None the Wiser?

Nibbana is sacred because it releases a sentient being from Dukkha - it liberates. The realisation of Nibbana is sublime and profound - it is not a mundane and ordinary discovery that is merely therapeutic. It changes everything - our understanding of what life is all about. Nibbana is not a thing that is in-here or out-there - its not a subjective or objective reality. It is misleading to think about it as ‘any-thing’ - at all - as it has no location anywhere in the known universe.

We don’t need to imagine the sacred as a ‘thing’ that inherently exists that is separate from what we think, say and, do. We percieve in a sacred or secular manner, according to our underlying tendencies, our outlook, that is the result of many causes and supportive conditions. In this sense we could say that the sacred is a ‘form of life’ a way being in the world.

A problem arises when our perceptions are coloured by a secular mind-set and we encounter teachings that do not conform to our way of being in the world. The same problem arises with religious fanatics! Their understanding is filtered through their religious ideology which they conform to without due reflection.

If, we are still stuck in the tendency to identify with the stream of conditioned chittas - and believe they are ‘I, me or, mine’ we have not understood the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha tried to lift us out of this predicament. Without a shift of this kind we will remain where we have always been. What would be the point of that? If, we are ‘none the wiser’ after studying and practicing the Buddha’s teachings then we are wasting our time.

When a secularist hears about Nibbanic release and, it is being talked about using spiritual or religious language, they experience ‘cognitive dissonance’ (see link below). Somehow, we need to see-through our ideological preferences and prejudices in order to wake up to what is actually going on.

In the secular ‘language game’ we can talk about life and the universe as awesome and profound and/or terrifying - but, sublime? The sublime has something to do with aesthetics or, our emotions, and our emotions are an epi-phenomena.

Secular Buddhists point out that our emotions have nothing to do with the world ‘out there’. Nibbana - if it is anything - must have something to do with time, space, matter and energy. That which is immediately available to our senses and conditioned minds.

When we discover sublime and beautiful jhanas in meditation - and their consequences - we then begin to (see) why the Dhamma extends beyond a conventional frame of reference.

from online:
Dictionary
sacred:
Regarded with great respect and reverence,
Regarded as to valuable to be interfered with.

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This sounds a bit more like the description of a Christian mystical experience than a description of nibbana, at least as the latter is described in the Pali suttas.

I am always happy to make new friends! I would be happy to listen to a Christian mystic and hear about their way of being in the world. Their ‘form of life’ and, their frames of reference. When we look through different windows we will see the world from different perspectives.

As an open-minded inquirer I welcome these kinds of encounters in the hope that I may discover something new and valuable that I have overlooked or ignored. We can find the Dhamma anywhere and everywhere.

I am sure that Christian mystics would have something about them that I would respect and honour. I don’t wish to live in a world of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and I don’t see any point in assuming that others have nothing to teach me. This has never been my experience so far. So far, so good!

Many of us find the secular atheist and the religious theist dualism less than edifying. A debate that is full of sound and fury that signifies little of interest.

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Yes, that’s all fine. I’m just saying that most of the descriptions of nibbana in the Pali texts don’t sound much like the kinds of extrovertive mystical experiences of the sublime or the divine oneness such as we find in Wordsworth’s poem about Tintern Abbey.

This is a misunderstanding. Cognitive dissonance is holding two or more contradictory ideas. In the case you describe, a secularist holds to the secular point of view, and then hears spiritual/religious language. There’s no dissonance yet because the person is not holding contradictory ideas, they are not acting one way and believing another. There’s simply a secular person hearing e.g. religious ideas (or a religious person hearing secular ideas, etc.).

Yes, indeed.

This confuses me; have you got some context for this, an essay or something?

Finally, I’ll comment that - for some reason - people think of jhana and the like as somehow offering proofs of certain claims. But jhana is not unique to Buddhists, and in fact DN 1 comments at length on how such meditative experiences can lead straight into problems.

