Rejecting Scientistic and Post-Religious Buddhism

Image via Emory Magazine.

Two thought-provoking posts appeared in the Buddhist blogosphere this week. First, my friend Shastri Ethan Nichtern writes about “Buddhism in a Post-Religious Society” for his blog, saying, “I firmly believe that Buddhist meditation, philosophy and psychology should not be viewed as religious practices.” Second, over at Tricycle‘s Awake in the World blog, Lama Jampa Thaye offers the provocative piece “We Are Not Kind Machines: A Radical Rejection of Scientific Buddhism”, in which he writes that “while science itself is not dangerous to the dharma, the appeal for a ‘scientific Buddhism,’ an insistence that Buddhism must accord with the materialist propositions often paired with scientism, most definitely is. Such a Buddhism is not the dharma.”

Both posts are worth reading and mulling over — each certainly caused me to consider a lot. In the final analysis, I think I believe the opposite of Ethan, and agree with Lama Jampa (with the caveat that I think scientism might be a better word to refer to what he’s concerned about).

As I’ve said before, it certainly seems to me that from my standpoint as both a practitioner and a scholar that there are big problems with the perennial suggestion that Buddhism is not a religion. Now, don’t get me wrong: I certainly think that the contemplative practices of many Buddhist traditions can and do have benefits and applications outside the context of  Buddhism as an organized religion…but I seriously question the notion that they can ever be completely stripped of what are often referred to as “cultural” or “religious” trappings. In fact, I don’t think they can.

There are a number of reasons I think this, but let’s focus on just a couple. For one thing, the argument that Buddhism isn’t a religion seems to be making a claim (consciously or unconsciously) for a kind of Buddhist exceptionalism. That’s something I think we don’t want to be doing. The great Buddhologist Richard Gombrich is particularly compelling on this point. Speaking about the “liberal, Protestant” Buddhist movement in modern Sri Lanka, he writes:

The recurrent claim that Buddhism is not a religion on a par with others but something of a different order, maybe a ‘way of life,’ so that the other religions are or may be compatible with it, is, among other things, an attempt to reclaim Buddhist uniqueness. What is being claimed, usually in a very vague and muddled way, can be expressed in my terms: that the other religions are all right on the communal level, but only the Buddha pointed the true way to salvation.

On the one hand, as a Buddhist minister, I certainly think Buddhism is special; on the other hand, though, I don’t think it should get to be “above the law,” entitled to all the same privileges as the world’s other religions, but beholden to none of their rules for engagement with a pluralistic, democratic society.

In addition, Gombrich has something to say about an inherent problem for those aiming to create a scientistic sort of Buddhism. He goes on to make what I think is an extremely astute observation about what is happening when one attempts to secularize Buddhist meditation, for example, writing:

To use meditation for secular purposes is to try to adapt Buddhist soteriology to life in the world.

The various traditions of meditation that exist in the world — Buddhist or other – were all developed with particular soteriological goals in mind. These traditions certainly didn’t occur in vacuums, and had very specific ideas about what salvation looked like. (There are some pretty big differences — yes? — between how “secular meditation” is taught by those coming from, say, TM, contemplative Christianity, and the Zen tradition. Many have quite different ends in mind — bliss, communion, liberation, etc. — as well.) Coming back again more specifically to Buddhism, even if we want to understand it as some kind of “transhistorical set of techniques for quieting the mind and attaining liberation,” scholar Marilyn Ivy contends that we’re still talking about something that is unmistakably Buddhist:

Perhaps we should talk about post-Buddhism instead, an amalgam of therapy, breath awareness, and mindfulness techniques suited for the inhabitants of postmodernity. Yet as in ‘post’-anything, the post still bears the trace of that which has been superseded: post-Buddhism is still post-Buddhism.

As much as we may try to secularize Buddhism, it will still have religiosity in its DNA. (And, yes, I think religion as a definable phenomena is much more complicated than simply believing in supramundane things; we have to engage with one of the more broad and sophisticated definitions that most people use, not the definitions that do us the most favors in terms of making a case for Buddhist exceptionalism.)

And, as Lama Jampa says so well, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing; in fact, a scientistic approach to Buddhism may limit the path’s effectiveness considerably. Buddhism can do much for us on fronts that have yet to be scientifically validated.

