Why Secular Buddhism is Not True

Of course John Smith is most welcome to practice Islam - that is a foregone conclusion in liberal democracies. Or, should we have a travel-ban applied to all Muslims to prevent their free movement?

What are you suggesting in that comment? Are you saying that the followers of Islam are dangerous people? What about the Sufies and my Muslim friends down at the local falafel outlet? Should I treat them as if they have no right to practice their faith?

I think all practicing Buddhists would be worse-off if we denied others their right to be Muslim and free of persecution and religious intolerance in a multicultural society?

This has nothing to do with insisting that Buddhists - of every kind - should aim for intellectual rigor and encourage open-minded inquiry? This encouragement is in keeping with the Buddha’s teachings that we all value as Buddhists? I take this truth to be self-evident?

I hope you are not prone to mistaking critical thinking for personal criticism? I am untroubled when people are serious and frank with regard to something as important as the Dhamma. This may lead to unnecessary and inappropriate offence? :slightly_smiling_face:


So you would be equally supportive of a secular Buddhist using such disparaging words in a critique of Theravadin views, as long as they met other criteria of truth, well intentioned, etc.? Interesting. I’ll have to try that out sometime and see what the response is really like.

Certainly, you can try as much as you wish, but remember, what really count is your intention behind all this, it’s your own kamma, nobody else :wink:.
As long as you don’t criticize the person but only the view or the act, I have no issue. Sometime being straightforward and even harsh is necessary. The Buddha did that all the time, especially when people misrepresented him .


What is slightly hilarious in all this is the Buddha would also attack the person - vigorously! I am not suggesting we emulate the LION with his lion’s ROAR!

In no uncertain terms, the Buddha would refer to heretics, eel-wrigglers, can you think of other colourful word-play from the mouth of the Buddha? It is good-fun to hear the Buddha talking in this way - evocative! I think this topic deserves a thread in and of itself?

Would the Buddha be flagged if he appeared on this site - most certainly - especially if he was up for a debate.

The Buddha was no ‘Wilting Lily’ - he seemed like a very sober, peaceful and wisened ascetic. Given to an infrequent joke and the occasional smile - he was not backward, in coming forward? This would have been required due to the many wrong-views prevalent at the time.

This thread is about wrong-view: Why Secular Buddhism is Not True.

Maybe we need to add a few more clarifying provisos to the code of conduct on this site? That makes it even clearer that serious and spirited debate is given ‘pride of place’?

Alternatively, we could have a new category other than general ‘Discussion’? How about: Spirited Debate? Afterwards, we could pop into the Water-Cooler for refreshments?

We could even have the category: Dhamma for Eel-Wrigglers - I could post my musings there and leave you all in Nibbanic-peace. Oh no - I ad-hominem’d my not-self :slightly_smiling_face::innocent::slightly_smiling_face:


There may be a similarity to a phrase that I’ve heard many times. One version begins “you can do any damn-fool thing you like as long as …”

{fill-in-the-blank} and anyone else can do any crazy religious practice they want, in any [mental] institution that matches their beliefs . . .

So not so much an obviously inappropriate thing to say except for the unfortunate cultural resonance.

Perhaps want you were attempting to express some along the lines of:

> I believe that Buddhism is best supported when we allow for a plurality of practices and beliefs that resonate with practitioners on various levels.

I note that you use the technique of analyzing sentences by turning them around too. Also sometimes known as turning the table, switching or reversing ground, or “how would you like if someone said that about you?”.
It’s a surprisingly powerful and useful technique.

One that’s kept my :no_mouth: damn-fool mouth closed more than once!

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No need, I have read the entire article.

I utterly disagree.

To clarify, I take the entire article as the context. This, it seems to me, is the only fair and just thing to do.

But even if I did as you seem to have done, I wouldn’t perceive “harshness”, I would perceive passionate, reasonable criticism.

Again…I completely and utterly disagree.

But then that’s perception, isn’t it? You’re free to yours.

Mine’s left me with little worry and an easeful conscience. I have accepted responsibility for myself, internally and as can be seen further up in the thread, in the external world, to the extent that my heart showed me I needed to. I wish you this too.

I’m generally uninterested in nit-picking, fault-finding, fruitless debate. So unless there’s something wholesome to interact with, please accept my warm good wishes and goodbye.

In my opinion the impact of right speech is roughly as consequential as the concerns expressed in this thread about secular Buddhism. To borrow a phrase, **using wrong speech can undermines the capacity for Buddhism to make a real difference; it undermines the transformative potential of the dharma.