Does the experience feel important, sublime, essential, beyond words, a supreme truth, etc.? Maybe

…that is only the feeling of those who do not know and do not see; that is only the agitation and vacillation of those who are immersed in craving.

I am not sure if Wordsworth’s nature mysticism can be attributed to Christian beliefs. His poetry is largely about the wonderful feelings he would enjoy when close to nature. I have the impression he lived in a very beautiful part of England and enjoyed the outdoors. He is an important figure in ‘Romanticism’ along with ‘William Blake’. I think we would call Wordsworth a nature mystic or just a good poet. By ‘Christian’ mystic, I thought you meant somebody like ‘Theresa of Avila’ or ‘Meister Ekhart’ but, there are a number of different figures and writings in mysticism - so we may have different things in mind when we think about them.

When referring to the sublime I am not talking about oneness with God or, the other ‘language games’ we find employed in Christian theology. I am talking about the experience of the beautiful that arises when we are deeply calm and peaceful, where the mind is effortlessly at rest and wakeful and, a beautiful and sweet abiding is where the attention goes. I am not referencing any tradition or religion. I prefer to talk about direct and immediate experiences - if I can help it. I am not interested in calling Christian mystics mistaken and x, y, or z the smart guys - because I find them more interesting or due to my personal belief system. I am happy if you do not see a correlation between the way I speak and the way things are expressed the Suttas.

“If everyone’s thinking alike then NO ONE is thinking.” - Benjamin Franklin

We also need to remember that when we read - or listen to - the discourses in the early Buddhist teachings, we are listening ‘from’ a place that is uniquely our own. We may find that our own perceptions are mirrored in what other people have to say and sometimes not! How much ‘common ground’ we share with others in the Dhamma depends on many causes and conditions. We all have our favourite teachers and commentators and this can influence the way we perceive, think and, talk about the Dhamma, that is beautiful in the beginning, middle and, end. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Dear David, if you read the link on cognitive dissonance you will see it refers to more than one kind of disequilibrium within the mind. As you pointed out, it refers to a situation where we may feel a tension between different ideas or opinions we may entertain at the same time. A jostling of views that are incommensurable. Another way that we may experience dissonance is when we are exposed to ideas that are incompatible with - that contradict - our views and beliefs. Our own way of thinking about life etc. Ideas, beliefs and, views that cannot be judged by the same standards; having no common standard of measurement. This is talked about in the link - as well - and this is what I was referring to.

I like the example of cognitive dissonance I was given in a psychology lecture. It involved the buying of a faulty old car and justifying the purchase by pointing out what was good about it. And, ignoring the fact that we had bought a ‘clunker’ - because of the embarrassment this may cause. Cognitive dissonance is an interesting idea that involves more than one form of behaviour.

With regards to my comments on secular Buddhism, they are based on my own understanding of this ‘language game’. As I understand it, secular Buddhists have a number of underlying assumptions in their belief system.

It is probably unwise to talk about secular Buddhists in the singular as they may have different views and opinions. I would hope so? From what I have gathered, they seem to be on the same page when it comes to - what they refer to as - ‘magical thinking’ or superstition. They offer no empirical evidence that disproves the superstitions they question but insist that others prove them wrong. It appears that the belief in Gods, the continuity of consciousness after death etc. are propositions that are difficult to prove or disprove. Nonetheless, secularists of a Buddhist or Christian persuasion continue to ‘tilt at windmills’ for reasons of their own making.

When referring to emotions as an epi-phenomena, I am talking about the conviction that our feelings are an entirely private experience. We can talk about our feelings and we can ‘read’ what others are feeling through what they say and do - but we cannot share feelings directly. This ties into the notion that our inner life is not directly connected to the world out-there! The physical world of seemingly separate and discrete objects.