But what do you think? I’m always interested in reader feedback, but I want to hear from you on this…


  • Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (London and New York: Routledge, 1988).
  • Marilyn Ivy, “Modernity” in Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).

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  • Deborah Bowman

    Interesting debate. My best guess is that Buddhism must live in the relative and absolute worlds as a science and as a mystery – always opening doors to the unknown. The latter is why it is a sacred investigation and needs our careful tending in the temple as well as the earthly garden.

  • Dion Peoples

    I teach, in my courses, that Buddhism is a social-guidance system or social/philosophical system. There are plenty of quotes where the Buddha frowns upon rites/rituals/ceremonies… -I think this takes the religious aspect out of the teachings… and that is what I love about Buddhism. When I was a Bhikkhu, I had trouble with all the ceremonies, thinking: I’m sure I would not be doing this if I was living in the Buddha’s time. I advocate for the analytical/critical inquires. :-)

  • vacall

    I tend to think of Buddhism as a spiritual practice rather than religion as that allows me to approach the world with a sense of more open rather than fixed categories. Dion and Deborah’s comments about a “critical practice” and engagement in those areas between “science” and “mystery” toward the new and unknown are compelling.

  • Soraya

    I think for the true Buddha, Buddhism will always be a way of life, focusing passionately and ardently inwardly rather than outwardly….

  • justinwhitaker

    I’m glad to see you’ve taken this up, Danny, and with admirable skill and clarity. I brought up the same two posts (along with Pursur and Loy’s great article on “McMindfulness”) recently as well and there are some good comments and responses (link below).

    My guess is that Ethan is speaking about ‘his’ Buddhism – Shambhala – and not about Buddhism as a whole. This might appeal to some people (the survey Ethan cites is an interesting one) so there might be an emerging market, so to speak, for a brand of Buddhism that wants to reach out to newly irreligious people. But this certainly cannot erase the 2500 years of Buddhism which has served as a religion (literally ‘binding together’ under a common soteriology) for so many people. As I stated on my post, hopefully Ethan can be persuaded to write a follow-up clarifying or justifying his claims.

    I have been involved more lately with the Secular Buddhist folks and one of the suggestions I made at my blog was that perhaps those with an ultimately materialistic worldview (which the Buddha rejected) should instead call themselves something like Buddhisty Materialists. I’m not sure though, and Doug Smith’s response was instructive: 1) the Buddha rejected the materialism on ethical grounds, so an ethical materialism might be fine, and 2) we’ll wait and see for now regarding labels.

    For now though I think it’s fine for people to read the Buddha as a philosopher (I’m working with Doug on a paper with that theme), as long as they acknowledge that that is what they are doing. Gombrich opens his latest book praising the Buddha as a philosopher among the ranks of Socrates and Aristotle and we as scholars are long overdue to give him credit in this area. But I also teach world religions and would be doing my students a profound disservice if I left Buddhism off the syllabus.

    • Ari

      The form of Buddhism I practice doesn’t seem to meet the definition of “religion”. Definitions I found include:

      “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.”

      “Relation of human beings to God or the gods or to whatever they consider sacred or, in some cases, merely supernatural.”

      “an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality.”

      “belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny”

      I do not believe in the supernatural, in gods, or any kind of divinity. My understanding of the dharma is fundamentally grounded in the rejection of superstition and blind faith as found in the Kalama Sutta.

      (One translation of the refrain is, “Do not go upon what has been acquired
      by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon
      what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor
      upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that
      has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor
      upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when
      you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are
      not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken
      and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter
      on and abide in them.”)

      • justinwhitaker

        How about “a pattern of beliefs and practices that expresses or enacts what a community regards as sacred and/or ultimate about life” – (via Robert E. Van Voorst, WORLD RELG, p.5)?

      • Linda Blanchard

        Or how about: “Were one asked to characterize the
        life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one
        might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen
        order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting
        ourselves thereto.” — William James, The Varieties of Religious
        Experience: a study in human nature

        I find Buddhism to be all about that unseen order (I tend to think of it as “reality” but I know many Buddhists who would say there is no such thing), and about the ways in which adjusting ourselves to it harmoniously does a supreme good, not just for each of us as individuals, but for the world we live in. Religion, to me, is about considering being a part of something bigger and more important than my own little life, and about community. Buddhism fits in there.

