What, you think I’m just stirring the pot with that title? Have you met me?
A fairly recent publication in the genre of “secular Buddhism” has come to my attention, Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright:
It’s received a lot of mostly positive mainstream press:
And it’s currently sitting pretty at number 5 on the New York Times non-fiction list. Kudos!
It’s fairly standard in early Buddhism circles to dismiss the central claims of secular Buddhism, but I am not one of those who thinks secular Buddhism is a Bad Thing. Sure, it’s problematic, but, as the success of this book shows, it reaches people in ways that normative Buddhism, so far, has failed to do. This is, of course, normal, and happens every time Buddhism goes to a new land: it is not assimilated all-at-once, but bit by bit, with people swallowing what they can digest.
The problem is not that the secularists present only a small part of Buddhism; it’s that they, implicitly or explicitly, regard their own small viewpoint as better. In doing so, they don’t just misrepresent the Dhamma, they undermine its transformative potential.
I haven’t read the book, so I won’t comment on it. But prominent in all the reviews and interviews are some of the stock secular Buddhism ideas, and I wanted to take the chance to address these head on.
The key to secularist Buddhism is, of course, that it dismisses “religious” and “supernatural” ideas, most importantly rebirth, and addresses only what is claims are scientific and observable truths.
The core problem to this is that the Buddha:
- Accepted the reality of rebirth based on his own meditative experience
- Placed this reality at the core of his teaching.
Secularists either ignore these inconveniences by dealing rather vaguely with “Buddhism” (by which they usually mean Buddhism as interpreted by moderns like themselves) or by trying to explain away the references to rebirth in the EBTs. I won’t go into the details of the latter project; suffice to say, it’s a failure. It doesn’t just get the points above wrong—it gets them catastrophically wrong. These things are not difficult, they are not things that can be interpreted away: they are bleeding obvious.
Secular Buddhism snorts out the gate roaring that it’s based on reality not faith. Yet its very first rhetorical move is to dismiss plain facts based on uncritical faith in its own ideology.
There are three rational positions that secularists can take with regards to the teaching of rebirth in the suttas.
- The Buddha taught rebirth, but rebirth is not real, so the Buddha was wrong.
- The Buddha taught rebirth, and rebirth is real, so the Buddha was right.
- The Buddha taught rebirth, and I don’t know whether rebirth is real, so I can’t say whether the Buddha was right.
Any one of these is, I think, a reasonable and defensible position. I personally accept the second position, but I understand why someone would not be persuaded. Don’t worry, it’s okay! You can disagree with the Buddha! He never objected because people had a different view than him.
What the Buddha came really strong down on, though, was when people misrepresented what he said. He could hardly have made his position on rebirth clearer: he stated it again and again and again, smack bang in the middle of pretty much all his core analyses of the problem of suffering.
Bear this in mind when secularists say things like this, to quote the Vox article on Wright:
By “true” Wright means that Buddhism’s “diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” That diagnosis goes something like this: the human condition is defined by constant and ultimately inexplicable suffering.
Of course, the Buddha’s actual “diagnosis of the human predicament” is not that suffering is a psychological tension you can overcome with some mindfulness courses. It is the fact that we are stuck in the endless transmigration of rebirth. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the EBTs should know this. By leaving out “superstitious” elements, the secularists aren’t just shedding Buddhism of unnecessary dross, they’re completely redefining the whole thing, starting with the four noble truths, in a way that has little to do with the Buddha’s intentions.
This wrong-headedness stems from the root conceit at the heart of the secularist program. The secularists are not prepared to question their own deep assumptions. They use materialist rationalism to critique Buddhism, but never imagine that Buddhism might critique materialist rationalism.
This is an essentially psychological, or better, existential lack. The secularist ideology is shallow and arrogant. It’s afraid to suspend it’s own self-view and deep beliefs. It uses its own rational self-image to dismiss things that are problematic: and this is why it remains blind to its own errors, and after many years is still unable to correct them.
Symptomatic of this lack, and one of the greatest tragedies of the secularist project, is their failure to really understand what the Buddha was doing when he spoke of these things. They spend their time and energy explaining away rebirth as a mere superstition, rather than putting in the effort to figure out what it is all about. To put it plainly: rebirth is not a superstition. To claim otherwise is to misunderstand both rebirth and superstition.
