History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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A secular buddhist?

May 22nd, 2011 · 38 Comments


Lickerman is said to be a ‘secular Buddhist’: a category that escapes me completely. But I suspect that a new brand of phony buddhism is afoot to neutralize the whole issue of New Age spirituality. This may be unfair to Lickerman, so we shall see.

Buddhists have consistently been confused over the ‘anatta’ doctrine and the claims for reincarnation. There need be no contradiction since the discourses on the ‘self’ and its illusions never really contradicted the issues of ‘soul’ and rebirth. There is no real buddhism without this perspective so we should be wary of the effort to remake this great religion into some garbage compatible with scientism.

Alex Lickerman is a physician at the University of Chicago who, until recently, was in charge of all primary care doctors at the hospital (he’s now head of student health). He’s also a secular Buddhist who writes about medicine and matters “spiritual” at his website, “Happiness in this world.” (Alex also helped bring Sam Harris here for his recent talk on morality.)

This week, in “The neurology of near-death experiences“, Alex debunks the religious trappings that attach to the “out-of-body” and similar experiences that occur in conjunction with operations and medical episodes. In particular, he shows that experiencees such as dreamlike states, tunnel vision, and leaving and returning to one’s body are all phenomena that have well-understood medical causes. Some of them can even be reproduced by stimulating people’s brains.

Tags: General

38 responses so far ↓

  • 1 The Gurdjieff Con » A secular buddhist? // May 22, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    […] http://darwiniana.com/2011/05/22/a-secular-buddhist/ […]

  • 2 Paul // May 22, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I’m confused! What was the confusion over the anatta doctrine – in relation to reincarnation??? Are you saying there is/isn’t ‘rebirth’ in buddhism. I know on T. buddhist who is working hard to get out in this life and not come back for more illusion – ‘vajrayana’…..?

  • 3 nemo // May 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Good question: I am confused myself.
    I think Schopenhauer could be a basis for rewriting Buddhist/Upanishadic confusions here.
    The phenomenal and noumenal aspects of the ‘self’ are one key
    to unravelling the confusion here.

  • 4 Ted Meissner // May 23, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Help me understand — secular Buddhism is “a category that escapes [you] completely”, but despite that you know enough to call it “phony”?

    That’s like a creationist openly admiting they don’t understand evolution, so it must be fake.

  • 5 nemo // May 23, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    The term ‘secular Buddhism’ is too often an attempt to graft the worst of scientism onto what’s left of Buddhism: no reincarnation, no enlighenment (happiness in this life), etc…
    This is a misunderstanding of the term ‘secular’ which is not a monopoly of new atheists, scientific reductionists, etc…
    The term ‘secular Buddhism’ is not mine. I took it from the discussion of Lickerman and his apparent wish to make Buddhism compatible with the narrowest kind of science.

  • 6 Darwiniana » Confusions in the term ‘secular buddhism’ // May 23, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    […] http://darwiniana.com/2011/05/22/a-secular-buddhist/comment-page-1/#comment-357826 Ted Meissner said, […]

  • 7 Ted Meissner // May 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    I understand better where you’re coming from, thank you for taking the time to explain. And yes, though there is often an attempt to graft science into Buddhism, it’s perhaps a flawed premise!

    Briefly, the ‘secular’ part of it is the suspension of cultural and religious forms. I’m not from the India of 2,500 years ago, so those forms aren’t helpful to me. Fortunately, the practice itself is not dependent on claims not in evidence, like literal rebirth. If the truth claims of Buddhism are valid, they are valid for non-Buddhists, too.

    Again, thanks for the perspective.

  • 8 Ted Meissner // May 24, 2011 at 6:26 am

    Richard, perhaps you’re not aware, but Batchelor says quite the opposite:

    “The idea that there will be something spiritual or subtle, some sort of consciousness that can escape the collapse of the body and brain, is not very credible in the modern scientific worldview.” — Stephen Batchelor, article “Suspending Belief”, Inquiring Mind, vol. 27 no. 1.