I am assuming that secularists would ascribe to this notion - that emotions are an epi-phenomena that arise as a consequence of nervous activity. Therefore, the ‘sublime’ would not be a property of the physical universe of which our nervous systems are a by-product. In the Buddha’s teachings the sublime emotions or, the divine abidings are aspects of reality. They may not be objects in space and time in the manner of a tree or a nervous system, but they are real and valid ways of talking about the way things are.

What is felt - vedana - is given more weight in the Buddha’s teachings than it receives in secular belief systems. Vedana- our feelings and sensations - are one of the ‘5 groups of existence’ that are an important theme in the Buddha’s teachings. In fact, the Master teaches, they are the world! At least, it is this world - of the five aggregates - that we are advised to pay close attention to if, we want to end suffering.

"“I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering & stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.”

"It’s not to be reached by traveling,
the end of the cosmos —
regardless.
And it’s not without reaching
the end of the cosmos
that there is release
from suffering & stress.

So, truly, the wise one,
an expert with regard to the cosmos,
a knower of the end of the cosmos,
having fulfilled the holy life,
calmed,
knowing the cosmos’ end,
doesn’t long for this cosmos
or for any other." - Rohitassa Sutta

The world that is of the most interest to us - in the Buddha’s teachings - is the the world of the five groups of existence. The Buddha talks about ‘worldings’ (puttujanas) - he teaches that those who have realised Nibbana are no longer worldings. Their lives are not about the eight worldly concerns. Or, if they get lost their insight will soon give rise to a course correction. It is interesting how words take on different meanings when they are employed in different language games. Take the following use of the word ‘sacred’ and contrast it with the way it is used in Christian theology: “to a police officer nothing is sacred!” When it comes to people who have a strong commitment to a belief system - whether it is secular or religious - we find them (believing) that their views are not merely a way of looking at the world. The expressions of a form of life - a series of practices, norms and values etc. Instead, they are seeing things ‘as they are’.

The dogmatic insistence on being able to see the way things are, without the perversions of perception that we can suffer from, is most unfortunate. The Buddha taught that we are incapable of seeing things clearly because we are the victims of greed, hatred and, ignorance. From the Buddha’s awakened vantage point we are all delusional. This includes: Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Batchelor, Albert Einstein and, Donald Trump - not to speak of lesser mortals! The Buddha made it clear: only the Aryan Sangha have the necessary clarity to understand the Dhamma in a way that leads to final release. This is where he encouraged us to go - while the goings good. Buddhism declares: that the Buddha’s teachings help us to (see) the way things are - in reality.

Meaning as Use

“For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PI 43). This basic statement is what underlies the change of perspective most typical of the later phase of Wittgenstein’s thought: a change from a conception of meaning as representation to a view which looks to use as the crux of the investigation. Traditional theories of meaning in the history of philosophy were intent on pointing to something exterior to the proposition which endows it with sense. This ‘something’ could generally be located either in an objective space, or inside the mind as mental representation. As early as 1933 (The Blue Book) Wittgenstein took pains to challenge these conceptions, arriving at the insight that “if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use” (BB 4). Ascertainment of the use (of a word, of a proposition), however, is not given to any sort of constructive theory building, as in the Tractatus. Rather, when investigating meaning, the philosopher must “look and see” the variety of uses to which the word is put. An analogy with tools sheds light on the nature of words. When we think of tools in a toolbox, we do not fail to see their variety; but the “functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects” (PI 11). We are misled by the uniform appearance of our words into theorizing upon meaning: “Especially when we are doing philosophy!” (PI 12)

So different is this new perspective that Wittgenstein repeats: “Don’t think, but look!” (PI 66); and such looking is done vis a vis particular cases, not generalizations. In giving the meaning of a word, any explanatory generalization should be replaced by a description of use. The traditional idea that a proposition houses a content and has a restricted number of Fregean forces (such as assertion, question and command), gives way to an emphasis on the diversity of uses. In order to address the countless multiplicity of uses, their un-fixedness, and their being part of an activity, Wittgenstein introduces the key concept of ‘language-game’. He never explicitly defines it since, as opposed to the earlier ‘picture’, for instance, this new concept is made to do work for a more fluid, more diversified, and more activity-oriented perspective on language.