This is a classic example of Ken Wilber’s pre/trans fallacy. I refer to this a lot, even though it’s been years since I read Wilber, because it’s one of the most useful ideas for sorting out these kinds of mistakes in spiritual contexts. I’m going to repeat myself here, so if you’ve read my past explanations of this, feel free to skip ahead.
The pre/trans fallacy essentially says that more primitive things always share something in common with more advanced things, and they are apt to be confused.
To give a simple example, let’s say I’m driving to the village of Bundanoon. Before I get to Bundanoon, I see fields, cows, a train line. At Bundanoon, I see a village. After I’ve passed through the village, I also see field, cows, and a train line. Of course, they’re not the same as the ones I saw before, but they are somewhat similar.
The point here is that if someone is still in Bundanoon, and has not passed through to the other side, it’s impossible for them to know what is there. If someone says, “It’s fields, cows, and a train line”, they will naturally assume that it is identical to what came before. That is, someone in the middle state will normally make the mistake of collapsing the pre and the trans state. Only someone who has gone through to the other side can clearly know the difference.
But there is more. The one who has gone through to the other side stands at a higher plane of understanding. They not only know the pre, middle, and trans states: they understand why it is that the person in the middle thinks the way they do. They know this, because they used to be that person. They used to stand in exactly that spot and think exactly those thoughts.
And here is where the problem of arrogance arises. A person standing in Bundanoon might talk with someone who has been to the other side and say, “It sounds just like what came before.” “But no,” says the other, “it may sound the same, but actually it’s quite different; I know, I’ve been there.”
What to do with this? An arrogant person would simply dismiss the testimony of the other, assuming their own perspective to be the highest. A gullible person would blithely accept anything they’re told. But a rational person would inquire, ask as to details. They’d see whether the testimony held good, and check the person’s reliability. If it all checked out, they’d accept the claim provisionally, while still reserving final judgment: “Hopefully one day I’ll go there myself, and then I’ll know for sure.”
In modern or secular discussions of spirituality, the most common form of the pre/trans fallacy centers around scientific materialism. The secularists take their ideological stance on rationality, empiricism, evidence. For them, the paradigmatic form of rationality is modern scientific materialism, so they assume that this is the highest vantage point from which to survey reality. From here, everything non-materialist looks the same, and it is all dismissed as “superstition”, “religion”, or “belief”.
But it is not all the same. It is true, in Buddhism, there are many things that are mere superstitions—magic amulets, mystical tattoos of protection, curses, astrology, and the like. These are not just non-rational, they are pre-rational. They are more primitive than rationality, and in many cases, more harmful. For Buddhists who are at this level of understanding, the appropriate course of action is not talk of transcendence, or even meditation, but to learn to apply principles of rationality and evidence, to learn to disentangle the true Dhamma from superstition.
But of course, such things are not a part of the Buddha’s teachings in the EBTs. Where they appear, they are usually dismissed, or at the very least marginalized. Belief in lucky charms is not the same kind of thing as acceptance of rebirth. But so long as the secularists simply dismiss rebirth, they will never understand this.
The teachings on rebirth in the EBTs are not in need of being divested of metaphyscial assumptions. On the contrary, that is precisely what the Buddha already did. That is what “not-self” is all about. Rebirth is an observable, empirical phenomenon, which can be understood as a simple extension of the same psychological principles we observe here and now. It no more requires metaphysics than does looking through a telescope.
This understanding of rebirth, and the anti-metaphysical nature of the Buddha’s teachings, was developed by some of the greatest modern Buddhist philosophers, K. N. Jayatilleke and more explicitly his student David Kalupahana. If you’re interested in actual Buddhist philosophy from a modern perspective, which is deeply grounded in a serious study of Buddhist texts and teachings, as integrated by people who have really studied modern philosophy, choose these writers, not the lightweights of Buddhist secularism.
Kalupahana argued at length that the Buddha’s teachings were fundamentally anti-metaphysical, in the sense of rejecting anything that is unknowable on principle. Questions such as the ultimate beginning of things are unknowable, so the Buddha refused to answer them.