In other words, this conversation about right or wrong speech is not just a side-bar or distraction, it is just as important as the concerns raised in the original post.

@Ted_Meissner I think that the speech has to be illustrated in concrete examples that quote sentences and paragraphs. Perhaps much like a scholar might discuss the meaning of a word or phrase in a classic texts.

Of course it’s possible that the readers of this website simply disagree about what constitutes right speech especially in terms of the EBT. (And I believe that right speech doesn’t have to get in the way of verve, passion, wit and interesting writing.) But it’s clear that Buddhists don’t agree on the dharma of how to have this conversation.

Human experience, history and psychology suggest another possibility. That a kind of identity protective reasoning may be in play here, a systemic ‘blindspot’ or unconscious privileging. (Arg! Just writing that last sentence I can feel my clinging ego turning in disgust.)

Every group gathers around certain values that become ‘sacred’ to the group. These values bind us together. But the sacred both binds and blinds.

This phenomena shows up when dealing with difficult issues such as ones which touch on core or unifying beliefs.
Fortunately experience also shows that individuals can be lead to see and acknowledge the gap between the values they espouse and their words.


Actions vs. Espoused Ethics

Added note: The results above are not attributed to narcissism – unless nearly all the leaders studied were narcissists – but are believed to be true of the vast majority of people.

The Righteous Mind: How good people are divided by religion and politics

At the same time, that could be redundant, given that that is the purpose of this forum, if one reads ‘true’ as ‘authentic’, given the premised of this forum.

In fact, The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts could be just what you are looking for. You have likely already read it though!

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I wouldn’t say “true” is by any means a synonym for “authentic.” Determining what are the authentic words and statements of the Buddha is one kind of inquiry. Determining which of the Buddha’s authentic statements are true is in another kind of inquiry.


Many people don’t believe the Buddha’s authentic statements are true, but most of them dont call themselves Buddhists

I think almost everyone who calls themselves a Buddhist can identify at least one thing that they think the Buddha asserted and sincerely believed, but which is probably not true.

But in any case, the two questions are clearly distinct. There are vast scholarly efforts underway to identify those purported statements and discourses of the Buddha that are authentic, and to distinguish them from those that are not. But the scholars who participate in that effort have a wide variety of different attitudes about which of those authentic statements are true.

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Yes, we have different ideas about right speech.

Hello, everyone. As there are limits to the number of posts I may make in a day, I’ll bundle them here with my apologies for any difficulty following threads that may cause.

Hi, AM, nice to see you. Hoping we may sit together someday and speak together as friends on the path.

That would be a different post, volumes have been written on it and I wanted to focus on just A) sharing the perspectives of secular Buddhists which appear to differ from how they were described by Ajahn Sujato, in the hopes of further exploration of these topics together, and B) asking for greater kindness than the original article included. The last part was wonderful, was hoping for more of that.

As do I. From my response:

Hopefully that helps?

I don’t think of Gotama as delusional, that might be a stretch. Just suggesting that my worldview is informed differently than someone from another time and culture. Please note – this is not a derision, this is acknowledgment of the realities of my own cultural bias.

Hi, Garrib. For me it’s not about Gotama’s journey, but our own. I don’t think of him as delusional, I simply connect much more viscerally due to my cultural and personal context with rebirth (for example) as having very real and pragmatic meaning to me moment by moment. In this way, the dhamma has meaning and value to me in ways that it otherwise doesn’t.

I agree! One challenge to a sincere dialogue is one side insisting they are correct and the other side is “wrong-headed.” If someone says that about you, does that foster equitable discussion? It doesn’t for me, and that was one reason why my response was written.

Hi, Mike. Totally agree. Non-overlapping Magisteria as far as I’m concerned. Will respond further down to the “scientism” concept.

As fellow living beings. Our most intricate conversations on the SBA site were regarding the suffering of animals.

Hi, Dave. Yes, based on the experiences in hurtful discussions from orthodox Buddists over the years, I’m about done with Buddhism and may dispense with the sangha entirely. My daughter just posted a lengthy description in no uncertain terms about what that’s been like for her, including others coming to her just this week in tears over the harshness of just having another point of view in Buddhism.

Yes, well said, DK. Interestingly, Gotama also indicated he taught one thing only, suffering and the extinguishing of it. I don’t have to ascribe meaning to all circumstances to find value in the dhamma, and it’s fine if someone else does.

