality . Interestingly, modern India came to know about Ashoka- The Great ( the biggest Buddhist Empire of his time ) only after then British historians found historical proofs and scripts during their studies. So if this was sad story of India, then just imagine other countries where Buddhism spread from India .There are all obvious possibilities that Buddha’s True teachings were diluted. Thus most of the so called popular/ famous religious scripts / historical writings /mythological books do not represent the Truth. Another complication added to this confusion is that Buddha did not allow / believed in writing down his teachings during his life period. He said that if one practised his teachings from bottomof his heart, then he would not need any written rule- book. His closest disciple , Anand insisted him many times but he denied. Thus imagine, how much it’s possible to dilute the real teachings preached by Buddha almost 500 yrs before Jesus’ birth.

        Secondly, science was/can not be invented. It was always there; it’s the Ultimate Truth ; the Satya. Its only we started knowing about nature’s law recently and that too most of the scientific inventions are not 200 yrs old. May be you are referring to modern science.But if you study, Buddha’s teachings take you closest to nature’s basic laws in philosophical way.

        If one really wants to understand True Teachings of Buddha,I’ll suggest to attend camp of Mr Goyenka Guruji. He explained it in most simplistic way. He didn’t talk about any religion.

        Another point to note is that the very definition of “Religion” as used by Western community is quite different from that practised by India/many Asian countries. So this debate on if Buddhism is a religion or not will continue forever. But for that one cannot reject the Truth what Buddha preached.

        I personally, do not call Buddhism as Religion
        because then it becomes only a topic for discussion or debate or fight among so called Religious leaders./intellectuals. Even after so many transitions, dilutions, attacks, Buddha’s teaching still survived. And that’s why it’s getting awareness and acceptance even in western countries, especially in USA – though not as religion but as real philosophy for better life in this present world ,highly stressed with thoughts of financial matters , terrorism, etc.

        Again ,I firmly believe that anyone can be Buddhist,
        irrespective he/she being Christen /Muslim/Hindu or any other religion or even Communist, if she/he trusts in Buddha’s true teachings and follow them . And for that one need not Convert to Buddhism. That’s real Buddhist Philosophy!
        It’s not about being religious ; it’s about Being Human!!!

        To conclude, every one wants to be good human being so let that happen through any medium, say Religion or Philosophy. All of us want to make this earth a peaceful, livable place!

        • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

          I’m talking about the early Buddhist scriptures in Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese which are the earliest records of Buddhist thought that are available to us. These consistently show the Buddha teaching about rebirth.

          Your views are all very interesting, but appear to have no relationship with Buddhism as understood by actual Buddhists.

          • Diwakar Pendharkar

            I believe , “The Buddha and His Dhamma” a Book by B. R. Ambedkar,will be the easiest but best reference for any explanation about all traditional misconceptions about Buddha and his philosophy.

            Please , refer & read http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/ambedkar_buddha/00_intro.html

            • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

              Jai Bhim! I have widely read the Pali Tipiṭaka and some of the Sanskrit and Chinese Tripiṭaka, as well as a great deal of scholarly literature, and many general books on Buddhism. I appreciate that Babasahib wanted to distance himself from Hinduism as much as possible, and I sympathise with that. But as far as anyone can tell, rebirth has always been part of Buddhism. Always. Until the 20th century when people like me starting saying they did not believe in it.

              If it’s any consolation I’m trying to show that the Śākyas where never Vedic, but migrated into India from Iran, possible ca 1000 BC. See for example my article in the JOCBS: http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/26/29
              They moved up to Kosala ca. 850 BC where the mix of cultures produced various śrāmaṇa religions, including Buddhism.

  • Diwakar Pendharkar

    Read James Allen, Napolean Hill or even Bob Proctor , you will find ,every one these great writers , ultimately telling Buddha’s teachings !

  • Gregory Lynn

    My personal take on the issue of rebirth, karma and the various spiritual realms is that Buddha was speaking symbolically, co-opting common religious language of his time and place to reveal deeper truths.

    The concept of rebirth as it is generally understood, of an individual soul being reincarnated again and again, comes from Hinduism. The issue with referring to rebirth and reincarnation interchangeably becomes apparent when one examines the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of the self and the five aggregates. He is also quoted as saying that rebirth isn’t just something that happens with the birth and death of physical bodies, but even from moment to moment. If the “self” is an illusion, an accretion of circumstances and perceptions, then conventional reincarnation makes very little sense. If you aren’t even the same person you were ten minutes ago, why would you expect a core of identity to survive beyond your death? Now, that’s not to say I completely dismiss the possibility of past-life memories; if everything we do leaves an impression on reality, then it’s possible that some of those impressions will take the form of apparent memories. What it is necessary to remember then is that those memories are not YOUR memories, but the memories of another, another individual, both separate from and connected to you.