    Secular Buddhism is about a practice of getting a better handle on one’s mind, not unverifiable supernatural claims of rebirth.

    Ad hominem attacks, for example, rarely helps any conversation. If you want to educate me, feel free — please provide reason and evidence.

  • 9 Bill // May 24, 2011 at 7:06 am

    Not sure why some people are so resistant to the idea of religions and philosophies evolving (rather than remaining static).

    Buddhism itself can be said to be a reformation of Hinduism, which then gave rise to several different schools. I think secular Buddhism — at least as explained by people like Stephen Batchelor — is just another permutation is a long line of permutations, each of which grew out of Buddhism’s encounter with a particular time and place.

    If someone wants to tell me I’m not a Buddhist because I’m agnostic about rebirth and karma across lifetimes, it doesn’t bother me. Nor does it bother me if you think I’m a moron. Many a sage has been called worse.

    In short: embrace the wisdom, reject the dogma.

  • 10 star // May 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    The practice of Buddhism, for me, is about paying attention to the difference between what I can see for myself (and that which people in general can see for themselves, if we take the time to slow down and look) versus drifting through life just doing “whatever”, allowing myself to be pulled along without any deep inspection of why I do what I do, or what my underlying assumptions are, or how accurate they are.

    The Buddha repeatedly asked his followers to stick to what they have seen and experienced for themselves (for example: “Do you speak only of what you have known, seen, and understood for yourselves?” MN 38.24). Rebirth is not among the things I have known and seen for myself; I have known many thousands of people and have never met one I trust who has known and seen rebirth for themselves. When/if rebirth is something I have known and seen for myself, it will become part of my practice.

    I haven’t read the texts of the later schools, but in the oldest texts, the Buddha never says that to follow his methods one has to believe in rebirth even if they have no evidence for its validity; quite the opposite, he says his teaching will halt all concern with speculations about one’s past lives or future lives. He does say that clinging to unsupported views is harmful — he even points out that clinging to views that are supported by too little evidence is just as problematic (see MN 136). What the Buddha teaches about how our actions have consequences (aka “karma”) is valid whether one associates it with rebirth or not.

    Those who feel that a belief in rebirth is necessary for Buddhism to be a workable system simply haven’t understood what the Buddha taught. He didn’t teach an escape from rebirth, he taught the end of suffering — in this very life. The feeling that literal rebirth is necessary to Buddhism perhaps comes from the same understanding of why people are moral that many Christians who fear atheists have: the assumption that people cannot and will not be moral unless they have a selfish reason (i.e. potential for punishment) if they don’t behave. When a follower deeply understands the Buddha’s teaching on anatta (not self) and impermanance and suffering, compassion for others arises naturally as a result of the insight, and morality follows without the need for a carrot and stick approach.

    A secular take on Buddhism simply focuses on working what the Buddha taught in a non-religious, non-speculative setting. The Buddha invited people to come and see; he didn’t require faith in the unseen prior to studying and putting his methods to use.

  • 11 Earl Rectanus // May 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Richard, as the bulk of Zen does not rely on the doctrines of “rebirth and karma across lifetimes”, and as huge and growing numbers of secularists in the West currently don’t require these to carry on “the practice” (which is simply the daily seeking of awareness and clarity about reality), your last statement/assumption is obviously incorrect. Of course you may argue that your definition of “the practice” like “Buddhism” is more correct, but your statements above tend to suggest that your “practice” whatever it may be, could use some work.

  • 12 David // May 24, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    I don’t agree with “the whole point of the religion is to escape the round of rebirth.” The goal of Buddhist practice is to a) transcend suffering and b) to be of benefit to others. Buddhism works whether you accept the idea of the cycle of birth and death or not, and that is the “whole” point to me.

