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!
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.
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!
Technically (according to some dictionary entries), “theism” could refer simply to belief in the existence of gods (or devas, presumably). Although, you are correct that more often the word refers specifically to the belief in one all powerful creator God. “Atheism” could simply mean a rejection of the latter definition of theism, but the word also seems to carry certain connotations (at least in monotheistic circles) that wouldn’t be characteristic of many Buddhists (ie., atheists don’t believe in any power, or being, or meaning above and beyond material existence - belief in karma, devas, psychic powers, rebirth, nibbana, and supra-mundane spiritual realizations etc…would seem to violate this proviso).
Polytheism or monotheism is incompatible with atheism. The belief in gods or God is not possible for an atheist. The atheism I have encountered is not just the rejection of a belief in gods. Atheists believe in the nonexistence of gods.
There are quite a lot of people who are not atheists or theists. They are undecided and, others are open-minded. I have always felt an open-minded attitude is a requirement for understanding the Dhamma - that is my belief.
The acceptance or rejection of an unproven postulate is by definition: a ‘belief’. Therefore, atheism is a belief system. Many atheists ‘believe’ that they don’t believe in anything - they are faithless. This is atheist mythology - it is their version of the fairies at the end of the garden. Atheists are often reluctant to admit that many of their views are faith-based. Instead, they fantasize about their objectivity. They are dispassionate observers - like research scientists.
Atheists are often devotees of scientism. The belief that science is the only valid means to arrive at facts - in contrast to fictions or unproven theories. I guess scientism is optional for atheists but it seems very popular. The rejection of soul-theory is a given for most atheists. They ‘believe’ in soullessness.
Samkhya - a heterodox teaching that predates Buddhism - postulates the existence of souls but no supreme soul or Godhead. The Buddha reformulated a few Samkhya ideas but went one step further with his not-soul and no supreme soul teachings. The not-self/soul teachings do not include a ‘belief’ in no-self/soul.
" … Samkhya means number. Samkhya philosophy deals with the number of realities that are present in existence … It exerted profound influence on many scholars in ancient India, China and, according to some, even in Greece … Although originally it might have begun as a theistic philosophy with its roots in the Upanishads, it appears that subsequently it morphed into an atheistic school which assigned no role to God in creation and attributed all causes and effects to Nature. Its main tenets and ideas gradually found their way into main stream Hinduism and several sects of Buddhism." - Jayaram V.
The Buddha extended an invitation: come and see the Dhamma! We need to remember that all these designations and identifications are not our main focus of interest.
I was at a monastery once and a respected Theravada nun was giving a teaching to a group of monks. One monk asked a question about females and whether they can wake up fully to the Dhamma that liberates. The nun answered like this: you cannot be caught in identities like male or female, monk or nun to wake up!
Discrimination based on sex and gender is an important thing to get rid of but awakening involves a different kind of issue - our primal ignorance.
We can wake up because we are human beings - simple! Our belief systems, philosophical views and opinions vary according to our conditioning and Nibbana is the not-conditioned.
Awakening is our main concern in all of this - not ideology. It is the seeing and being of the truth that sets us free. Liberation makes unconditional love and freedom our lived reality.
I brought it up to get it out of the way. In order to get it out of the way we need to fully recognise that they are hindrances - if we don’t see them clearly.
One of the things that is interesting about the Buddha’s teachings is the distinction he makes between theory and liberating insight. The Buddha was not a philosopher or an ideologue - he was a (seer) - a trans-personal explorer and mapmaker, our true friend and teacher.
One of the points I was trying to make is secular Buddhism - which seems to be a Buddhist practice for agnostics and atheists - is an ideology. Whereas the eightfold path is a form of direct inquiry. The goal of practice is to get beyond ideology and discover the living Dhamma. To do this we need to ‘recognise’ what ideology is and move away from it. Does that make sense?
This applies to religious ideology as well - it is also used to condition the mind of the devotee. We are not interested in a blind allegiance to any belief system. This includes Buddhism as a belief system. The Buddha was not a Buddhist - Nibbana is the not-conditioned.
‘Secular’ - it is more than secular! As you pointed out, secularism is concerned with curbing the influence and power of religions in secular society. There are numerous examples of secular Buddhist teachings that go beyond the concerns of secularism. You must know this?
Stephen Batchelor may have decided to use the word ‘secular’ after his study of ‘Secular Christianity’ - whatever that means? He is kind of lucky that he decided to call it ‘Secular Buddhism’ if, he had been less sloppy in his choice of words he would have lost a good slice of his market share?
