Secularism must lead to hedonism?

Interesting post and thread. I have wondered about this too, how secular buddhists felt about their own demise. But another question I have and I’m not trying to proselytize, but just genuinely curious:

Why follow or study Buddhism at all? Why not just be a hedonist? If there’s only one life and that’s it and no abrahamic heaven or hell either, why not just enjoy it as much as possible? Why waste time with studying ancient texts, sitting for long hours, chanting or other religious activities? I know the texts talk about the here and now too, for example in the Kalama Sutta, but from a practical use of time, wouldn’t ocean-surfing, going on year-long ocean cruises or snow-skiing or some other activity you might enjoy be a better use of a limited time in only one life?

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Just to clarify, I’m not advocating for hedonism. :smile: I’m just saying that it would seem like a somewhat logical choice if there is no heaven, hell, purgatory, rebirth or any other kind of afterlife to just “make the most” of the current short life. I believe/accept rebirth, so have no interest in hedonism.

But for those that do conclusively believe there is no afterlife of any kind (putting aside the endless debates about self, no-self, soul, no-soul), why not just pursue happiness all the time, whatever that may be for the person believing this. If they are right, there will be no repercussions.

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Hi, yes. I understood you to be saying if people don’t believe in rebirth, then it is logical for them to pursue hedonism as the best way to make the most of their life. My question was why would you suggest hedonism for people interested to pursue natural ends and natural motivations.

My thought is that one wouldn’t be a human being when only pursuing ones own happiness.
A fullfilled human life consists in my opinion of loving kindness and compassion, which is missing when “making the most out of it”. All those “Vanderpump rules people” and other rubbish, shows that more than enough (for me). Unfortunately I have a client who loves watching this stuff.
But I get what you mean. That’s probably why the world is in a state the way it is now.

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I did answer this question in my OP. Like most people, I want to live a meaningful life. I don’t see hedonism as meaningful. I also don’t see a life of pleasure-denying puritanical dogmatism as meaningful.

Why would anyone say that studying ancient texts is a “waste of time”? I’m shocked (LOL). It’s one of the most enjoyable things I do. I like trying to inhabit someone else’s world. I’ve been an avid reader all my life. Reading things written a long time ago is deeply rewarding, I find.

“Sitting” is it’s own reward. And, as I said above, it holds the promise of enlightenment for those who have the temperament and the opportunity (which I don’t). But it also has benefits for those who only play in the shallow end. Even “mindfulness” on its own is beneficial. Paying attention is revolutionary.

One thing we know about human happiness is that self-transcendence is very much part of the mix. I have always tried to cultivate this mindset of doing scholarship in the service of others. The whole point of making discoveries is to share them! It’s the experience of discovery that I find exhilarating and want to share.

Christians will often say “What’s the point of life if you don’t believe in God?” Or “What’s the point of life if you won’t meet your loved ones in heaven?” (Gillian Welch has written wonderfully poignant songs on these themes). I used to find it odd that Buddhists would have the same rhetoric.

I’m 58 and in my life I have been a scientist, librarian, musician/composer, painter, sculptor, calligrapher, photographer (briefly pro), writer, and member of a Buddhist Order. I’ve been married and divorced. I have surfed in the ocean many times (especially at Piha Beach). I’ve climbed at least two active volcanoes (plus I was born inside the caldera of a living supervolcano). I’ve lived in two countries. I have travelled some: USA, Thailand, India (twice), Australia (many times), and all over New Zealand. I enjoy gardening (I have a bodhi tree grown from seeds collected from the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya), cooking, and reading Scifi. I’m well informed on the history and geography of my local area. I have friends all over the world. I’ve see a circular rainbow, the green-flash, and a number of other rarities. I’ve seen the stars without light pollution. What I’m saying is that I have had plenty of experiences.