  • Ann Lassiter Edwards

    I’m a scientist – a psychologist who studies both cognitive psychology and cultural psychology. I figured I’d make that statement first. I’m also a practitioner of Buddhism and I don’t feel that I’m secular in any means. There is a huge difference between scientific inquiry and the scientism (as Danny refers to here). The meditation studies were not only done with monks but also other contemplatives including nuns from Christian orders. Anyone who spent long hours in contemplative practice either meditation or prayer. The monks got a lot more air play than the nuns, funnily enough. The Dalai Lama was more interested than the Pope, perhaps. Scientists were interested in the changes in the brain. What the rest of the world made out of it was beyond the point of the experiments.

    I think for Westerners, there are, perhaps, negative connotations to the word religion so they shy away from it and also the trappings of religion. The appeal, therefore, of a non-religion is great. Also, many “popular” authors (even non-secular Buddhists) tend to try to appeal to a non-religious audience. You don’t hear reincarnation discussed or anything that might put off a more general audience. Buddhism on the shelves of Brick and Mortar stores tends to the vanilla. You have to seek out the dharma more ardently.

    From my own point of view, I don’t think Buddhism is “religion” in the sense of god centered religion. I do tend to think of it as a “path” which seems to me inherently different. Critical thinking is encouraged. Inquiry is encouraged. Full engagement in the world. The inner and the outer world are fully integrated. Personal responsibility.

  • Dave Webster

    Î think these are defining issues for Buddhism in the West, as it develops. There is a complex mix of factors here, and it will take a decade or few to unpick..

    Personally, I’d say Buddhism has been a religion in fundamental ways. What interests me is that as an atheist who entirely rejects the supernatural and the spiritual, why is there something intriguing in Buddhism? It isn’t just the efficacy of meditative method in treating mental troubles. I think it is more the extent to which Buddhi thought models certain philosophical positions that is: Buddhism is interesting / compelling to many, philosophically, because it is

  • lownslowav8r

    I’m firmly in the camp that Buddhism is a religion. Not so much because the definition of religion entirely matches Buddhism (religion, after all, was defined very much from a Christian theological viewpoint) but that Buddhism arises from the same fundamental human impulses, intuition, insight, and needs that other religions have arisen from. Samvega is the Pali term for the feeling that arises when a sensitive person begins to see what life is about. Samvega is why a person enters the path. In the time and place of the Buddha and because of the Buddha’s own personal experience of Nibbana, the Dhamma-Vinaya arose (what Christian Orientalists called Buddhism).

    To me it is important to treat Buddhism as a religion not only to recognize it as a path of salvation, and the world of scientism there is no possibility of salvation, but to also be wary of putting Buddhism on a pedestal. Calling Buddhism “spiritual” is one such way of claiming Buddhist exceptionalism since spiritual has come to mean the good aspects of religion.

    If we forget where in the human experience Buddhism arises we will forget that this place has a dark side and we must always skilfully practice ethics, compassion, and virtue in order to protect ourselves and others from this dark aspect of religion. We must remain wary of those who have rigid views (within Buddhism and without) about who is a “good” human being and worthy of respect and social value. We have examples throughout the Buddhist world where Buddhist religious authorities have forgotten the deeper meaning of the Buddha’s teachings, whether it is non-harming towards others who are follow a different religion, or towards women who wish to deeply follow his path.

  • Vishvapani Blomfield

    We are still learning to distinguish the Dharma that deserves to survive the transition to western and modern societies from the specific expressions and cultures in which it has been transmitted. But that’s a different agenda from secularisation, and different again from making Buddhism seemingly scientific. So it’s not surprising that we have trouble with the category ‘religious’, which carries many connotations that are alien to Buddhism, along with many that aren’t.
    For me the key question is, can we practice the Dharma in its fullness in a secular setting – taking the common understanding of secularity here. I don’t see how you can include Bodhi within that, and yet that’s what the Dharma is all about. That’s why I think we need to focus this discussion on Enlightenment.