Language-games and Family Resemblance

Throughout the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein returns, again and again, to the concept of language-games to make clear his lines of thought concerning language. Primitive language-games are scrutinized for the insights they afford on this or that characteristic of language. Thus, the builders’ language-game (PI 2), in which a builder and his assistant use exactly four terms (block, pillar, slab, beam), is utilized to illustrate that part of the Augustinian picture of language which might be correct but which is, nevertheless, strictly limited. ‘Regular’ language-games, such as the astonishing list provided in PI 23 (which includes, e.g., reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play-acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, thanking, and so on), bring out the openness of our possibilities in using language and in describing it.

Language-games are, first, a part of a broader context termed by Wittgenstein a form of life (see below). Secondly, the concept of language-games points at the rule-governed character of language. This does not entail strict and definite systems of rules for each and every language-game, but points to the conventional nature of this sort of human activity. Still, just as we cannot give a final, essential definition of ‘game’, so we cannot find “what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language. - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Thanks for the clarification on your use of ‘dissonance’; I had another chain of reasoning going on, so some mental gears slipped, in my case.

This is mostly a misrepresentation.

They aren’t obligated to disprove superstitions because the ones claiming that certain ‘superstitions’ are true have the burden of proof. They also don’t need to make a claim when they ask for evidence, so in this case they wouldn’t insist that anyone prove them wrong because they haven’t claimed anything. (If they do, they’ll bear the burden of proof for that claim.)

This is true for materialists; this is not necessarily true for secularists. It’s apparently quite hard for people to keep these ideas distinct.

Awe is an emotion brought on by experiences of the sublime; even as an epiphenomenon, it exists the way other emotions do, whether sublime or banal. Such awe can happen with religious ideas, scientific ideas - all sorts of ideas & experiences.

Vedana is not emotion, it is simple hedonic tone: pleasant, unpleasant, neither. Emotions have vedana as a component, of course, but they also have sanna & vinnana as components. So, emotions are cognitive; they are part of what’s going on in citta (along with moods, etc.), they are not part of what’s going on in the eye-base or the body-base or so on.

Tenderheartedness, greed, compassion, hatred - all kinds of emotions can show up. But you seem to be trying to say that the brahmaviharas are not based on emotions but are instead " sublime aspects of reality." I’m not at all sure what you mean.

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It is interesting what you said about the burden of proof. You seem to (believe) that the burden of proof for the believer of superstitions lies with the believer thereof! Firstly, I suspect that what is referred to as ‘superstitions’ are not taken to be so, by many religious believers. The only way we could conclusively establish that rebirth or the belief in gods etc. is actually - incontrovertibly - superstitious nonsense, would be to provide evidence. That is how we establish facts and negate fictions - we provide evidence? In other words, someone who takes rebirth to be a factual actual process, could ask the secularist the same question that is being asked of them. They may assert the proposition: the belief in finality after death - the discontinuity of the stream of consciousness - is a superstition. A completely unprovable belief put forward by gullible secularists. What evidence do they have that rebirth has never taken place? They provide no evidence for their superstitious beliefs i.e. the nonexistence of gods etc. and assert their convictions as if they were proven facts.

My solution to this predicament - this Mexican stand-off - is simple. Let the secularists and the religionists make as much noise as they like - espousing their claims and counterclaims - and ignore them. Put the whole thing down to ideology and the grip it has on the minds of those who cannot see their way beyond it.

This is the way I deal with the issue but I realise that it is not everyones cup of tea. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Its interesting how people who are still breathing have incontrovertible insights into what happens after they stop breathing. When someone has actually stopped breathing and they have been declared clinically dead and, then are revived and report what it was like then, I will sit up and listen. We get mixed reports from this cohort.