I’ve also taught myself Pāli and Chinese. I’ve written more than 600 essays for my blog. And I’ve published around 40 peer-reviewed articles. Without any formal education or training in these fields, (I did audit Sanskrit classes at Cambridge for two years), I’m now routinely publishing in the top Buddhist Studies journals alongside experienced professional scholars. What I’ve done with the Heart Sutra would be a substantial achievement for a pro scholar, for me… well, it’s something, eh? And I’ve done it all in a spirit of service to other Buddhists (who admittedly tend to reward me by spitting in my face, but still).

I’ve had a full life and I’ve done my best to make a contribution, to leave the world a better place than when I arrived (I didn’t chose a good time in history for this, but nonetheless). Getting to study ancient texts is the icing on the cake for me.

Having only one life is poignant, especially when it is marred by chronic ill-health as most of mine has been. But I’ve never been defeatist about it. I get up at 6.30 am every day, 7 days a week, and work through the pain. I’m highly motivated to learn, and to communicate both what I learn and my love of learning. There are always a few beings with “but a little dust in their eyes” who appreciate what I do and make it all worthwhile (although I also lose sight of this quite often).

There is value in Buddhist practices, despite all the narrow-mindedness, parochialism, faux-piety, and dogmatism of religious Buddhism. I don’t actually identify as “secular”, btw. Things are a bit fluid right now, but I’ve long thought of myself as someone who was religious but not spiritual. I’m more of a reformist than a secularist. I find enlightenment fascinating, but not the supernatural explanations of it.

One of the very first things I read about Buddhism—ca 1991 or 1992—that struck a chord was this:

The Second Noble Truth is that dukkha has an identifiable cause. This cause is tanhā, which is generally translated as “desire”, but which has, in common with dukkha, a whole gamut of meanings including an incorrigible tendency to seek satisfaction in the objects of the senses and a desperate will to live unrelated to any serious or systematic attempt to understand what life involves. — Andrew Powell with Graham Harrison. 1989. Living Buddhism. British Museum Press. Page 23. (emphasis added)

So the question is: What is happiness?

If happiness is simply pleasure then, sure, hedonism might make sense. This is after all the premise of the most popular system of morality in our world: utilitarianism (which, like capitalism and individualism is baked into liberalism).

Seeking pleasure doesn’t make one happy. Moreover, this is not Buddhist Wisdom. This is simply common sense. Everybody knows that the pursuit of pleasure has diminishing returns. And if it were needed, there is plenty of modern research on happiness that tells confirms this: happiness is not pleasure. Contrary to what you suggest, hedonism is simply a waste of time.


lol. I guess you might be one of those few who enjoys studying and reading ancient texts even if you don’t agree with those texts completely (regarding rebirth). I enjoy them too, but I am a Buddhist, so might be expected for me. I have read the Bible and Qu’ran and other religious scriptures, but not being a member of those other religions, don’t go back to study them much.

So you are a hedonist! (just kidding) Hedonism need not be all about accumulating things. It can be those things you mentioned plus socializing, gossiping, partying (not saying you do that). Some mistakenly believe that it’s just about accumulating material possessions (although for some that might be what it is).

No, I don’t suggest what you think. I could be a hedonist if I wanted to, but choose not to. I was just thinking that for most people, if there is no belief in an afterlife of any kind, no celestial realms, no rebirth, I think most would (and do) choose hedonism.

My understanding is Buddhism is about kamma and not about mere belief. In my understanding, salvation by faith alone or identity is not related to Buddhism.

My understanding is hedonism leads to suffering.

Because unsatisfactory things are not “enjoyable”. My understanding of Buddhism is it is wrong view to regard conditioned things as “enjoyable”. I read this MN 115.

Natural motivations are ending suffering and ending the moral shame of harming others.

My understanding is there are different types of Buddhists; that Noble Buddhists have direct experience. Noble Buddhists have the right view all conditioned things are impermanent, unsatisfactory & not-self therefore is no “enjoyable” things except Nibbana; that hedonism is not an option.