    By the same token, the ten spiritual realms all describe states that we go through in our lives. Rather than describing the fates of souls after death, I believe that the Buddha was trying to make the point that, through the constant death and rebirth of the “self”, we go through various mental states, and that trying to linger in any one state too long was an unskillful act. Rather, it’s best to let those mental states rise and fall as natural; clinging to any one only brings suffering.

    Karma, as well, refers not just to simple cause-and-effect, but the ripples that every action sends through the world. This cause-and-effect isn’t good or bad in itself; it simply is, and its effects are often too subtle for anyone to detect, like the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane. This means that there are always going to be unintended consequences for our actions, but that actively attempting to do good is likely to have fewer and less severe negative outcomes down the line than being apathetic or deliberately harmful.

    So, at least in my view, Buddhism truly has no requirement for an afterlife, reincarnation or anything supernatural. I don’t automatically reject the possibility of such things, but until evidence is found, I reserve judgment, cautiously erring toward their nonexistence.

    • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

      It’s a nice theory, but is very much a modernist reading of Buddhism. That is, a way of reading the supernatural hooey of Buddhism in such a way that does not offend our modernist sensibilities too much. Anything problematic is reduced to being a metaphor or a symbol of something we can sign up to, This way of producing sanitised versions of Buddhism for Western consumption has history. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mr and Mrs Rhys Davids were enthusiastic bowdlerizers of Buddhism. This is why, for example, we translate bodhi as “Enlightenment” (Capital E). It was an explicit link to the rational figures of the Enlightenment created by the RDs.

      As cosy as this kind of thinking is for us moderns, it does not reflect the thinking of Buddhists from any other period of history, or from traditional Buddhism in the present. By simply side-stepping the issue of supernatural hooey in Buddhism we never really come to terms with Buddhism. The result is referred to as Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan rather than Modernist Buddhism precisely because modernism is the dominant factor.

      Buddhism is full of supernatural elements because it is the product of pre-scientific cultures, beginning with Iron Age hill tribes living on the margins of the second urbanisation in North India.

      If we reject traditional rebirth and karma (and I do) then we ought to have the courage to face the fact that we have eviscerated Buddhism. This is a far more radical change that the Tantric synthesis of the 6th century for example. Far and away more radical than the advent of the Mahāyāna. But it’s not a turning of the wheel so much as a twisting of the knife. But then Caesar must die, eh? For the sake of the Republic.

      Buddhist morality does not work without karma and rebirth. The very goal of Buddhist practice – freedom from rebirth – no longer makes any sense. We do need to face up to this and be prepared to defend this major and rather brutal attack on the heart of Buddhist metaphysics. And not only to outraged traditionalists, but also for the sake of intellectual honesty.

      My fear is that with the supernatural will go all inspiration for radicalism. Which is what that rogue Žižek is saying has happened already. I’m not sure that the new domesticated, rational Buddhism will make anyone want to change.

      • justinwhitaker

        Certainly there are elements here that are ‘modernist’ but there is also some truth, as found in some of Gombrich’s work, that the Buddha was being at least a bit playful with Brahmanic terminology. Just how far we can go with that and areas exactly is up for dispute, but this way of thinking might bring us back to the Buddha in a way that traditional Buddhists and Buddhisms cannot.

        • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

          I’m not disputing the truth of modernism per se. After all I’m committed to the European Enlightenment and all it stood for! I’m making a specific argument here about the consequences of rejecting traditional supernatural hooey. The traditionalists might be right when they say the result is not Buddhism. What is it there that we still approve of that can be traced to the Buddha (or at least to early Buddhism)? What proportion of Buddhist is left? If it doesn’t look like a duck or quack like a duck, why are we insisting that it is a duck?

          The idea that we can get “back to the Buddha” is really questionable. This is one of the strong implications of modern scholarship. So the question is, How do we go forward? Will we inevitably split from traditional Buddhists, citing irreconcilable differences? And will they sue us for the rights to the name “Buddhism” on the grounds that we reject everything traditionally associated with the religion? Will we have to give up our tax exemptions?