Buddhist Practice for Agnostics and Atheists’ (BPAAISM) sounds a bit peculiar - who would take it seriously? In addition, when his potential customer-base found out that it was a teaching for ‘atheists’ it would take the mystery out of it. Those who are disinterested in or, dislike atheism, would not give his work the attention it deserves. I have learnt a lot from his writings. They have given me a better understanding of important western thinkers.
Although I personally find Batchelor’s approach to the teachings inadequate for my needs, and as an account of what is most important in Buddhism, I see no reason to assume his motivations are a cynical pursuit of customers and markets.
They named themselves, so I expect that they mean something specifically nuanced with it, or - dare I say it - different secularists call themselves that word while meaning slightly different sorts of things. But in conversation it’s probably the most general way of saying that someone is separated from religious/spiritual hierarchies while engaging in contemplative practices based on them (Buddhism, for the most part).
Ideologies are (attempts at) consistent systems of thought, and are usually political. Sounds like Buddhism and Secularism. You should probably unpack the connotations you’re bringing to the term; its definition doesn’t really mark off a distinction here.
(And also, maybe unpack this term “living Dhamma”; at first blush it sounds kinda woo-woo to me.)
I agree, Stephen is a good man and I learn a lot from his work. That comment was not meant to be taken seriously. It just seemed to be a way to say what I was trying to express. Metaphorical not literal!
It was a french materialist who coined the term ‘ideology’ and, ‘Marx’ used it in his political theory. It is used as a tool to talk about a variety of secular ideologies. All ideologies share underlying characteristics. The following quote gives a synopsis of what these characteristics are! Ideology is only one way of talking about what I am trying to convey. There are a number of different language-games that approach the same issue from different angles. This is not the time, or place, to enter into that discussion!
"Meta-ideology is the study of the structure, form, and manifestation of ideologies. Meta-ideology posits that ideology is a coherent system of ideas, relying upon a few basic assumptions about reality that may or may not have any factual basis, but are subjective choices that serve as the seeds from which further thought grows. According to this perspective, ideologies are neither right nor wrong, but only a relativistic intellectual strategy for categorizing the world. The positive and negative effects of ideology range from the vigor and fervor of true believers to ideological infallibility.
The works of George Walford and Harold Walsby, done under the heading of systematic ideology, are attempts to explore the relationships between ideology and social systems.
David W. Minar describes six different ways in which the word “ideology” has been used:
As a collection of certain ideas with certain kinds of content, usually normative
As the form or internal logical structure that ideas have within a set
By the role in which ideas play in human-social interaction
By the role that ideas play in the structure of an organization
As meaning, whose purpose is persuasion
As the locus of social interaction
For Willard A. Mullins, an ideology is composed of four basic characteristics:
It must have power over cognitions
It must be capable of guiding one’s evaluations
It must provide guidance towards action
It must be logically coherent … "- New World Encyclopedia
By ‘living Dhamma’ I mean the Dhamma we live - practice - not just think about. The Dhamma is expressed through the way we live - our ‘lived’ reality. The eightfold path is a lived reality not an abstraction. An awakened being is a living expression of the Dhamma - that is fully realised. I don’t see how this is woo-woo?
Of course. I said ‘usually’, not ‘always’. But both groups we’re talking about have ideologies, while you seemed to think that one of them was free of that. Both groups also have instruction about embodying the practice as a daily effort, not as an occasional & scholastic one.
My point stands: these things you’re talking about aren’t what separate these two groups.
I realise that there is a hands on approach to the Dhamma in secular Buddhism. It is practice oriented. I have done the best I can to explain myself. If you disagree with what I have said thats fine. I am satisfied with my efforts so far. Hopefully, there is some value in this conversation. You mentioned earlier how exhausting it can be to find common ground. Perhaps you were right after all - ho hum!
What is the other group you are referring to? I have talked about the religious and secular. I am not in either camp! I have talked about religious and secular ideology. You seem to have a problem with my use of the term ideology. I have done everything I can to explain what I mean when I use the term. What more can I do - if you don’t see my point by now then I give up - best wishes, Laurence
The two groups are Secular and (presumably) Traditional. You said
This means that you think Secular Buddhism is an ideology, whereas the Eightfold Path is not an ideology but instead a form of direct inquiry which is free from ideology. But Traditional Buddhism (where the Eightfold Path first occurs) is also an ideology, so I wanted to clarify this issue. They are both ideologies, and they both say that one should embody the practice using direct inquiry.