The Four Noble Truths are quite visible, demonstrable, and predictive from what I’m seeing in day to day life. Not so big on faith, unsurprisingly, but confidence, yes. Curiosity led to exploration led to understanding led to experience led to confidence.

To harvest a quote from Clay Shirky, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” This isn’t a characterization of right speech as a hammer, my friend. It’s calling out condescention as such.

I agree, and that’s what secular Buddhists are doing. Not rejecting. Innovating.

That may be very helpful, we may have grown in a very short time to have that need for further elaboration.

Thank you for your kind words, they are appreciated, truly. Bearing in mind again that I speak primarily for myself though seem to be voicing the views of many other secular Buddhists, I would suggest that literal rebirth simply isn’t as valued to me as receiving this teaching in daily life – that is extremely beneficial, and doesn’t preclude or dismiss any unseen or unclear benefits that others take as having fruit in future lives. I don’t find the evidence clear and compelling, and hold Buddhism to the same standards as any other assertion: make your case with valid evidence, I’m happy to be convinced of any view that can be clearly demonstrated in the world. If not, none of us has a way to distinguish what is so from what is not.

You bring up a fine example with Stephen and John of us not all thinking exactly alike; I’m not as interested in trying to interpret the intentions of someone from thousands of years past. I am interested in how they might help provide insight about being a better person today, right now, and leaving the world a better place than I found it if I can.

I’m so sorry you’re hurting on this engagement, F. As you’ve pointed out here and has been the repeated experience over the course of years, our questions go unanswered with further questions as the response, if not outright condemnation. As mentioned elsewhere, you are not alone in this, my daughter just received someone else in tears over this same attitude towards how we engage with the dhamma – as misguided lesser beings, the new Hinayana.

Happy to talk, Mike. Sorry to have been away from the sincere attempts to dialogue on this stuff.

Did you miss us being called “intellectual lightweights”? I didn’t. It was rude, plain and simple. I will provide an extensive and in-context set of what was demeaning if it would help, but another person has done a pretty good job of it.

Dave, I admit to avoiding agnosticism. I’m not agnostic about Thor – I don’t find compelling reason to accept his existence and / or historicity and / or value in my life. I’m not agnostic about Jesus or literal rebirth for the same reason. That being said, I’m happy to be convinced. Indeed, I would be delighted if those who accept literal rebirth could make a case that’s more convincing than other post-mortem beliefs, but they haven’t, and when that’s pointed out the response is always about my not being really Buddhist because I have no such faith.

I agree on all counts! It’s one of the points I tried to make in my response, that secular Buddhists (overall, not completely) do not suggest Gotama did not teach rebirth – we see it, we accept that it’s in the canon.

Hello, Dhammarakkhita. My sincere apologies for not responding as quickly as we both woud have preferred, there have been other more pressing activities requiring my attention, no disrespect or disturbance was intended by my absence. I hope that meets with your expectations, and I’m perfectly willing to have a cordial if not friendly dialogue in this space.

You are quite right, our site does restrict registration to manual approval. That’s because when we had open enrollment, we got over 3,000 false accounts created. So, yes, now I manually review and approve every request, as often as I am able. That is primarily filtered by the bio – if there isn’t one, or if it doesn’t include anything about their background or interest in Buddhism, I have no way to distinguish a real request from a fake one. You are quite welcome to join us there as is anyone, please make the request and I’ll approve it if I recognize the name when it arrives. And once approved, your Comments are not subject to further approval, we would be very intereted in having your insights shared in the community.

If I might suggest, Ajahn Sujato would be well within his purview to say we’re misrepresenting Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana beliefs with clear articulation of why if that’s what we were doing. We are not, however, claiming to represent any of those forms of Buddhism. We are absolutely clear we are not; we are doing something else, and Sujato seemed to get a few points not quite on the mark for what many secular Buddhists think, say, and do in our living of the dhamma. My response was an effort to clarify some of those which didn’t align with my understanding of the secular approach, and to as him to ease up on the harsh – it’s not necessary, we can have friendly disagreements as we did in our recorded conversation about his work.

Hi, Kay. Thank you for this, it’s appreciated. Yes, it was upsetting to many of us who are secular Buddhists, Feynman is not the only person to have shed tears because of the Venerable’s choice of words. For what it’s worth, please do know I was sincere on the first page of my response:

My hope is that we may be able to do that overall, as this… has been hard. For years.