          • justinwhitaker

            Yes, the traditionalists *might* be right :)

            But then, which ones are we asking? The traditionalists of Tibet, Pure Land, Chan, Laotian Theravada, etc? How far back do we have to go to find these traditionalists – or are some alive and teaching still today?

            And if traditionalists disagree on the meaning or reliability of an early text, how do we arbitrate or choose between them?

            The more I study, the fewer answers I seem to have. But I think some elements of traditionalism, whatever that may be, are already changing in relation to modernity; and modernity maybe (maybe!) changing a bit in relation to traditional Buddhism – just how much is highly disputable, I know.

            About a decade ago I went to a Pure Land Buddhist service in Calgary, AB somewhat by accident. Aside from a few terms I recognized, it didn’t ‘quack’ like a Buddhist duck at all – to me at least. But alas, it was.

            • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

              “But then, which ones are we asking? ”

              Aye, there’s the rub!

      • Gregory Lynn

        Why would disbelieving in the supernatural remove the inspiration for radicalism or change? Is that not the same sort of reasoning that Christian fundamentalists use when saying that people outside their religion have no basis for morality, without a law handed down from on high and the threat of a terrible punishment after death? This argument only holds water if you accept that only enforcement from outside, whether in the form of punishment or reward, can motivate change or moral behavior.

        In direct contrast, and with full acknowledgement that I’m writing an anecdote rather than providing hard evidence, I find the opposite to be true. Removing an afterlife as a factor and acknowledging that our only guaranteed legacy is the effect we have on others and the world has, in my own experience and those of many others I know, given MORE reason to behave morally. We are social animals, after all; empathy is literally written into our DNA.

        You have provided much evidence that my interpretation is modernist and non-traditional. What you haven’t provided is evidence that it’s incorrect or invalid. The Buddha even said explicitly to judge his teachings on their merits, and if we found something he had taught to be unhelpful in our practice, we should discard it.

        • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

          I’m not arguing that you are incorrect or that your argument is invalid. If you note I actually agree with you. What I am saying is that this approach to Buddhism is not consistent with any argument emerging from Buddhism itself, and thus must have major consequences for how we conceive of and practice buddhism. And I’ve yet to see anyone on our side of the fence deal with the implications of the rejection of most of the beliefs that constitute Buddhism. Most of us are like you – happy to pretend that it makes no difference because it suits us.

          Let’s take the case of committed Buddhists taking up economically unproductive lifestyles. The scale of that radicalism in the West is minuscule compared traditional societies. We don’t seem to be incentivised to go forth in the same way. Nor do we particularly care about this major shift in the dynamic. If radicalism means not having an iPhone we’re not interested. Eh?

          • Gregory Lynn

            Despite the teachings on right living, the Buddha freely acknowledged that sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. One day, a butcher approached him, saying that he wished to follow the Buddha’s teachings, but that butchery was the only profession he knew and the only way he had to support his family. How, he asked, could he reconcile this paradox? The Buddha’s reply was simply, “Let it be.”

            Productivity in your lifestyle is a very subjective standard. My father measured his productivity solely by how much money he was making, the size of house he could buy and how many things he could give us. I’m not going to try and guess at whether he found any emotional or spiritual fulfillment in his work, but it placed a great strain on our relationship as I grew up, to the point that it took me getting in trouble with the law to realize that he truly loved me. I would call that sort of lifestyle, where you have many things but little in the way of emotional connections, an unskillful, but unfortunately very common one in modern America.

            By contrast, right now I’m renting a single room in a house I share with three other people and working in a delivery job for a chain of restaurants. The job is frustrating, often demeaning and doesn’t pay enough for me to live on (I’m looking for a second job), but it provides great opportunities for practicing patience and mindfulness, and a customer’s sincere “thank you” helps remind me that, even if I don’t make a lot of money, I can still use the opportunity to help bring a little light into someone else’s life. I don’t own an iPhone, an e-reader or have a TV hookup or many other luxuries that seem to be taken for granted nowadays, and the main reasons I keep an Internet connection are because A) I suffer from social anxiety, which makes it much easier for me to interact with people online than in person, and B) American society is now so interwoven with the Internet that it’s virtually impossible to secure employment without it. I wouldn’t call my life easy or even particularly spiritually-focused, but I do my best. My dream job, which I’m currently working toward, would be to make a living making and selling chainmail jewelry and accessories…perhaps a frivolous luxury that the Buddha would condemn, but I find the work of weaving the rings helps to calm my monkey mind and bring my attention back to the now, and I find the simple beauty of the pieces I make more fulfilling than the actual money I can make selling them. I’m not a monk by any stretch of the imagination and I’m unlikely to ever get ahead in what is commonly called “the rat race”, but I don’t need to; having enough to get by is all I need.