Yes, I know, which is why I said I don’t advocate for that. I was asking about secular buddhists who do not believe in / do not accept rebirth teachings and are convinced that they are wrong.

As we can observe in the “real world” most people do seek out pleasures, but not all. And notably with this increase in hedonism is an increase in secularization. Religion (all of them) are in decline in the 21st century.

I’m not saying Buddhism can save the world. Just trying to understand the motivations of the secular buddhists. That is all.

Thanks my friend - you asked about the motivations of secular buddhists.

My background: While I have no trouble believing in karma and rebirth, I accept that these may not be scientifically proven during my lifetime, short of me being an arahant (!). That said, I do believe some arahants with the Divine Eye are able to directly perceive the effects of karma, and their own/other people’s rebirths.

On to secular Buddhists: I have a secular Buddhist in my family who believes in the existence of Bodhisattvas and ghosts, but has some difficulty believing in the existence of karma and rebirth as these are not scientifically proven.

It is not that he does not believe in karma or rebirth: it’s just that he has suspended belief for the time being (i.e. his POV is: “I do not know what will happen to me after death” - and not so much “there is no world after this world.”) Objectively, this family member follows the noble 8fold path quite closely (except for Right View, at least for the moment!)

So I asked him what motivates him.

He said it’s important to him to be good: there is just no extrinsic or intrinsic motivator for him as such. So there are people like that out there (secular Buddhists or not), who don’t need an external or internal ‘motivator’ to behave.

Blessings to you in the Triple Gem!


:smiley: Interesting, thanks for sharing that (and the rest of the post).

Likewise, Blessings to you in the Triple Gem!

Hi. My reading of Suttas found the Triple Gem is refuge in Buddha, Dhamma & Sangha. The refuge in Dhamma was described as: The Dhamma is visible here-&-now, the Dhamma is visible here-&-now. The Dhamma is visible in the here-&-now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves. I recall reading this phrase used with realized Nibbana but i cannot remember ever reading this phrase used about reincarnation.

My memory is not always perfect. I recall suttas that say certain good deeds lead to realms of divine sensuality. If this is true, this shows rebirth does not remove hedonism. However, the view of the repulsiveness & futility of hedonism leads to Nibbana.

I think it is logical rebirth itself is hedonism because only those remaining with sensual desire continue to take birth. Non-returner does not return to the world because the non-returner has no sensuality. I read this in Iti 96.

Another thing, my studies also found to attain Nibbana craving & self-view must end. I never read how rebirth helps with this. Even if you believe in rebirth, this does not change the only way to end birth is ending craving & self-beliefs. I remember reading in the MN 117 rebirth is not a Noble Right View but a meritorious right view tied up with attachment and defilements. I remember reading in SN 12.51 to reach Nibbana the meritorious view must be given up.

It is interesting reading your personal ideas on this internet site but I think citing Suttas to support our ideas is the proper thing. I think my posts have shown believing believing in rebirth will end hedonism is illogical in view of Sutta teachings. :slightly_smiling_face:

Nick, Element, DooDoot,

Lots of strawmen in your post. I never said belief in rebirth will end hedonism. A person who believes in / accepts rebirth can still be a hedonist (or not), just as a secular buddhist could be a hedonist (or not).

I have not presented any views on any of the teachings, I was just asking about the motivations. I was just looking for the motivations of the secular buddhists to do the practice and engage in studies of the ancient texts and this has already been answered here and in the other thread by other posters.

When we say … that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.

—Epicurus, a hedonistic materialist.

It seems to me that Buddhism is hedonistic in the philosophical sense of the term—seeing “the good life” as consisting in the absence of negative mental states and the presence of positive ones. It seems like most of Buddhist practice is aimed at promoting pleasant mental states and at getting rid of unpleasant ones. The goal of the path is freedom from suffering. It seems like the difference (at least, the potential difference) between the secular hedonist and the Buddhist is just about what it is that will bring about the most happiness and least suffering. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not really sure that the falsity of rebirth would entail that much about what would bring the greatest overall happiness.