The difference between an empirical and a metaphysical claim is that an empirical claim may be inferred from observation. A metaphysical claim, however, can never be inferred from observation. “God is eternal” is a metaphysical claim; it can never be tested and must forever remain an article of faith. “The Universe is billions of years old” is an empirical claim; it can be tested and may turn out to be either right or wrong.
Consider the way that science extends the scope of our knowledge with observation and inference. We normally live on a scale of distance that ranges from under a millimeter to several kilometers. That’s about what we can observe. Of course, we can see the stars, which are much further away, but we have no scale to estimate their distance. We can, however, make very careful and precise observations of the stars. We can even extend the capacity of our biological eyes with the help of telescopes and other machines. We can interrogate this information with questions based on our assumptions, and repeatedly correct or refine our assumptions, driving even more detailed observations. Eventually we can have detailed and reliable information even about events and objects that are millions of kilometers away. It’s really amazing, the power of science! Yet no matter how remote it gets, it is still grounded on the two principles: observation and inference. (In the EBTs, these are called dhamme ñāṇaṁ and anvaye ñāṇaṁ.)
Of course, to someone who doesn’t understand science, this is all just nonsense. They don’t see it, they don’t understand this whole scaffold of inference that we call “theory”, so they feel free to say that the earth is flat, or that god made the universe 4000 years ago. It’s difficult to argue with this, as it really is hard work to sort this stuff out. We either spend years of study and training to learn it all, or we have to rely on faith in the scientists. In fact, whatever we do, we have to rely on faith in scientists; even if we have mastered one niche in science, there’s plenty more we have to take on trust.
The Buddha’s procedure when it came to the study of rebirth was similar. He began with plainly observable phenomena. When this was insufficient, just as scientists expand their sphere of observation by means of physical instruments, he expanded his sphere of observation by means of mental development. Sure, it’s hard to do this, and you can’t verify the claims easily. But it’s also hard to build a particle accelerator. No-one said it was going to be easy! It took scientists 2000 years to meaningfully test the theory of atoms. Science has only just begun its investigation into states of enhanced consciousness, and it may be another 2000 years before the results are in.
And just as scientists connect the many diverse phenomena with explanatory inferences which we call “scientific theories”, the Buddha drew together his observations in overarching theories such as dependent origination.
None of this shows that the Buddha was correct. It merely shows that his claims are rational and empirical. Any empirical hypothesis may be fully rational yet still false—something that was, indeed, pointed out by the Buddha himself. This is why I said above that, even though I believe the Buddha was right about rebirth, I think it is rational to believe that he was wrong.
It does, however, show that the secularist dismissal of rebirth as metaphysics or superstition is wrong-headed. If they want to fulfill their claims of making a truly rational, scientific account of Buddhism, they must start by accepting that rebirth is an empirical theory, and investigate it as such.
This then requires consideration of the evidence regarding rebirth and other non-materialistic phenomena. I won’t discuss this here; suffice to say I think there’s plenty of evidence to question the materialist position.
Perhaps the most disappointing outcome, for me, of the secularist philosophy is that it undermines the capacity for Buddhism to make a real difference. It seems to me that one of the most damaging and toxic legacies of the West is dualism: mind vs. body, faith vs. reason, religion vs. science, fact vs. value. This is not only a debilitating intellectual fallacy, it has catastrophic effects on our society, underlying the whole fundamentalist rejection of science, including climate change denial, which threatens the very survival of our civilization.
The secularists dodge this challenge. When push comes to shove they fold to the “science” wing of the duality. But the real insight comes when you realize that dhamma means both “fact” and “value”. In the Dhamma there is no divorce of mind and body, faith and reason: these things support and enhance each other. When you accept the imposition of these alien, limiting dualisms, and refactor the Dhamma to make way for them, you’re not reforming the Dhamma; you’re only betraying the shallowness of your own understanding.
We should recognize that the Dhamma stands beyond these limitations. It has never made enemies out of emotions and reason, faith and science. If we are to heal the wounds of our broken and bleeding world, surely this is where we must start.