    It might help for clarification if folks defined what they mean by rebirth. If you mean reincarnation, that is not a Buddhist concept. If you mean “rebirth”, as I hope you do, I don’t necessarily see that as a supernatural belief. You can read my blog post for my thoughts about that. http://theendlessfurther.com/?p=6010

    I agree with both sides here to a certain extent. I am all in favor of demystifying certain aspect of Buddhist philosophy, but I am also wary of tossing out some of the core doctrines. Above all, I feel that it is important to keep an open mind. While some things on the surface may seem to belong to the realm of the supernatural, I believe there are other ways of looking at them that are acceptable to secular thinking.
    But most important of all, we should not disparage each other as we discuss these issues.

  • 13 Angus // May 24, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Richard, you make the assertion that rebirth doctrines are central to the practice of Buddhism without any supporting argument. Counter arguments abound. For instance, Zen, and its Chinese and Korean antecedants Chan and Seon, barely mention rebirth, and discourage putting much thought into it. They accept the doctrine, sure, but their teachings don’t emphasize it. Their teachings do emphasize immediate experience.

    Are you a practitioner? If so what lineage? Just curious, since most of the Buddhist teachers I have looked into are not as emphatic as you are about rebirth. My own teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, asks us only not to rule out rebirth, without insisting that we accept it.

  • 14 Ted Meissner // May 24, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    “The problem with contemporary “secularists” is that they think they’ve reached the pinnacle of sophistication in human thought…”

    You don’t appear to be a secularist, and yet know what we think? Because that’s not it, not at all. There is a constant reassessment of approach, to ensure it is functional and supported by external verification.

    “…. when they’re really quite primitive in their thinking and represent decline (read Nemo’s post to read about the declines that occur after the eonic transitions).”

    Nemo referring to secular thought as a decline doesn’t make it so. Nor does a shift to an earlier mode of thought make it any less viable.

    “The point is that current definitions of “supernatural/natural” are quite primitive and impoverished compared to the thinking that emerges from the thought of Kant, Schopenhauer, Samkhya, Bennett, etc.”

    Supernatural explanation for natural events is primitive. That does not mean in any way that it’s not appealing, or that secularists don’t fully cognize the visceral power of those magical views — but it doesn’t mean they contain any merit in the real world.

    “… this is not a form of thought that is spawned by men with “higher consciousness.” If I were you, I wouldn’t get too comfortable…current “secularists” might represent a type that is an evolutionary dead end.”

    Or, perhaps, the next evolutionary success story. I’ll continue the practice, thanks.

  • 15 nemo // May 25, 2011 at 6:19 am

    Thanks for all your good comments. Please continiue.
    I find some of this commentary alarming: every phase of real buddhism has made the question of rebirth central. It is part of the essence of Buddhism, inherited from the Jainism that came before.
    That the issue should now be under attack in the decade of the New Atheists is symptomatic of what is afoot with the propaganda of scientism. More than that there is an attempt to penetrate and revise Buddhism in this fashion to destroy it, so be wary.
    The issue is one of great sadness, because real Buddhist schools are rare. As Rajneesh noted Tibet has been dead since Milarepa in not producing enlightened men. If the Tibetans can’t manage small wonder the pitiful last gasps of pseudo-buddhism in the west should amount to nothing.
    Real Buddhas always have a sense of their previous births, the latest example being Rajneesh, who spoke clearly here only to be gainsaid by the deceitful Christopher Caldwell (cf discussions at The Gurdjieff Con) who tried to muddle the record. I am a little puzzled by statements attempting to state what the real early Buddhism was, or what
    buddha really said. It is not clear at all what Buddha really said, since nothing was recorded til after he died. In general though Gautama seems to have thought, not in terms of ‘religion’, a later term, but of setting the great wheel of dharma in motion, a spectacular project only now phasing out. It was a complete cycle of the ‘dharma’ in action. Part of the confusion now is this ‘end of the cycle’ decay of the original vision or format of Buddhism as such. .
    I certainly don’t think that belief in rebirth should be entailed on faith for anyone. That’s not the point. But to try and strip it out of the Buddhist canon is a baffling development. The behavior of the people in the cult of the New Atheism is suspicious here. In general we can see that Stephen Batchelor et al. are being supported and promoted behind the scenes, no doubt to coopt and destroy real buddhsim. People like Batchelor et al should be wary here. Once they have wrecked Buddhism, the job of being done with buddhism will be accomplished: it will be a joke.
    In fact this has nearly happened already, and Rajneesh a generation ago tried to renew the field by starting over.
    Anyway, the current state of creative confusion can lead to a real new beginning. The classic cycle of Gautama is falling apart right on schedule (check out my ‘eonic effect’ material). But the path forward is already coming into existence.
    Lots more to say here, but I would say that current science has induced a kind of stupidity in people and they see the need to rewrite Buddhism to satisfy the fanatics of reductionism (who falsely call themselves ‘secularists’). My interest in science is second to none, but I never take scientists seriously on such questions, and when they start tampering with buddhism, the joke ceases to be funny.