    • Dharmamitra Jeff Stfeani

      Very well stated, Vishvapani! Your concise and precise response if carefully examined and “unpacked,” addresses each significant matter in question.
      I kept going with this, but then got off on my own tangent, so I left m own reply.

  • honey butter

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking article, Danny. I always wonder why we feel such a strong need to land on one side or the other of this ‘debate.’ Is it possible that Buddhism could be both, depending on who we are and where we are situated, and many other factors? Isn’t dharma, after all, about non-duality?

    ~Maia Duerr (my Disquis identity happens to be honey butter!)

  • Vira Avalokita

    Buddhism should not be considered as a philosophy or a social system but as an on going system of Science based upon, observation, hypothesis, experimentation and replication under controlled conditions to check the relevance of the hypothesis. The movement of Buddhism for a greater understanding is always controlled accurately when the Scientific Method is applied.

  • Michael

    Brad Warner addresses the extremes of idealism (spirituality) and materialism (scientific view) in his books, especially his new book There is No God and He is Always With You. According to Warner, mind (idealism) and body (materialism) are just two aspects of a deeper reality. When one reaches the balanced state between these extreme views by practicing Zazen (a lot), one can see this deeper reality (God) directly, which goes beyond the extreme views of idealism or materialism. Dogen’s description of this balanced state that sees true reality was “mind and body dropping off.”

  • Michael

    Didn’t the Confucians adapt Buddhist techniques to make more effective bureaucrats? Didn’t the Taoists adapt the philosophy and techniques to create Buddho-Taoism? Didn’t Tibet latch on native Bon shamanical practices? Didn’t southeast asia (and everywhere else) meld their dhamma heavily with hindu folklore and ritual?

    Just saying, what’s wrong with adding a hyphen or a qualifier and calling it a day? At least secular buddhists (buddho-secularists?) are doing this pretty consciously, and tend to be very focused on specific traditional justification for the benefits of practices in this very life (there’s plenty, and not just in the pali canon either).

    The very concept of what liberation is, for all that it has been painted over as very similar across all buddhisms in the ecumenical West, has been fiercely debated across traditions for 2,500 years. Bodhisattvas, anyone? Buddha nature? living immortally in the land of the Dakas? Not very pali-friendly terms, say. Conversely, read the Nirvana Sutra and it will TRASH the idea of not-self. Or ask most Theravadin teachers about non-duality, and they will tell you that’s another extreme.

    All of which is to say: the sheer insistence on continuity from traditional voices can blind us to the radical discontinuity in practice and belief among traditions and even between eras within traditions. In that context, why not just get clearer about the labeling, and let people seek the good life where they believe it may be found?

  • Will Tuladhar-Douglas

    Danny (et al),

    Gombrich’s objections in that text — and as one of his students I have deep respect for the man and how deftly he presents his opinions! — are based on an understanding of ‘religion’ which itself has come in for heavy criticism in the past 30 years (think Talal Asad, Russell McCutcheon). I suspect the problem here is not with Buddhism, but with the inherited terminology. ‘Religion’ and ‘the secular’ are two sides of a single, pervasive but not obligatory, belief system with considerable political power that includes among other things an insistence that moral ideas (‘beliefs’) are inaccessibly private states, not collaborative and porous achievements, and that the only valid moral agents are normal humans. Both of those are presuppositions that Buddhism in most forms would reject, even those newer forms of Buddhism that seek to ‘discard irrational beliefs’. What’s needed is a critical social analysis of such dominant ideologies *from a Buddhist perspective*, one that foregrounds relatedness not essence, that abandons human exclusivism, and that rests in a theory of history that doesn’t depend on eschatologies (so also Marx, Hegel etc.). For what it’s worth, there are many ‘hard’ scientists who are equally suspicious of the religion-secular dichotomy as a norm under which one must conduct scientific enquiry.

    Another way of saying this is that our debates, as Buddhists in an English-speaking medium, are still hopelessly strangled by the presuppositions carried within that language and its cousins. We’re trying to rethink a new world but we haven’t yet got the linguistic toolkit that lets us do it freely. Words like ‘religion’, ‘secular’, ‘science’, ‘belief’ or ‘history’ are just like any other technology. They’re not neutral; they pull the user towards values and assumptions that we, in our debates, might not want. The present media debates, in which ‘the West’, ‘Islam’ and now (especially after the recent Bodhgaya bombs) ‘Buddhism’ are terms in a ‘culture clash’ —that presumes monolithic cultures with monolithic, exclusive religious affiliations — doesn’t help us at all to free ourselves of these pervasive assumptions.