Yes. This. If you’re one of the folks here who don’t think this kind of wording would be taken personally, I suggest you use a racial epithet and then try to deny that was personal, too.

As I shared, Dhammarakkita, other priorities kept me from this space. I’m not able to be here continuously, nor do I have full ownership of my schedule. And please re-read the sentences above – if you can point out where I make any statements in the tone of others being “shallow and arrogant,” as Sujato has towards secular Buddhists, please point them out – but if you can’t I would suggest this is a false equivalence. It is not at all what I believe, and it’s not how I’ve behaved.

Thank you for your ongoing practice of khanti.

Hi, Laurence. I don’t find that the scientific method speaks to what we find meaningful in our lives, that’s not its purpose. Another definition of the word scientism is this: “Scientism is a term generally used to describe the cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations not covered by the scientific method.” (Scientism - Wikipedia) To those who practice this method, it’s falsely equating what is just a method with a very different ideological stance, typically contrasting it with religious views that do not stand up to the rigors of that method.

But put another way by Steven Novella, “What do you think science is? There’s nothing magical about science. It is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. Which part of that exactly do you disagree with? Do you disagree with being thorough? Using careful observation? Being systematic? Or using consistent logic?”

Where exactly do you see us making such claims, Laurence? I do not. I say quite the opposite:

What deeds are you seeing from secular Buddhists that claim moral superiority, rather than practicing differently from other forms of Buddhism? That’s something we try to avoid, and are certainly imperfect and prone to mistakes, so please do let me know if you see us doing that.

If I might share this quote from the original article above, this is Ajahn Sujato talking, not a secular Buddhist:

Presuming we both accept that statement, isn’t it a colonialist attitude to belittle the practices endemic to other cultures? How is this not a “… new and improved form of understanding that sheds new light in a place that was occupied by myths and fairy tales”?

I’m not willing to suggest the Tibetan’s engagement with Buddhism is mere superstitious nonsense and wrong. It’s different than mine, certainly. But I’m not willing to superimpose my beliefs and their measure onto the value someone else may derive from their way of living – I’m not in their shoes, if they have shoes, or feet.

I hear the call to action, Laurence, and want to offer the insights of this one secular Buddhist on each of them. You’re right, I do not see this as a problem – because I find your premise to be an inaccurate expression of my understanding of science. I don’t look to science for meaning, I look to it to help me understand as best we can the natural world – that which we can mutually observe and hopefully come to an acceptable level of agreement. It’s not indifference, it’s that this simply isn’t an issue when my meaning is not derived from such things as the rate of a falling object in a vacuum.

Does that make sense? Happy to discuss further if it would help.

Hi, Mike. Ah, I think it’s coming closer, thank you for your patience with my slowness. I can see that my statement would be grating in those circumstances, and I apologize, that wasn’t my intention. Please understand that my taking the Buddha sasana differently doesn’t mean it’s not taken seriously and with the appropriate gravity. It’s been transformative in my life and in the lives of those around me – that is much more important than (to revisit this topic) the scientific study of meditation, for example. I teach that way, every day, even as someone who enjoys the science and what it provides.

Including blogs :slight_smile:

Again, no disrespect for those who have literal interpretations, it’s simply not what secular Buddhism is about.

Again, thank you for providing this rich dialogue. My suggestion is not at all condemning of other’s faiths, it’s asking that mine not be disparaged by asking the thought experiment. I’ve been a regular panelist on interfaith dialogues – yes, as a Buddhist, however much that may not be accepted here. Again, my words were asking for respect whatever the faith, “John Smith and anyone else who wishes to practice Islam in an institution that matches their beliefs, are welcome to do so and have whatever beliefs resonate with them on a cultural, social, and personal level.”

So are secular Buddhists.

I agree, intellectual rigor would be helpful. And yet, when we apply intellectual rigor by questioning assertions or extraordinary claims, we’re derided and dismissed as not even being real Buddhists.

“The secularist ideology is shallow and arrogant.” Those are not critical statements. They are personal judgments. This is from Qualia Soup on Critical Thinking (YouTube).

Yes, very well said. Thank you!

There are bound to be disagreements, yes :slight_smile: I would suggest the arbiter of what is disrespectful is the receiver, not the giver.


We agree on the first sentence above.

The research quoted is believed to apply to most people, not just narcissists. The quote is from a post in a thread about narcissistic behavior. Unfortunately the website software did not cooperate with my attempt to change the heading of the blockquote.