    Max Weber called it the ‘Iron Cage’.

  • 16 nemo // May 25, 2011 at 6:22 am

    I did not call ‘secular’ thought a decline, not at all. I merely tried to indicate the way that the term ‘secular’ has been taken over by a narrow scientism.
    The real meaning of the term is much broader. Go back and read the post on this.
    The issue of decline was a reference to the phenomena of the eonic effect, not secularism.

  • 17 Paul // May 25, 2011 at 9:55 am

    I seem to remember Rajneesh saying he was a ‘reincarnation’ of gurdjieff! He also said Krishnamurti spoke the truth about ‘teachers’ – but we weren’t ready for it….Rajneesh was a strange and charismatic fellow.

  • 18 nemo // May 25, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Rajneesh has some cogent stories about his prior incarnations, I will look them up/

  • 19 nemo // May 25, 2011 at 10:36 am

    This is unfair to those who know better. This notioin that rebirth is secondary to buddhism is grotesque and has taken me by surprise. The status of Zen here is irrelevant, and I am sure that if you look carefully you will find rebirth doctrines.
    In any case, the no Zen buddhist would ever have denied the original buddhist doctrines of rebirth, no way, whatever their difference emphasis.

    It is important to consider the effect off Mahayana here: boddhissatwas tend to lose contact with the real teaching, and in their wake comes this bullshit secular buddhism.

  • 20 star // May 25, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Just a point of clarification: What I deny is that the Buddha taught that a belief in literal rebirth is necessary to gain enlightenment, and I deny that he taught that there definitely is such a thing as literal rebirth. I don’t deny that there is such a thing as literal rebirth (so I don’t deny rebirth); I stand where I see the Buddha standing, in a place of not clinging to unverifiable views of things. Working with what we can know and see allows us to make intelligent choices: if we can see the underlying cause and effect, the dependent arising that results in dukkha-production, this gives us the power to change it. Speculating on things we cannot know and see goes against the most fundamental deep teachings of the Buddha.

    I also do not deny that the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth are important, and even less would I say that they have been unimportant throughout the history of many schools of Buddhism — of course they are important; there is just no requirement to take them literally without evidence, without personal and direct experience, because that would be clinging to views, and that is a fetter.

  • 21 nemo // May 25, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Yes: the realization of the ‘enlightened state’ is what brings cessation to the round of rebirths: the two are connected at the hip.

  • 22 star // May 25, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    True, nemo, the enlightened state lets us see right through our concepts of rebirth, karma, and samsara and end what passes for all three.

    Richard, I recognize Bhikkhu Bodhi’s (BB) arguments you link to, and I have examined some of his translations and found that his strong faith in the validity of his views appears to cause him to bend his translations to get them to fit those views; I am sure that if this is true, he does this out of compassionate intention, but I see it as still coming from a place of clinging to views of things he hasn’t experienced — at least I have never seen him say he has direct knowledge of his rebirths, or the rising and passing away of beings according to their actions.