The burden of proof is always with the claimant. If you make a claim, you have to provide evidence or else it is merely an opinion. So, someone making the claim that “rebirth is true” must provide evidence, or admit it is merely opinion. Same with people claiming that post-death annihilation is true: theirs is the burden of proof.

As to the rest, well, nevermind. It’s exhausting, sometimes, talking with people who come at topics from wholly different points of view. Finding common ground - or even common terminology - seems impossible to me, in at least some cases (such as this one).

Dear David, we may actually be on the same page if you ‘mean’ what you have said in your last comment?

If I was to insist that rebirth is a myth (or not) I would be making a ‘claim’ - that seems obvious? With regard to people who insist that rebirth is an established fact - it is an interesting idea - but I am unable to confirm or deny what they believe. What they are taking to be true may ‘actually’ be false? Rebirth may be a fact or fiction - a myth or reality? It occupies a ‘grey area’ with regard to truth-claims that would be difficult to prove or disprove - conclusively. When secular Buddhists claim to know that rebirth is a myth - a superstition - and, it could never happen, I understand that they are referring to an ‘article of faith’ within their belief system.

I do not claim that rebirth is - or is not - a fact or a fantasy! Instead, I engage in an intentional suspension of belief and disbelief. I would never claim to know something that I simply believe. That would be foolish or deceitful?

As I am not privy to what it is to be dead - it has not happened yet - I am not in a position to shed light on what happens - or does not happen. And when it does, I am not likely to be a good source of information - either! I expect that I will be extinct - nowhere - or perhaps, somewhere else? Who knows? By ‘knowing’ - in this context - I mean something like: I am sitting at a computer or, what did I have for breakfast. Something I can be certain about because I just had breakfast or, I am observing my fingers tapping out this reply.

I have other kinds of knowledge which are very much unlike these immediate and apparent observations or statements regarding obvious facts. Later in the day - or tomorrow - I may still remember what I just had for breakfast or this exchange. Therefore, it would still be something I know in a very real way. However, if you ask me if I (believe) there is life elsewhere in the universe - in any number of shapes and forms - subtle and gross - I would say it is likely! However, that would be an opinion, a view or, possibly, a belief? I cannot understand how anyone could convince themselves that they truly know something that they merely believe. This would be self-deception?

Hi David, what you had to say about hedonic tone and Vedana was very helpful. It has helped me to understand this teaching in a way that makes a lot more sense than the earlier ideas I have heard about. What you had to say about making a distinction between secularism and materialism was also helpful. I am not sure how atheism plays into secularism? You seem to be saying that a secularist may not claim that rebirth is false but simply ask for proof? However, some secularists are also admirers of atheism. Atheists often come across as more strident in their views. They do more than ask for proof. Instead, they vehemently assert that ideas like rebirth are patently false. This assertion is more than an impartial attitude of maybe, maybe not I.e. there is insufficient evidence to justify such a belief. Instead, there is the claim that the opposite is true I.e. rebirth does not exist! This is were we get into the vacuous game of claim and counter claim. The new-atheists throw rebirth into their grab-bag of pet-hates along with fairies, ghosts and homeopathy. Could you also clarify how a secularist may not be a materialist. What alternative to materialism can a secularist ascribe to?

Regarding my comment about sublime emotions being aspects of reality. All I meant to imply was our emotional life - and the sublime emotions in particular - are an important aspect of our inner life. That which arises in the stream of consciousness is something we need to see as important and real. Not some kind of irrelevant epiphenomena that has no bearing on reality - our actual lived reality. I hope this helps to clarify what I was trying to convey?

They’re basically unrelated.

Secularism is something of a “militant agnosticism” which values removing religious ideations (such as a specific ethics or metaphysics) from social coercion (law, mores, etc.). It’s a response to various communicative obstacles, such as occur due to worldwide religious pluralism.