    From the knotty roots of my particular tree, then, these debates are actually part of the process through which we seek to open up the language and generate openings for new ways of thinking. They’re crude and uncritical, but they’re a healthy step in the right direction. Once we recognise that ‘religion’ isn’t much of a useful term to describe anything other than some Abrahamic traditions and their postcolonial offspring (like the RSS or the Bodhu Bala Sena) then we can get on with the analysis.


    • Vishvapani Blomfield

      Thanks for this, Will.

  • Paul J Kiefer

    Saying Buddhism is a religion IS exceptionalism, not the other way around. What the Buddha taught is not religion. Ritual, conformity, rules, incense and robes are.

  • Dharmamitra Jeff Stfeani

    Great blog entry Rev.Danny FisherVery well stated, Vishvapani! Your concise and precise response (far more concise than I am stating) if carefully examined and “unpacked,” addresses each significant matter in question, while skillfully bypassing the superfluous distractions (not from this blog post, but the rhetoric and ongoing debates surrounding these issues) from the heart of the Dharma/Dhamma, which hold the key to unraveling the underlying “Wrong-Views” of what the Buddha teaches: the Path to Bodhi. Thus, regardless of what or whomever chooses to name something; calling it anything, or any type of “_____Buddhism” that discounts Buddhism’s intended use as a tool designed for the specified purpose of producing the intended result; Bodhi, is a “bastardization” or misuse of its true meaning and purpose.
    Actually, the term “Buddhism” itself can be traced back to the origin of the current use (and misuse) of the term Buddhism, which is Westernized terminology, in itself, which only came into existence in the late 19th, early 20th century, by Western Scholars and some of the earliest practitioners who were limited (thus the beginning a “vicious cycle”) by these primarily Academics’ rather poor, misleading translations which were made even worse with their additional commentary (commentary and translations made without the necessary “Experiential Insight” attained by accurately practicing the Dharma) primarily due, not to malice, but ignorance on the basis of an ethnocentric, Western, Judeo-Christian Paradigm, and attempts to make an Academic Study of what is clearly presented by the Buddha as a pragmatic method to applied and adhered to, very analogous to a “map” or “Instruction Manual” for those to follow with Body, Speech and Heart/Mind with the intended goal being Awakening/Bodhi and “extinguishing of the causation of suffering” (Nirvana/Nibbana) or, otherwise put: the attainment of a specific result through specific Actions, or “Way of Life,” not abstract, or purely intellectual contemplation or debate.
    There are useful tools that can and are extracted or extricated from the Buddha-Dharma that I am all for their application for other intended results, such as meditation for health, or specifically, “Mindfulness Based Stress, or Pain, Reduction,” of which I teach, but do so as an MBSR Facilitator, not a Dharma Teacher, which is my true vocation.
    So, it my approach, understanding and belief that ignorance (in the literal meaning, not insulting or insinuating any malice) of terminology and the vagueness of semantics are at the core, or the origination of these debates.
    Lastly, as a trained Biologist, and a trained Dharma Teacher, I see the Dharma as quite Scientific in nature and methodology (although our current limitations do not allow us to adhere the Dharma to the strictest “Scientific Method” (which also applies, strictly speaking, to the “soft Sciences” such as Psychology and Sociology.)
    A Hypothesis is to be tested and repeated under specific conditions, as Vira Avalokita points out, as many others have also skillfully presented, staring with Shakyamuni Buddha, that the Buddha-Dharma continues to be scientific by its very nature.
    The “Medical Analogy” used to describe the Four Noble Truths as: 1st)Diagnosis, 2nd)Etiology, 3rd)Prognosis, and the 4th)The Treatment Plan is one example, and the Kalima Sutta is another example, from the Pali Canon, where the Buddha expounds on the necessity to not make any assumptions, nor take on the basis of another’s word, but to test for oneself the Dhamma, and if followed properly, the specific, desired results will occur and continue to occur upon the retesting of the hypothesis.