    I am on quite firm historical ground in my understanding that the Buddha practiced what he preached: his understanding that no language is an exact representation of truth, that he practiced a policy of not debating things for which there is no proof, and speaking to people in terms they will understand. He took a quite radical stand: that trying to beat down or deny or satiate desire was not the way to go, rather, to pay keen attention to our experience and see — in this very life — the source of our problems in our own ignorance of why we do what we do, and to put a stop to them here and now, visible to all, rather than follow the blind-leading-the-blind method of Brahmins who “know the way to Brahma” but have never been there.

    Of course you could be saying I’m not on firm historical grounds re: the understanding of the traditions that the Buddha taught literal rebirth — I will agree that, historically (and presently) the traditions say that the Buddha taught literal rebirth. That they believe this doesn’t make it true that the Buddha did. If the evidence of tradition were valid by itself, we’d all better go confess our sins before the Rapture comes.

    In your linked article, BB oversteps his knowledge of what those who argue that belief in rebirth is not necessary to the path are doing and their reasoning. I will not attribute conscious intention to the way he invents their intentions (“All the rest of Buddhism we can now let go as the religious trappings of an ancient culture”), or the way he couches the new direction in prejudicial language (” is concerned solely with the here and now, with helping us to resolve our personal hangups through increased self-awareness and inner honesty”) intended to denigrate the concerns he limits them to with a sense of wishy-washy self interest — all in ways that will allow him to knock down the straw man he’s built with the ridicule alone. I don’t know how aware he actually is of the way his desire to defend his understanding of dhamma leads him to false conclusions about those who disagree with him and their goals and methods, but he’s perhaps just not spent enough time within Secular Buddhist groups to recognize the difference between what he perceives and what’s going on. If he spent some time with knowledgeable Secular Buddhists, he might be surprised to find that they aren’t throwing everything out but the parts they use to deal with their “hangups” — the Secular Buddhists I know agree with (just approximating numbers here) probably 95% of what BB would say is fundamental to Buddhism: the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the three marks, the importance of concentrative practices leading to insight; the importance of applying that insight to every aspect of life, compassion, generosity; the way our ignorance causes us to suffer. The difference brought on by views about what the Buddha taught about rebirth is quite small — but significant, I’m not saying it’s insignificant; I’m saying it’s important but it is certainly not about throwing out most of the dhamma as cultural trappings. It’s about recognizing what a huge part of the dhamma is valid regardless of cultural trappings.

    As for his defense of rebirth, BB says, “If we suspend our own predilections for the moment and instead go directly to our sources, we come upon the indisputable fact that the Buddha himself taught rebirth and taught it as a basic tenet of his teaching.” I have seen his defense of this statement in a few different places (for example in his “Noble Eightfold Path”) and it rests on mistranslating and misunderstanding MN 117, in which the Buddha says that the “tainted right view” that includes belief in the efficacy of karma keeps one generating the aggregates of clinging (what I call “the aspects that go into our sense of a lasting self”) — and how can they not? Concern over who we’ll be in the future can only foster clinging to self-views, it doesn’t lead all the way on to liberation. A “tainted right view” is definitely preferable to “wrong view” but I’m pretty sure the Buddha’s own teaching wasn’t one that was tainted.

  • 23 Paul // May 25, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Of course Osho was born in 1931 some year before G. died…in 1949 – but I guess that really doesn’t matter!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • 24 Paul // May 25, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    curious as to where you would look up R’s stories…Do you have all his million page published transcripts – a pdf would be good for searching….hmmm

  • 25 nemo // May 26, 2011 at 6:11 am

    The claim that Osho was the reincarnation of Gurdjieff is new to me. Osho’s statements about his past life are on the record. I will look for them again.
    All his texts were online at some point, in a very unreadable format.