            The reason I don’t try to address how my interpretation of Buddhism differs from more traditional interpretations is mainly unfamiliarity on my part. I’m simply not well-versed in the many different schools of Buddhist thought and how they differ in their interpretations. The only one I consider myself even moderately competent to explain to anyone is Zen, but I know that my own practice and interpretations differs greatly from traditional Zen.

            But to me, the particular strength of Buddhism is that it really doesn’t matter if the histories and stories are taken literally or symbolically, because the histories and stories are simply tools to teach the way to a non-clinging, non-grasping state of mind. By contrast, if it could be proven that Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Bible never existed, conventional Christianity would fall apart; the same would happen to Islam if it could be shown that Muhammad never existed. If it could be conclusively proven that there is no afterlife, most world religions would undergo serious upheavals, at the very least.

            But even if it could be proven that the Buddha never existed, that every sutra and story we have of him is simply a collection of folktales, it shouldn’t matter because practice, not belief, is the point. If a particular sutra or spiritual practice is useful to help keep your mind focused and your practice sincere, use it, whether it’s the simplicity of Zen or the ritual of Tibetan Buddhism. The Buddha stated outright that not everyone would approach the Way in the same fashion, and I don’t believe he would have disapproved of us “moderns” stripping away beliefs and rituals that we found unhelpful in our journey.

            • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

              I’m not sure what the point of this confessional is. I didn’t use productive in the abstract, I specifically and in each instance said “economic productivity” which is not ambiguous at all.

              You seem very sure what the Buddha said, and conveniently the Buddha seems to have understood your dilemma and given you reason not to reconsider. Fancy that.

              • Gregory Lynn

                I’m not sure what the point of your hostile phrasing is or why my current position seems to lead you to the conclusion you seem to draw, which is that I haven’t struggled with these very issues or that my position is fixed and unchanging. There’s probably a koan or proverb in this situation that would be useful to both of us, but I don’t have the wisdom to come up with it.

                • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

                  I suppose it’s inevitable that when you express an opinion and it is critiqued that it might seem as though you are being criticised for having a fixed position. You certainly are defending a position (at some length), and have not shown any willingness to change your position based on what I have written, and you have rejected any suggestion of criticism from my side.

                  And perhaps it’s inevitable that persistent disagreement looks like hostility. But it’s just persistent disagreement. If I express a little frustration when you misread “economically productive” as simply “productive” and give me a rambling discourse on kinds of productivity. Then I don’t think it’s unreasonable. I did say what I meant. It’s still hanging there…

                  My points were two:

                  1. That the Buddhism you present at first seems to be more of an over simplified accommodation of Buddhism to modernism than the other way around. And I don’t buy it.

                  As I said “I’m not arguing that you are incorrect or that your argument is invalid. If you note I actually agree with you. What I am saying is that this approach to Buddhism is not consistent with any argument emerging from Buddhism itself, and thus must have major consequences for how we conceive of and practice buddhism. ”

                  And I still don’t see any willingness to engage in that discussion of consequences.

                  2. That without a radical goal, radical approaches will seem unnecessary.

                  As I read your response to this second point the anecdotes relate to people leading economically productive lives in response to a vision of Buddhism which is de-radicalised for people committed to economic activity. The same thing happened in India, but alongside a more radical vision that was a well-spring of inspiration, creativity and motivation. The west seems to lack that well-spring and not be considering the consequences.

                  As for my critique of your confidence, take this statement: “Despite the teachings on right living, the Buddha freely acknowledged that sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. ”

                  It’s not referenced so we can’t check it, and I’ve not come across this story before, and cannot find it in my library. It flies in the face of the drift of the Pali texts. Contrast it with the texts where he says that actors (SN 42.2) and soldiers (SN 42.3) go straight to hell when they die. Your Buddha anecdote certainly fits with your view, but it doesn’t fit the bigger picture.

                  In any case the traditional social role for the less committed was to support the more committed in their radical (economically unproductive, but intensely practice oriented) lifestyle.

                  I’d like to think that we Westerners could discuss the implications of our transformation of Buddhism. But I keep being told I’m wrong to even bring it up.


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