A couple of observations make those results all the more striking:

  • In broad terms most participants had the same or similar espoused beliefs about how they would like to respond to the issue in the role playing exercise.
  • All results reflect the participants own evaluation of their efforts. Afterwards the participants themselves agreed that their responses in the role playing was inconsistent with their values. Nobody played ‘neutral judge’ on behalf of someone else.
  • The participants were generally unaware of their own inconsistency until it was pointed out by others or they examined the evidence and considered the reasoning/analysis of others. If need be the participants listened to a recording of their own words and compared them to their written statement of values.
  • After a short time other participants in the room learned how to ‘hear’ the inconsistency in others speech. But that skill did not transfer to an ability to hear the inconsistency in their own words in real time or directly afterwards.

These results are both disconcerting and ‘spooky’ as well as hopeful.
My take away? Take refuge! A trusted sanga or ‘spiritual friends’ can be vital for some aspects on the path.


A section of a Comment my daughter made today about this topic, different context and space, posted with her permission:


I said this above: “If delusional is too much for you, then substitute completely mistaken in this regard or misled by his own experience or whatever else suits your fancy.”

Derision might be a stretch, but claiming that the Buddha misunderstood his own experience and taught what are ultimately falsehoods is at minimum brazen and more than acknowledgement of your own cultural bias.

He did. He also taught about rebirth and other realms. He taught about the “craving that causes rebirth” in the 2nd Noble Truth.

Call if confidence if you want. You certainly have faith/confidence in your current understanding of the 4 Noble Truths. But if you don’t realize that you may not yet have the whole picture, that your understanding may still be incomplete…Well, hopefully you realize this later. If you do realize this, then I simply don’t get why you blatantly reject the parts of the Buddha’s teachings as wrong instead of having the humility to admit you simply might not understand them yet.

Thanks for responding Ted,

And let me use this as an opportunity to express my appreciation for your secular Buddhist podcast, which I have listened to and enjoyed many times over the years!

With Metta,



I have no issue with science. I was talking about scientism - as an ideology. Scientific discussion is welcome in Buddhist circles. Dogmatic intolerance of alternative approaches to inquiry - other than empiricism - is unwelcome. Why - the Buddha was not an empiricists - IMO.

The Buddha developed a method of inquiry that is of interest to Buddhists and to those who are open-minded inquirers. Therefore, to the degree that a practitioner is looking through a ‘scientistic’ prism at the Buddha’s teachings then they are going to have trouble understanding how the Buddha came up with his findings. They may even disparage or denigrate the Buddha because he does not conform to their ideological requirements regarding his research methods. They may conclude that his findings are speculative or delusional.

The problem is not with the Buddha - it is with the preset conclusions of the devotees of Scientism regarding their notions of valid methodology and their preset conclusions about what is possible and, what is not! To the degree that ‘some’ Secular Buddhists are committed to the ideology of Scientism they take issue with Buddhists who do not share their insular convictions.

I do believe Secular Buddhists should address this issue head-on! Many Secular Buddhists believe that their Buddhism is an improvement over traditional Buddhism - such as the Theravada tradition - because of its intellectual integrity, its willingness to incorporate the insights of Science into its belief system. I don’t find that troubling!

Secular Buddhists may point out the difficulties earlier Buddhist schools encounter when dealing with meaningful change to their belief systems - due to being stuck in the past!

Instead of insisting that ‘stuck’ and immobile people should unstick themselves, why not show them how this is done? Address the problem of the dogmatic ideologues in your midst - prove you have the intellectual integrity you claim to possess!

This is my ‘advice’ to Secular Buddhists. But it seems to be falling on deaf ears? If you see the issue I am pointing to perhaps you could start a Secular Buddhist group that refuses to sweep the issue under the carpet. Such a group would be appreciated by traditional Buddhists - IMO.

‘WHO’ in the Secular Buddhist community is willing to heed the call? Their ‘right effort’ will be greatly appreciate by ‘one and all’ - who would find this development disagreeable? If a Secular Buddhist creates a ‘Home-Page’ that reflects their complete commitment to open-minded Dharma-Inquiry we may find the issues around Secular Buddhism may largely disappear? Surely, that would be a step in the right direction?

What is the source of your hostility here? It seems to annoy you greatly that some people have different views than you do about who the Buddha was, and what his attainment consisted in.