  • 26 nemo // May 26, 2011 at 6:13 am

    I think the problem here is not the challenge to rebirth thinking, but the context here of the New Atheists, people like Harris, and the general environment of science trying to undermine Buddhist beliefs here. Buddhists were never fanatic about this, but once the scientism faction starts to demand conformity with ‘science’ here, the question takes on a new character

  • 27 nemo // May 26, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Certainly the case with Xtianity

  • 28 Paul // May 27, 2011 at 1:29 am

    It would be interesting to find Osho’s texts online…
    It seems that ‘richard’ is a very advanced thinker….

  • 29 Paul // May 27, 2011 at 3:10 am

    actually, to be more precise I thought this was an interesting site – now I see it patrolled at least by one arrogant arsehole. Reminds me of some ‘gurdjieffians’.

  • 30 star // May 27, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    ” the discourses are given to people who are at different stages of the path”
    * agreed

    “If we’re not going to take the earliest scriptures as a reasonable account of what the Buddha taught, then what is really the point of Buddhism? ”
    * agreed, but then you appear to be responding to my point that the *interpretations* that have been passed down to us may be incorrect — which is quite different from me denying the “earliest scriptures”. Quite the contrary, I absolutely rely on reading the earliest scriptures, and work at seeing *what’s there* rather than what I’m told is there.

    “In that discourse, the point is that those whose minds aren’t yet enlightened are still stuck in the samsaric system. Only those who have reached the the transcendent level have transcended karma.”
    * agreed, MN 117 is about there being two levels of right view. But “the point” isn’t that there are those who are stuck and those who are not stuck. “The point” is what’s required to get unstuck (concentration with its supports) and foremost is correctly understanding what’s going on (right view) and if there are two right views — one tainted that results in continued becoming, and one supramundane and liberative — which one do you think the Buddha is recommending? One is called “right view with taints” and is described as having beliefs in “giving, offerings, sacrifice” (things brahmins do) and “the fruits and results of actions” and “this world and the other world” among others. It is described as a *tainted* (asava) view, and the reason the view is tainted is laid out in the sutta — it results in continuation of clinging to the aggregates, continued becoming. I’m sorry if you’re unable to read the sutta and understand what it says. Let me use the parts you quoted and see if I can make it clearer for you:

    “There is right view with effluents [asava]” <– *right view with taints (asava)
    "siding with merit" <– *believing in the merit system, that's the stuff about rebirth
    "resulting in the acquisitions [of becoming]"<– *this tainted view results in continuing what you phrase as "the samsaric system"
    * It's quite clear that the first and last are bad things, and though we are always told by the traditions that merit and karma are (unconditionally) good things, it is listed between two bad things, which makes it pretty clear to me that the Buddha includes it in things we don't want: taints, belief in the merit system, and acquisition of becoming.

    "and there is noble right view, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path"
    * yes! Now we have two right views: one is tainted, and one is transcendent. Which path did the Buddha want us to follow?

  • 31 ron // May 27, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Perhaps a brief history of what happened to Gotama’s teachings after he died would be in order.

    “A significant number of years after his death, the original sa?gha split into the first early schools (commonly believed to be the Sthavirav?dins and the Mah?sanghikas). Later, these first early schools split into further divisions such as the Sarv?stiv?dins and the Dharmaguptakas, and ended up numbering, traditionally, about 18 or 20 schools. The schools sometimes split over ideological differences concerning the “real” meaning of teachings in the Suttapi?aka, and sometimes over disagreement concerning the proper observance of vinaya. These ideologies became embedded in large works such as the Abhidhamma Pitaka and commentaries like the Visuddhimaga, a compact dissertation on Abhidhamma. Comparison of existing versions of the Suttapi?aka of various sects shows evidence that ideologies from the Abhidhammas sometimes found their way back into the Suttapi?akas, to support the statements made in those Abhidhammas.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early Buddhist_schools

    Scholars generally date the Abhidhamma works to have originated some time around the third century BCE, 100 to 200 years after the death of the Buddha.