Technically it’s not, because it identifies the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain as being flawed. The big classical opponents of the hedonists were virtue ethicists, who also saw positive mental states as the goal, but pursued enduring qualities over experiences. Obviously these two sides were in dialog and developed counters to simple descriptions, but I think this is a fair summary.

And I think the case of the classical virtue ethicists is relevant here, because they have an enduring popularity despite almost nobody taking their claims about the external world seriously. For thousands of years, European Christians and atheists have been reading Aristotle and thinking “he’s wrong about Zeus, but has something useful to say about life.” Or, to use a more extreme example from slightly more recently, Marcus Aurelius both was a pagan god (his reign was the apex of the imperial cult) and his meditations denigrates the character of martyrs, calling them deluded and devoid of true courage - yet Christians and atheists passed his work down the generations because they got value out of other parts more relevant to their lives.

This can be called cherry-picking, but the opposite would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. I think it’s a very natural and deeply ingrained as a part of the European-descended cultural tradition to pick and choose what you take from ancient sources, because if it wasn’t, we’d have had to entirely throw away our culture multiple times now.

If, as a youth, you were instructed to take something from a classical author but ignore their views on reincarnation (e.g. in Plato’s republic), and this also how your teacher was taught, and their teacher before them, I think it’s very natural for you to read the suttas and get value from them without accepting their claims about rebirth.

Hedonism seems just as illogical to me whether there is rebirth or not because we still suffer from hedonism and indulgence.

If there’s only one life, why not be nihilistic (like the YOLO idea)? If there is only one life, why not just commit suicide? These are faulty ideas in many ways. Suicide is irrational in many ways if there were no rebirth.

But, in a different way, I’ve heard that very phrase be used to have positive meaning. You only have one chance at life, so you should live your life to the happiest, and true happiness is beyond materialism and all desire. If you only have this one life, then why live it in suffering? You should try and stop suffering even if you aren’t technically getting or attaining anything.

Just because someone wouldn’t respond “yes” to “Do you believe in rebirth” doesn’t means that all the principles of the Dhamma immediately don’t apply to them. That’s not really how beliefs work. You only live once, so why try to get or attain anything if you only have just one life, and it will all go away? Therefore, you should renounce and be happy instead.

So which one is it? Hedonism, nihilism, optimism, neither?

And on the inverse, why would rebirth happening imply any of those things or their opposites? Why do you ‘need’ to care about going to heaven or hell? You don’t really have to care about that. It’s true that actions lead you to one place or another, but after this principle, it’s up to you where you want to go. I suggest not going.

Even though there is rebirth, these activities are still temporary and their results will fruit but also go away. You have to relearn a language every time you’re born as a human and re-study those texts. So why waste time doing them if what you get will just go away? (The real implication is “why get attached?”)

Which would then open the next existential question “Why be happy?”, “Why stop suffering?

The unifying problem here is in the thought “why?”. Why do you need to ask “why”? All of these proposed questions are faulty or misleading in subtle ways, and you don’t need an answer to them because our intentions are conditioned, we make up reasons after we make up our mind. We suffer whether you have that answer to these questions or not, and you have the option to end it, nothing’s forcing you to do either one. The answer here is silence but not submission.

Yes, this is exactly what I’ve heard from many people (IRL), mostly from those who are secular, but of course there are those who profess beliefs in a religion who act like this too.

Yes, it’s good to hear that the secular buddhists are finding some value in the Dhamma and can and do reject hedonism too.

What is your evidence for saying “most secularists are hedonists”?

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It’s hard to see why a secularist wouldn’t listen to music, watch TV, see a movie or read a novel. It’s easy to see why a traditional Buddhist, practicing for some level of awakening, would avoid such things.

All of these are indulgences in sensual pleasures.

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