June 15, 2010

Buddhism for Humanists

secular buddhism,

Over at The New Humanism (TNH), a publication of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, there is a special issue dedicated to Secular Buddhism, featuring, among others—and not surprisingly—Tricycle contributing editor Stephen Batchelor, author of the recently published Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. In "No Future in a Parrot's Egg: Digging into the Humanist Heart of Buddhism" Batchelor writes,

I reject karma and rebirth not only because I find them unintelligible, but because I believe they obscure and distort what the Buddha was trying to say. Rather than offering the balm of consolation, the Buddha encouraged us to peer deep and unflinchingly into the heart of the bewildering and painful experience that life can so often be.

Batchelor goes on to debunk what he considers the spurious argument that it's only a belief in karma that is likely to keep us in line. If anything, he argues, such beliefs only work to diminish our inclination to take on responsibility for our world and the suffering in it.

Other articles include "Meditation in the Lab," by TNH editor Rick Heller; "Drawing Wisdom from the Past: A Humanist Appreciation of Buddhist Sources," by Buddha's Pillow blogger Paul Creedon; "Secular Meditation: Neuroscience and Practice," a TNH video teaching secular meditation; "Black Infidels: Humanism and African-American Social Thought," by writer/scholar Sikivu Hutchinson; and "Freedom from Gods: What Humanists Can Learn from the Soviet Experience," by psychiatrist and university professor Yakov Shapiro.

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Tricycle » The biology of conjuring a mirage's picture

[...] Heller’s is a nice, readable interview that doesn’t bog us down in jargon, so take a look. The interview is a part of a series of interesting articles on scientific research on mindfulness meditation, which I earlier blogged about here. [...]

Monica's picture


Thank you for the good explanation. I can see that. I think your understanding of karma is similar to mine. However, I do not believe it supports rebirth as you do. Or that the mind and body interrelate (or are separate) as Dharmakirti maintains. I have heard this explanation before and question it.

Why can the formless not make form? Why can form not make the formless? E = mc2 Energy and matter are converted into one another every time you turn on the engine in your car. Or is energy not what Dharmakirti refers to as "formless?" But even if so, this is a conclusion that attempts to support itself with no propositions. It's a "sounds good" theory that is essentially unsupportable. I find the notion that the mind is simply the product of the physical brain not at all diminishing or nihilistic. And there is mounting evidence that this is so, though it also is far from proven.

Also, the way karma is manifested in many Buddhist cultures seems to have it's detrimental aspects to me. People who pilgrimage, prostrate, say countless mantras, etc., just to gain good merit like it is a commodity in hopes of a good rebirth - that's just spiritual consumerism. Now, I recognize that it may be patronizing of me to criticize, but I'd rather my sangha dedicated their time, effort, and money to building, say, a school or homeless shelter or hospital than a thousand stupas. But that clergy of many Buddhist groups seem to say there is more merit in building a stupa (which is essentially a mausoleum) than anything else. I just don't believe karma works that way, like a metaphysical scorecard. I believe this is what Batchelor and many new Buddhists object to.


So what if the person who is reborn is not us? If they suffer less in the next life because of our actions in this, is that not reason enough? Now, I don't necessary accept (nor entirely deny) rebirth, but that doesn't seem like a valid reason to reject it.

Thanks, guys, for the great discussion!

jack's picture

Bill, rebirth is only relevant to the individual if it involves the experience of survival of personal identity, which even your tradition does not teach. In this respect Buddhism is plainly disingenuous when it argues that one should have concern for ones future lives, for the obvious reason that these will actually be other peoples' lives.

Shantideva (in Bodycaryavatara 8:98) argues that the relationship between me now and 'my' next rebirth is in all pertinent respects exactly the same as the relationship between me now and contemporary others:

'The notion that I will experience (the suffering of my next life) is mistaken, for the one who has died is born elsewhere and is someone else.'

Bill's picture

Hi Monica,

The four noble truths depend upon karma and rebirth. The first, true sufferings, doesn't just refer to the sufferings of birth, ageing, sickness and death but the fact that these sufferings are the natural consequences of having body and mind that has been created by delusion. A body and mind that is created by delusion are true sufferings in themselves. How things are produced is karma. Anyone who denies karma is denying the law of cause and effect. Without cause and effect, nothing can exist, therefore they are really nihilists.

If there is no karma, there is no effect, therefore there is no suffering. Therefore, without karma, the first noble truth would cease to exist. Without an effect, there is no cause, so the second noble truth would also disappear. Karma is what connects the first and second noble truths - no karma, no connection and these things cannot even exist. Furthermore, with no karma, how would delusions be produced? They are not permanent so they have a dependence on causes and conditions. Without karma they could not be produced and therefore, like suffering, would not exist.

If there are no true sufferings or true origins, true cessation and true paths are pointless, therefore the third and four of the four noble truths would also cease to exist.

In short - no karma, no suffering, no cause of suffering, and therefore there is no path that's needed to end suffering; the four noble truths cease to exist.

Bill's picture

Dear Mark,

If you follow tradition, the true practice of Dharma begins with giving up on the wish for the happiness of this life alone and to work for the happiness of future lives, which are as real as the sun in the sky. This means that Mr Batchelor's version of Dharma is not really Dharma because it's all focused on the happiness of this life. The reason for this is because he cannot see beyond this life, and the reason he cannot see beyond this life is because he doesn't know what the mind is. The reason why he doesn't know what his mind is, is that he has not studied and meditated correctly.

The Buddhist scholar Dharmakirti defines the mind as "that which is clarity and cognizing". By understanding that the mind is a formless continuum, it's possible to realize that form cannot produce that which is formless because cause and effect have the be the same nature. This leads to the conclusion that the cause of mind is mind itself - one moment of mind naturally leads to the next. This means that the mind is not produced by chemical reactions - it's not the brain and will survive death. Understanding of rebirth comes from this explanation. Rebirth is where the formless mind and the physical form come into relationship with each other through karma, and death is when this karma ends, resulting in the separation of the mind and the body. The mind goes to the next life, the body to the crematorium.

It seems to me that you have a narrow definition of what you consider to be evidence. You want it to be 'tangible and empirical' so now we're back to wires and electrical signals, but you can't understand the mind through instruments and signals. Meditation is the tool for investigating and correctly realizing the mind. The teachings of Buddha and his realized followers come from their knowledge and experience of the mind and this knowledge was gained from meditation. Mr Batchelor's denial of karma and rebirth therefore proves the he has not investigated and realized his own mind, and his 'Dharma' is nothing more than a watered down humanism that will not lead to nirvana, the final cessation of suffering.

Monica's picture


How? How and why do the Four Noble Truths vanish if there is no karma and no rebirth in either the physical (every action has a reaction) sense or the metaphysical (in my last life I was a dog) sense?

Surely we can agree that not everyone will agree as to what consitutes a "valid logical reason." I am perhaps a hardcore skeptic, worse than even Descartes as neither do I accept his logical "proof" of God nor am I sure about that "I think, therefore I am" business. If we wanted to go all Descartian, we could even go so far as to say expirimental physical evidence does not constitute proof because the entire nature of our reality could be puppet-mastered.

Here is a question: why do we need proof? Either by logical reason or physical evidence? Why should we view anything at all as irrefutable?

Granted, ignorance and delusion are the foundations upon which suffering is built (supposedly) and wrong views are to be eskewed for this reason. Wrong views may lead to wrong actions which perpetuate suffering. But I see no causational connection between disbelief (or even qualified belief) in the metaphysical constructs of karma and rebirth and the perpetuation of suffering or the "vanishing" of the Four Noble Truths. What connection do you see?

Mark's picture

Bill, the reason karma and rebirth, at least in their traditional dogmatic sense, can't, as you say, "be measured by electrical activity or any kind of machinery", is because they don't and can't exist. Nothing that can carry consciousness or personal identity survives human death (am I wrong? Show me). You seem to believe that religion may propose any explanation whatever, and we are compelled to consider it if it can be buttressed with "valid logical reasons." But the fact that religion has compiled countless volumes of logic (called theology) does not change the fact that there is no tangible, empirical evidence to support metaphysical claims. If there were, they wouldn't be metaphysical claims anymore. It is not the so-called "non-believer" who is compelled to consider claims without evidence, and be branded an "unreasonable skeptic" if he/she refuses to do so. It is the individual making the unsupportable claim who bears the burden of proof. Bachelor is attempting to focus on the unique, demonstrably true teachings of the dharma and set in the background the consoling, wish-fulfilling superstitions that are common to all religions. In so doing, he is simply adapting the dharma to the cultural and intellectual setting of the West, just as the Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asians have done for their own cultures throughout history. The fact that so many have found the Four Truths liberating now, in this lifetime, demonstrates that they are tremendously valuable without recourse to metaphysics.

Bill's picture

Hi Monica,

Thanks for a different perspective. I'm a scientist by eduction and training too. What I mean by 'unreasonable skepticism' is not that we shouldn't be sceptical, but we should be open to be convinced by valid logical reasons. If such reasons are presented and we do not accept them, that's what I mean by 'unreasonable'. To continue to be skeptical in the face of logical evidence is unreasonable. Valid logical reasoning is completely reliable and irrefutable.

There is no physical evidence that is going to prove the existence of karma and rebirth. Such things cannot be measured by electrical activity or any kind of machinery because it's the activity of the mind which is formless, so expecting this kind of evidence and only accepting something if it conforms to a very narrow definition of what evidence is would seem to be unreasonable too.

As far as I can see, there is no difference between what Stephen Batchelor purports to believe and humanism. It's certainly not Buddhism, the core of which is belief in karma and rebirth as the basis for attaining liberation and enlightenment. Buddhism makes no sense when these are removed: as I said, the four noble truths vanish.

Sharmila's picture

ultimately, opinions and views only get in the way. clinging to the doctrine of karma and rebirth will cause suffering, just as clinging to the doctrine of "no karma and no rebirth" will! The Pali canon suggests that until we are able to know things by direct experience, it would be wise to suspend judgement, simply follow the practice and "wait and see".
However to follow Buddhist practice you DO need to minimally accept that there is suffering in this world and that a way to ease this suffering is possible, since this is the foundation of the entire teaching. In fact, according to the Buddha, suffering and the end of suffering is the only thing that he taught.

Monica's picture

Skepticism only means questioning. I don't find any questioning unreasonable. The "dogma of unreasonable skepticism" is a contradiction in terms. Bill, I certainly hope you questioned the teachings on rebirth, karma, and even the Four Noble Truths. That you accepted them all and Batchelor didn't does not make your questioning reasonable and his unreasonable, let alone dogmatic.

I tend to disregard karma and rebirth because they are so often conflated with metaphysical forces that act somehow external to oneself. I don't believe very many people have the understanding of karma as you do, that it exists within our minds and heart, our habituated actions and patterns. I tend to see karma as very Newtonian and rebirth as very Einsteinian. I do not find the metaphysical arguements attached to these words terribly reasonable at all.

Nor have I heard (or read) any of the "countless valid reasonings that prove the existence of karma and rebirth." Granted, I'm sort of out here in the wilderness on my own, but all I have yet to come across are assurances that karma and rebirth DO exist and DO opperate in this manner and ARE necessary for other things to be true, but never any WHY. Besides the fact that as a scientifically minded person I tend to think very little can be "proven" via reason alone. And there is very little expirimental evidence regarding karma and rebirth (though, granted, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence).

Now, I am prepared to give karma and rebirth the benefit of the doubt. Personnaly, I don't think they exist in the manner they have been purported to, but I could be wrong. I assume, as a man who has more or less branded himself a professional skeptic, Mr. Batchelor would also be prepared to admit he could be wrong. (In fact, I think in "Buddhism Without Beliefs" on the subject of rebirth he explicitly states "I do not know.") I would hardly call this dogma.