    “The Pali Commentaries, apparently drawing upon an old oral tradition, maintain that the Buddha expounded the Abhidhamma, not in the human world to his human disciples, but to the assembly of devas or gods in the Tavatimsa heaven. According to this tradition, just prior to his seventh annual rains retreat the Blessed One ascended to the Tavatimsa heaven and there, seated on the Pandukambala stone at the foot of the Paricchattaka tree, for the three months of the rains he taught the Abhidhamma to the devas who had assembled from the ten thousand world-systems. He made the chief recipient of the teaching his mother, Mahamaya-devi, who had been reborn as a deva. The reason the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma in the deva world rather than in the human realm, it is said, is because in order to give a complete picture of the Abhidhamma it has to be expounded from the beginning to the end to the same audience in a single session. Since the full exposition of the Abhidhamma requires three months, only devas and Brahmas could receive it in unbroken continuity, for they alone are capable of remaining in one posture for such a length of time.” http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/abhiman.html

    The Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) is a Theravada Buddhist commentary on Abhidhamma composed by Buddhaghosa around 430 CE in Sri Lanka and is considered the most important Theravada text outside of the Tipitaka canon of scriptures. In it, we find a significant change to the word Consciousness, one of the twelve links of Dependent Origination, the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.

    In the suttas, Gotama used the following words to describe the 12 links of Dependent Origination as it occurs over one lifetime of the ego: Ignorance, Mental Concocting, Consciousness, Mentality/Materiality, Sense Bases, Contact, Feeling, Craving, Clinging, Becoming, Birth, and Death. In the Visuddhimaga, the word Consciousness was changed to Relinking or Rebirth Consciousness as it occurs over three lifetimes born of the womb (past, present, future). Thus, eternalism had now made its way into Buddhism thereby co-opting the Buddha’s teachings.

    The Buddha did not teach consciousness transmigrating through existences and those monks that misrepresented essential parts of the teachings were rebuked by him. Saati, the fisherman’s son, is a prime example (MN38).

    “Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhu Saati: Saati, is it true, that such an evil view has arisen to you. ‘Yes, venerable sir, as I know the Teaching of the Blessed One, this consciousness transmigrates through existences, not anything else. Saati, how is that consciousness? Venerable sir, this uttering and feeling one, that reaps the results of actions good and evil done here and there. Foolish man, to whom do you know me having preached this Teaching. Haven’t I told, in various ways that consciousness is dependently arisen. Without a cause, there is no arising of consciousness. Yet, you foolish man, because of your wrong grasp, blame me, destroy yourself, and accumulate much demerit and that will be for your undoing and unpleasantness for a long time.”

  • 32 Paul // May 27, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    ok richard. luv ya. Btw I kinda of sympathise with the caricature of the British – haven’t lived there for 35yrs…

    sri ram jay ram jay jay ram

    On g’s teaching he once commented ‘I teach that when it rains the pavement gets wet.’ I kind of like that. will look over the links nemo has (kindly) put up…xxx

  • 33 Paul // May 27, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    ok, richard. Btw, i sympathise with the caricature of the British . Haven’t lived there for 35yrs…
    watching for your next jokes (smile).

  • 34 star // May 27, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    I just realized, Richard, through rereading your post, that with “those whose minds aren’t yet enlightened are still stuck in the samsaric system” you make the same mistake Bhikkhu Bodhi made, in reading into the text that the taints belong to the possesors of “unenlightened minds” but I would point out that the sutta doesn’t say the *holders of views* are tainted, it says, quite explicitly, that the view itself is tainted.

  • 35 Active Engagement, or Just Being A Jerk « Minnesota Skeptics // May 30, 2011 at 9:39 am

    […] I got embroiled in an online argument (it was hardly a discussion among adults) with someone about Secular Buddhism.  One would think […]

  • 36 qapla // May 31, 2011 at 6:33 am

    The Secular Buddhist podcast


  • 37 star // May 31, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I understand Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s take on becoming. I understand the way setting the intention to practice and study, and following through by putting the effort into it, create a situation in which we can practice so that we can end kamma — the formations that lead to the end of suffering. I understand and agree with the Theravadin view that kamma — and formations based in ignorance– “bind us to the wheel of samsara” I just don’t take “samsara” literally.