Only with robust evidence can a given claim (whether religious/spiritual or not) enter into public discourse as a contingent & compelling fact (subject to ongoing clarification, of course; i.e. scientific investigation). Secularism is otherwise a somewhat broad term, with various kinds which differ in their details.

Atheism is a term that is used by people in different ways, so any given atheist will need to specify how they’re using it. Some consider it a clear statement “there is no god”, others consider it to be a simple lack of theism. I tend to consider atheism in this second sense, using it to pick out a specific sort of agnosticism (but, strictly speaking, atheism is a strong claim).

So I consider the claim “there are no gods” to be on the same footing as “there are gods”; I see both strong atheism & theism as speculative commitments which assert more than available evidence warrants. Materialism is similar in that it is making a strong metaphysical claim: everything is physical (or wholly based on the physical).

Secularism doesn’t really ‘do’ metaphysics; it’s basically an argument that metaphysics ought not have any weight when it comes to general human interactions.


Emotional life is indeed one aspect of our inner life, along with thoughts and so forth. I’m not sure who would claim that emotions were unimportant and unreal, however, if for no other reason than the obvious fact that emotions have a huge impact on human behavior.

Thanks for that! I guess the question I wanted to ask about secularism was: how does atheism play into secular Buddhism?

I understand what secularism is but, I have read some secular Buddhist teachings and they go beyond a concern about religious norms and values in a secular society. They also serve as a medium through which atheistic ideas enter into Buddhist discourse. There are catch-words, phrases and, arguments put forward that are identical - or nearly identical - to the stuff we find in atheist rants and critiques. This cannot be a coincidence - it must mean that many secular Buddhists are familiar with the polemics of Dawkins, Hitchens etc. and look at the Dhamma through an atheistic lens?

Some agnostics may also feel at home in secular Buddhism. I find the term ‘Secular Buddhism’ misleading. Why not refer to secular Buddhism as ‘Buddhist Practice for Agnostics and Atheists’ (BPAA) or, BPAA-Dhamma? We cannot refer to the mindfulness movement and its impact on secular society as ‘Buddhist’ because it isn’t. Mindfulness being only one factor or element within the eightfold path.

I remember hearing a quote from one of the ancient Greek philosophers. You may know who - perhaps Democritus? It said something about the world being nothing but atoms in space - everything else is unreal. This was an early form of materialism. The implication being that the value we ascribe to life and living is illusory. From this perspective our emotions are given short shrift. I guess some nihilists are singing from the same - or a similar - song sheet! :blush:

Aren’t almost all Buddhists atheists? There is nothing in standard Buddhist teachings corresponding to the Supreme Being or omnipotent and omniscient creator and arranger of the universe that is found in the theistic traditions. Buddhists may believe in devas, or even boddhisattvas, but those beliefs don’t seem tantamount to theism.

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Buddhism is defined as a non-theistic religion. At least, that is one of the first definitions I encountered. I’m not sure who came up with that definition but it’s fairly mainstream. Buddhism is not a God or god/deva centred belief system.

We do not pray to a deity or deities and the Dhamma - that liberates - isn’t ‘received’ as divine grace. We do not rely on saviours, avatars, prophets, or divine revelation.

Buddhism is a heterodox not an orthodox body of teachings. The Vedic teachings that are theistic in nature are considered orthodox and Buddhism and Jainism - among others - are defined as heterodox traditions. Because they reject the Vedas as a final authority. This does not mean that everything we find in theistic traditions is false.

These are standard textbook definitions but, as we know, as practitioners, the Buddha-Dhamma does not fit easily into modern categories. The Dhamma incorporates - aspects of - and goes beyond what we call, Psychology, Philosophy, and Religion. The Dhamma is based on the awakened intelligence of the Buddha. However, the Buddha discovered the Dhamma he did not invent it.

The Dhamma is not the Buddha’s theory it is something we can all discover for ourselves. The Buddha only points the way it is up to us to explore the eightfold path. Happy journeys! :hugs: