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Secularizing Buddhism–Making it Accessible or Stripping the Roots?

posted by Ethan Nichtern

Vince_Bio1.jpgA Guest Post for the One City Blog by Vince Horn of Buddhist Geeks (Full Bio Below).



It’s a very common and hip thing today to want to make
Buddhism secular.  Many very
worthwhile organizations and movements have this as their guiding premise.  One need only look at the work that
Mind and Life Institute is doing to make meditation mainstream in the sciences,
or the work that Jon Kabat-Zinn has done with the Mindfulness-Based Stress
Reduction
technique, to see the far-reaching impact of making Buddhism secular



In fact, I’ve had many great conversations, for the Buddhist
Geeks Podcast
,
with some of the leaders in this movement, including the founder of the Mind
& Life Institute,
Adam Engle and Zen priest Norman
Fischer
.  Each of them has extremely good reasons
for making dharma secular, and so it’s hard not to appreciate the work that
they are doing.  But still, I find
there is something limited about that being the only
or even main
approach that we take toward transmitting
Dharma to the West.  




But let me be clear about
what I mean when I say, “making Buddhism secular.”  I mean, specifically, the attempt to strip away the cultural
trappings of the tradition, while preserving and re-packaging the “essence” of
the tradition (which usually has something to do with meditation practice).  In the process the religious language
is jettisoned and new “less religious” language is used instead.   Phrases like, “Buddhism is more a
science than a religion” or “The core technology of Buddhism is meditation” are
indicators of the secular impulse. 
The problem is that Buddhism is a religion.  And it’s a science. 
And it’s more besides…

 

Secularization is Sexy

Before I get into some of
the problems I’ve noticing with the assumptions behind secularizing Buddhism, I’d
like to acknowledge the very beneficial results of this movement.  The main one seems to be that some of
the wonderful meditation practices and perhaps some inkling of the models
behind them, are able to enter more “mainstream culture”.  I’ll get into why assuming that
mainstream Western culture is secular is a problem in a moment, but for the now
let’s just assume that there are many people who are being exposed with these
secular Buddhist practices who otherwise wouldn’t.  That is a wonderful thing.

Connected with that we see
the field of “contemplative science” beginning to be validated, and a whole
host of scientists making their careers out of that intersection.  There are also many ways in which
Buddhist-based meditation practices are making their way into educational
contexts
.  So, it must be acknowledged that there
are very real benefits coming online from some of these movements, and those
should continue. 

 

Is the West Really
Secular?

And now, some of my larger
concerns.  One is that we assume
that mainstream Western culture really is secular.  Has anyone noticed that in fact, we have an incredibly
Religious culture?  It’s a little
less so in some parts of Europe, but in America nearly %85 people self-identify
with a religious tradition.  Does
that make us a secular society or a highly religious one?

And let’s not confuse the
separation of Church in our political process–which incidentally was designed
to support evangelical Christians who were being persecuted, not atheists who
were afraid of religion corrupting the government–with having a secular
society.  We have a governmental
process that tries its best not to be influenced by one particular religious
tradition, but we have a country full of religious people who actively
participate in governance.  

And then there’s this strange
idea that there really exists a strong dichotomy between science and religion,
and that for something to be scientific it can’t possibly be religious (and
vice versa).  But is that actually
the case, and do we really need to strip anything that resembles “religion” out
of Buddhism for our culture to be able to tolerate it? 

 

Ouch, Those Are My Roots!

The other problem with the
secular approach is that it often, in an attempt to distance itself from “Buddhism
as a religion”, strips away the historical significance of the Buddhist
tradition.  If you’ve spent anytime
studying the history of Buddhism, you’d see pretty quickly that it is an
ancient and
constantly evolving
religious tradition.  It has a
series of both practices and beliefs that have spread and mixed with many other
influences.  Buddhism as it entered
Tibet from India melded and mixed with the Shamanistic Bon tradition
there.  As it entered China it
mixed with Confusionist and Taoist influences, and now as it enters America it
is mixing with our scientific culture and strange beliefs about the extreme
difference between religion and science. 

The problem with not seeing
how Buddhism has evolved, and in not seeing ourselves as a part of Buddhism’s
evolution, is that we can believe we are somehow the holders of the “essence”
of Buddhism.  But what is the
essence stripped from the practices, realizations, models, and people who have
contributed to this living tradition? 
Is there really such a thing? 
Could it be that the whole idea of there being an essence to Buddhism
that is distinct from it’s extraneous forms–those forms that are so irrelevant
that we can simply ignore them or dump them–is coming from a set of cultural
assumptions that exist here in this place and time?  We need to recognize that possibility, and see that there is
a kind of violence in trying to strip something from its historical roots, and also
a kind of arrogance in thinking that we can even do that successfully. 

 

Some Questions Moving
Forward

Some questions that I would
ask myself and all those who consider themselves influenced by the Buddhist
tradition:  Are we so embarrassed
by certain components of Buddhism–the adherence to strict moral codes, the
magical and mythical pantheon of Buddhist cosmology, the metaphysics of enlightenment,
etc.–that we feel the need to throw them all out without further
discourse?  Or, can we hold the
pain of knowing that all the amazing teachings that come out of the Buddhist
tradition also come with things that we might not like or understand?  And if we acknowledge that, might it
mean that each of us has to grapple with the past, present, and future of
Buddhism and its relationship to our lives?  Can we really trust that things like the Mindfulness Based
Stress Reduction movement are carrying the full potential of the Buddhist
tradition forward?  Is it that by
secularizing Buddhism we are running the very real potential of losing
something of incredible importance, while trying to ditch what we consider the “non-essential”? 

These are questions that I continue
to ponder, being both a lover of the wisdom that’s carried through the Buddhist
tradition and a lover of innovation and the new forms by which that wisdom can
be carried.  My intuition is that
both can be honored– tradition and innovation–but not if either one is valued
at the expense of the other.  And
certainly not if we don’t ask ourselves these hard questions.  

————————————-

Vince Horn lives as a modern monk. He spends part of his
year in silence, meditating, introspecting, and developing spiritually. The
rest of the time he spends engaged in the world, where he produces and hosts
the popular show, Buddhist Geeks, works in the production department of the spiritual publishing company Sounds True, and writes for various publications–including on his personal blog Numinous Nonsense–and enjoys living in Boulder, Colorado with his wife Emily.



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Comments read comments(203)
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BrianNaas

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:30 pm


There was this guy. Oh jeez, what was his name? I think he said something like this:
“Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.”
Hmm?
@Vince “But what is the essence stripped from the practices, realizations, models, and people who have contributed to this living tradition?”
Something I can actually use.



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Brian Smith

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:38 pm


Thanks. Certainly something to think about. I definitely consider myself to be a spiritual person (I hesitate to use the term religious). I think there is an element of “faith” associated with even “secular” Buddhism. To believe that the practice will accomplish what people hope to accomplish, one must have faith that their nature is as the Buddha describes it. I hear modern Western Buddhist teachers shying away from the spiritual or religious aspect of Buddhist practice. But, as a lifelong Christian I see the spirituality that underlies the practice.



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Irene Woodard

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:40 pm


“Can we really trust that things like the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction movement are carrying the full potential of the Buddhist tradition forward?”
I don’t think that is important to the people that are in huge physical pain from chronic illness. I sat in the rooms up in Worcester, Mass with patients who came there as a last resort for their pain, and the meditation worked! It was benefitting others. Zinn’s leadership, the people instructing made no promises to the patients, the whole thing felt very genuine. Maybe that is the full potential, maybe it is not. Each person is different. Personally I found that it was moving the Buddhist tradition forward.



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Howard Harawitz

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:40 pm


I don’t mean to be nit-picky but when Vince Horn discusses “secular Buddhism” I think he is referring to the use of Buddhist “technology” (e.g., meditation and other techniques) to tweak human behavior — that is, make people feel better or perform more effectively– i.e., increase ability to concentrate, control resistance to discomfort, reduce stress, etc. I would agree that this is shallow and narrows the scope of Buddhism considerably.
However, I do feel that genuine Buddhist principles and ideas are universal and need not be connected to any particular religion or sect. I would call that “non-religious Buddhism” rather than secular Buddhism.



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Mujaku

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:42 pm


Addressing the comment of BrianNass, the Kalamas Sutta (A.i.188) was never meant as a green light to teach and practice what the Buddha did not teach and practice. However, from what I can tell, some in the Buddhist community have used the Kalamas Sutta for just this purpose.



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Julia May

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:46 pm


Hi Vince!
Thanks for your post. I personally think that Buddhism requires a degree of devotion. I think that a faith-driven belief in Buddha Nature is necessary to link emptiness with compassion. Without it, you can’t make the leap.
I *do* think that while many Americans claim to be religious, they have no daily practice that expresses their devotion. In that way practitioners who meditate daily (even if they claim to be secular) are far more devoted and religious in habit (even if they claim to be secular) than other folks who have an easier time identifying with a religion.
As for secularization – I think it gets the convo going – and that’s always a good thing. My father is never going to make offerings to the protectors – but getting him to see that there is space between is thoughts has been an extremely helpful way to help him cope with anxiety.



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Duff

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:47 pm


Could it be that the whole idea of there being an essence to Buddhism that is distinct from it’s extraneous forms–those forms that are so irrelevant that we can simply ignore them or dump them–is coming from a set of cultural assumptions that exist here in this place and time?
This question gets to the heart of it for me. Western culture is obsessed with the quest for “authenticity.” Secular Western Buddhism could be seen as a quest for “authentic Buddhism,” yet no such thing ever existed historically unless we arbitrarily freeze time at one point or one sutta. Buddhism has always been evolving and changing, as have Buddhists.
Cleaving some elements of Buddhism away from the whole can be useful in some contexts, but will not provide an overall systematic Art of Living.
Many of the fruits of meditation only work if you have a belief that can generalize your insights. You notice that your inner dialogue comes and goes and lacks a permanent self-hood, but this doesn’t necessarily generalize to when a family member dies unless you have a belief “everything is impermanent.” Otherwise meditation becomes a subjective game, further insulating the subjective from the outside world, rather than breaking down the subject-object dualism.
I was recently talking with my sister, who is an ordained UCC minister, about how many people in the West flock to Eastern religions as an attempt to get away from the corruption and dogma of Christianity (for example the belief in God, or the Catholic church’s homophobia). Yet in our search, we find that our alternative “spiritual but not religious” communities are equally as dogmatic and often corrupt, or at least complex.
Even more importantly, there is no escape from the religious impulse. We either secularize religion as Secular Humanism or hedonistic Positive Psychology–leading to increased alienation, ahistoricity, and self-centeredness–or we update and evolve existing religious traditions, making them fresh and relevant while still deeply rooted in their historical and cultural contexts.
My sister’s church has the motto “we have roots and wings.” I’m in favor of a similar kind of Buddhism.



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Vince H.

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:48 pm


Hi all. Thanks for your comments. I may not have time to respond to everyone, though I’m glad people are offering their reflections…
@Irene : You said, “I don’t think that is important to the people that are in huge physical pain from chronic illness.” I agree, from their perspective what MBSR is doing is great. But from the perspective of someone who is involved in the on-going evolution of Buddhism in the West, it is important. It’s really a question of scope.
@Howard : What I’m talking about is in fact what you’re calling “non-religious Buddhism”, yes. And, I think if we let our allergic reaction to the word “religion” keep us from seeing the full breadth and depth of the Buddhist religious tradition (which it very much is…), then my concern is that we may overlook some very important parts of that tradition…
Again, I guess I’m kind of proposing a balance between tradition and innovation, and my sense recently has been that the drive to secularize Buddhism is moving a little too far from the tradition, and potentially cutting off some of its roots. :)



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BrianNaas

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:48 pm


Okay, sorry. Snap judgment. I see your point. Blogs always make my heart rate rise.
@ Vince re: “Are we so embarrassed by certain components of Buddhism–the adherence to strict moral codes, the magical and mythical pantheon of Buddhist cosmology, the metaphysics of enlightenment, etc.–that we feel the need to throw them all out without further discourse?”
There’s something to be said about plowing through a set path, whether it be an education system or an established meditation practice. By submitting yourself to the path, even though the path might be imperfect (they all are), you work through habitual tendencies of resistance and impatience. You burn through it, often attaining some kind of increased capacity or intelligence, and you become a different person.
The tendency to cherry pick the good and bad of Buddhism can prevent people from going deep and burning through this “fiery initiation.” In the end though, I feel that we must drop certain superstitious, metaphysical aspects of buddhism in order for it to survive as a viable (helpful) modern day practice.



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Rev. Danny Fisher

posted August 11, 2009 at 4:52 pm


Good stuff, Vince! I once long ago did a post on this subject at my blog:
http://chaplaindanny.blogspot.com/2007/09/i-dunno-what-do-you-think.html



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Vince H.

posted August 11, 2009 at 5:01 pm


@Duff : Hey buddy, thanks for dropping by and sharing… I love the way your Aunt put it, “roots and wings”. Beautiful.
@Brian : I’m with you completely, in dropping certain aspects of the metaphysics, etc. The thing I’ve been running into though recently, is a personal need to reflect strongly upon what is superstition and what is “real,” and is the very assumption that there is “real” vs. “not-real” one that also contains a somewhat misleading dichotomy?
It seems more likely that the real and un-real co-exist together in an extraordinarily complex dance of paradox, history, and so many things that are incomprehensible from our current vantage point. I’m wary of getting too bogged down in the vast mystery of it, but I also feel like we need to honor this mystery, perhaps letting the mystery “solve us” rather than us “solving it”. And I’m sorry if that sounds hopelessly abstract, but it’s the best I can do at the moment. :)



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MrTeacup

posted August 11, 2009 at 5:04 pm


“there is a kind of violence in trying to strip something from its historical roots”
I wholeheartedly agree. We shouldn’t be saying “I’m a Buddhist, but you know, a secular Buddhist, not like those weird Asians.” Let the real Buddhists be Buddhist.
Does that mean that everyone who meditates needs to learn Sanskrit and Tibetan and get a degree in Buddhist Studies? I don’t think so. If people practicing something like mindfulness-based stress reduction aren’t claiming to be practicing Buddhism, there’s nothing wrong with what they are doing.
Is the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction movement carrying the full potential of the Buddhist tradition forward? No. Should it? They’re taking one specific technique that’s taught in some Buddhist traditions, making it available for a different purpose in a different culture, and definitely not claiming that what they’ve created is “the essence of Buddhism”.



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Ethan

posted August 11, 2009 at 5:09 pm


have many thoughts and little time. I look forward to a great discussion on this matter but some initial thoughts.
What if the Buddha was the world’s first psychologist?
Can anyone adequately define “religion” for me? Hasn’t happened yet.
What if what’s happening now is the “re”-secularization of Buddhism (however, my tantric tradition proposes a specific problem to this view – more later)
Does it even matter?



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Brian Smith

posted August 11, 2009 at 5:21 pm


Ethan, you ask some good questions. And Vince, your point about the dichotomy between religion and science is a good one. As a spiritual/religious person with a scientific background, I see science and spirituality merging. Quantum physics is showing us some freaky stuff. There’s a lot more to the universe than we could possibly have imagined. Recent research into the brain indicates that the mind might not exist solely between our two ears. While I think the Buddha very well might have been the first psychologist, the “faith” required to believe that we all have Buddha nature, which I view as a spiritual quality I believe is essential to Buddhist practice.



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Malaclypse the Wakeful

posted August 11, 2009 at 5:42 pm


Great post and excellent questions. Here’s a link to an archive short talks by Alan Wallace
http://www.sbinstitute.com/16%20Teachings/
The talk “Future of Buddhism” is especially relevant to this post.



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gza

posted August 11, 2009 at 5:47 pm


I see the development of Buddhism in the West taking a pyramid form (without an implied hierarchy). At the most broad point will be all kinds of secularized practices with many adherents. At the top point will be a comparatively small number of people deeply versed in the tradition. As long as both ends are established, I see no problem or contradiction, and I think Buddhism and Buddhist derived practices can benefit people very widely.



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3_Trainings

posted August 11, 2009 at 5:49 pm


The Sutta Pitaka contains over 10,000 suttas yet it seems one particular stanza from just one of the 10,000 is routinely presented as a buttress for all manner of claims regarding what Buddhism is and is not. The act of extracting such a passage from the original sutta decontextualizes it. And from that point it can be interpreted to say and mean even things far removed from the original intent.
Since the Kalama sutta mentions one criterion for worthiness of a view/belief/action to be that which is praised by the wise. I submit Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay on the Kalama Sutta.
http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma/kalamalook.html
Since the positioned articulated by BrianNass has (in my opinion) been most fully articulated by Stephen Batchelor in his book “Buddhism Without Beliefs” it may be worth hearing a counterpoint from someone equally experienced – Mr. Alan Wallace. Although his response (to the second to last question) is brief, I feel he makes his point clear.
To Howard: I didn’t get the impression that Vince meant that Buddhist technologies must be tethered to a particular religion due to any dogma or in order for them to have beneficial effects. The research bears out that these technologies in a non-religious context certainly do reduce suffering and so, as far as they go, provide results. They simply don’t eliminate, by themselves, the deepest and most subtle layers of craving, clinging, and misidentification. And in my understanding this is the much grander goal that the Buddha had in mind – to reduce suffering on all levels, not just the gross levels.
Vince seems to be in favor of these uses of Buddhist meditative techniques stripped of “religious” elements so long as they are not the main transmission of Dharma in the west (or worse – the ONLY option).



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3_Trainings

posted August 11, 2009 at 5:52 pm


And the link to the Alan Wallace interview I mentioned above.
http://www.templeton-cambridge.org/fellows/showarticle.php?article=18
Sorry I forgot :)



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Ryan Oelke

posted August 11, 2009 at 6:07 pm


Excellent article, V! Firstly, I hope people will respond to this article without being lazy in their perspectives, no matter the side. This is the point, I think, of presenting this article: to encourage critical, open reflection, to pull us out of our automatic responses, and to see what is or isn’t true.
Can anyone actually imagine something NOT having a cultural aspect, as if existing in some vacuum? We’re like fish in water and there’s no escaping it, whether or not we see culture as good or bad, so I say let’s embrace it.
I invite people to consider this possibility: “Our Western culture is scientific and rational.” It seems that folks tend to think that “science” means “non-cultural”, without influence, totally “clean”. But one can see even within science that this is not the case. Science itself has culture and sub-culture. It’s bathed in it, let alone our society as a whole and our spiritual practice.
My view is that it’s not even possible to talk about something being totally secular, and secularism is actually a particular value of the culture we find ourselves in. “Don’t tell your left hand, baby, what your right hand do.”



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Scott E

posted August 11, 2009 at 6:48 pm


This discussion seems to be about what should and should not be heard, and by whom.
In the suttas there are many instances of the Buddha teaching lay people how to live happy, healthy and harmonious with oneself and others in this very life without going into the complexities and nuances of the Dhamma. It seems he said simply what was needed to be heard and no more. But this is also the true Dhamma.



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Constance Casey

posted August 11, 2009 at 6:51 pm


Hi Vince:
Good points to consider. When I was in Malaysia, the natives thought the new Buddha heads that were being sold to tourists were strange disembodied Buddhas; sacrilegious to them.
The key to the evolution of this is participation. There is a group mind at work in any culture. To what degree and how we each participate is the ongoing mystery.
I’m glad that you are concerned about the roots of Buddhism, we need to be careful of cultural and/or religious genocide and warping certain traditions, each look at our own role and what feels best for the whole.
There is a saying in 12-step groups that goes, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” but your blog makes me want to take it to a new level and rephrase it to: “Take what you like, and remember the whole.”
Thank you all for your comments and the links too! :)



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Mu

posted August 11, 2009 at 7:22 pm


Fine point, Scott E. It all depends on how serious and central you take upaya to be. I think the Vimalakirti sutra did a nice job of addressing V’s question.
I would submit that the Jon Kabat-Zinns of the world do much more for the dharma than those who try to defend the purity of something which was never historically pure. History is full of examples of purity-defenders and -worriers who either burned out or were left in the dust of progress. Also, historically speaking, nasty things like bigotry, elitism, genocide, and nationalism have masqueraded as righteous concerns about “roots” and purity. One of the tremendous strengths of Buddhism is that it has an almost spotless record in this regard. So, rather than embrace the dualism V has handed us, let’s question our motives for even positing it in the first place.



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Vince H.

posted August 11, 2009 at 8:02 pm


Mu writes, “So, rather than embrace the dualism V has handed us, let’s question our motives for even positing it in the first place.”
No offense Mu, but my whole point in writing this post was to question the dualism of their being a real and authentic Buddhism that can be stripped of it’s cultural context or roots. That is a questioning of the very dualism you seem to be claiming that I’ve handed down… Am I missing something, or is your style simply to deconstruct and argue with people relentlessly? That’s the pattern I’m starting to notice here now, and with the last post where you argued with Daniel Ingram pointlessly. If that’s where this is going, please spare me, and everyone else that’s reading here.
Word,
-Vince



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Jerry Kolber

posted August 11, 2009 at 8:04 pm


The history of the evolution of most religions (and countries) is filled with everything from geography, migration, war, politics, reverence, spirituality, natural events, invasions, and “popular appeal”. To say that we should automatically embrace all aspects of the evolution of anything seems a bit strange to me. The aspects of Buddhism that you list as worthy of consideration don’t seem particularly difficult to embrace or not embrace, and seem a bit cherry-picked. What about issues of patriarchy, hierarchy, and authority-establishing (and not in the “see for yourself” way) and using religion as a means of control that are as much part of certain Buddhist lineages as any other religion?
Vince writes “Could it be that the whole idea of there being an essence to Buddhism that is distinct from it’s extraneous forms–those forms that are so irrelevant that we can simply ignore them or dump them–is coming from a set of cultural assumptions that exist here in this place and time?”.
If I substitute the words “American Democracy” for Buddhism and substitute “ideas like racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and denial of women’s rights” for “forms” , how is that different than choosing to ignore aspects of Buddhism that don’t feel relevant to me?
If Buddhism – or anything – is presented as an all-or-nothing proposition, who is deciding what the “all” is? Aren’t even traditional Buddhist lineages littered with varying interpretations of Buddhist history, dharama, and which dude is really in charge?



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Your Name

posted August 11, 2009 at 8:55 pm


the philospher sam harris touched on this subject awhile back in shambhala sun. he basically argued that the revolutionary wisdom of the buddha is trapped and stifled in the religion of buddhism, largely cut off from the non-buddhist world (b/c religious people find claims of other religions dubious) where it could do alot of good.
anyway, here’s the article:
http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2903&Itemid=0&limit=1&limitstart=0



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Echo

posted August 11, 2009 at 10:07 pm


Follow the middle way and be aware of your attractions and aversions to both secularization and religious tradition.



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Jerry Kolber

posted August 11, 2009 at 11:38 pm


Ethan isn’t it more likely Buddha was the first quantum physicist than the first psychologist?



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Mu

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:20 am


Don’t get high handed with me, Vince. Intellectually, you’re punching way above your weight class.
You ask if you’ve “missed something.” Indeed, you have missed several somethings. Let me illuminate you.
You construct a binary as follows, and you leave it to the reader to decide where he or she stands (which is all very well and good), but you fail to 1) articulate why this binary matters (the famous “so what” question), 2) produce any solid evidence that the binary is as you assert it is, that is, between a failure to appreciate and grasp the historical significance of Buddhism and, on the other side, an appreciation, grasping, and practice of the so-called roots of Buddhism, which you assert are religious, and 3) spell out your own position, settling instead for the wishy-washy “I think there’s room for both tradition and innovation.”
Here’s your weak binary:
Column A: Secular Buddhism or Buddhism as Technique
–MBSR
–Mind & Life Institute
–The view that Buddhism is a science not a religion
–Stripped down Buddhism, shorn of “cultural trappings”
–Sexiness (an undefined and absurd terminology, but I list it)
–Entrance of Buddhism into mainstream culture
–Failure to see how Buddhism has evolved
–Holding a belief that this secularity or a particular technique is the essence of Buddhism
–Possible embarrassment by features of Buddhism, e. g., adherence to strict moral codes, Buddhist cosmology, the metaphysics of enlightenment
–Loss of “something of incredible importance”
Column B: Religious Buddhism or Buddhism as Rooted World-Historical System
–Retention of religious language
–“Amazing teachings” that include “things that we might not like or understand”
–View of Buddhism as evolving
–Appreciation of “the practices, realizations, models, and people who have contributed to this living tradition,” i.e., historical roots
The problems with this binary are legion. Before I spell some of those out, let me point out that, like all binaries or dualisms, this one translates to a hierarchy. V’s language (e. g., “amazing teachings” and things of “incredible importance” on the historico-religious side) seem to mark his own position on this question, though I suspect he will not forcefully own a position, preferring instead to please all sides. As admirable as being a diplomat for the dharma is, one always risks sacrificing intellectual integrity and rigor in the process. So, let’s look at the problems with this binary:
1. As someone who is formally trained in and practices MBSR and who has read all of Kabat-Zinn’s books, in addition to many others on MBSR and its sister therapies (MBCT, MBRP, ACT, and DBT), and who lectures internationally on the subject of mindfulness-based practice and mental health, I note first that it is absolutely untrue that this branch of so-called secular Buddhism has extirpated the foundation, stripped the history, or failed to acknowledge that Buddhism involves such things as enlightenment, moral codes, or views that are scientifically unverifiable such as reincarnation. Indeed, the leading authors in the broad area of mindfulness and psychotherapy all take care to lay out for their readers, who are mainly mental health practitioners, not necessarily Buddhists, the foundational philosophies, practices, and traditions of Buddhism. I would suggest that Vince do some reading before making these claims about MBSR. Oops, no one likes to hear that….
2. The view that Buddhism is a science, not a religion, is in fact not attributable to any of the authors who supposedly have gone mainstream. They hold the view that it is both, thus the binary is a false one. Geshe Tashi Tsering holds the same view, seeing Tibetan Buddhism as fundamentally an “inner science,” involving both psychology and epistemology. Buddhism’s having a relationship with science, which HH the DL applauds, is not the same thing as claiming Buddhism is a science, not a religion.
3. The idea that secular Buddhism doesn’t see itself as evolving, living, nor see itself as part of its growth or historical spread is an absurd claim. Psychologists, for example Thomas Bien and Musai Walter Roshi, often speak of what they are doing with the dharma as a fourth turning of the Wheel. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in an interview in Inquiring Mind, states that his therapeutic dharma makes no attempt, as he puts it, to “hide the source,” and, furthermore, he goes on to say that “what we’re really trying to do is create an American Dharma, an American Zen,” part of a new vehicle, he concludes. He adds, later in the interview, “I want you to know that I don’t really see what we’re doing as just stress reduction or stress management. We just call it that. I really see it as Dharma.” VH produces no evidence that there is any failure to appreciate the evolution of Buddhism or its history, and it’s unlikely he can.
4. The idea that somehow the secular folks hold the belief that they espouse the essence of Buddhism, when for example they study or use therapeutically a technique such as meditation is VH’s most ridiculous assertion. It’s beyond ridiculous—-it’s ridunculous. Ruling out moronic journalists, no serious scholar or practitioner who writes about the “repackaging” of meditation for a mainstream audience believes that what they are doing is, as VH claims, preserving the “essence” of Buddhism. Has VH read an author like Marsha Linehan or Chris Germer or even D. Siegel? VH has constructed nothing but a straw man. He does it again when he rather dumbly asks, “Can we really trust that things like the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction movement are carrying the full potential of the Buddhist tradition forward?” Who says the movement is carrying the full potential of the tradition forward? Really, who says that? Certainly no one who is actually familiar with the movement says that.
I could go on and on, but I’ll end by saying that, in short, this posting is a messy piece of thought. It has the feel of something tossed off, and its superficiality (not to mention its poor grammar) is stunning. If VH really intends to provoke meaningful discussion, then he might want to think about taking up a well-grounded position rather waste bandwidth with a conclusion like, “well, gosh, gee, innovation and tradition are both great.” Puhleeze.



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WomanMonk

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:34 am


Hmm. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity was started, strictly speaking, by someone trying to start “a religion”. Both Gautama and Jesus were proposing radical changes, attempting to break free of religious strictures.
I’d say that religions grew up around their teachings, in spite of them (and often contradicting them).
The Buddha never talked about any “why” questions, never talked about god or gods, and asked that no one make statues or pictures of him. Last time I checked most of religious “Buddhism” is about ignoring, morphing or denying some of these key tenets!!!
It’s about the teachings which are not the religion.



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WomanMonk

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:34 am


Hmm. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity was started, strictly speaking, by someone trying to start “a religion”. Both Gautama and Jesus were proposing radical changes, attempting to break free of religious strictures.
I’d say that religions grew up around their teachings, in spite of them (and often contradicting them).
The Buddha never talked about any “why” questions, never talked about god or gods, and asked that no one make statues or pictures of him. Last time I checked most of religious “Buddhism” is about ignoring, morphing or denying some of these key tenets!!!
It’s about the teachings which are not the religion.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:53 am


One of the things I think we ought to recognize is that our notion of “religion” here in the West is somewhat different from the attitude regarding religion in many Eastern cultures. While Asian religions share many of the features of Western religions, the cultural attitude towards religion is different; many people subscribe to and respect and even practice multiple “religions” at once, notions of dogmatic conflict between religions tend to be rather downplayed (not that they’re nonexistent — but they tend to be much less emphasized), etc. In other words, it seems to me that your post, while raising an interesting question, may be projecting a certain Western view of what “religion” is, i.e., where in the West religion tends to be synonymous with “faith” or “belief in dogma”, in the East, while there are some religions that have elements of dogma, religions tend to be less about what you believe than what you practice and think about.
In other words, what we might call “religious” Buddhism, in its native, original context, is not about dogma, in most cases. As the Dalai Lama once famously remarked, if any traditional belief in Buddhism is shown to be false by science, the traditional belief ought to be discarded. Note the fact that he made this statement entirely without reservation or exception; he didn’t say “if any traditional belief except X, Y, or Z” but if ANY belief is falsified by science, it ought to be discarded.
Of course many Buddhist traditional beliefs are somewhat unfalsifiable, but the key point here is to point out the status of beliefs even in traditional, “religious”, Buddhism — which is to say, everything is open to debate, questioning, and revision, no matter how widely believed or how traditionally believed: what we might call “superstitious” beliefs included.
In addition to the Kalama sutra, Shakyamuni was also reputed to have said that questions about the origin of the universe or what happens after you die are not important because, regardless of the answers to these questions, they would not change the fundamental issues surrounding suffering, its causes and how to work with it.
From this perspective I don’t think the term “secular” Buddhism is really well-defined. That is to say, one could just call “secular” Buddhism merely yet another sect of Buddhism. Buddhism ought to be about reality, not about dogma or belief, and even the “superstitious” beliefs ought to be open to critical investigation here and now — in their original contexts, “secular” and “religious” views are not separated into two piles, one set being open to debate and the other accepted as dogma; the distinction between “secular” and “religious” is, I believe, more of a Western idea.
While I am, thus, rather sympathetic to the “secular” Buddhist movement, personally, I have experienced and seen myself quite a lot of strange things which lead me to believe that some “superstitious” beliefs of “religious” Buddhists may well have some basis in reality. But the fact some of these things are traditionally believed doesn’t accord these ideas or possible phenomena any special status, in my mind. To the extent some of these things may have reality they ought to be subject to critical examination in the here and now just as much as any other phenomenon of reality. It all ought to be skeptically investigated anew, by every generation of practitioner, it seems to me.



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~C4Chaos

posted August 12, 2009 at 1:01 am


Vince,
i share your concerns in not throwing the Buddhist baby with the secular bathwater :) i appreciate the various expressions of different Buddhist traditions. however, whenever i think of “secularizing” Buddhism, i also look at it from a different perspective. instead of just thinking of it as “stripping” Buddhism of its cultural baggage, i like to think of it as recognizing the *common threads* in most (if not all) mystical traditions.
for example (i’m using Shinzen Young’s formulation here), let’s take the concept of enlightenment as a “goal” (which it is in traditional Buddhist formulation; e.g. 4 Noble Truths, 8-Fold paths). there are three main factors in meditation practice which can help cultivate one’s awakening process. these are concentration, clarity, and equanimity. at first look these factors are Buddhist concepts. however, if we broaden our perspective and step back a bit, these factors are common to most (if not all) mystical traditions, from Shamanism, to Sufism, to mystical Judaism, to Christian contemplatives, to sport athletes. so, if these are common to all mystical traditions, are they Buddhist or are they universal factors? if we take them as universal factors, then can we proceed to treat them as secular ideas (or scientific formulations) without exclusive ties to Buddhism? my opinion is yes.
Sam Harris has a good analogy for this in his contemplative science article: we talk about Christian Chemistry, or Islamic Algebra (even if those ideas were developed within those religious traditions). in the same vein, concentration, clarity, equanimity can be thought of as neutral (or secular) scientific terms, like atoms, neutrons, energy, mass, inertia, etc. even if some of those scientific terms evolved within a religious tradition, no one thinks about Islam when performing mathematical or algebraic calculations. in short, those ideas have become so universal/scientific/secular that we forgot their religious roots. whether we remember their religious roots, those concepts work for us, across cultures, across generations.
for a geekier example check out Shinzen Young’s historical musings on Algorithm and Emptiness. you see how the concept of emptiness correlates to “zero”? :)
bottom line: i believe that we can use whatever language (secular or otherwise) to express the dharma. i’m one of those who believe that Buddhist practice (and concepts) can be expressed in secularized form *without losing its potency as a liberation oriented technology*. this will not appeal to everyone, just as science doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. there will those who will continue to prefer the traditional teachings along with its cultural expressions. nothing wrong with that. Western Buddhists owe a lot from those people who chose to follow the traditional paths. without them, Buddhism will not thrive today. but still, for me, secularized flavor of Buddhism is a parallel dharma. i don’t think it will replace the different Buddhist traditions. it will be a different thread on its own.
so whenever someone asks me whether i’m a Buddhist, i can now answer with a straight face: i’m technically a non-practicing Catholic who does Buddhist practice.
my two cents.
~C



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What it is

posted August 12, 2009 at 1:01 am


one of the problems is this human need to place everything in a context we understand.
we want to see Buddhism in terms we understand. That is all fine. however, if Buddhism includes things beyond our understanding…to which we are aspiring towards….
we can’t limit it.
Then, we place an artificial circle around it and say, “we will not go farther.”
If you do not like that the Buddha mentioned “the gods” – then perhaps, instead of trying to excise that, try to understand it…and not in our terms, but in His. And that may be the work of a lifetime.
Perhaps the Buddha was simply discussing a direct reality…that there are, indeed these unseen beings called gods or archangels.
And if we can’t perceive their existence, perhaps that speaks to our limitation. Perhaps, after many years of long hours of meditation daily, we may yet have a vision of a god. And if that is the case, it will only be then that we truly understand what the Buddha wrote.
But if we assume the only experiences that can exist, are the ones we have now…why even engage the path? I mean, if you think you have Mahatma Gandhi’s wisdom, love and courage….then by all means go your own way. If you can write a poem like Shakespeare or a piece of music like Beethoven, then go your own way. But if there are spiritual achievements that are beyond you…then engage a path and pursue them.
And when you, like the Buddha, can stop a mad elephant with a glance…then you will have an understanding of what the experience is. Until then, we are simply not him, not at his level.
We have the Buddha nature within us, but it is not fully realized. That is why we engage the path. We are potential Buddhas, but not actual Buddhas until we can bring into manifestation all that inner glory.



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Ethan

posted August 12, 2009 at 1:01 am


MU: Why all the vitriol? Why so negative? Even if you disagree with Vince’s points (and I think the view of Buddhism as ever being a religion is on very shaky ground for a variety of reasons – first and foremost being the lack of a solid definition of religion or spirituality beyond a retroactive definition bestowed on the traditions that have beendefined as religions in our collective consciousness as Church organizations, which somehow came to include Buddhism, and secondly because the Buddha was clearly teaching human psychology in the Pali Suttas and not rejecting anyone’s pre-existing “Sacred Canopy” – more on that from me tomorrow), why would you tear it down so much, so immediately? It’s a well written and thoughtful article and it seems overly critical not to give it its due on that level at the very least (I think there is a lot more to it than that).
Nobody is out of their weight class here. That’s just rude.
I do not understand your style of argument. Why not try speaking from experience? Tearing everybody down no matter what causes you to have to jump around in your critique as well, as it was quite unclear from your Daniel Ingram related comments what your actual beef was. This is a difficult forum because we can interpret written words any way we choose with no face to face, and if critical mind always leads the way, people are definitely not going to understand what you are trying to say.
I am a bit surprised at how you choose to engage this discourse. Why do you make it so personal? We are all friends at the OC blog. Plus, your analysis and critique includes some interpretations which don’t seem to come from the article in question, or from the comments you are critiquing. Vince didn’t write much of what you critiqued him for above.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to write a post on Krishnamurti, that would be a most welcome entry. But don’t write on how Krishnamurti is so much better than Daniel Ingram. :~) We already know how you feel on that score.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 12, 2009 at 1:03 am


@Vince I sympathize with your reaction to Mu’s rather aggressive style, but I hope you actually can get past his tone and read into the meat of his remarks, which are far from a mere deconstructive attack meant merely to be argumentative — he makes some very cogent points in his posts. However, I personally do not entirely understand the reason why Mu likes to sometimes take on a rather aggressive tone, but on the other hand, that is just a style of discourse. There are quite a few people I respect who like to use that tone, I personally prefer a more neutral tone myself, even when I disagree, but I hope that tone alone doesn’t prevent people from being able to listen to each other and communicate effectively about these interesting questions.



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Ken Elkind

posted August 12, 2009 at 1:21 am


As the Buddha said, & is now possible; Be with The One. Our evolved intelligence has enabled us to use an “invisible light giving energy” (electricity!!?) to unite us “in the heavens”(communication satellites!?!). It will take a vast amount o’ faith to believe that; when a sufficient amount of humans are with The One, it will be epiphanous, and it is hoped, evolutionary. Being a miraculous achievement, promised by most prophets, it may also involve other energies (gravitational galactic alignments?).
A global community prayer/drum circle will use our unique, evolved ability to “feel” music. Any one who has been in a crowd of people listening or performing music, has felt a higher power present. On a global level, that “groove energy” will create a mass energy, like no other! It may also take our astrological knowledge to insure that the globe grooves at an apropriate time of, one of these alignments.
Regardless of which “history” you choose to believe, meditating, praying, chanting, dancing, drumming ….?, are all ways to Be with The One. Seperating religious from secular beliefs (non-beliefs?!?), is a useless exercise, that contradicts our biology. It’s been discovered that there is a “node” in our brains, that becomes active when praying, or in any way Being spiritually aroused. As with all “body parts” it was evolved for an evolutionary purpose.
As was necessary, societies believed in ways that made sense in their environment. Now that our intelligence has managed to “see” the globe, we’re also able to “see” that the planet is aging, (or we’re aging it!), and supporting life upon it may not be forever possible. Climate change, diminished resources,….?, there are many potential apoliptic possiblities.
We would be fools to ignore our current unification abilities!!
http://www.groovism.net emits The One groove that all can Be with. Nothing to buy or join, just got to site & click the “straight to groove” button, and you’re with us. The site is nothing exciting. There is a forum, but seems not to be a functioning “social network”. It will be updated as soon as we become approved as a non-profit, by the IRS. They’re in the process there of. I suspect we’ll qualify!
Our beliefs are paralled in many ways to what was espoused by all religious speakers. Digital beliefs venture into the eternal nature of digital information. To what extent of “Being with The One” does one need to be, to become downloaded into the newly evolved, digitally conscious(?), being?
Groove On
Ken Elkind



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Mu

posted August 12, 2009 at 1:22 am


Ethan, with all due respect, we apparently have very different notions of what constitutes good writing and thinking.
I’m not sure what you mean by “jumping around” in my critique. I offered a string of arguments, sure, for two reasons: one, it’s a blog; that’s kinda how they work, and, two, I had to respond on multiple fronts, ranging from the drive-by BB gun posts of gza to the half-baked defense of VH to DI’s more reasoned and substantial posts. If you cannot see how the string coheres, there is little I can do. I suppose I could summarize every three posts or so.
I have no vitriol. I call things as I see them. If you throw strikes, I’ll call it; if you throw balls, I’ll call it. From VH, we’re getting the latter.



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Mu

posted August 12, 2009 at 1:57 am


P.S. Ethan writes:
“Plus, your analysis and critique includes some interpretations which don’t seem to come from the article in question, or from the comments you are critiquing. Vince didn’t write much of what you critiqued him for above.”
Please show me how I got the binary wrong. My points hinge on that binary. If your response is that V doesn’t believe in his own binary, that he’s questioning it, and is therefore off the hook, I say that’s completely irrelevant given the piece he wrote tries to show how the binary characterizes contemporary dharma. I say the binary has very little legitimacy. It’s garbage. If the binary is just play with rhetorical straw men, then that kinda proves my final point just as well: Why write this drivel when your conclusion is merely that A and B are both great and can live together harmoniously?



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 12, 2009 at 2:51 am


@Mu I have to say that while I share your concerns about the binary that Vince posed, I note that Ethan alluded to this himself in his questioning of whether the word “religious” had a clearly-defined meaning. But I also suppose for me the fact that people raise a question, or pose things in terms of a binary, makes the question worth taking seriously even if or perhaps precisely because it has a problematic basis. As a math professor of mine once put it, “never underestimate the trivial” — which is to say, many things that seem obvious are, upon further investigation, rather problematic or questionable, and reveal interesting structure — but not everyone sees that right off the bat. Without having to water down your points at all, while still “calling it as you see it”, it seems to me there’s a wide variety of ways of expressing those same views — and to my mind the point of discourse is co-creation of new ideas as well as communication. It seems to me your thinking is very well considered so I presume you’ve thought about this — what the effect of a certain aggressive tone can be on the flow of discourse, the ability to communicate — but I have to say it’s not clear to me (as I noted above) why you find it sometimes necessary to be so aggressive in tone (again, I don’t begrudge you at all your freedom to choose whatever tone you see fit, but I honestly don’t fully understand your thinking about it, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it here or in private).



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Your Name

posted August 12, 2009 at 5:04 am


Just to be clear on where I’m coming from, I’m an American monk in the Tibetan tradition currently living in Nepal. My first reaction upon reading the opening paragraphs of this article was simply, “If it’s been ‘secularized’ it’s no longer Buddhism.” In other words, if it’s stripped down to some meditation techniques for stress reduction, it no longer fits into the category of Buddhism. The point of all forms of Buddhism, as far as I am aware, is to trancend samsara and enter Nirvana (whether we’re talking Mahayana/Vajrayana or Theravada). Even in Pure Land Buddhism, the ultimate goal is not to stay in the Pure Land, but to practice with Amitabha Buddha until one can be reborn and achieve enlightenment. However, to say that these programs of Buddhist-inspired meditation are no longer Buddhist isn’t to say they’re bad. If they benefit people, then they are good. I simply mean to say that if the motivation to achieve either Arahat-hood or full Buddha-hood is removed from the practice, it has become something other than Buddhism.



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Vishal Lama

posted August 12, 2009 at 6:23 am


@Vince
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important topic, and being the beneficiary of your advice (from time to time) on meditation and having been acquainted with your writings for a while, I think I know to a degree where you are coming from. Having said that, I would also have to say that I find my thoughts more in sync with those contained in Sam Harris’ article Killing the Buddha. The reasons are several.
First, I think that traditional “Buddhism” isn’t necessarily an efficient vehicle for the transmission of Buddha’s revolutionary discoveries in the 21st century. There is nothing inherently Buddhist about the Three Insights (no self, suffering and impermanence), which if they are “universal”, should be empirically validated not just through personal experience (which has been the case for the past 2,500 years or so) but also by modern science in some form in an empirical and objective manner, signs of which we are already beginning to see in the field of neuroscience and other related disciplines. Here, I would like to stress that both empiricism and objectivity are vitally important to the spread of Buddha’s insights.
Second, I claim that the rational culture of the Scientific West is a much better support for Buddha’s discoveries than traditional Eastern cultures in the present age. I come from an Eastern (read Indian) background where quite a few of the ideas associated with Buddhism emanating from Buddhist monks themselves are embarrassing at best and outright harmful at worst. Looking at the history of western science, one finds ample pieces of evidence to suggest science actually grew and flourished only when subjected to a rational critique of the human mind. In a similar way, there is no reason to believe that the west cannot outdo the east – hope you will pardon me for taking the liberty of using those stereotyped labels – when it comes to the spread of Dharma.
Third, one may observe that various facets of western science are very much compatible with or in sync with Buddha’s own ideas. Methodological Naturalism, which is the underlying metaphysics of modern science, is clearly embedded in Buddhist philosophy, for instance.
Lastly, my understanding is that for Buddhism to spread, one needs the Three Jewels (Buddha, Sangha and Dharma), but beyond that the content of any of those Jewels can take various shapes, as evidenced by the spread of different traditions of Buddhism in the East. What you label as “Secular Buddhism” is completely capable of developing its own set of The Three Jewels that can remain true to the Buddhist “enterprise”.



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Brooke Schedneck

posted August 12, 2009 at 7:19 am


This is an important topic and I appreciated how balanced your article is. I think a good way to think about this spectrum of Buddhist practice in the West is just that: as a spectrum or a continuum. The use of meditation in the West for secular purposes is at one end of the spectrum and at the other is more of a complete Buddhist worldview that includes not only meditation but also community, teachings, and ethics. Religion and secularism are becoming so intertwined in modernity, the only way I can make sense out of it is to place different trends along this continuum from more secular understandings to more hard core dhamma.



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Ethan Nichtern

posted August 12, 2009 at 8:06 am


Just wrote a superlong response when my browser crashed. Such is life.
I think my thoughts on this will form a blog post over the weekend.
I am super impressed that the Buddha never proposed his own, nor rejected anyone else’s Sacred Canopy, at least not in Pali Sutta Buddhism. More from me later.



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Vince H.

posted August 12, 2009 at 9:31 am


Cool, thanks everyone for your thoughts and responses. I’ve enjoyed reading them and will take some time to soak them up. In terms of everyone’s arguments for why secular Buddhism is a good and just thing, again, I’m no arguing that it isn’t. I’m just arguing that if it’s the only form that emerges in Western Dharma, or the extremely predominate (“Dude, we definitely just lost the Buddha!”) it’ll be interesting to see how we decide to jettison things.
Do we jettison things, because it’s very clear-cut to everyone (those who practice meditation and those who want to promulgate it in various ways), from all the various strands of the Buddhist tradition that are emerging here in the West, what is non-essential and what is essential? Does this polarity even make sense? I think, if we let our allergy to religion (which was quite clear to me in many of the comments here, and also quite understandable) overtake is completely, we may end up throwing out some really interesting things in the tradition, and might not be the best for it. It’s really not that extreme of a position, it’s just a question that has been burning for me, and I see it’s one that is clearly important to others. :-D
Thanks again to OC for letting me post here.



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familiar stranger

posted August 12, 2009 at 9:46 am


It would be helpful to know the definition of “religion” that’s being used here.
I agree with the poster above who said many of the programs cited as secular buddhism are using the tools of buddhism (meditation and mindfulness) but are not buddhist. this used to bother me, but I have come to believe that any increase in mindfulness is good — whether it’s tied to buddhism or not. go, Oprah!
I also agree with the poster who said that being a buddhist requires more than mere mindfulness — at least a belief in buddhanature and in emptiness leading to compassion. I don’t believe that means accepting all the trappings and traditions.



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Oona

posted August 12, 2009 at 10:09 am


I am a long-time student of Tibetan Buddhism, Naropa graduate, and a psychotherapist practicing in upstate New York,
What you said about the West not being particularly secular really resonated with me. Most of my clients are Christian, and many of my colleagues, since it is a counseling center that is open to interfaith dialogue, are pastoral counselors. I am the only Buddhist on staff, but I am quite fortunate that my boss and colleagues are very open to interfaith dialogue, and encourage me to teach mindfulness and use it in my work.
Because I understand the main purpose of my work is to alleviate suffering, not to engage in any philosophical dialogue, I meet people where they are. I have noticed that much of my work, though it is cloaked in the garb of secular psychotherapeutic traditions, is obviously influenced by my Buddhist studies. However, with Christian clients, I often use Christian terms and theistic language to communicate a Buddhist concept. I am not resistant to this and I think that helps the message come through. For example, I once witnessed/facilitated a woman struggling with deep shame about a sexual addiction in relation to her Christian faith seem to practice Vajrasattva, unknowingly–talking about calling on her Higher Power, confessing, requesting purification, understanding that she was forgiven. Religion, whatever it is Christian or Buddhist, provides important function, that of healing. To get into a theism vs. nontheism discussion would have been “leaving the room”, leaving the present moment. She didn’t need that, she needed a witness. I do feel that my work in transmitting dharma to the West sometimes involves embracing other religions. No one knows I’m teaching the dharma overtly, but I see it all as hitting the same main point.



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Mu

posted August 12, 2009 at 10:35 am


Excellent points & questions, Mitsu. My short response is that if one genuinely cares about the production of new thought and higher orders of inquiry then one does not adopt the assessment of the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland who declares, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!”. My tone and accuity redress that kind of lame evaluation. Of course, one has to choose one’s battles in this regard, thus I do not waste my time addressing the inveterately mind-numbing (e. g., the “What would Sid do?” series).



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Ethan Nichtern

posted August 12, 2009 at 10:54 am


We are 48 comments into this thread and still I don’t see a definition of religion here that works, which is…well..problematic to the whole idea that Buddhism is being re-secularized.
Anyone want to take a shot at it? Here’s my challenge:
1) You can’t find a definition of religion that Buddhism actually ever fits into,
or
2) If you do find one, you can’t find a definition of religion that Buddhism fits into that we can’t also fit Science, Psychotherapy, Psychology and Secular Humanism into just as easily.
Try it, I dare you. Vince, you should probably try this first.
Humbly, I believe we are talking about Buddhism in a new culture, not stripping it of its roots (and when I say new culture, I mean the new culture inhabited by each individual who encounters the psychology and ethics of dharma and must adapt these practices to his or her own Sacred Canopy and life situation. Every single person who practices Buddhism must engage in a secularization of the dharma in order to make it personally relevant to their lives, and this has ALWAYS been the case).
Further, the problem remains (and Mu, when he’s not dissing everyone, is arriving at this point) that you are buying into a dichotomy between spiritual and secular that is a fabricated construct to begin with. There are not two realities. Never were.
Again, define religion, and I will either demonstrate how Buddhism does not meet your criteria or if you define it in a way that Buddhism fits, I will also fit science and psychotherapy into that definition of religion. Good luck.
The only way you might be able to beat this challenge is to talk about Tantra, which admittedly has a problem being viewed as completely secular because of its own (possible) Sacred Canopy. But even this is not separate from the problem faced by the so-called objective Scientific Method we all worship.



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Mu

posted August 12, 2009 at 10:58 am


Typo due to big iPhone fingers: acuity in line 6.



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Opinion

posted August 12, 2009 at 11:22 am


For my money, the upcoming (please let it be so!) Buddhist Geeks episode featuring Mu as guest ought to be a humdinger.
I have no problem with Mu’s tone in critiquing mushy thought where she perceives it. It’s sharp, sure, but no one else seems to be up for poking the Ingram/VH/BG thing. I enjoy BG, and find Ingram’s book not un-useful, but I’ve had the suspicion that it was not that robust, intellectually, and Mu has suggested where some of the holes are.



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William Harryman

posted August 12, 2009 at 11:32 am


Nice article Vince.
While I don’t appreciate Mu’s tone, I do agree with his comments regarding Buddhism and its integration into psychotherapy. Both Marsha Linehan and Dan Siegel have done extensive practice, and Marsha identifies as a Zen Buddhist. Dan was at Upaya last week, and there is a good podcast of his lecture.
Anyway, I don’t think there is any need to secularize or preserve the religious aspect. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.
I responded to Sam Harris’s article about taking the Buddha out of Buddhism (which someone mentioned above) a few years back, and I think that approach is still useful. How we relate to the Buddha’s teachings depends entirely on our unique worldviews. If we are mythic/magic, we will relate specifically to those elements, seeing the pantheon as literal. If we are rational, which seems to be the dominant perspective in the West, we will likely prefer the technology of transcendence, the meditation techniques. If we are postmodern or integral, we might see the value of all the various perspectives, recognizing the value of Tara meditations, the ritual of mala prayers, the value of mindfulness practice, and so on, with the awareness that all of these are variations on the same teachings.
Thanks for initiating a great discussion.
Peace,
Bill



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Your Name

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:16 pm


Mu: I read what you write, and see phrases like “inveterately mind-numbing.”
Your evasions of people’s thoughtful requests to tone down your style for this forum is really, really tiresome. If you spoke to someone in the way you do on this blog in person, the conversation would end pretty soon because the other conversation partner would most likely shut down, tune you out or walk away. Pragmatics of language matter.
People who only know how to engage through argument and provocation tend to fight rather than persuade, perhaps because they lack experience in actually having conversations in which ground is shared. Acuity is very possible in those situations, and it’s more useful because both parties are thinking and sharing.
I’m getting the weird sense that I’m talking to a third grader who needs to keep hearing, “Just because you say, ‘no offense’ before you say a hurtful remark doesn’t mean you can say hurtful things.'”



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Kate

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:16 pm


That’s my comment up there.



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Paul Griffin

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:43 pm


Thank you all for your comments!
@Mitsu. I agree with you that, as an artist, O’Conner was dharmic in her concentration on the concrete. In fact, much of what resonates for me in the dharma is reflected in the artist’s perception and outlook on life, namely, the emphasis on change, sense perception, sacredness, etc. Also, thanks for the link to the lecture! I look forward to reading it.
@Dharmashaiva. There is a certainly a sense of selflessness in Christian theology. Good point.
@Julia. Hi! I haven’t read Habit of Being. But from what I understand, O’Conner strongly believe that God permeated everything. Everything. He Catholicism was mystic, indeed.
@Colin. Everything Rises is a masterpiece.
@John. It’s funny to think of O’Conner as a present day Buddhist, and maybe living in California to boot!
@Claudia. James Baldwin and Toni Morrison are favorites writers of mine and writers I often teach. I love the name of your blog (and I liked your Zora Neale Hurston poem)!



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Paul Griffin

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:45 pm


Interesting discussion. Thanks for the post, Vince.
I take the bait, Ethan. My Mac dictionary gives the following definition for religion:
religion |ri?lij?n|
noun
the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods
• details of belief as taught or discussed
• a particular system of faith and worship
• a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance
Now, Ethan, Buddhism doesn’t seem to fit into this definition. But if you take out the word “controlling,” then I think the definition fits all right. That said, you are right to argue that psychology, for example, fits at least the third bullet point here, namely, a pursuit to which someone ascribes supreme importance. But hell, surfing or basket-weaving might fit that definition.
As for the debate over the duality (Mu, not to entice you, but I was wondering why you prefer the geekier word “binary”?), it seems to me that the first thing to recognize is that the duality it real, at the very least on the intellectual level – and that counts. It seems to me that the American monk in Nepal put it well, that is, if you are not seeking “arahat-hood or full Buddha-hood,” then you are not strictly practicing pure Buddhism per se. That seems to be a fair definition of the duality, so the duality and the ensuing debate and discourse seem legitimate.
That said, ultimately, it’s personal. Whether or not you follow Zinn or a more strictly so-called historical Buddhist lineage, the fact is, the deeper you go, the more religion, according to the above textbook definition, you find. I’ve studied extensively in the Shambhala tradition – a tradition, it should be noted, that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche designed specifically to be secular and to attract Westerners at that level – but what I have found is the deeper I go, the more religion I find. The more panoply of gods and enlightened beings. More esoteric practices. More complex cosmology. More metaphysics. And, finally, in a word, more faith.
Lastly, I do find much value in the last comment above from William Harryman, his summary of the Sam Harris article. I believe personality has a great deal to do with how one approaches the dharma. There are magical/mystical, logical/rational, and transcendent/integral bents of mind out there. We all partake of each perspective, but like with the Buddha families, an individual seems to gravitate more strongly towards one or the other.
I identify as integral, meaning that I strongly believe in the possibility of a pure American Dharma that enfolds and includes and honors tradition, while at the same time transcending to new levels of structure and innovation and form. (See Emerson’s “Circles” or much of Ken Wilber.) So, while, the conclusion that the future of Buddhism in the West includes both pure tradition and modern reconfigurations is in a way trite and obvious, it’s also true.
But to conclude with something perhaps more compelling, I’d venture to say that I truly long for the time when the teachings of the Buddha are so integral to our everyday society that we no longer even think to use the world religion, let alone big, old capitalized words like Buddhism. Until then, I am a Buddhist.



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~C4Chaos

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:46 pm


i very much share Bill’s (aka William Harryman) perspective on this one. key phrase here is “both/and”. my favorite logical operator is and/or :)
there’s a place for religious aspects of Buddhism, as well as its secularized expressions.
Ethan asks a definition of religion and that he’s prepared to argue that Buddhism doesn’t fit whatever definition of religion we can come up with. i think this is not the optimal way of discussing religion and Buddhism. you see, i think a better way of looking at this is to ask what aspects of Buddhism can be considered as having religious qualities. i don’t look at Buddhism as a religion. i look at is as a multi-faceted jewel. so instead of saying Buddhism is a religion or Buddhism is not a religion, my very rough estimation is this: Buddhism = 25% religion, 25% philosophy, 50% practice.
of course, this perspective can apply to Western religions as well. hence, the more we need to look at their common threads.
and for those who are looking for an excellent definition(s) of religion, go read Ken Wilber’s Marriage of Sense and Soul. he offered different definitions of religion in his treatise.
~C



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Dharmakara

posted August 12, 2009 at 12:55 pm


I usually get a laugh out of those who try to define what “is” or “is not” Buddhism, especially when one tries to place tradition above historical fact. Everyone might find this article interesting:
http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2004-11/buddhistpath.html
When all is said and done, there is no problem with “stripping the roots” if one remembers the Buddha’s own words, where he summed up the whole of his teaching in one gatha (or verse):
“To cease from all evil actions,
To generate all that is good,
To cleanse one’s mind:
This is the constant advice of the Buddhas.”
In other words, there is no practice of the Dharma without the practice of virtue and there’s no problem with what some people would call “tossing the baby out with the water”, especially if that baby happens to be stillborn, the equivalent of the cultural baggage which passes itself off as an essential of buddhist practice.



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kate

posted August 12, 2009 at 1:30 pm


As for the post, I had an interesting experience with a friend of mine recently.
This friend got serious about meditation through working with Kabat-Zinn’s instructions. He’s found that it is helping him a great deal because the practices are helping to both strip away some craziness from his life and settle into creative pursuits sustain him. He’s a person who was once in rabbinical school, who has a tumultuous relationship with religion. He’s committed to working with meditation instructions, particularly mindfulness practices. Whenever he talks to me about it, I hear him coming to some conclusions about practice that ring true. He expresses a desire to find a community in which to deepen his practice He would always ends these conversations with, “But I am not ready to be a Buddhist.”
I can relate; like my friend, who has been looking for spiritual practice that clicks with what he feels on a gut level to be true, I have had dismaying experiences with being “on the inside” of certain organized religions. I think what is behind what my friend is saying is that getting involved with a religious community is like being in a relationship; you agree to start working within the community to keep the religion going, to keep it sane, to question the actions of those who also are “in it.” You agree to identify as a member, an active participant. Or at least, for me and my friend, being vocal, this is what it means for us.
So I think the idea that we can engage with practices without identifying as Buddhists is a good one. People seem to agree on that. Some people may stick with that and be fine. Others seem to need more membership, more commitment, more devotional aspects. I certainly didn’t feel the pull of any of the devotional pieces until I visited Buddhist places in Ladakh. Then something clicked for me, something that less to do with words and more to do with actual physical space.



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dharma52

posted August 12, 2009 at 1:44 pm


This article is interesting and thoughtful. So is the very scholarly comments of that follow. Unfortunately, here is where scholarly swerves off the road…
In todays Western society we can’t live under a tree and beg for alms in town. It also seems like all the best caves are taken. You can’t go on long term retreat without proof of medical insurance. This is a different time than that of Buddha.
There needs to be some type of integration and balance in the West… but how? Many thoughts many ways. The one thing in my mind that is clear. Separating these practices entirely from there source will in time diminish there strength. There is hardly anything these days that doesn’t start with “mindful (fill-in the blank)”. Sure they will work to some degree or another. Short term gain… Long term loss…
With out at it’s core, at least the commitment to The Three Jewels and the Precepts, this becomes the Monarch (“mindful”) Notes, Buddhist adaptation.



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Dharmakara

posted August 12, 2009 at 2:07 pm


I guess “Monarch Notes” is the equivalent of “Cliff Notes”.
Yes, there is the potential that the source can become diminished over time, but there’s also the potential of the source becoming diminished when it becomes institutionized, a sociocentric behavior which seems to undermine all religious traditions eventually.
A perfect example of this is the failure to reconcile the written letter of any given precept with the spirit in which it was first given.



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Vince H.

posted August 12, 2009 at 4:02 pm


Cool, thanks everyone for your thoughts and responses. I’ve enjoyed reading them and will take some time to soak them up. In terms of everyone’s arguments for why secular Buddhism is a good and just thing, again, I’m no arguing that it isn’t. I’m just arguing that if it’s the only form that emerges in Western Dharma, or the extremely predominate (“Dude, we definitely just lost the Buddha!”) it’ll be interesting to see how we decide to jettison things.
Do we jettison things, because it’s very clear-cut to everyone (those who practice meditation and those who want to promulgate it in various ways), from all the various strands of the Buddhist tradition that are emerging here in the West, what is non-essential and what is essential? Does this polarity even make sense? I think, if we let our allergy to religion (which was quite clear to me in many of the comments here, and also quite understandable) overtake is completely, we may end up throwing out some really interesting things in the tradition, and might not be the best for it. It’s really not that extreme of a position, it’s just a question that has been burning for me, and I see it’s one that is clearly important to others. :-D
Thanks again to OC for letting me post here.



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Vince H.

posted August 12, 2009 at 4:04 pm


[Whoa, that last comment was not the correct one... The beliefnet blog system seems to have gone back in time to revive an old comment. Seems fitting giving the conversation. ;)]
Ethan writes, “Humbly, I believe we are talking about Buddhism in a new culture, not stripping it of its roots (and when I say new culture, I mean the new culture inhabited by each individual who encounters the psychology and ethics of dharma and must adapt these practices to his or her own Sacred Canopy and life situation. Every single person who practices Buddhism must engage in a secularization of the dharma in order to make it personally relevant to their lives, and this has ALWAYS been the case).
Further, the problem remains (and Mu, when he’s not dissing everyone, is arriving at this point) that you are buying into a dichotomy between spiritual and secular that is a fabricated construct to begin with. There are not two realities. Never were.”
I agree with you, in a sense. This is Buddhism in a new culture, and things will unfold as they do. Some of the prior forms / traditions will be kept largely as is (though probably not many), many will morph slightly, and others will morph a lot. I guess this post was just a feeble attempt at my exploring some of the movements that are self-identified as “secular” and the core assumptions therein, that people in the West are really “non-Religious” and that there are indeed a whole set of assumption-sets in the secularist movement that if left unchecked, could potentially re-write the history of Buddhism in a way that may leave out, or ignore, certain really valuable aspects of the tradition.
I think the argument that there isn’t such a thing as the secularist movement is untenable at best. There are people who are actively trying to extinguish certain linguistic and metaphysical features from the inherited forms, and are doing so in a way that makes them more scientific and psychological in their orientation. They are doing so quite explicitly, and I’ve talked to many of the folks who are at the forefront of that movement. There are also examples of people who are trying to maintain the exact same forms that existed in their Asian cultures of origin. To say there are different things happening here is kind of ridiculous.
Let’s take Robert Bellah’s description of religion, which he defines simply as “a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence.” I can jive with that definition, and I agree that with you Ethan, that “Science, Psychotherapy, Psychology and Secular Humanism” all would fit under that umbrella. From that perspective I guess you could say I was challenging what Bellah calls “modern Religion”. My sense is a post-modern religious orientation would allow for some more reflexivity on the context(s) in which religions exist and have existed within… It wouldn’t just dump “Historical religion” on it’s ass and move forward. I sometimes don’t see this reflexivity from folks who are “not Buddhist,” but who are doing practices that are entrenched in a long philosophical and practical history. Instead, they see themselves as the recipients of the “real” stuff, and my sense is that there isn’t a “real” Buddhism anywhere to be found. Instead there is an on-going dialogue, or dialectic (of which this post is just a small part) about how we should move forward, both personally and collectively, with this rich inheritance and vast potential of Dharma.
Anyway, not sure if that addresses any of your points, but that’s all I got on this busy hump-day. :)



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Evelyn

posted August 12, 2009 at 4:22 pm


First off, Vince, I’m a big fan.. love the podcast, keep up the good work. I wasn’t going to jump in here but the topic is just too hot to resist.
I don’t think the question of secular vs. religious Buddhism is a zero sum game and so I’m rolling with William Harryman and C4 on this one. It is a both/and, either/or type of thing.
Ultimately, its a personal choice whether you choose to enter a devotional (read: religious) path or a more secular humanist path of practice. Meditation can be useful with or without Buddhist principles attached to it and there will be many who have no desire to take up the more religious or traditional aspects of Buddhism.
I do hear what Vince was trying to say, though. We don’t want to simply import Buddhist meditation on its own and lose the rich traditions that have been informing the practice for thousands of years.
In the end, I suspect that a unique western form of Buddhism will emerge to stand along side the Asian traditions. Where ever Buddhism has gone, it has changed and molded to fit the culture and I don’t expect that to be any different this time around.
I find it very interesting that this discussion is going on at all. All western Buddhists, from new practitioners to advanced teachers can have a say on what form Buddhism will take in the west. When Christianity moved into… say… Africa there were no such discussions. It was simply picked up and stamped on a new place wholesale, like it or not. I think the mere fact that we’re having the discussion is a good start.
@Ethan
I’ll take your double dog dare and stick my tongue on that flag pole. Whatever, I’m not scared.
I hit up wikipedia: “A religion is an organized approach to human spirituality which usually encompasses a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent quality, that give meaning to the practitioner’s experiences of life through reference to a higher power, God or gods, or ultimate truth.”
I think that definitely fits Buddhism as its practiced here in the west and in much of the world. Actually, it fits my own practice pretty well in that the “ultimate truth” for me is our own natural, awakened, “Buddha Nature” if you will. If I didn’t believe on some level that we’re all naturally capable of awakening, I’m not sure I would always find the motivation to sit on the cushion. I don’t think Science, Psychotherapy, Psychology or Secular Humanism are particularly “spiritual” so I don’t think the definition fits in those cases. There again, Buddhism may or may not be “spritual” so who knows?
At any rate, I think the question “is Buddhism a religion?” is rather academic and misses the reality we see right in front of us.
Whether or not Buddhism *is* a religion in the strictest sense, it has certainly been practiced as one by millions of people. There are those who worship the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as gods and donate to the monks out of a belief that it will bring them “good karma.” Whether or not this is actually the way karma works doesn’t really matter. The act of giving has certain beliefs and symbology attached to it that tends to remind me a little bit of indulgences. Buddhism, as practiced by many people out there, is definitely a religion.
keep it real,
Evelyn



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Dragon King

posted August 12, 2009 at 4:34 pm


Nice post, V-dog. I wonder tho what proof you have that secular movements like mbsr are *the* leading edge of buddhism now? Or are you just posing a fear of yours? Cuz otherwise Mu’s comments made a lot of sense.



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Vince H.

posted August 12, 2009 at 4:54 pm


@Dragon King : My observations come from being familiar with Buddhism in the West, having conversations with people, hanging out at retreat centers, reading popular Buddhist magazines, blogs, and reading lots of books by Western Buddhists, as well as from interviewing many teachers and well-respected Western Buddhists on Buddhist Geeks and hearing their perspectives, etc. It’s not really proof, it’s just that MBSR is one of the more well-known of these type of more secular approaches. Not sure there’s anything to prove as this is common knowledge. :)



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Vince H.

posted August 12, 2009 at 4:57 pm


@Dragon King : And I never said that MBSR is “the leading edge of Buddhism”. Where did you see me say that?



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Mu

posted August 12, 2009 at 5:13 pm


@kate: great comments, but you know you dig it when I use “inveterate” as an adverb. : )
At this point in the thread it’s clear that VH’s binary has fallen down and can’t get up. It’s fascinating to me that a self-styled “modern monk” is clueless about how religiosity actually manifests in American Buddhism, where atheism is statistically predominant.



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Dragon King

posted August 12, 2009 at 5:21 pm


Last line of the 2nd paragraph? Seems to imply it. And your question about trusting whether mbsr carries the dharma forward. Maybe i’m just a dope.



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Your Name

posted August 12, 2009 at 6:00 pm


@ evelyn
“When Christianity moved into… say… Africa there were no such discussions. It was simply picked up and stamped on a new place wholesale, like it or not. I think the mere fact that we’re having the discussion is a good start”
really?
what about all the sects, denominations, reformations,heresies, schisms and pagan borrowings of christianity? its not a monolith. give our christians ancestors more credit than that.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 12, 2009 at 6:01 pm


@Vince I don’t doubt that many in the “secular” Buddhist movement (if one could call it that) buy into this binary as much as many others. It’s a persistent meme in Western civilization which is why I think it’s a bit too easy to dismiss it as Mu does, though I agree with him that the binary is ultimately bogus. However, the fact that it is bogus doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hold sway, have power, etc., in the minds of people, and to the extent it does, it can have a needless distorting influence on theory and practice. Ultimately I believe this whole debate is a historical holdover from the Cartesian bargain: let the Church have matters of the soul, and leave matters of the physical world to science. This Cartesian bargain, which stems fundamentally from mind-body dualism, is not operable within Buddhism and Eastern civilization in general.
I recall my father (who was born in Japan) telling me that he was watching a Japanese pundit show in which the commentators were discussing some current event in the United States surrounding the issue of creationism. The pundits were saying to each other, incredulously, “apparently these people don’t believe in evolution!” which caused the entire panel to break out in laughter. The whole notion that religion ought to occupy a special place outside of ordinary rational thought, to the point that a well-established theory such as evolution could be seen by large numbers of people to be at odds with their religious faith, was thought to be simply bizarre to these Japanese commentators. Yet Japanese are not particularly “secular” in the sense that they exclude religion or spirituality from the domain of serious discourse. It’s simply seen to be all of a piece.
In other words I tend to think that some of what we Westerners project onto Buddhism and other Eastern religions is a bit artificial, as I noted above (I call myself a Westerner since I was born and raised here, despite my Japanese ancestry). Are siddhis real? I actually think the answer to this is yes, almost certainly, not only from my own personal experience but observing this phenomenon in many others, especially my teachers, but also in myself. Is reincarnation real? Well, I doubt, if it does have basis in reality, it operates quite as people traditionally believe — but if siddhis are possible then why not some sort of resonance between past lives and present lives. The gods? The six realms? Even many traditional Buddhist teachers would express these as metaphors for principles of the universe rather than literal beings — but this isn’t to say certain hidden principles of the universe may not have some reality in some sense (but whatever reality they may have is likely to be extremely hard to verbalize).
But I still believe all these phenomena ought not to be separated off into a “religious” category. To the extent they are real they are simply phenomena, to be examined as critically and skeptically as theories of electromagnetism or gravity. What makes them seem special, “religious”, or whatever is simply a Western dualistic cultural overlay, in my view. I agree that to the extent we throw this stuff out because we identify it as “religious” that is a shame — but to the extent we revere it or reify it that is also a shame. It’s just phenomena, all worthy of open-minded investigation but none of it worthy of blind “belief” qua belief, just because it has been handed down in some tradition or other.



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Ming

posted August 12, 2009 at 6:16 pm


Today is the 182th anniversary of William Blake’s death, so let me first quote what Blake said about Jesus Christ, “He is the only God … and so am I, and so are you.” I don’t think Buddha would have cared what his teaching is being called, religion, secularism, or some hybrid of both. The water, no matter held in what kind of vessel, is still water, and all names, methods, approaches, and emphases point at the same thing that is being & Being. What else can they point at? The world is big enough for both religion and secularism as well as their variegated permutations.
The fact that Buddhism has been continuously absorbed and assimilated into the host cultures the world over is a testimony to its enduring strength. While Western secularism, mainstream cultures and spiritual communities adapt elements of Buddhism by altering its looks and practices to suit their needs, they are in turned altered by Buddhism — interdependence means give and take, mutually evolving. A person who would never call himself a Buddhist has no less Buddha nature than a person with impeccable Buddhist learning or aspiration does. The wisdom of Buddhism is its ability to be shaped into any form and practice by whatever mold it meets.
Secularism may turn into a new religion with its aim to convert, its faith in all things secular, its institutionalized influences, its dogmas and normative practices. Religion can become secularized with its inclusiveness, its practice of rational discourse and its willingness to engage the secular world. Buddhism has deep traditional roots but its purpose is to serve the world as it is now and in the Western world it means to become fearlessly Westernized and “secularized” in certain aspects in order to blossom within the local soil. Christ, as Blake understood him, is a great creative teacher first and foremost, and Christianity is a creative force unbeholden to the Church and the devotional ardor of the purists. Buddhism isn’t attached to what it’s being called, religion or otherwise. The spiritual path is an individual one and in its myriad ways to creatively address the question of being & Being lies the relevance of Buddhism in a world forever changing.



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Evelyn

posted August 12, 2009 at 6:38 pm


@your name
Admittedly, I was at work at the time and so I probably didn’t state that as well as I could have. When Christianity came in and converted other cultures (ie Africa, North America) it *was* stamped on top of whatever was there. There may have been some eventual melding of cultures and practices but this was not done with the sorts of discussions you see going on in western Buddhism. Unlike the situation we have here, the Christian tradition was forced onto other cultures with little to no discussion. We have a unique opportunity here in that we’re choosing our own religious path and converting by our own will. That was my point and I may not have made it particularly well.
I have much respect for Christianity but it is a sad truth that many millions of people were not converted of their own will. I took a class on African colonization in college and remember vividly the images of Africans wearing long Catholic robes in the rain forest heat and humidity and trying to practice a religion with which they had little cultural history without much adaptation to their way of life. I know very well that there are indigenous sects of Christianity in Africa that are much more varied.
With all due respect, my ancestors weren’t native Christians, they were Africans who also had a tradition forced upon them. They eventually made it their own and now many of us get a lot of fulfillment and comfort from it. I don’t want this to detract from the discussion here so I leave it there.
Gassho



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GA

posted August 12, 2009 at 7:30 pm


@Opinion: I also look forward to the Mu interview on VH’s BG. How about it, Vince? I know Mu has a sah-weeeet! radio voice from time spent as a school radio DJ.



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Mu

posted August 12, 2009 at 8:00 pm


Mitsu, well stated.
Here’s why I think it is very easy to dismantle the binary, and I take my cue from Frederic Spiegelberg’s The Religion of No-Religion (1953), a book which spells out the ways in which a religion of no-religion is paradoxically a religion of all religions. And this has been the case historically: e.g., the medieval Muslim philosopher Ibn al-Arabi, who celebrated religious differences in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism as the beautiful play of the divine; the 16th-century Indian poet Kabir who worshiped the formless god beyond all sectarian categories; the 19th-c. Indian holy man Sri Ramakrishna, who saw all faiths as effective paths to the divine; and, closer to home, the poet Walt Whitman, who erotically celebrated a kind of cosmic consciousness, and who sang that “my faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths.” All religious revelation and breakthrough has been grounded in the same mystical humanism. In this vein, a religion of no-religion I think captures something of the essence of American dharmic experience, where the game of religion itself is rejected (hence, many atheists are drawn to Buddhism), and–this is the crucial part–a fully deconstructive worldview becomes realizable. This is decidedly not the anemic anti-intellectualism of the New Age movement, but something almost heretical because it ends up having an almost secret metaphysical function where relativism and constructivism are the natural outcomes. Thus we have a kind of space beyond binaries like Vince’s, which become relics of a literalism that most have flatly rejected. What prevails instead of a binary between religion and secularism is something like the symbolic understanding of religious language that so many Americans are embracing when they insist on describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” A space has appeared–spirituality–that supersedes the old binaristic way of thinking and practicing. (One-third of Americans [33%] describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” while 50% say they are “religious.” Vince collapsed these numbers, thereby concealing something very important.)
I’d be interested from Vince on this. And Mitsu, naturlich.



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Csitriona Reed

posted August 12, 2009 at 9:53 pm


Thanks for the post. And yes, I agree that it’s not an either or proposition. The question is – how to best use the ‘liberating’ elements of both the secular and religious/cultural perspectives of Buddhist teaching and practice?
Contemporary society, like others at other times in history, are very good at appropriating and trivializing what appeals to it. On the other hand, organized religion (including Buddhism) can, and has been, both evolutionary and regressive.
So all this just to say that it’s an ongoing dance, and I much appreciate your thoughts on it.
Thanks
Caitriona Reed
Manzanita Village



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Nicholas Ribush

posted August 12, 2009 at 10:58 pm


Whoa! Wait a minute…
But still, I find there is something limited about that being the only or even main approach that we take toward transmitting Dharma to the West.
There’s a HUGE leap if ever I saw one. Who’s trying to make what you call secular Buddhism the only or even the main approach? The efforts of the organizations you mention are in addition to all the traditional stuff.
And to show my traditional, reactionary credentials, it’s ridiculous to call yourself a monk–modern or otherwise–while you live with a wife, even if it’s on a sporadic basis…



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Dragon King

posted August 12, 2009 at 11:11 pm


Nicholas–I share your concern about the big generalization. Several others have raised it, like Mu. V-dog hasn’t really responded with much.



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freestone

posted August 12, 2009 at 11:27 pm


To me, religion (or God) is a western concept. And people try to use it to classify Buddhism. Buddhism is not Buddhism, how can it be religion? Since Buddhism is not Buddhism, why can’t it be religion? Hehe



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Mu

posted August 12, 2009 at 11:31 pm


After my evening zazen, a passage from Suzuki’s Japanese Spirituality [nihonteki reisei] (1944) suddenly appeared to memory. Before I translate it, I will summarize it by simply saying that Suzuki sees spirituality as thatbwhich transcends or includes all dichotomies (see my post above).
The passage is roughly as follows: Spirituality is what transcends the poles of spiritual and material (phenomena or world). Spirituality is the foundation of spirit (mind) and material. Spirit and material are not one, but not two, either. Spiritual intuition enables us to see that reality.
As the “V-dog” would say: Word!



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 13, 2009 at 12:08 am


@Mu I don’t have a lot to say in response to your post other than I certainly agree, and have had many similar thoughts myself; and furthermore as you point out this way of approaching this has deep roots in spiritual traditions from many cultures; it’s not an entirely new idea being innovated in the West. Buddhism (and other Eastern religions) has always been a movement to be distinguised from the notion of “religion” we have in the West — though it’s certainly true that Buddhism in the West is now creating new forms and approaches which may well spell a new golden age of innovative development that will certainly evolve in coming centuries. I don’t think the crucial idea the West is introducing is so much “secularism” as it is the idea of innovation; a la the difference between, say, Western notions of art and Asian ideas of art, which are quite different (as my father, who is an artist, pointed out to me in a conversation we had the other day —- in Japan, for instance, art is considered a type of craft, co-extensive with design, which is different from the notion of fine art, particularly in the modern and postmodern eras, in the West).
@Nicholas I would jump to Vince’s defense here — while the traditional Vinaya requires monks to be celibate, not every sect of Buddhism requires this, not even every sect of Tibetan Buddhism. I personally think that celibacy for monks, while understandable, is a bad idea for evolutionary biology reasons … you’re selecting against the gene for spiritual investigation! I mean, I don’t begrudge some monks for choosing celibacy but I think it’s a poor policy society-wide, and I think it’s to the credit of Buddhism that not every Buddhist sect requires that of its monks (for example, in Japan, monks have never been strictly celibate — there are examples of monks marrying in Japan going back quite far in history; this accelerated ever since the Meiji decree that monks ought to choose for themselves whether to be celibate or not.)



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Al

posted August 13, 2009 at 12:57 am


I am not a Christian, but I do love Christ as one of my teachers. He yelled at the Pharisees, “You follow the letter of the law but violate the heart of it.” To an extent, I think worrying too much about whether westerners or new Buddhist devotees are secular or are stripping down the Buddhist religion, psychology, philosophy, ist or ism is a little like sticking to the letter side of it. At the same time, I don’t advocate that the rich history of Buddhism in all its varied glory should not be held as sacred. I want it to be remembered and honored and protected and lived.
I’m approaching this question from a shallow view and a deeper view, and they are MY views and I don’t need for you to agree or disagree. I’m simply sharing, but I ask you to ponder the heart of what I say, even the shallow heart.
Shallow view: Move my emotion away from all this. Worrying about what effect secular Buddhism has on Historical or Pure or Old Lines of Slowly Evolving Buddhism is like worrying about the effect a chihuahua has on dogs. A chihuahua is supposedly a dog, one that is a sort of fake dog, but it’s doglike, and it is loved – sometimes. But the existence of the chihuahua doesn’t detract from the idea of basic dogness. (Did I really write that?) Well, practices that are Buddhism-like don’t necessarily detract from Buddhism – ness.
I do see Vince’s point quite a lot though. I have not taken refuge in the triple gem yet precisely because the 4 noble truths, the Eightfold path, and the precepts, and more of the basics do not roll off my tongue yet. I’m more than a little baffled by all the different paths that Buddhism takes, their similarities and differences. As in why is one person adhering to Shambala and another to Soto Zen? Why does one live in Nepal as a monk and another in Tokyo doing blogs about Zazen and colonoscopies? Why is His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his 14th incarnation when Buddhists have no souls? Why, why, why? Oh, I do have many questions, but actually, I haven’t taken refuge because I think it would be disrespectful to all of you Buddhists to call myself a Buddhist until I have become fully versed in the basics. I will not trivialize your depth as Buddhists by calling myself a Buddhist. I’m not ready. But I practice. Believe me, I am practicing. I am sincere and I am questing. But as a person who might be called a secular Buddhist, I know that I am doing you and Buddhism no harm.
I work up to 60 hours a week, have family, live in a nation where I am not fluent in the language, have important hobbies that I am devoted to, and on top of all that, under it, within it and beyond it, I’m learning about Buddhism. I’m busy. Please don’t treat me like I am a trivial devotee because I use secular Buddhism as my springboard. You can’t know the depth of my sincerity, nor my reasons for practicing, but I will tell you that the decrease in negative emotion and the increase in clarity of thought and joy in life and acceptance of my moment-to-moment existence are a sacred evolution to me. I do not call my path a religion, but I do believe that I am living in the presence of the sacred.
Deeper View: Buddhism isn’t my religion or philosophy; it is my lens, my path, my verb, and the substance of the universe that I live in. I can’t possibly understand or assimilate all the history, the vocabulary, the incredible depth and breadth of information and scripture; it is beyond my ability and it isn’t my task. Buddhism is a deep and beautiful river and I haven’t jumped into it for a swim: I’ve jumped in and now I’m learning how to swim. Sometimes I float and sometimes I sink, but I’m staying in the river; I will never get out. Sometimes I swim with grace and strength, and sometimes I choke and spit – but I rest and recover within the river. When I lie floating on my back and look out at the world, I see it through the lens of the dharma, and it is becoming clearer and I find that when I focus through the Buddhist lens, an incredible beauty unfolds before me. Along the banks of the river and along its tributaries, lying on the bed of the river and permeated within the very water itself, all the history and knowledge and philosophy and lessons and creations of Buddhism lay unharmed, ready to be shared by those who stop at those places. I will deeply embrace the parts of Buddhism the beautiful river takes me to, but the parts I don’t explore will remain for others to explore. I know some of antiquity will be buried, but it still exists. I expect that as I evolve within the evolution of Buddhism, my lens will evolve into that multifaceted gem that another contributor spoke of in an earlier response on this list. When I take refuge in the triple gem, the gem will be my lens, but it is the same lens I’m seeing through now. I just haven’t quite learned how to gain access to all of it, to see though it and into it, or how to speak correctly about it yet, but I’ll get there. And many others of your ‘secular’ friends will too.
And by the way, I thank ALL of you so very much, from the bottom of my heart for your contributions to this posting. You have confused me and illuminated me and brought me a little closer to my own time when I will take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and Sangha.



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Your Name

posted August 13, 2009 at 2:16 am


After re-reading all the posts here, two questions come to mind when it comes to Buddhism in the West. First, is not “secular” just the flip side of “religious”? And second, would it not be more appropriate to examine Western adaptations as an attempt to remove cultural identity from one’s practice?



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Alexander

posted August 13, 2009 at 7:32 am


about the issue of vince’s monkhood i agree with mitsu h in a previous post but anyone who knows vince finds his materialism to go against modern monk-ey behavior. he is one the vainest dudes i know. his expensive eyewear stylish hip clothes and gear and you should see his wife! worldliness is not a concern of this monk.



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nic

posted August 13, 2009 at 8:26 am


here’s a definition of religion that i closely resonate with:
“religion is a communication system that is constituted by super-natural beings and that is related to specific patterns of behaviour”
religions are among the ways that we indicate both within our religion and to those outside, who and what we are, what we believe in and what we don’t believe in and think is of ultimate significance and this is not limited to verbal communication, e.g. rituals. even those religions that claim they are aritualistic, are ritualistically aritualistic. some religions make a stereotypical behaviour out of the avoidance of rituals.
belief in super-natural beings or powers, sets religions apart from other communication systems that humans have invested important ultimate concerns in such as communism, or secular humanism.
so what about buddhism? well there’re things about the buddhas story that are deemed super-natural, so this communication system makes direct reference to super-natural beings. stripping away some of these core mythical beliefs makes it appeal to an audience that does not consider itself religious and therefore makes buddhist practises more accessible and genuinely portable. i’m not concerned though that these attempts make religious beliefs die out anytime soon. although demographics about religious people are highly inaccurate the rough estimates are about
~ 1 bi christians, ~ 1 bi muslims ~ 1/2 bi hindus, ~ 300 mi buddhists, ~ 40 mi jews …, 3 bi people currently living in this world that claim themselves to be religious.
religion is inextricably bound up with so many other areas of human thought or conduct, e.g. law, literature, music, art, architecture, and history. these traditions are a rich part of our cultural heritage, and they’ll remain an object of continuous participation, interest, study and appreciation.



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Kate

posted August 13, 2009 at 8:41 am


@ Mu:
I’d love to respond, but I’d rather not have a back and forth that disrupts the flow of post-related ideas here.
If you’re interested in email conversation, hit me at maloneki@gmail.com!
Inveterately interested,
Kate



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Vince H.

posted August 13, 2009 at 9:19 am


Ok, look guys, about the binary between religion and secular: On the one hand it doesn’t exist, we can deconstruct it all day and night and see that these distinctions are somewhat arbitrary and meaningless. I do that in the article myself for a bit (which I said in one of my first comments, but no one seemed to pick up on). This question is an attack on the binary notion: “But what is the essence stripped from the practices, realizations, models, and people who have contributed to this living tradition? Is there really such a thing?”
Now, I could use this question to attack my own position, ad nauseum, as folks have done here in the comments, leaving me with no position and no point whatsoever. I didn’t do that, though I think that can be useful, because I was exploring the consequences of taking the legs out from one common misconception, that there is a secular form of Buddhism (stripped down of all the cultural baggage) that is vastly superior to all previous forms. It was as much a challenge to my own previously held views, as it was a challenge to those who hold the views now. It was really my sharing of my own internal process of exploration.
I challenged myself in this way, using deconstructive logic, because I found it helpful and because as Mitsu points out, this binary is seen as self-evident by so many people, and practically speaking it does influence people in a huge way. Now, had I just decided to deconstruct myself to a position of having no views at all, and seeing no distinctions at all, I think that would make for a pretty shit-poor article about Buddhism in the West. If you feel I’m wrong, that’s fine, I’m happy to read someone else’s article that reads that way. It might be exceedingly good. :-D
Instead, I’m opting for something more like a dialectic, where I present the thesis: (1) Secularism is sexy and is way superior to past forms of Buddhism, then the antithesis (2) Secularism isn’t some cut-off thing from religion and if it tries to be it misses the point, and then synthesis (3) Can we really even talk about these two movements as separate (see above quote), both impulses (to retain what has come before) and honor what is emerging now are true and must be respected–what I called innovation and tradition (which consequently isn’t the same as “secular” and “Religious”).
So, if you have a problem with that methodology, fine, but just because I didn’t use a purely deconstructive methodology, of pushing back so far as to say, “ah, there really aren’t any distinctions, see…” doesn’t mean you need to sit here and try to do just that to my argument, and then act as if you’re God’s gift to Derrida.
“Hey, look I was able to out-deconstruct V-Dog (how’d you guys know my old handle?)” Congrats, really that’s great… :-D



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Vince H.

posted August 13, 2009 at 9:27 am


@Alexander wrote, “about the issue of vince’s monkhood i agree with mitsu h in a previous post but anyone who knows vince finds his materialism to go against modern monk-ey behavior. he is one the vainest dudes i know. his expensive eyewear stylish hip clothes and gear and you should see his wife! worldliness is not a concern of this monk.”
Ha Ha Ha, yeah man, it takes quite a bit of $$$ to keep me up and running in that expensive eyewear and hip gear I need… I won’t disagree wtih you about my wife though. That girl can’t stay away from stores like Anthropologie… I keep telling her if she wants to be a “real” Buddhist she should dress in rags. She never listens though. ;)



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Ethan

posted August 13, 2009 at 9:47 am


Awesome thread guys:
I still don’t see a definition of religion here that fits Buddhism as taught by Shakyamuni, or a definition that doesn’t fit Buddhism, Science, and Psychology simultaneously. Paul you don’t seem to distinguish Sutta Buddhism from Tantra Buddhism. If you did, that might cause my argument a problem. Evelyn, I do think psychology and science certainly propose their higher powers and ultimate truths to which practitioners must pay homage.
But yes, Vince, I do think the dichotomy/binary/duality/division/whatever between sacred and secular was always a false construct, which is why I think that the main concern of your article might be phrased better differently, without adding further support to a false division that actually causes human beings to suffer from a culturally accepted form of multiple personality disorder.
At the heart of it: I think what you are really worried about when it all comes down to it, and rightly so (correct me if I’m wrong), is that Westerners might not take dharma practice seriously enough, and might water it down to the point where full realization and the compassionate implications of pursuing total awakening as a 24/7/365 life path are rendered to some kind of mythic realm of statuesque non-possibility. We might accept only a superficial gloss of bringing mindfulness into our lives, and never deepen to the point where we are living, breathing, eating, and excreting the dharma. Your underlying thesis is the danger of watering it down to the point where we don’t fully realize the teachings.
I also share this concern. However, I would argue that for each practitioner of dharma, what is actually required for the dharma to become a 24/7/365 practice of FULL REALIZATION is in fact nothing less than the TOTAL SECULARIZATION of the dharma. And what I mean by that is that what each of us needs to do is draw the dharma completely into our own life experience, to use a Tibetan phrase in translation, to the point where NO CORNER OF LIFE is a hiding place away from practice.
What you call the danger of secularizing I would call the need for TOTAL SECULARIZATION. What we are both talking about – maybe? – is the need to be utterly serious (with a kickass sense of humor) about the path.
But I think phrasing it the way you did in your post actually reinforces a semantic dichotomy that causes more harm than good on planet earth, because the secular/religious split makes people believe they are living two lives.



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Vince H.

posted August 13, 2009 at 9:56 am


Mu writes, “What prevails instead of a binary between religion and secularism is something like the symbolic understanding of religious language that so many Americans are embracing when they insist on describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” A space has appeared–spirituality–that supersedes the old binaristic way of thinking and practicing.”
Hi Mu,
These are good points my friend, and I appreciate that you seemed to have toned down (somewhat) your attack. Thank you.
I admit that when I present that %85 of people are religious in the US, that I knew there was a difference in those numbers. I didn’t get into the details of that, because I was using it to make a point and move on. I kind of cringed knowing there were holes in my “argument” but also wasn’t too concerned since this was a blog post and not a scholarly paper with footnotes. I thought at the very best it would stir up some interesting conversation.
But yes, as you say, there is a difference between those that say they’re “religious” and those that say they’re “spiritual but not religious”. I guess what I’m trying to get at is there’s yet another difference between people who have come away from the “spiritual but not religious” category and who aren’t ashamed to say they’re “religious” yet again. But it ain’t the same, they just have seen through yet another binary, right? That binary (of spiritual but not religious, though I never used that distinction) is kind of what I’m challenging in this article as well.
That’s why I referred to Robert Bellah’s stage of “modern religion” in an earlier comment, as that stage is very much descriptive of the “spiritual but not religious orientation”. But what they mean by religion is usually his prior stage, of “historical religion”. They are distancing themselves from that prior stage (which they think of as religion proper) and creating a new religion (for Bellah it’s all religion, due to his broad understanding of it), that they see as inherently better. I think it is actually better and I’d opt for “spiritual but not religious” any day over, “religious and if you ain’t my kind of religion you’re going to Hell!” mentality. I saw way too much of that growing up in the rural South.
That said, I still think there is something inherently limiting it trying to distance oneself so much from the previous religious forms. There’s a way in which the hurried attempt at finding some new meaning sometimes necessitates throwing much out with the proverbial bathwater (where does all this bathwater go anyway?) I’ve known many people who have come back to terms with their religious roots and have begun to re-invite much that was good back into their “spirituality”. They begin to look, sometimes, from the outside as very religious people, but they have a flexibility and relativity that is unmistakable, which could never be confused with religious zealotry of any kind.
I consider my teacher, Jack Kornfield, as a shining example of this kind of person. He’s at once a Buddhist master, while also a psychologist, father, activist, organizational leader, secular meditation teacher, and more. He can hold all those roles, and respect the roots of Buddhism with true sincerity, while also having regular conversations with neurobiologists (like Dan Siegel) about the relationships between these different disciplines. There’s something really beautiful and whole in that kind of approach, that I really appreciate. Then it’s a question of including religion, as one very rich dimension, of a truly multi-dimensional life.



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Ethan

posted August 13, 2009 at 9:58 am


Also, I am not talking about the freedom of speech and religion aspects of our legal system. I am not talking about doing away with separation of Church and State (although, look at a dollar bill and tell me our Christian majority hasn’t already done this). I am talking on an individual level – an individual viewing his or her life as divided among secular and religious pursuits which are separate from each other creates a HUGE psychic dissonance in the individual. The two need to be brought together, and because ultimately in the western social and legal system the “secular” side of the false dichotomy has more power in peoples lives, the dharma should be brought there.



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Vince H.

posted August 13, 2009 at 10:09 am


Hi Ethan,
I hope my latest comment clarifies why I saw the need to address the “secular” and “religious” split, because though from your perspective you may see it as always having been a false dichotomy, I think for many people that just isn’t the case. It’s a very real, and very important distinction. I think we need to both respect that and also challenge those dichotomies. But what is the best way to challenge? I take a note here from developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan, who says that the best way to challenge is to provide at once equal parts of challenge and support. If you just rip someone’s views to threads, or say that they have always been false, I don’t think that provides the necessary support or respect for why they have this dichotomy in the first place.
That said, my concern has more to do with individuals not becoming more whole, because of their fear of religion, which happens to contain some of the most meaningful and relevant teachings on wholeness that we’ve been able to devise as humans, much of it time-tested and valuable beyond comparison. But when I really tune in, I’m not that afraid. I see that people often rise to the occasion and put aside old shackles when their freedom and wholeness are at stake. I actually do have a huge trust in people’s inherent (though yet perhaps unmanifested) wisdom. Part of that trust has come through seeing it arise in my own life, and with those around me. Granted, I’m sure I have a long way to go, and I would be surprised if many commenting here see things that escape me, I trust the process…



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Ethan Nichtern

posted August 13, 2009 at 10:20 am


Vince,
totally. My point is the same: the dichotomy is very real for many people. But in my opinion, we don’t do anyone any favors by buying into the existing dichotomy and reinforcing it’s psychological strength. We need to develop a language that dissolves these binaries rather than feeds them.
For example, I don’t accept the conservative/liberal binary. Yes it IS VERY real in people’s minds, but since it creates a strange division, I say I am either a progressive or an interdependista; when people call me liberal I push back against that definition.
But if we ARE going to work within the binary that has already been reified in people’s minds, we disempower buddhism by trying to have it occupy the religious side of the split, because that’s not where the TRUE power in our split-conscious society lies. The true power is on the secular side of the perceived duality. And it is the secular side that dharma will have to occupy more and more and more, both if it wants to have a lasting impact on western society, and if it wants any chance of dissolving this harmful and reified split between religious and secular.
No matter what the dharma has to get secular, because that’s where the mechanism of power is in our society. That’s why I prefer reframing the very excellent points you make about superficial dharma in that direction.
We aren’t going to help anything by having the dharma occupy a religious position in our society. We will just remain on the fringes of true engagement.



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Ethan

posted August 13, 2009 at 10:26 am


PS If anyone can help me convince Vince to become a weekly blogger for One City, it’d be appreciated :~)



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Evelyn

posted August 13, 2009 at 10:30 am


@Ethan
Where I saw psych and science fail the definition was the first part: “…an approach to human spirituality…” I don’t see any aspect of science as particularly spiritual, even psychology.
I still think the question is academic and the reality stands that Buddhism is considered and practiced as a religion throughout the world. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…



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Mu

posted August 13, 2009 at 11:25 am


Vince, sure, no problemo, mi amigo. One thing to bear in mind is even when I’m in an offensive modality, I still manage to slip in an idea or three. Some scattered points, if I may:
1. I, for one, have no problem with Vince’s materialism. Listen, when you’re pulling down the kind of money he is, you too would rock the sweet eyewear. Few people realize that the V-dog nets somewhere in the mid to high six figures from Buddhist Geeks alone. In New York, that’s like billionaire status.
2. I think VH’s thesis has very nicely emerged over the course of the discussion, not in the least because VH has hung in there and refined his points. May I suggest that if the post were rewritten and expanded that it then be submitted for publication?
3. I do think it important not to overplay the secular-religious binarism, not because of all the would-be Derridas out there but because spirituality seems now to the real space where Buddhism and mindful politics is taking root. In part we do owe something to the vacuous New Agers, as much as I loathe saying it.
4. I just nailed my morning 35 mins of shikantaza in 10. . . Owned!



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damaris

posted August 13, 2009 at 11:35 am


Thank you for changing the tone and for opening up enough to hear the points listed. I may not necessarily agree with content or presentation but it would be ignorant of me if I didn’t at least listen to what is being presented.
With that said.
I’m don’t have much resistance accepting Buddhism by its religious or secular views; to each his own. As long as we are working with our minds and each other the differences will not seem like an impossible chasm to cross in order to heal ourselves and our planet.
My biggest concern though is sectarianism. We could very easily make the same mistakes practitioners of the past have made and without studying the histories we will find ourselves repeating them; individually and collectively.
We have an opportunity to approach the situation in a radical new way. In order to do that we have to open ourselves more to each other and learn how to handle our aggression. We have to learn how to forgive and move forward. If we fail to do this, we will be no different than other spiritual traditions that have lost their way in a sense. It doesn’t mean that those traditions lack value; I’m just saying that other things have superseded the most important aspects of us. The ability to practice compassion, sharing and most needed these days, forgiveness.



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James

posted August 13, 2009 at 11:37 am


Without the traditional religious aspects of Buddhism, little is left besides meditation instructions. Of course, meditation is at the heart of Buddhism, but also important are view and conduct. This means the very doctrinal elements and moral imperatives that many Western “Buddhists” are so eager to jettison. A question to ponder: if we cannot even practice Buddhism without shedding our knee-jerk cultural prejudice against non-secular metaphysics, are we really grasping the liberating potential of the Dharma, or are we just accessorizing our lifestyle?



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Your Name

posted August 13, 2009 at 11:45 am


>As it entered China it mixed with Confusionist and Taoist influences…
YIKES! Please, it’s Confucian… nothing confused about it, eclectic maybe, but not confused.



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Ethan Nichtern

posted August 13, 2009 at 12:01 pm


@ James: I see no reason to believe that the View and ESPECIALLY the Conduct aspects of the path couldn’t be viewed as secular humanist systems very easily. In fact for many, meditation is the most “spiritual” aspect of the teachings. I am confused why you think those are the ones that we are jettisoning or are somehow more “religious.” I sort of have the opposite feeling about our current zeitgest.
@ MU: hopefully you are realizing by now that in between verbal assaults you could have 300 ideas, but if you wrap a beautiful present in a harsh package, no one’s going to receive it.



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Vince H.

posted August 13, 2009 at 12:13 pm


@Ethan : I hear your points dude. I’m opening to seeing which approach is most helpful for people (and perhaps one works sometimes and not the other, and so on…), and changing my theoretical basis if I see evidence that not bringing up the split helps people in transcending it. I’m still not convinced (quite yet) that you can transcend something you don’t first identify. In a way, even saying that the split is not real, is acknowledging it, so I suppose this is a tricky thing. :)
@MU : Thanks for the points, and for the encouragement in refining my own views. It has been helpful.
Now can a couple people please comment so this post can break the 100 comment barrier! How is Buddhist Geeks going to continue raking in the millions when this post can’t even hit 100 comments…?



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JayhooRay

posted August 13, 2009 at 12:19 pm


I just got back from India and some time following the Dalai Lama around a remote Himalayan river valley and then visiting gompas and monks in a variety of other places. It was mostly a Tibetan style Buddhism trip and most of the Buddhists I talked to were Tibetans or Europeans. So my perspective here may not really cover the other schools but…
Buddhism in America is different…and in Europe too. These are the early days still and I wish I was going to be around in 200 years to see what happens. Even how my Tibetan teachers teach here is different.
On the whole I think it is safe to say that Western Buddhism is much more intellectual, psychological, and concerned with social issues. The deep reverence for teachers, lineage, Buddha and diety that I saw in India and Nepal is a big reach for (white) Westerners who respect objects, opinions, and technologies but not so much emotion, devotion, relationship, and tradition. (This may also be partly generational since the Karmapa Lama seems to be headed this way too but that’s a longer discussion.)
Tara emanates quite differently in the consciousness of beings who are just meeting her, and usually don’t believe in other-than-human beings anyway, than she does in the minds who experience her as part of a cultural memory that precedes perhaps even Buddhism itself. When you see shrines to Tara where she is co-emergent with Hindu deities and intimately connected with crops, fertility, and the job duties of the Goddess…well it is pretty different than the glossy covered book at Powell’s or the pretty thanka at the Dharma center. She is much more alive, ancient, and vibrant than she is as some intellectualized “archetype” of feminine nurturing and compassion.
I think it is the blessing and the curse of Americans, and Europeans to an extent, that we think we can figure things out quickly, understand them deeply (quickly), and then improve them. Sometimes we are right. And we think the way we do things is obviously going to be an improvement. In the case of Buddhism, we have NO grasp of the depth of tradition and experience and how that may be as useful as the “technology” and “psychology” of Buddhism. We’ll be attracted to that first.
Like I said, I wish I was going to be around 200 years from now to see American Buddhism.



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Dharmakara

posted August 13, 2009 at 12:32 pm


James: There is quite a bit more than meditation when the religious aspects of this creature called “Buddhism” is removed… you have heard of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path, correct?



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James

posted August 13, 2009 at 1:06 pm


@Ethan:
“1) You can’t find a definition of religion that Buddhism actually ever fits into, or 2) If you do find one, you can’t find a definition of religion that Buddhism fits into that we can’t also fit Science, Psychotherapy, Psychology and Secular Humanism into just as easily.”
Ever heard of Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances? Briefly, it’s the notion that words to not correspond to an exact–necessary and sufficient–definition, but to overlapping sets of resemblances, picked out on the basis of use. Much as I may not look like my cousin, but my cousin looks like my uncle, who resembles my father, who resembles me–so it is with definitions for words like “chair.” It may not be possible to come up with a necessary and sufficient definition of “chair” that both 1) encompasses all the things we call “chairs,” (including marginal cases like bean bag chairs) and 2) excludes any “non-chairs” (other things we sit on, such as stools, sofas, etc.) from its scope. Religion is such a family resemblance-type concept if ever there was one, and Buddhism certainly qualifies as one on a number of counts. I can think of a few just off the top of my head:
1. Soteriology – Theories of salvation or liberation are the domain of religion, whether we’re talking about the theistic salvation of Christianity and Islam, the liberation of the Gnostics, or the Buddhist soteriology of nirvana as liberation from samsara. Not all religions have soteriologies, however, so we’re back to the family resemblance thing.
2. Communal liturgy – Religions typically have some sort of communal worship or ritual element that involves the body of members of that religion in ceremonies that bring them into contact with a sacred dimension. Some religions emphasize this much less (Calvinism), and some perhaps not at all.
3. Afterlife – Although not all religions posit an afterlife (family resemblance strikes again), Buddhism does entail a belief in postmortem rebirth, although I understand this point is contentious with precisely the demographic under consideration, the “secularizers” of Buddhism.
So it seems to me that the inclusion of Buddhism as a religion is unproblematic. What seems more problematic by far is the sort of “Protestant” Buddhism you see in the West, which takes Buddhism as an institution in need of Reformation, transforming it to an ideal of “four walls and a zafu.”
I will, however, point out that everywhere the Dharma has spread, some degree of syncretism with the local “religion” (and here I use the term much more loosely) has occurred, whether the incorporation of shamanistic elements in Tibetan Buddhism, or Taoist elements in East Asian Buddhism. In the West, it seems Buddhism will be syncretizing elements of psychology. However, that strikes me as a poor reason to throw out the metaphysical elements, which have a value vastly underestimated by some, but not all, Western practitioners.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 13, 2009 at 1:10 pm


@Mu @Vince @Ethan All really great points. I think one could argue that the imposition of a foreign binary distinction to Buddhism can have both positive and negative effects; one negative effect being the assumption that this binary is somehow objective when it is really culture-bound (arising from the matrix of Western civilization), leading either to the presumption that Buddhism is a religion like Western religions (i.e., having its basis in “belief” in the “supernatural” — an idea which I agree with Ethan and others is not tenable — first of all it assumes that what is and is not “supernatural” is obvious, and secondly it assumes that Buddhism is primarily about believing things, which is also false), or the rejection of “supernatural” elements arbitrarily because of an assumption that such elements are somehow questionable on their face.
But I think a salutary effect of Western influence on Buddhism is perhaps implicit in Buddhism already but not perhaps a fully evolved idea which is the notion of non-sectarianism. Buddhism as a religious tradition is quite good about this (Tibetan Buddhism contains within it a wide variety of quite disparate and contradictory sects, unified loosely under the Dalai Lama — quite a feat, really), but it could go farther. I for one do not believe the so-called “supernatural” aspects of Buddhism ought to be totally ignored or thrown out; but I do think they ought to be examined skeptically as I’ve argued before. We ought to be open to phenomena and reality, and the inconceivable vastness of what we don’t know, but at the same time I do think there’s a tremendous value in the rather non-sectarian approach that is a stylistic trait of “secular” Western values.
My own teacher, who was once named Dharma heir of Tarthang Tulku, declined the honor to go off and teach on his own. For the most part he teaches us Buddhism from a Chan and Dzogchen perspective, and that is about 95% of the source material he draws from — and our practice is primarily Buddhist in emphasis. Despite this, however, he also said once “I am not a Buddhist” —- I thought that was a funny thing to say, but I know what he meant. He didn’t mean that he was throwing out the traditions or that he didn’t respect his teachers (whom he still goes to see and consult with), or that he wants to “secularize” Buddhism — we investigate and encounter and work with all sorts of strange phenomena and he certainly doesn’t buy into an arbitrary “religious/secular” divide, either in the direction of embracing religion or rejecting the so-called supernatural… but he does say “I am not a Buddhist” in order to emphasize the fact that we are all simply engaged in an investigation of reality. The fact that he draws primarily upon Buddhist sources means he respects Buddhism as a source of wisdom and guidance, but the fact he says he is “not a Buddhist” is to reject sectarianism, to embrace an open-ended inquiry into reality which goes beyond the boundaries of any system.
If you are an artist, you might belong to an art movement but ultimately art doesn’t have sectarian boundaries. If I study physics I revere the great physicists of the past, but I don’t restrict myself to a “Heisenbergian” sect or an “Bohr” sect, even if I may happen to be drawn to a certain subset of ideas or other. Rather than seeing this stuff in terms of sects, we can see it simply as a treasure trove of investigations, methods, information, teachings which can help us. Naturally, I do share the concern of those who might worry that going too far in this direction might lead to a sort of dilettante effect — never really delving deep enough to really get the benefit of these teachings — so while I advocate this “spiritual but not religious” vantage point I am not in favor of shallow exploration. One ought to dive deeply into this stuff, under the guidance of an experienced teacher or teachers, of course. But whether one does this in a “religious” context or not I think is perhaps not the right thing to be worried about — deep vs shallow is a real concern, but I don’t know if religious vs something else is so much of a concern.



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James

posted August 13, 2009 at 1:13 pm


@Dharmakara:
The Four Noble Truths are couched in a religious metaphysics centering on what our condition is and how we may be liberated from it. We are endlessly cycling around in samsara through various incarnations; this is the big picture of our suffering (1st Noble Truth). Our karma drives this cycling; our afflictions, in turn, cause karma (the cause of suffering–2nd Noble Truth). Liberation from this condition is conceived as liberation from an uncontrollable cycle of death and rebirth (3rd Noble Truth). In this context, the 4th Noble Truth gives instructions for undoing the afflictions and the negative karma that cause our samsaric situation. You can’t make this creature secular without gutting the metaphysics that underpin it.



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James

posted August 13, 2009 at 1:22 pm


@Ethan
“I see no reason to believe that the View and ESPECIALLY the Conduct aspects of the path couldn’t be viewed as secular humanist systems very easily.”
Rebirth? Karma? They kind of hang together with the rest of the Dharma, which forms a seamless whole. Why reject what the Buddha accepted, especially in light of the fact that he had access to the “enlightened” views of contemporary materialists who denied the reality of rebirth and karma? He could just as easily have jettisoned these “cultural” elements had he seen fit, but he did not, and I take refuge in the Buddha. Perhaps I am being a bit too dogmatic and religious for your tastes, but that is the nature of the beast.



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Kate

posted August 13, 2009 at 1:24 pm


To add to the pot of questions…
My friend (the one who doesn’t want to “be Buddhist”) says that in order to identify as Buddhist you need to believe enlightenment is possible, which he doesn’t.
Thoughts? Is this in fact a necessity?



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 13, 2009 at 1:28 pm


@James Regarding metaphysical elements I think a distinction can be made, again, between rejecting an entire class of phenomena based on an arbitrary distinction (i.e., for example, discounting the possibility of, say, unseen forces, connections, even entities interacting with us and the world) and accepting a particular traditional or mythologized metaphysical picture purely on the basis of tradition. I for one am very much in favor of openness to all sorts of phenomena — and there are people who are very grounded and whom I respect greatly for many reasons who have had direct contact with many strange phenomena, and I myself can say the same, on a smaller scale. However, I think it’s both a strong principle of Buddhism as an intellectual and spiritual tradition and an admirable principle of Western civilization that it be possible to investigate these things skeptically.
I mean, let’s be serious here: the traditional picture of time structure of the universe in Buddhism is almost certainly wrong. Buddhism does happen to be one of the only religions to get the rough magnitude of the age of the universe right — but the precise description of kalpas, etc., is clearly not right. And why should we care about this? Is Buddhism about believing a bunch of traditional stories or is it about fresh investigation into reality here and now (guided by many ancient writings but not strictly bound by them)?
It’s also important, I think, to distinguish between the views held by high lamas, etc., and the superstitious views held by many ordinary Buddhists in Asian countries. We may say that Western Buddhism tends to be more philosophical but the fact is, that’s also because that is the Buddhism practiced and taught by many lamas, Zen masters, etc., in Asia — teachings meant primarily for monks which are now spread among the lay population here. This is in fact I think a positive development.
It reminds me of a story a friend of mine told me once. He had travelled to Nepal to see a high lama who lived in a remote area. When he finally arrived the lama received him warmly and he proceeded to ask a question about a difficult aspect of Buddhist philosophy. The lama began to cry. My friend asked him why he was crying, and the lama said that in many years no layperson had come to ask him such a question — all anyone wanted was to get blessings!



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 13, 2009 at 1:44 pm


@Kate One of the biggest problems with the question of “believing enlightenment is possible” is that I don’t think it is possible to know what the word “enlightenment” even means until you have a very deep experience of it, directly. In other words, what would it mean to believe in something like that, which you haven’t some direct conscious experience with? What would it mean to believe the opposite, that it “isn’t possible”?
Of course I’m not a person who thinks it is particularly important whether someone calls themselves a Buddhist or not. However, I do think one could ask the question: is it useful to practice with the notion that the word “enlightenment” may refer to an actual possibility of a radically different way of experiencing/relating with/being in the world? I.e., not so much belief but an openness to radical possibility without necessarily knowing what that radical possibility may be. I certainly think openness to this is useful, because if you are closed off to it it might constrain your practice needlessly. It’s not clear to me that one has to “believe” it, in other words, but I don’t see why one ought to assume that talk of enlightenment means nothing whatsoever.



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JayhooRay

posted August 13, 2009 at 2:25 pm


I just got back from India and some time following the Dalai Lama around a remote Himalayan river valley and then visiting gompas and monks in a variety of other places. It was mostly a Tibetan style Buddhism trip and most of the Buddhists I talked to were Tibetans or Europeans. So my perspective here may not really cover the other schools but…
Buddhism in America is different…and in Europe too. These are the early days still and I wish I was going to be around in 200 years to see what happens. Even how my Tibetan teachers teach here is different.
On the whole I think it is safe to say that Western Buddhism is much more intellectual, psychological, and concerned with social issues. The deep reverence for teachers, lineage, Buddha and diety that I saw in India and Nepal is a big reach for (white) Westerners who respect objects, opinions, and technologies but not so much emotion, devotion, relationship, and tradition. (This may also be partly generational since the Karmapa Lama seems to be headed this way too but that’s a longer discussion.)
Tara emanates quite differently in the consciousness of beings who are just meeting her, and usually don’t believe in other-than-human beings anyway, than she does in the minds who experience her as part of a cultural memory that precedes perhaps even Buddhism itself. When you see shrines to Tara where she is co-emergent with Hindu deities and intimately connected with crops, fertility, and the job duties of the Goddess…well it is pretty different than the glossy covered book at Powell’s or the pretty thanka at the Dharma center. She is much more alive, ancient, and vibrant than she is as some intellectualized “archetype” of feminine nurturing and compassion.
I think it is the blessing and the curse of Americans, and Europeans to an extent, that we think we can figure things out quickly, understand them deeply (quickly), and then improve them. Sometimes we are right. And we think the way we do things is obviously going to be an improvement. In the case of Buddhism, we have NO grasp of the depth of tradition and experience and how that may be as useful as the “technology” and “psychology” of Buddhism. We’ll be attracted to that first.
Like I said, I wish I was going to be around 200 years from now to see American Buddhism.



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James

posted August 13, 2009 at 2:26 pm


@Mitsu
Well, I think the difference between karma and rebirth, on the one hand, and how many kalpas old the universe is, on the other (or for that matter, whether it is made of four continents located in cardinal directions surrounding a central mountain/axis mundi) is that karma and rebirth are rather essential to the whole soteriological picture. Like a tower of Jenga blocks, if you take out Mount Meru and the number of years in a kalpa, the whole will still stand, but take out karma and rebirth, and it doesn’t hang together quite so well. I probably should elaborate on this but right now I do not have enough time.
I do appreciate where you are coming from. But in my experience, many people use “skepticism” and “free inquiry” as excuses for a decidedly uncritical rejection of anything that falls outside of a scientific purview. I think this is often the case in Buddhism in the West, where people are quick to dismiss doctrines that sound kind of funny without making an effort to consider how they fit into the whole, and whether they might actually turn out to be plausible or even true upon investigation. Obviously, you are not prone to this mistake.
Many people here have pointed out that Buddhism is not so much a mere collection of beliefs to be assented to as it is a way of life to be practiced. This is true. But the belief system supports and enables the way of life. As I promised, more on that later.



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Kate

posted August 13, 2009 at 2:29 pm


@ Mitsu:
You put into words my gut reaction when I was talking with my friend about this when you write, “not so much belief but an openness to radical possibility without necessarily knowing what that radical possibility may be.” Your comment helps me articulate that he has found himself hitting a wall with the Buddhist label because he resists the impersonal strictures of religious tenets but can’t yet see his way past the cultural constructs of faith, belief and doctrine on which he was raised. So what he’s been doing is using practices but resisting labels. That’s a great thing, but I think he’d find your wording useful to help him question the solidity of the Belief Wall.



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M.C. Owens

posted August 13, 2009 at 2:35 pm


Since everything is a dichotomy, why not…
@ Ethan
I’ll take a stab at defining ‘religion’ in such a way that Buddhism fits but not science and psychology. My background is the History of Religion, so it’s a combination of some pretty standard definitions, in three parts.
1) Obligation: I’m a big believer in etymology. If we’re going to use language, let’s know what we’re saying.
Latin: Re – “again” + ligare – “to bind” (from whence the word ligament). As the word was used in Roman culture, it referred to those actions/rituals one was obLIGEd to perform (annually, monthly and daily) to/for the gods, which re-bound her/him to them.
I know the standard dictionary definitions of religion always include something about belief in a ‘supernatural power’ or something to that effect, but in Greek and Roman culture religion seems to have been more of a social performance that you did with your body (praxis), and not so much your mind (doxa). I would use this to say that one aspect of religion is: actions that one feels obliged to do, perhaps on a daily basis. For me this would include sadhana, salat, or even something as mundane as brushing your teeth, provided one feels obliged to do it. It’s in this sense, I think, that we say someone cleans their house ‘religiously’ or goes to the movies ‘religiously’, because there’s a sense of obligation the person has in it that others don’t. To this I would also include the obligatory avoidance of certain actions (e.g. precepts).
2) Weltanschauung: Religion is a language game: a system of words, symbols and actions that go to producing one’s worldview. When I used to teach a course called Nature of Religion I used to use the metaphor of religion as a set of goggles. When I’ve got my Buddhist Goggles on everything’s dependently-originated, impermanent, and a source of my suffering; everyone’s a suffering sentient being on their way toward buddhahood; and all my actions are wholesome, unwholesome or neutral, either increasing or decreasing my suffering. I put on my Christian Goggles and everything is God’s creation and, depending on what brand of goggles I have, the earth is a testing ground for my fallen soul, and I’m kinda trapped here with my fellow Children of God. Or, I put on my science goggles (both literal and figurative), and everything is molecules, atoms and quarks whose movements and actions are based on a certain set of principles or laws that have been causing them to change and morph into various configurations and patterns, which resulted in life, the diversification of species, and consciousness.
3) Soteriology: For me this is what really distinguishes ‘religion’ from ‘science’: the belief/faith/understanding in some kind of salvation. Whether it’s redemption through faith in Christ, immortality through the practice of internal alchemy, rebirth in Amita Buddha’s Pure Land, or Nirvana by adherence to the Eight-Fold Path, what makes something a religion is that it is a certain system of words and symbols that define a worldview (2), which prescribe certain obligatory actions (1), to bring about an extra or supra terrestrial transformation (3).
I would argue that science and psychology only provide a worldview but do not prescribe obligatory behavior. They may prescribe behavior, but is it obligatory? And, more importantly, I do not think science is concerned with salvation. To be so would undermine the very nature of the scientific endeavor.
Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and everything else we traditionally/normally call a religion, I think, contain all three of these aspects.
To relate this back to Vince’s original post, I think the ‘secularization’ of Buddhism means:
1) “Sure I meditate, but I’m not going to give up sex and alcohol, and I’m certainly not going to prostrate myself or chant anything.”
2) “Buddhism is a philosophy, or a ‘way of life‘, but I don’t know about all this stuff about the form and formless realms, hungry ghosts and devas, or the 32 marks”
3) “I meditate because it makes me a happier, less stressful, more productive person.”
On a personal note: Although I’m not a Buddhist, I am a teacher of buddhadharma and spend most of my time explicating for people (monastic and laity) the meaning of prajna sutras (heart, vajra, etc.). I tremble at the profundity of these texts, and revere the enlightened Mind that produced them. Yet I don’t call myself a Buddhist out of deference to those who have taken vows (5, 8, 10, or 227), wear robes, chant sutras, and pray daily for the salvation of all sentient beings. And I hope nobody reads this as “My non-dharma is better than your wanna be dharma”.



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M.C. Owens

posted August 13, 2009 at 2:38 pm


Since everything is a dichotomy, why not…
@ Ethan
I’ll take a stab at defining ‘religion’ in such a way that Buddhism fits but not science and psychology. My background is the History of Religion, so it’s a combination of some pretty standard definitions, in three parts.
1) Obligation: I’m a big believer in etymology. If we’re going to use language, let’s know what we’re saying.
Latin: Re – “again” + ligare – “to bind” (from whence the word ligament). As the word was used in Roman culture, it referred to those actions/rituals one was obLIGEd to perform (annually, monthly and daily) to/for the gods, which re-bound her/him to them.
I know the standard dictionary definitions of religion always include something about belief in a ‘supernatural power’ or something to that effect, but in Greek and Roman culture religion seems to have been more of a social performance that you did with your body (praxis), and not so much your mind (doxa). I would use this to say that one aspect of religion is: actions that one feels obliged to do, perhaps on a daily basis. For me this would include sadhana, salat, or even something as mundane as brushing your teeth, provided one feels obliged to do it. It’s in this sense, I think, that we say someone cleans their house ‘religiously’ or goes to the movies ‘religiously’, because there’s a sense of obligation the person has in it that others don’t. To this I would also include the obligatory avoidance of certain actions (e.g. precepts).
2) Weltanschauung: Religion is a language game: a system of words, symbols and actions that go to producing one’s worldview. When I used to teach a course called Nature of Religion I used to use the metaphor of religion as a set of goggles. When I’ve got my Buddhist Goggles on everything’s dependently-originated, impermanent, and a source of my suffering; everyone’s a suffering sentient being on their way toward buddhahood; and all my actions are wholesome, unwholesome or neutral, either increasing or decreasing my suffering. I put on my Christian Goggles and everything is God’s creation and, depending on what brand of goggles I have, the earth is a testing ground for my fallen soul, and I’m kinda trapped here with my fellow Children of God. Or, I put on my science goggles (both literal and figurative), and everything is molecules, atoms and quarks whose movements and actions are based on a certain set of principles or laws that have been causing them to change and morph into various configurations and patterns, which resulted in life, the diversification of species, and consciousness.
3) Soteriology: For me this is what really distinguishes ‘religion’ from ‘science’: the belief/faith/understanding in some kind of salvation. Whether it’s redemption through faith in Christ, immortality through the practice of internal alchemy, or Nirvana by adherence to the Eight-Fold Path, what makes something a religion is that it is a certain system of words and symbols that define a worldview (2), which prescribe certain obligatory actions (1), to bring about an extra or supra terrestrial transformation (3).
I would argue that science and psychology only provide a worldview but do not prescribe obligatory behavior, and, more importantly, I do not think science is concerned with salvation.
Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and everything else we traditionally/normally call a religion, I think, contain all three of these aspects.
To relate this back to Vince’s original post, I think the ‘secularization’ of Buddhism means:
1) “Sure I meditate, but I’m not going to give up sex and alcohol, and I’m certainly not going to prostrate myself or chant anything.”
2) “Buddhism is a philosophy, or a ‘way of life‘, but I don’t know about all this stuff about the form and formless realms, hungry ghosts and devas, or the 32 marks”
3) “I meditate because it makes me a happier, less stressful, more productive person.”
On a personal note: Although I’m not a Buddhist, I am a teacher of buddhadharma and spend most of my time explicating for people (monastic and laity) the meaning of prajna sutras (heart, vajra, etc.). I tremble at the profundity of these texts, and revere the enlightened Mind that produced them. Yet I don’t call myself a Buddhist out of deference to those who have taken vows (5, 8, 10, or 227), wear robes, chant sutras, and pray daily for the salvation of all sentient beings. And I hope nobody reads this as “My non-dharma is better than your wanna be dharma.”



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M.C. Owens

posted August 13, 2009 at 2:53 pm


Sorry about the repeat. The post thing’s actin funny.
And sorry about the repeat of ideas, a lot of posts happened while I was writing that. The Varja Age!



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 13, 2009 at 2:53 pm


@James Right, I totally agree that a sort of uncritical rejection of everything one arbitrarily defines as “supernatural” is silly and pointless… I mean, there are many things now accepted in physics (electromagnetism, E=mc^2, etc.) which might have seemed like magic before we uncovered the principles behind them, and no doubt there will be a lot more to be uncovered in the far future.
As for karma and rebirth and its importance to Buddhism — I agree it’s important to a certain picture but there is of course the example of Zen which, while it certainly self-identifies as Buddhist makes very little practical reference to rebirth (though it does make more reference to the concept of karma). In my own practice I’m not really sure that the concept of rebirth has really been all that relevant to my moment to moment practice, nor has it been all that helpful in thinking about it. This is not to say that I reject notions of reincarnation, but I suppose I prefer to remain within things I have had some direct experience with / insight into. One of my teacher’s teachers said that it wasn’t necessary to concern oneself with reincarnation at all; so whether or not it is crucial for a particular picture of what Buddhism is about, it’s certainly not universally thought to be all that crucial even by very revered lamas. On the other hand, this is not to dismiss the phenomenon; I don’t doubt that many recognized incarnations may well have a very crucial karmic link with their predecessor lives, even if I’m not sure that one can draw a simple one to one correspondence between them (the idea that there’s a one to one correspondence seems to me to be highly doubtful for many reasons).
@Kate Yeah, there’s definitely a distinction to be made between “belief” and open-mindedness. You could also reframe it as doubt — i.e., rather than belief in enlightenment, doubt that the way we typically live and perceive is the only way possible to live and perceive.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 13, 2009 at 3:08 pm


@M.C. Owens I don’t think the “obligation” part really fits Buddhism that well. Sure, many sects have their rituals or practices which are meant to be done regularly — but even in this case they’re seen, at least by many teachers, lamas, etc., to be “skillful means”, i.e., somewhat arbitrary. One famous Dzogchen aphorism is that “there is no single practice which is necessary”; which is to say they’re claiming that while there may well be many different practice forms and methods, the crucial thing is reality as it is, which can’t be captured in any method, form, path, etc. The Heart Sutra’s admonition that there is “no path” is literally the case; which is to say, even including the Eightfold Path. This is one of the radical qualities of Buddhism (at least many of the Mahayana and later schools) which distinguishes it from many other traditions which do fit your definition more precisely.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 13, 2009 at 3:10 pm


@MC Owens — I might add, as well, that even if one were to stretch the definition of “obligation” to include Buddhism — then your definition would also have to include what you’re calling “secular” Buddhism as well, which also has its practices, Weltanschauung, and soteriology (to a point, with the non-attainment caveat).



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GA

posted August 13, 2009 at 4:49 pm


@Kate: A few scientific equivalents/alternative labels to enlightenment:
Abraham Maslow’s “Self-actualization”
Edward F. Ricketts’ “Breaking through”



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M.C. Owens

posted August 13, 2009 at 6:16 pm


@Mitsu Hadeishi: Your comment to my comment raises an important issue when discussing ‘religion’ – precept vs. practice. There is no such thing as religion without people practicing it, and while I recognize the legitimacy of what you’re saying on a dharmic level, the Buddhism that I study (historically) and the Buddhism I have witnessed being being practiced by millions in Japan, Taiwan, China, Tibet, Nepal, India, and Thailand, is undeniably based on very serious obligatory behavior. Regardless, I believe religion is a very personal matter, and it’s really up to each individual to know and determine what they feel is obligatory.
At the same time, I would like to say that I find your definition of upaya – “somewhat arbitrary” – questionable, and I would challenge any teacher or lama who considers it such. It requires an extremely enlightened mind to determine the proper teaching/practice to give to an aspirant, and is in no way random and without reason. To call a teaching of the Buddha arbitrary, I think, misses the profundity of upaya.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 13, 2009 at 6:55 pm


@M.C. Owens
>random and without reason
I find it rather odd that you’d leap from the phrase “somewhat arbitrary” to the completely unrelated idea “random and without reason” which has no relation to what I said, at all. It’s so far removed from what I was talking about that I’m not really sure how best to address your comment, as I’m concerned I may be misunderstanding how easy it is to be misconstrued when writing on this topic. I’ll try to be a bit more clear, and perhaps provide some context.
I am well aware of how difficult it is to help someone else find their way when it comes to the Dharma. I’ve practiced for 25 years under a number of teachers, but most recently for over 15 years with the same main teacher, I go on retreat two or three times a year, I take practice quite seriously, and I certainly take the subject of how best to transmit the Dharma very, very seriously indeed; and it is in service of preserving a high standard that I make my arguments here.
When it comes to both precepts and upaya I will try to reiterate my point, perhaps a bit differently. The key point I am trying to raise is not that Buddhism doesn’t share many formal structures that are similar to other religions, but that the theoretical position it takes vis a vis these structures is quite different, and it is in this: most religions give at least part of their formal structure the imprimatur of absolute truth or authority stemming from some sort of divine authority; Buddhism does not. Unlike nearly every other major religion, Buddhism does not accord divine inspiration status to any of its texts. Textual authority is certainly to be respected but is not in and of itself sufficient reason to consider something authoritative (with some exceptions in some sects, I am speaking more traditionally here). I’m sure you’re aware of all this.
The same is true of upaya which of course I take very seriously! To say that there is something arbitrary about upaya is to say that there is no practice that is somehow “holy”, there’s no practice or set of practices which, in and of themselves, have some kind of divine magical power. For example, Catholics believe that you will by definition suffer some sort of metaphysical harm by not being baptized in the church; Buddhists do not have a similar concept. Even the precepts are simply, strictly speaking, just a set of useful rules. There’s no place where it says God or the universe or the Dharmakaya has sent down any set of precepts to Earth with a sort of holy imprimatur. Thus, Buddhist sects can and have modified the Vinaya over the centuries and there are wide variations in how it is practiced and taught. Ultimately there is a fundamentally pragmatic basis to all of this: upaya is skillful means which is to say: don’t confuse the means with the end.
All of this is to say: I am arguing against watering down the high teachings. I am in favor of maintaining a high standard. Sure, many people in Asia practice Buddhism much as people around the world practice every religion, but to miss the crucial differences at the highest levels of Buddhist thought and practice is to miss something very important indeed. The high teachings shouldn’t be thrown out just because you want to view Buddhism in the same light as most other religions: that’s my basic argument.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 13, 2009 at 7:11 pm


I thought of one other aspect of high standards which I think might be relevant here: which is that I believe the motive for many religions according divine inspiration status to many of their practices or tenets of faith is that they are concerned that without this, people have no way of verifying or checking the teachings or pronouncements of their religion. But Buddhism is different in that a central emphasis is placed (again, speaking of most but not all sects, and speaking of the higher teachings, not so much how most lay people work with it in Asia) on practice and therefore there’s actually a way to personally verify, check, the teachings for yourself. Imagine if science were practiced either without reference to experiment or where experimental results are considered extremely difficult to reproduce and/or capricious… that seems to be the attitude of many religions. In Buddhism, however, the attitude is quite different: one can actually check things for yourself, and this creates a very different approach and theoretical perspective.
To try to fit Buddhism into the category of what most people think of as religion, it seems to me that you then are deemphasizing this crucial aspect, which I believe is central to what makes Buddhism truly valuable for the world. I.e., a set of precepts or a practice method may well be very valuable, and to discover that value you may have to practice it as presented, even including elements you don’t at first understand. But this is not the same thing as suggesting that those precepts or practices are *required* or somehow divine or holy; that would really be an un-Buddhist view (again with the exception of some sects). Any practice system can only be judged on its effectiveness as tested in the real world, as it should be, which is partly why, I believe, Buddhism has such tolerance for new sects and approaches. They are effective or not; they don’t have to be judged based on how closely they cleave to some textual or other historical authority.
If we let go of that principle I believe you are letting go of one of the most important aspects of Buddhism.



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Dharmakara

posted August 13, 2009 at 8:31 pm


James: Good points, but if one approaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path as a single “absolute truth” within the present moment, then the metaphysics can be removed… in other words, it’s a two-fold truth in the present moment, where the cause of suffering and the means by which the cessation of that suffering can be addressed.
In such fashion even the acceptance or denial of rebirth becomes a non-issue, where ceremonies and empty rituals, even expedient means, become a non-issue.



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Mu

posted August 13, 2009 at 9:34 pm


@GA @Kate: Excellent. Maslow was drawn to Taoism and Ricketts to Zen. Maslow in The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance (1966) wrote about what he called “Taoistic science,” a radical empiricism based on a non-interfering and open receptivity to the object. If one reads Maslow’s Journals, one is struck by the fact that he never really engaged Zen, which was, especially in academic circles thanks to D. T. Suzuki, quite promulent [sic!] in the fifties and sixties. Ricketts, on the other hand, read Suzuki and was drawn to the notion of satori, which he further elaborated as “breaking through.”



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Mu

posted August 13, 2009 at 11:49 pm


@M.C. Owens: Your understanding of Buddhism is rather puzzling. Most odd perhaps is your beginning with a Latin etymology in order to then fit Buddhism into it. Etymological arguments are in general very weak and in this case particularly so. Why is this so? A number of reasons: 1. I note there is no consensus among *modern* etymologists concerning the etymon of M.E. “religion.” Most do, however, agree with your derivation. 2. There was no consensus among the ancients concerning the etymology of L. religio. Cicero (see De deorum natura, II.28.72), for example, derived it from relegere, to go over again in reading, speech, or thought, and so the generation of the participial adjective religens, religentis, which carried the meaning of revering the gods, i.e., pious or religious. In medieval Latin, the etymology was far from settled, with, e.g., the great etymologist Isadore of Seville and the anonymous Etymologicum genuinum revealing no single derivation. Even an authority like Augustine who, in Retractiones I.3 assumed religare as the primitive, did not carry as much cultural weight as you might imagine. 3. Given there is no consensus among the ancients, medievals, and even the moderns, etymology is not going to get us very far. Things get more even more interesting when you move outside the Latin tradition, say, to the Greek where religion translates as thriskeia (????????), deriving from the verb throsko (??????), meaning look. Homer used it with the meaning “the respect of people toward the gods.” It was a fundamentally psychological attitude, almost approaching awe. 4. According to Lewis & Short’s A Latin Dictionary (which, yes, Ethan, I did pull off my shelf to consult), L. religio carries the inward meaning of piety and “a careful pondering of divine things,” while you emphasize only the extrinsic meaning. 5. And the big reason a Latin derivation is almost meaningless in this connection is that our subject, Buddhism, is culturally removed from Latinity. So if we’re going to put forward a definition of religion, let’s try to have some cultural context for it instead of assuming that a modern English word with a Latin etymon offers us any kind of clue about the meaning of religion within Buddhist culture which spans a vast geography and covers about 2.5 millennia.
As for your arguments about what supposedly obligatory behavior within Buddhism looks like, I can only wonder from where you are pulling them. It sounds very unsophisticated to me, i.e., Religions of the World 101ish. Mitsu has already done a superlative job of showing you where you’ve gone astray, so there’s really need to pile on.



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 12:03 am


typo: last sentence, second clause: “there’s really no need to pile on.” I could have added “…unless you’re a masochist,” if I had really wanted to be a dickhead. But I’m not, so I didn’t.



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 12:06 am


editorial emendation: last sentence to read: “But I’m not in the mood, but I certainly have been, but this time I wasn’t, so I didn’t.”



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taha shittsu

posted August 14, 2009 at 1:23 am


Mu, I like your rebuttal of the McOwen argument based on an etymology. I also like the way you poke fun at yourself in the 2 following posts. You’re a character, as the expression goes. You’re well read too (how many have you read?).
I also want to add that this thread has been very edifying like the one on the sickest buddha. Keep up the good work, and put Mu and Vince (or the V-dog) on the payroll!



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Dharmakara

posted August 14, 2009 at 2:39 am


Mu: Ricketts elaboration of “break through” is by no means original… Meister Eckhart came to that conclusion centuries before.



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GA

posted August 14, 2009 at 8:30 am


Oh great– Now you’ve gone and gotten her started on Meister Eckhart :/



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 9:05 am


@dharmakara: not sure why your statement carries any relevance to what I said especially since I never claimed Ricketts’s idea was original. As for Meister Eckhart’s influence, I would say it’s nonexistent: the main influences are Suzuki’s discussion of satori, which Ricketts knew from essays, the Tao te ching, Robinson Jeffers’s epic poem Roan Stallion, and Swedenborg, whom Ricketts encountered second-hand througj his friend Joseph Campbell.
But the clincher is that, though the terminology is the same, breaking through meant something very different to Eckhart and to Ricketts. Eckhart’s breaking through is conveyed in his notion of detachment, a transcendence of all creation, time, and being into what he calls “the ground without ground.”. Eckhart’s idea was to break through the particularites of existence in order to get to the ground of reality where god & soul are one. Rickett’s notion of breaking through is radically different from this: it’s a moment of awareness in which one apprehends the holism of the universe. It’s part radical empiricism (Rickett’s was after all a marine biologist) and part enlightened awareness that any whole is more than the sum of its parts. Ricketts abhored any philosophy or theology predicated upon detachment of any kind.



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 9:13 am


I’m getting all soft: I forgot a characteristic barb for dharmakara. So here goes:
Dude, the lesson here is do your homework before you leap to the conclusion that terminological similarity means anything, at all. Put in the reading as I have.
;)



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M.C. Owens

posted August 14, 2009 at 9:39 am


@Mitsu Hadeishi re: arbitrary
I was just using a standard (albeit poor) dictionary definition of the word as: “based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system”, because I felt that’s what you were saying. I interpreted your remark as: Prescribed, obligatory Buddhist actions, such as chanting sutras or the name of the Buddha, are not the ‘real’ practice.
Because I don’t know you or your background, you seemed to be saying what I hear a lot of people say, that those ritualistic aspects of Buddhism are ‘just’ upaya for the masses because they don’t know any better. All I was arguing was that for someone whose karma it is to chant daily, that IS the real (paramartha) practice, and there is no higher teaching (for them). For you (perhaps) or someone like myself, contemplation of non-dual sunyata IS the real practice. But your comment seemed to favor the latter, and the former, in your words, is “watering down the high teachings”.



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M.C. Owens

posted August 14, 2009 at 9:56 am


@MU re: use of etymology
The primary topic of my original post was religion, not Buddhism. Religion, as both a word and a concept, originates in the western world and comes to us through our Latin-Christian roots. Ethan requested a definition of the word, and I don’t think there’s any better way to begin defining a word than through its etymology. And we’re all speaking English here, not Sanskrit or Pali.
I’m familiar with the debates regarding the origin of the word ‘religion’, but I was just using the standard etymology to build a case for “obligation” as an essential part of what religion is/does.
I am very puzzled by your (and Mitsu Hadeishi’s) rejection of the idea that Buddhism has any prescribed, obligatory behavior. What Allan Watts book are you getting your Buddhism from? There is even a word for prescribed, obligatory behavior in Buddhism: SILA. I really don’t think I’m missing the mark here.



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Kate

posted August 14, 2009 at 9:58 am


@ Mu and GA:
Thanks for the people to read up on! I’d love if we could make a visual flowchart of all the language around belief/ enlightenment/ religion as it’s been hammered our here.
I will look for these thinkers in beach-ready paperback, as I am going off the grid tomorrow to Lake Champlain.



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 10:52 am


@M C Owens: your argumentation becomes more bizarre as you persist in your benighted view of Buddhism. For example, your recourse to a “standard dictionary definition” of the word arbitrary as Mitsu was employing the adjective reveals the extent to which you are clearly out of your element here. Dictionary definitions are not a substitute for genuine thought. Mitsu’s meaning was crystal clear if one understands upaya, but if one does not then apparently one falls back on a generic dictionary definition? Oy gewalt!
Since I’m on my iphone for the next ten hours (wish I could go off the grid like Kate), you’ll have to wait until I can edify you concerning the place of obligation in Buddhism. In the meantime, marshal your dictionaries, and please step up your game by drawing upon something a bit more germaine and substantial such as Nakamura Hajime’s Bukkyo Daijiten.



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GA

posted August 14, 2009 at 10:57 am


@Kate: I got my Maslow Toward a Psychology of Being for a dollar at half price books.



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 11:06 am


@M C Owens: sorry, you set yourself up for this: in your case, Alan Watts would be a vast improvement over the dictionary-dot-com style of argumentation upon which you rely? Have you passed out of freshman comp yet?



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Zach

posted August 14, 2009 at 11:22 am


Jim Morrison sang about breaking on through to the other side, so dharmakara & Mu are both way off. : P



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 11:25 am


Touché, Zach.



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Dharmakara

posted August 14, 2009 at 11:47 am


Mu, apparently you’re not as well read as you stated, especially if your skill in dialectics includes the use of barbs. Hey dude, grow up.



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Kate

posted August 14, 2009 at 11:51 am


If any of you people glued to this blog would like to stop by my blog, where I recently wrote a very basic (cause that’s where my study is at) piece on the 5 Wisdom Families, I’d love constructive comments….but no meanies allowed!! ;~)
http://maloneki.wordpress.com/2009/08/06/mozart-salieri-and-the-ratna-family/



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Dharmakara

posted August 14, 2009 at 11:53 am


Suzuki has been quotes several times by posters… here’s a copy of his book “Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist”:
http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/mcb/index.htm



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 12:00 pm


@dharmakara: When you do zazen, care should be taken not to allow wind or smoke in the room, while the room itself should be kept neat and clean.



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Dharmakara

posted August 14, 2009 at 12:15 pm


Mu, interesting comment… did the Buddha worry about wind or smoke when he sat beneath a tree? (LOL)



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M.C. Owens

posted August 14, 2009 at 12:25 pm


@Mitsu Hadeishi & Mu,
When I first read Jerry Kolber’s post “5 Reasons my Dharma is Better than Your Dharma” I thought it was pretty inane. I’m beginning to understand why he wrote it.
The Allan Watts remark was weak, and I regret having been sucked into that level of discourse.
All I was doing was creating a working definition of ‘religion’ in three parts that I felt accurately described phenomena we traditionally call religious, and then applied that definition to Buddhism. All the name-calling aside, I have not heard you critique that definition, and the only argument I’ve heard from either of you so far is that Buddhism does not fit category (1): obligatory behavior. Mitsu Hadeishi admits, “Sure, many sects have their rituals or practices which are meant to be done regularly….” but then dismisses them for “reality as it is” (whatever that means), and in a later post again admits, “Sure, many people in Asia practice Buddhism much as people around the world practice every religion…” but then again dismisses them for the “High Teachings”. I read that as: I’m going to ignore anything that doesn’t fit what I consider “real Buddhism”. And Mu just says, ‘ugh, take that!’
I think where we’ve gotten off track is that I’m talking about Buddhism as it is actually practiced in the world, and has been practiced throughout history, not my (or your) understanding of how it should be practiced, or how it may be practiced by a very select few (arguably) more enlightened individuals. Yet you both keep attacking my understanding of Buddhism, which besides the digression to talking about upaya, I have not been presenting.
Mu, I look forward to reading your edification of how there is no prescribed, obligatory behavior in Buddhism.



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Dharmakara

posted August 14, 2009 at 12:32 pm


Mu: By the way, when you quote another author(s) it might be a good idea to cited the source: “Opening the Hand of Thought” by Kosho Uchiyama (Wisdom Publications 2004)
It’s actually a very good book.



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David Passiak

posted August 14, 2009 at 12:45 pm


I am long-time listener to Buddhist Geeks and spent a decade studying Eastern religions in the West in graduate studies at Arizona State and Princeton.
An even broader issue to consider is the creation of the modern category of “religion” as something that is distinct from the secular. We should keep in mind that pre-1700 “religion” as we now understand it did not exist, along with capitalism, and media that helps to shape perceptions and identity constructs that define us as very discrete, separate sentient beings.
I recently wrote about my visit to see Thich Nhat Hanh in his U.S. tour, and the importance of what he termed “inter-being,” which can be found in the link I posted. I agree with many of Vince’s points, and wish to add that we should also be careful not to buy too much into modern identity constructs that define us in distinctly individual terms, at the expense of losing sight of the sangha and the inter-connected nature of our being.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 14, 2009 at 3:39 pm


@MC Owens Though I agree generally with the content of Mu’s posts, I certainly don’t share his rhetorical style, so I hope you can avoid lumping us together when it comes to discussing things with me.
You keep projecting and/or suspecting I harbor attitudes which I do not have. I am not arguing against following precepts. I am simply talking about what it MEANS to follow precepts in Buddhism, traditionally speaking. What I am saying is hardly controversial; it is a perfectly orthodox presentation of the meaning of precepts. You seem to want precepts to have a different meaning, one more similar to the idea of obligatory behavior in Western religions — but this is just not the case in (most) Buddhist sects.
I’m making a very simple point, a point which has been made by many teachers and lamas and a point which is also echoed in many Mahayana sutras, and you keep conflating it with some other sort of trivial idea which has nothing to do with what I am presenting here.
Precepts in Buddhism are not commandments from God. They are guidelines meant to aid practice. This does not mean that if you decide to follow a system of precepts you should be lax about it: if you follow it, you should follow it as strictly as you can. That’s the whole point. I am not, repeat NOT arguing against following precepts. I am arguing that precepts, no matter how strictly followed, are simply pragmatic sets of rules or guidelines to aid realization and behavior. This is not just my Westernized, “secular” understanding of the precepts; it is also the traditional understanding of most sects of Buddhism, particularly from the Mahayana forward. I’m certainly not claiming to speak for every sect and/or teacher; perhaps there are teachers who present precepts in a way closer to your understanding; who knows; I don’t spend my time surveying every sect of Buddhism. However in my decades of practice and study this has been the relatively consistent view I have encountered of it from many teachers. Mu I am sure would have better references!
There are many systems of precepts in Buddhism. There are vast numbers of precepts in the traditional monastic Vinaya. Zen, on the other hand, simplifies this to five, eight, or ten precepts. The Theravadans might claim their precepts are more faithful to the original, but the Zen guys would say, well, that’s well and good but that doesn’t invalidate their system. The whole point here is that Buddhism can accomodate multiple different sets of precepts because precepts are not considered to be divinely inspired. Tradition is important but it is not the definitive authority.
Consider this set of precepts by Thich Nhat Hanh:
http://buddhism.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?zi=1/XJ/Ya&sdn=buddhism&zu=http%3A%2F%2Fbuddhism.kalachakranet.org%2Fresources%2F14_precepts.html
His number one precept reads as follows:
1. Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.
I daresay Thich Nhat Hanh is a reasonably respectable authority.
Another good example of this is Trungpa’s response to Pema Chodron when she said she wanted to adopt celibacy. He said if she was going to do it, she should do it with total seriousness, strictly. As we all know, Trungpa himself was far from celibate, yet he advocated that Pema Chodron should follow her vow with total strictness. This is the point: IF you follow precepts or take vows, you should do so as strictly as you can. But the particular set of precepts or vows, themselves, are not themselves preordained by Heaven or God — they are pragmatic rules or guidelines meant to aid your own practice or realization. If you don’t get this, you don’t really understand precepts at all.



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Dharmakara

posted August 14, 2009 at 7:31 pm


Mitsu Hadeishi, is not taking refuge in the Triple Gem an obligatory behavior?
Although taking refuge in the Triple Gem has been (and continues to be) an appropriate practice within the life and history of the Buddhist tradition, there is a rhetorical question which hardly gets asked, not in a critique of the Three-fold Refuge, but in the process of critical thought, as encouraged by the Kalama Sutta:
“What did the Buddha take refuge in?”
After the Buddha had instructed Ananda that his parinirvana was without the marks of having been a great man, he taught the bhiksus that following his death they should take refuge only in the Dharma (D II.100), and that the proper way to honor the tathagata is by practicing the Dharma.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 14, 2009 at 8:45 pm


@Dharmakara Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that there aren’t criteria for “official” status (as a member of a sect, a monk, etc.) at various levels in different Buddhist sects. In fact, of course I agree this is the case for many if not all sects. I’m simply making the point that even though various sects have certain criteria (i.e., to be a member you have to take refuge in the Three Jewels, or to be a monk you have to take certain vows and typically follow additional precepts, and so forth), I’m just pointing out that any such criteria, at least from a Mahayana point of view, do not have the status of divine commandments. I also want to point out that I’m not necessarily saying Buddhism can’t be seen to match MC Owens’ definition: however I *am* saying that to the extent Buddhism has what appears to be “obligatory” behavior, it doesn’t have the theoretical or metaphysical status of divine commandments (as Thich Nhat Hanh’s first precept very clearly illustrates quite explicitly).
I do think it’s also worth repeating, also, that even if you do accept MC Owen’s criteria for “religious” status as applicable to Buddhism, these same criteria would also apply to so-called “secular” Buddhism; i.e., “secular” formulations of Buddhism also have their required forms, even if it is just something like “you have to meditate” or something of that kind. So as a criterion for distinguishing between “religious” and “secular” Buddhism I feel MC Owens’ definition doesn’t really do the job; if religious Buddhism is a “religion” by his definition, so is so-called “secular” Buddhism.
So, in short: what people are calling “religious” Buddhism already, traditionally, contains within it the attitudes that are being attributed to so-called “secular” Buddhism (again, Thich Nhat Hanh’s first precept comes to mind).
For point of reference, I’ll list out the five precepts my own teacher gave us once (and I hasten to add he is an authorized teacher, i.e., he was authorized to teach by a tulku in the Nyinma sect, which is to say, though he no longer teaches within that sect, he’s not just some bozo coming up with precepts without a solid foundation):
1) No Truth (similar to Thich Nhat Hanh’s first precept)
2) No Action (this is akin to the Taoist notion of non-action, it doesn’t literally mean just sitting there doing nothing)
3) No Waiting (i.e., number 2 shouldn’t be interpreted to mean, wait for something to happen in the future)
4) No Self (you all should know what this means!)
5) Breathe
We spent an entire retreat discussing these five precepts and what they mean and how to keep them. I personally consider these very valuable guidelines which I refer back to quite often, and I keep these five precepts as strictly as I can. Of course, these precepts are quite different from the traditional precepts, but they serve a similar purpose: guidelines for life and practice.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 14, 2009 at 8:46 pm


(And by the way, people can just call me “Mitsu” rather than “Mitsu Hadeishi”… :)



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 14, 2009 at 8:48 pm


typo: Nyinma -> Nyingma



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Dharmakara

posted August 14, 2009 at 9:00 pm


Dear Mitsu, I agree with you that Buddhism doesn’t contain divine commandments, though there are some sects that elevate their particular understanding of the Dharma to a similiar status.
Unfortunately, the problem rests in trying to define what “is” or “is not” religion, what “is” or “is not” philosophy, discipline, ect., not specifically what “is” or “is not” Buddhism.
There really isn’t a universal definition of what religion is or is not — to quote Talal Asad, this is because any definition is actually the historical product of discursive processes.
Another aspect is that if there is no self, there is likewise no cultural identity. If this is what the supposed secular Buddhism is attempting to accomplish, then there is no problem.



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 10:48 pm


Mitsu has very succinctly explicated the problem with positing “obligatory” behaviors or prescribed behaviors within Buddhist shila. He explains that “precepts, no matter how strictly followed, are simply pragmatic sets of rules or guidelines to aid realization and behavior.” Exactly; they are not the commands issued by a godhead. The precepts are not the mirror images of the Ten Commandments. Shila, which corresponds to Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood from the Eightfold Path, is an intrinsicly, not extrinsicly, motivated training that is considered by both the Mayahana and Theravada traditions to be the foundation for the other two trainings, samadhi and prajna. “Ethics,” writes Geshe Tashi Tsering, “must be based on compassion, not on some commitment that we follow simply because we are Buddhists and have been told to practice it” (The Four Noble Truths, p. 126). Geshe Tashi’s very clear statement is echoed by other spiritual authorities such as Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Shila is predicated upon upaya, which is not prescribed action or means, but skillful action or means that can take many shapes and forms. This point is emphasized in the parable of the burning house in the first part of the Lotus Sutra.
The moral affirmations of the Ten Grave Precepts, likewise, are not obligatory or prescribed behaviors for, as Robert Aitken Roshi has pointed out in The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, they are skillful means, “for us to use,” he writes, “in guiding our engagements with the world.” Notice the word “guiding”; it’s deliberate. Let me explain by taking the First Grave Precept, “(I take up) the way of not killing.” Now, prima facie, it looks like the first commandment of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but notice that is not “Thou shalt not kill.” It is not expressed in the form of an edict from an authority. Rather than have an obligatory meaning, the precept is approached in three ways *simultaneously*: 1. The literal, or Hinayana, view, “Do not kill”; 2. the compassionate, or Mahayana, view, “Let us encourage life”; and 3. the essential, or Buddha-nature, view, “There is no thought of killing.” So, let’s take up the first way or approach, the literal “Do not kill,” which at its extreme interpretative limit is not Buddhist at all. It is only the Jain faith, as far as I know, which approaches that limit. Jain monks, for example will drink no water unless it is carefully filtered lest they swallow microscopic organisms. But obviously, ahimsa does not extend to vegetables because otherwise they could not feed themselves. (Which reminds me of the Simpsons episode in which Lisa falls for an animal rights activist, a 5th-degree Vegan who eats nothing that casts a shadow.) The second way or approach is closer to what is generally designated the transcendental middle way, where, as Aitken puts it in “Two Teishos: The First Precept,” no killing is not a prohibition so much as “a positive exhortation to be in touch with true nature where negative and positive, right and wrong, birth and death, are simply concepts that we seek to use appropriately according to circumstance.” This is very important since there are indeed cases of killing within the Buddhist ethical frame, shila, that have taken place in the name of freedom thought to be essential to spirituality and to the nation state. Examples include the 1963 self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in Saigon (one of many monks actually), the Buddhist “freedom fighters” of the White Lotus Society who freed China in 1368 from Mongol rule, and the sri Lankan war of independence conducted in the second century B.C.E. under the banner “Not for kingdom, but for Buddhism.” In short, the moral precepts can be applied situationally–as upaya. The third way or approach, the Buddha-nature view, points out that no-killing is already a quality of self-nature in the realm of Dharma. If, for example, “the self” is connected to the whole universe as its center of gravity, no thought of killing can arise, as Bodhidharma puts it. There is no “giving arise to” thoughts of killing. This is emptiness, or Absolute Self.
Buddhism is essentially a practice of ehi-parassika, come and see, come and experiment for yourself, as Ken Jones has put it. The precepts depend upon the three simultaneous approaches I have designated. There is thus an openness that is not found in the patriarchal religions of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam which, both conceptually and functionally, correspond to the definition of Latin religio that is closely associated with obligatio. Shila, contrary to MC Owen’s bizarre claim, does not work as an example of obligatio.
Obligatory barb: M C Owens is now M C Owned.



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Mu

posted August 14, 2009 at 11:09 pm


@dharmakara: Nice reference to Asad. I like his Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam and On Suicide Bombing quite a bit. How would you reconcile Asad’s view of Islam’s terror of spectrality with the notion of the vanishing mediator of ideology that Zizek discusses in The Fragile Absolute–Or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?



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Dharmakara

posted August 14, 2009 at 11:59 pm


Mu: your examination of the precepts is excellent and hits the target. Too often practitioners recognize the written letter of the precpt, but not the spirit in which it was given. Sadly enough, it is just as easy to violate a precept by ignoring that spirit as it would be to toss it out the window all together.
As for Slavoj Zizek, I haven’t had a chance to read it. Do you know if it’s available online?
On the surface, taking into account the title of the work, I would say that there is no legacy worth fighting or dying for if it encourages behavior not reminicent of Ghandi’s Satyagraha movement, where they refuse to inflict injury on others and must be willing to shoulder any sacrifice or suffering of the struggle they have initiated, rather than pushing such sacrifice or suffering onto their opponent, always providing a face-saving “way out” for their opponent.
This is also clearly reflected in the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc, though there are many so-called activists today who seem content on pushing the sacrifice onto their opponent and then resort to apologetics when criticised for such.



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Dharmakara

posted August 15, 2009 at 12:21 am


Mu, have you had a chance to read this critique of Zizek?
The Deadly Jester
http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=097a31f3-c440-4b10-8894-14197d7a6eef



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Sangha Jerk

posted August 15, 2009 at 12:55 am


Wow….Mitsu had McOwens in a submission hold, then Mu came in on the tag off and got the TKO.
Poetry in motion. I love this blog now.



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Oona

posted August 15, 2009 at 1:37 am


This discussion of precepts seems really relevant to the question of secularization vs. religion.
There are certainly guidelines and precepts in secularized teachings of mindfulness like MBSR, but no vows, as far as I know. Vows have power. For me, I feel it when I break the bodhisattva vow. The vows I have taken have nailed the dharma more fully into me. They are obligations. I could break them and I get that the only person who would really be hurt is myself. They are a commitment expressed in the presence of a guru, someone I respect, someone who has an equal commitment to hold me accountable. This relationship with the teacher is superficially dualistic, although I get that it is ultimately not supposed to be. He embodied my superego and my commitment to maintaining those vows strengthened my superego function. All of this seems rather “binding”, rather religious, though not necessarily theistic. If I were to happen upon the dharma in a secularized form, say as a Western student of MBSR, without any interest in Buddhism as religion, I don’t think I would experience as much power in my practice, the binding function. I could leave it at any time. It would not take full root in my being without taking on those vows.
Btw, this discussion has been amazing and incredibly helpful, as a practitioner who has been completely jaded by religiosity for several years. I could easily leave most of the religion of Buddhism out of my practice. What does remain for me, however, are the vows. I do see these as psychological experiences (as opposed to religious, although is there a difference?). They are attempts at grasping a more “holy” view of myself and introjecting it. When I say they are psychological, I suppose I am trying to resolve the problem of a religious notion of theistic duality. The vows came from me, I strengthened some aspiration with them, and thus I am only obligated to myself, not to God.
A really important reference in this discussion is James Fowler’s Stages of Faith http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/fowler.htm
which conceptualizes the stages of one’s relationship to religion (from unquestioning piety to deconstructionism and beyond) in the lens of the development of the self as it differentiates. I.e. unquestioning piety goes along with the psychology of someone who needs to structure their world so that it appears stable and this relates to a general temerity in the coherence of the self.



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Dharmakara

posted August 15, 2009 at 1:46 am


Oona, you might find his beneficial in your practice:
http://engagedbuddhists.ning.com/profiles/blogs/an-affirmation-of-the



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Oona

posted August 15, 2009 at 2:07 am


P.S. In referencing Fowler’s stages of faith, I am not only interested in the relationship of the development of the individual self vis a vis religion, but of our societal, collective self.



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Mu

posted August 15, 2009 at 10:51 am


@Dharmakara: Yes, I have seen that critique of Zizek, and read a couple of others which I basically agree with. I stopped buying his books after about 2002, mainly because I “got him” and I was tiring of the poses. Same for Baudrillard back in the day. The earlier stuff of both of these thinkers is very strong, the latter stuff not so much. Hve you seen the Astra Taylor film Examined Life? The documentary is interviews with thinkers like Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Michael Hardt, Peter Singer, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Zizek. Many, if not most topics they unscriptedly discuss are directly relevant to the concerns of IDP, OC, and Buddhism more generally: compassion, eco-disaster, consumption, and so on.



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M.C. Owens

posted August 15, 2009 at 11:30 am


@ Mitsu (& Mu for supporting your argument)
We seem to just be splitting hairs on what we consider obligatory. But no where in my comments did I make “god-given” a criteria for obligation. In fact, if you read my original post again I even included brushing one’s teeth as potentially obligatory behavior. Nonetheless, we both(three) agree that there are these behaviors (taking precepts, taking refuge, chanting, etc.) in Buddhism, but differ on whether they are obligatory or not. I’m content to shake hands on this issue and leave it to each individual practicing Buddhist to determine whether they feel it’s obligatory to refrain from killing (stealing, intoxication, etc.) in order to become enlightened (reach Nirvana, the Pure Land, or simply in order to be a ‘good’ Buddhist).
Regrading “secular” Buddhism and obligation:
I didn’t respond to your first post on this because I found the argument a bit circular. You seem to be saying “secular” Buddhism is religious, therefore it’s not secular.
The point I was trying to make with my original post, and why I felt it was pertinent to Vince’s original post and Ethan’s request for a definition of religion, was that Buddhism can be considered a religion if religion is defined as a ‘worldview that prescribes obligatory behavior to bring about an extra or supra terrestrial transformation’. I think this is helpful in this context because it allows us to also define “secular” Buddhism as a form of Buddhist practice that either:
1) doesn’t have a worldview (e.g. it’s just a ‘way of life’).
and/or
2) doesn’t prescribe any obligatory behavior (e.g. it’s just about meditation).
and/or
3) is not concerned with bringing about an extra or supra terrestrial transformation (e.g. meditation for stress reduction and happiness).
@ the sangha JERK
A man’s gotta sleep!



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Dharmakara

posted August 15, 2009 at 12:37 pm


Mu: No, didn’t see it, but I heard several of them enjoyed taking shots at Zizek (LOL).



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm


@MC Owens Okay, let’s unpack this a bit. First of all, I’m not claiming that “secular” Buddhism is “religious” — I’m claiming that the distinction you’re trying to make is incoherent (i.e., not clearly defined). What you’re searching for is akin to a “demarcation criterion” a la Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend’s demarcation criterion of science and non-science, and you’re attempting to find one for “religion” or “religious” which distinguishes “secular” and “religious” Buddhism. I am saying your attempt at finding such a demarcation criterion doesn’t work because either you have to take both so-called “secular” and “religious” Buddhism and lump them together, or your definition excludes both of them.
Let’s look at your criteria more carefully.
1) doesn’t have a worldview (e.g. it’s just a ‘way of life’).
There is no such thing as a “lack of worldview”; every statement in any language implies a world view. Language itself would be meaningless without an implied context, an implied world view (although “world view” isn’t quite right, I’d rather say something like “language game” but that’s a fine point that isn’t that important here.) I believe you seem to think there’s a sort of “secular world view” which is the same as saying “no world view” — and there are “religious world views” which add some sort of supernatural gloss to the “no world view” default. But the so-called “secular” world view is first of all not a “lack of world view” — it’s a very specific world view with all sorts of assumptions, etc., and in fact it’s a world view quite peculiar to the West. As I keep saying, you’re attempting to impose a Western dualistic viewpoint on a cultural tradition that really doesn’t think in these terms.
2) doesn’t prescribe any obligatory behavior (e.g. it’s just about meditation).
3) is not concerned with bringing about an extra or supra terrestrial transformation (e.g. meditation for stress reduction and happiness).
We need to take these two criteria together, because according to you, for something to be a “religion” it needs to say that certain obligatory behavior is *required* to bring about the transformation. But the only thing I’d be willing to grant you about Buddhism’s “obligatory” behavior is that they are sets of rules that you need to follow in order to be accorded the status of “a rules-follower”; a kind of tautology. Buddhism explicitly does NOT say (at least in the Mahayana and later, with the exclusion of certain schools such as Nichiren) that you must follow the sect’s specific rules in order to obtain the transformation in question. To say that there are rules you must follow to be a member — you could apply the same criteria to the Kiwanis Club —- lots of groups have membership criteria. The key question, it seems to me, when it comes to your definition, is that the rules are considered to be obligatory *to obtain the transformation* you refer to.
But this is explicitly NOT what Buddhism says (again, with the exception of some sects and teachers).
Finally, the phrase “super terrestrial transformation” may apply to the ordinary soteriological picture of Buddhism but it doesn’t strictly apply to the Mahayana and later schools (for very subtle reasons which I won’t get into here). But there is a sense in which all Buddhist schools have some investment in “enlightenment” whether one calls it a “transformation” or not (in the Mahayana they explicitly say “samsara = nirvana” which is a profound teaching… but again I won’t get into that right now), so I’ll set that aside for now.
If you don’t say the obligatory behavior is required for the transformation (or whatever you want to call it), then, as I said above, your definition then must apply to secular Buddhism as well. I mean, perhaps there are some “secular Buddhists” who don’t think the word “enlightenment” means anything, in which case I’d grant that such “secular Buddhists” aren’t really doing the same thing as other Buddhists — but I don’t see that this is in fact the case for any actual so-called “secular” Buddhists.



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 15, 2009 at 1:58 pm


This discussion reminds me of a famous Zen koan which I think is apropos here:
When the Zen master Bodhidharma came to China, legend has it that he met with the Emperor, who thought of himself a devout Buddhist.
The Emperor asked him: “I have built many temples and fostered Buddhism. What merit have I accumulated by so doing?”
Bodhidharma said, “None whatsoever.”
The Emperor was puzzled, but proceeded to ask, “What is the most holy phenomenon?”
Bodhidharma answered, “In Heaven and on Earth, there is nothing that can be called holy.”
The Emperor, perturbed by this apparently sacreligious answer, demanded, “Who are you who appears before me?”
Bodhidharma replied, “I do not know,” and he left.
Later, the Emperor asked his advisor, “Who was that man?”
The advisor, a more discerning man than the Emperor, replied, “He was a living example of the principle of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.”
The Emperor, now feeling sorry, said, “Call him back!”
The advisor said, “Even if you send all your horses and men after him, he will never come back.”



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Dharmakara

posted August 15, 2009 at 2:37 pm


Mitsu: Maybe if “lack of worldview” was substituted with “lack of sociocentric orientation” it would be more coherent, as there would then be a proper distinction encompassing a lack of obligatory behavior and a concern for supra terrestrial transformation.



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Dharmakara

posted August 15, 2009 at 2:51 pm


For those of you who do not understand what is meant by “sociocentric orientation”, a few excerpts from the book Critical Thinking (Paul and Elder, Prentice Hall 2002) might be helpful:
“Living a human life entails membership in a variety of human groups. This typically includes groups such as nation, culture, profession, religion, family, and peer group. We find ourselves participating in groups before we are aware of ourselves as living beings. We find ourselves in groups in virtually every setting in which we function as persons. What is more, every group to which we belong has some social definition of itself and some usually unspoken “rules” that guide the behavior of all members. Each group to which we belong imposes some level of conformity on us as a condition of acceptance. This includes a set of beliefs, behaviors, and taboos.”
Another excerpt:
All of us, to varying degrees, uncritically accept as right and correct whatever ways of acting and believing are fostered in the social groups to which we belong. This becomes clear to us if we reflect on what happens when, say, an adolescent joins an urban street gang. With that act, adolescents are expected to identify themselves with:
– a name that defines who and what they are
– a way of talking
– a set of friends and enemies
– gang rituals in which they must participate
– expected behaviors involving fellow gang members
– expected behaviors when around the enemies of the gang
– hierarchy of power within the gang
– a way of dressing and speaking
– social requirements to which every gang member must conform
– a set of taboos-forbidden acts that every gang member must studiously avoid under threat of severe punishment



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M.C. Owens

posted August 16, 2009 at 6:21 pm


@Mitsu Further Clarification
1) Worldviews
Yes, I agree. There is no such thing as a lack of a worldview and, as I stated in my initial post, this means a language game, a system of words and symbols someone uses to make sense of the world (and everyone does this). I was sloppy in my writing when I said secular Buddhism doesn’t have a worldview. The way I put it in my initial post was that a secular Buddhist worldview would be one that says, “Buddhism is a philosophy, or a ‘way of life‘, but I don’t know about all this stuff about the form and formless realms, hungry ghosts and devas, or the 32 marks”. In other words, a worldview that uses some, but not all, of the ‘words in the game’ and ultimately tries to conjoin a modified Buddhist worldview with a preexistent, and in many cases dominant, secular, worldview.
Here I think we need to clarify how we’re using the world ‘secular’. I hope I don’t get berated for my reliance upon an Oxford Etymological Dictionary, a Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary, but it seems pretty clear that the word means, “in or of the world.” I consider the rupadhatu, arupadhatu, trayastrimsas, brahmalokas, and buddha-k?etras (to name a few), totally extra or supra terrestrial concepts. The type of Buddhist worldview I’m calling secular is one that presupposes the accuracy and superiority of the modern, western, scientific, geo-centric (i.e. secular), materialistic worldview, and then tries to either conform the traditional Buddhist worldview by psychologizing it, or simply rejects those concepts it finds irrational, archaic, or superstitious.
But a worldview is not enough to make something a religion. As you pointed out, everyone has a worldview. That is why the definition of religion that I have put forth has three criteria, and if something does not posses all three, I would say it is not a religion or religious.
2) Obligation
Obviously we’ve spent a lot of time on this but I feel the need to clarify something in order to avoid combining it with the following criteria (transformation).
There are all kinds of obligatory behavior. As I’ve already noted, something as mundane as brushing one’s teeth could be an obligatory action. I’m thinking here of some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which someone feels overly obliged to brush his teeth every morning and every evening. Now, is this a religion? Well, I would say it depends on whether there’s a worldview involved and a transformation. Maybe the person works for Colgate and the world to him is one giant mouth in which eternal bliss and happiness comes from good dental hygiene, and if he brushes his teeth diligently enough he can reach some kind of purified state of samadhi, unifying him with The Mouth and transcending his physical form. If that were the case, I would call that a religion. And that’s the beauty of the human being, in my opinion, and what makes religion so interesting: The ability we have to sublimate our experience and make it about something more than what it seems to our five senses.
Take another hypothetical example of obligation. Someone works a 9-5 office job. She is obliged to be there at 9:00am every morning, and she’s there every morning. Is that religious? Not necessarily, but let’s ask the question, Why does she do it? Suppose she doesn’t even like her job and doesn’t even agree with the practices and products the company produces. All the more reason to question the obligation she feels to be there. Does she do it for the money? In all likelihood, yes. So what’s going on there? I would say that she’s participating in a very common language-game/worldview, call it Capitalism (perhaps), in which the objects of the world have dollar signs on them, and so do her arms, legs and brain. Her presence at 9:00am guarantees her the objects she needs, and she even defines herself to herself and her friends by the job she does. That’s 2 out of the 3 criteria, but she does not, in any way, believe that fulfilling the obligation to be at work at 9:00 will bring about some kind of extra or supra transformation in her life. And that means her work nor her Capitalism is religious.
Regarding our on-going debate of the role of obligatory behavior in Buddhism:
You seem to have a very rigid view of what is and what is not Buddhism, and continue to dismiss those sects and teachers that don’t match that view, as if they are some kind of anomalous minority when in fact they are the vast majority. I’m thinking here particularly of all Pure Land sects, in which there are very clear prescriptions for obligatory behavior that are necessary in order to gain entrance to the Pure Land. And even we take your ultra-dharmic, non-dual perspective, I would argue that there is still something required of the practitioner in order to win the fruit. At no point have I argued that the prescription is set in stone, or that there is one Path that is true for everyone equally (see my remarks on upaya). But, if you deny any and all obligation than there is no effort (vayama, in the atthangiko maggo system; or virya in the sad paramita system), and I would say no Buddhism.
3) Transformation
I think the phrase “supra or extra terrestrial” is the most helpful for distinguishing the secular from the religious. By looking at anything that is traditionally called a religion: Catholocism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, ‘Hinduism’ (a term I abhor but use for expediency), etc., there is always a focus on the supra or extra terrestrial transformation. A worldview with obligatory behavior, but with an earthly transformation is something like secular humanism, and it’s called secular for that reason.
The goal of original Buddhism is unarguably the escape from samsara (the secular/terrestrial), and the fruit of Nirvana (the supra-terrestrial). Original Buddhism, as defined by the Pali cannon, falls squarely within the tripartite definition I have presented. Mahayana Buddhism, as represented by the vast majority of Pure Land Buddhists, is undeniably focused on an extra-terrestrial transformation, and even if we embrace the Madhyamika dictum that samsara=nirvana, I would argue that that does not bring Nirvana down to the terrestrial, but samsara to the level of supra-terrestrial , and then both gate gate paragate parasamgate
bodhi
svaha!



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M.C. Owens

posted August 16, 2009 at 8:00 pm


@Mitsu
Seeing as how neither the original author of this post nor the person who requested the definition for religion have shown any interest in the topic, I’m going to bow out. I’ll gladly read any response you put up and really appreciate the intellectual vigor.
palms joined
mco



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 16, 2009 at 10:00 pm


@MC Owens Yes, there are all of two of us still reading this comment thread… we can certainly take up the subject again in a later post, perhaps, or via email if you like. I’ll put in a “last word” though I certainly don’t pretend I’m finalizing this discussion by doing so.
Ultimately, the key place where we disagree is with your use of the phrase “supra terrestrial”. This is why I specifically brought up Bodhidharma’s statement regarding “nothing holy” or “no holiness”. The point Bodhidharma is making is that Buddhism is a fundamentally non-dual system of spiritual practice and philosophy. Non-dualism is a centerpiece of Buddhism, which is implied (I believe) even in the early formulations, but *explicitly stated* in the Mahayana (i.e., “samsara = nirvana”. Non-dualism means: there is no such thing as “supra terrestrial” — nirvana is not an escape from the world, it is not some sort of space or place outside the world. It is far, far beyond what we *think* of as the world, but this is a very different idea indeed. The basic assertion of the Mahayana is that what we think the world is is not what it is — the world is vastly larger and more mind-boggling than we think it is, and what we call samsara is by no means separate from it.
You may say that Pure Land is an example of the “majority” view of this, but this is *precisely* the view of the Pure Land sect, taken strictly. That is to say, the whole idea that inspired the Pure Land sect, and certainly the idea that is at the foundation of the Jodo Shinshu version of it in Japan (I am more familiar with this than the original Pure Land in China … Mu may have more familiarity with the history of it in China, as he seems to have read every important text ever written by anyone, anywhere, both East and West…), which is to say the whole point is that one cannot *attain* enlightenment via personal effort, because that would violate the fundamentally non-dual insight of the Mahayana and later schools. Of course, I admit that the average Pure Land layperson doesn’t necessarily understand or appreciate this theoretical basis, but it is important to point out that this is, in fact, the theoretical basis of Pure Land and why the Pure Land sect deemphasizes practice. In fact Pure Land is critical even of the effort undertaken by the Zen sect, even though Zen (particularly Soto) has a very similar theoretical position vis a vis this issue. (My personal view is that some sort of effort is in fact required — but the less “effortful” the effort the better. One way of thinking of it is entering into a posture which is better aligned with the natural function of one’s original mind, but not in a self-oriented way attempting to “attain” a state which one might label “enlightenment.”)
This non-dual insight is admittedly very hard to understand and appreciate, and I also admit the vast majority of lay Buddhists don’t understand it thoroughly and may not even be aware of it except rather dimly. However, it is nevertheless quite important, because it is this theoretical background which sets Buddhism apart from many or most other religions… and why, for example, Buddhist-influenced cultures such as Japan have no “religious-scientific” conflict as exists to some extent in the West. Even if this “high” view isn’t consciously appreciated by the majority of laypersons, it nevertheless has a major impact on the cultures which are influenced by these schools of thought.
Getting back to the non-dual point, however. The fact that the world is inherently non-dual means the so-called “transformation” isn’t really a transformation, but something else (what it is is a subject for another long discussion)… and because the world is non-dual, according to Buddhism, there can’t be any metaphysical duality between so-called “secular” and so-called “religious” Buddhism from a strictly Buddhist standpoint. In other words, there’s no metaphysical basis on which to say that a sect of Buddhism which, for example, denies the literal reality of the Six Realms is somehow fundamentally different from a sect that believes in a literal reality for this same concept. Even more importantly, many Zen masters, lamas, and other teachers *explicitly teach* these realms as mostly metaphors rather than “literal” realms.
What I am basically saying is, again, that your notion that there is a “secular” reality and a “religious, supra-terrestrial” version of reality only has meaning in a Western cultural context in which those terms are defined primarily in Cartesian terms. From a Buddhist perspective a so-called “secular” world view is just another world view, one of many.
In other words, the so-called “secular” Western world view already contains within it all sorts of strange bizarre phenomena — quantum mechanical phenomena, for example, or relativity, and so on. What makes those phenomena somehow “secular” and, say, siddhis “supra-terrestrial”? This division is a Western idea, not a Buddhist one. For a Buddhist, in the original cultural context, both notions are just phenomena, period, all open to investigation and all open to question in precisely the same way.
So if someone were to come up with a “secular” Buddhism that threw out a set of phenomena as unreal, that would itself be perfectly fine — provided that this were not a matter of dogma. I.e., if there were a secular Buddhism that denied the reality of, say, siddhis, as a matter of dogma, that would of course be un-Buddhist, because it would be a matter of irrational belief irrespective of empirical evidence. But I don’t believe even the “secular” Buddhists are advancing this sort of dogma (correct me if I am wrong). And “religious” Buddhists have precisely the same view (with some exceptions) — there’s no phenomena that you are required to believe in per se.
There already is a sect of Buddhism which for the most part strips out most of the traditional metaphysical language in Buddhism, and that is Chan/Zen. Though it doesn’t actively assert things like reincarnation are bogus, it certainly doesn’t emphasize or talk about such things or really use such ideas pedagogically in terms of the practice system. Zen is pretty close already to “four walls and a zafu”, plus a lot of teachings about what it is about, of course. And the Zen attitude towards non-duality is certainly congruent with a rejection of the idea of “supra-terrestrial” transformation as you put it.
There is something beyond the mundane, of course, being alluded to in Buddhism, even in the Mahayana, I hasten to add. But the point is what this is is not a matter of belief or dogma or faith —- it is open to investigation. For this reason it’s perfectly congruent with a “secular” understanding of Buddhism, unless the “secular” notion is to say the world is *exactly as we think it is ordinarily* — which is as I said above a highly unscientific and irrational belief, one which really would be at odds with Buddhist thought and tradition, but I don’t believe it is one which is really being actively advocated by “secular” Buddhists (again: please correct me if I am wrong).



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Mitsu Hadeishi

posted August 16, 2009 at 10:18 pm


@Dharmakara I did want to respond briefly to your comment as well. I think there’s an interesting idea here — does a “religion” have a sort of “sociocentric” mandate, as you put it? Could this be a distinguishing criterion?
I certainly think one could argue this, but the problem with it is that one could say the same thing about, say, democracy as formulated by the Founding Fathers in terms of the Rights of Man in a la Thomas Paine, the social contract, etc. How does one distinguish between this and a “religion”? You have to bring in some sort of Cartesian dualism, I would assert, along the lines of MC Owens’ “supra terrestrial” distinction — but I am saying this is a dualistic notion that is foreign to Buddhism. Even the Theravada sect, which does explicitly have a kind of dualistic separation between samsara and nirvana (which I believe is an error which was corrected by the Mahayana sects), doesn’t claim that the *system of practice which it prescribes* is itself the sole way to attain this transformation — rather it is just one way which they happen to recommend, but it by no means excludes the possibility of others, even other ways which may differ radically.



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Dharmakara

posted August 17, 2009 at 12:55 pm


Mitsu: You’ll get no argument out of me that a system of practice which prescribes itself as the sole way to attain transformation is an error… it would transform the teachings of the Buddha into an “exclusive dharma”, instead of the “inclusive dharma” reflected in the Paramitayana and the Bodhisattva ideal in general.



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There are some ‘Buddhist countries’ in this world: Tibet, Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia among others. These countries have always been historically poor and weak, susceptible to invasion. Despite this fact, Buddhism has survived and is now spreading to the West like bush fire.
Many people don’t know what Buddhism is all about though.
http://www.japanese-buddhism.com/buddhism-and-facts.html
Research it make your own opinion of the subject.



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posted October 27, 2011 at 1:32 pm


Which “magical and mythical pantheon of Buddhist cosmology”?

The decimated Indian one? The Tibetan one? The Siamese one? The Japanese one? The Greco-Bactrian?

How do you decide? Is Pure Land as legitimate as Zen, even though it has mote in common with the Abrahamic faiths then the majority of Buddhist traditions?



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Freddy

posted July 22, 2014 at 2:35 pm


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posted August 4, 2014 at 12:52 am


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posted September 13, 2014 at 11:49 pm


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posted October 8, 2014 at 7:13 am


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posted October 8, 2014 at 8:12 am


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