    I understand these views far better than you give me credit for, Richard. Just because I reject their extension into rebirth doesn’t mean I don’t understand what the view is, the reasoning behind it, or the way that view came into being. Rejection of the view isn’t the same as ignorance of it. I understand what the Theravadin take on it is — do you understand what I have been saying? I can and do see the whole system both ways, not just the parts about rebirth, but how the two possibilities for meanings affect the whole system of working toward liberation. Through study and practice, I see how both work in application.

    In MN 117 the Buddha is describing an arc of morality: Wrong view is on the extreme opposite end from his teaching. The transcendent view *is* the end; it’s his teaching. In the middle is a view that he says, right there in the sutta, is tainted and a view that results in continued production of the aggregates of becoming. He extends this arc not just to view, but to intention, and speech, action and livelihood.

    You’re quite right, it is true that subject/object perception is what supports the holding of views and keeps us bound to karma. This is what the Buddha is pointing out about the tainted view that includes performing sacrifices, belief in karma and its fruits, and belief in that other world: they foster the subject/object split, they foster interest in who we will be in the future, that’s what’s being said with the mention of the right view that “results in acquisitions”.

    Do I think I can climb the top of a ladder without using the bottom rungs? Well yes, I often put my foot a rung up or even two if I’m on a hill when I start. The Buddha met people where they are in practice, he started them off where they are. In his day the majority believed in karma-as-action, in karma as creating merit, and in literal rebirth. He started them there if that’s where they were. If they were a step behind (held Wrong View) he encouraged them to, at the very least, step up to the common belief. But it would be odd for him to take someone who is practicing his path and getting along well on it and ask, “Did you ever believe in rebirth? No? Well you had better go back down the ladder and start at the bottom!”

    In fact, the Buddha does seem to suggest jumping right onto the top of the ladder. In MN 120 he tells an extended shaggy-dog story about how you could, if you wanted, focus your practice on some particular rebirth you wanted and through those efforts, indeed be born there (this is a play on some verses in the Brahmanas) but he goes on and on and lists every possible destination one could think of in those days, but the punch line tells us what he believes we really ought to do: “Oh, that by realizing for myself with direct knowledge, I might here and now enter upon and abide in the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction of the taints!’ And by realizing for himself… this bhikkhu does not reappear anywhere at all.”

    The problem with the classical view of the importance of belief in rebirth is quite well expressed by your comment about “If you really believe you can climb directly to the top rung of a ladder without climbing the bottom rungs, then that is fine by me.” It isn’t what *I* believe (I don’t hold views on things I haven’t experienced) it’s what the Buddha is saying, and I am listening. We can spend our time aspiring to a good rebirth OR we can work on realizing for ourselves with direct knowledge that deliverance of mind by wisdom that he recommends. Again I ask: which do you think he’d rather have his followers focusing on? The methods he is describing in MN 120 as NOT among the taintless? those being the ones about rebirth? or his methods? Your comment, implying as it does that I think I’m pretty cool if I think I should jump right up to the top works to keep people bound to the wheel of samsara; it pushes people to cling to a belief system that fosters the view “I am” and “I will be”, to work within a system that concerns itself with doing Meritorious Deeds for selfish reasons — for that good rebirth. It implies that focusing on the liberative path is wrong, is ego — it misses the point that the Buddha says that only BY focusing on setting the intentions that let go of views, that let go of concerns about the self in the future can we ever be liberated.

  • 38 RLB // Jun 4, 2011 at 8:15 am

    I’m surprised that Alex Lickerman is calling himself a “secular Buddhist” since he belongs to one of the most religious sects of Buddhism. They “worship” a scroll and chant with “faith” to the “mystic law” which are terms not associated with secularism, at least not that I’m aware of. I don’t mean to make it sound like I am attacking him, but the Soka Gakkai is far from secular.

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