Brian Parkinson's picture

Karma and the wheel of reincarnation beg the question "why". Why is all of this machinery in place? To get everyone to nirvana? Why?
The misperception of reincarnation of individuals is the problem. We are one entity moving toward perfection, not single souls reincarnated with the baggage of past lives. It is our desire for justice that drives this misperception, to see what we think of as evil punished and good rewarded. They are, but within the individual life. Knowingly doing evil cuts us off from the joy of life and leaves only attachment to power.

Bill's picture

Hi Lynne,

That would be great if Nirvana didn't depend upon developing the wish to be free from uncontrolled rebirth (renunciation), which depends upon believing in it in the first place! Renunciation gives rise to truth paths which then gives rise to true cessations. Without rebirth and karma there AREN'T Four Noble Truths, there are none. No rebirth or karma, no actions, no sufferings, therefore no need for a path or a cessation of non-existent suffering.

The question of rebirth is not like 'is there a God?' or 'is the universe finite or infinite?', it's the very nub of the Buddhist path and I sincerely believe it's not possible to be a Buddhist without subscribing to what the Buddha taught, otherwise, all you are you practicing is your own ideas.

Lynne Jackier's picture

Didn't the Buddha refuse to take up certain metaphysical questions because he felt they were not relevant to his central teaching - the 4 noble truths? I'm thinking of the poisoned arrow story. It seems to me that attachment to a belief in or disbelief of the existence of reincarnation and karma across lifetimes is one of those irrelevant metaphysical questions. To believe or not does not really change the task at hand. And attachment to our own view - which then can result in disparagement of another person's view - seems out of place since none of us really "know" anyway.

Bill's picture


Batchelor's message is not unique to him, it's the dogma of unreasonable skepticism which you can find everywhere these days from Batchelor, to Richard Dawkins and many 'radical atheist' writers. They're not being radical. Any fool can say 'we should believe only what we can see', but implied here is the arrogance that one's way of seeing is without error and that we can see everything that exists. We can see only what we have created the causes and conditions to see. For example, I have never seen Japan because I have never created the causes to do so - developing an interest, having the money, buying a plane ticket and so forth. If I deny the existence of Japan simply because I've never been there, that's foolish. People with different karma live in Japan and can testify to its existence through their own (valid) experience, as can visitors to Japan, so if I deny Japan, I'm wrong.

The same goes for clairvoyance and the perception of worlds and beings that are described in the scriptures - the perception of these different worlds depends on very advanced levels of concentration which very few people possess these days. To deny these things because we do not possess the necessary conditions to perceive them is very foolish.

Gwen's picture

I don't think that Batchelor is wrong. I believe that he has but one opinion and it is unique to him. I can understand his underlying message; that we should take on our own responsibility for ourselves. In my own personal practice, I take many valuable philosophies into account; I don't discount something because it isn't Buddhist and I don't accept something readily because it is Buddhist. It's whatever works for the individual. We're all trying to get to the same place; contentment. However we do it is unique to ourselves, even if we choose to follow a similar path to another.

Bill's picture

More 'Dharma of wrong views' - whatever next, the idea that happiness doesn't really depend on the mind at all?

ho hum

Batchelor's wrong, as usual. Belief in karma doesn't stop you from peering into your own heart and experiences - in fact, when you realize that your own negative minds and actions are the cause of your suffering, you feel a desperate need to go there and fix the cause of suffering once and for all. Does he think that karma exists somewhere OTHER than your own heart? This shows the depths of his confusion. It's because it's OUR world - the one created from our own heart by our own karma that we do need to take responsibility. When we realize this, we realize that karma means that no one else can take responsibility for our world and experiences, only us. Rebirth and karma is not consolation, far from from - it's saying if we don't get control over our mind, our suffering is endless. Presumably Mr Batchelor believes that his will end when his brain dies, so where's the problem?

Either Mr Batchelor didn't listen in class (he had a great Teacher in Geshe Rabten) or he just refused to accept what he was taught. He's preaching a dogma far worse than any he perceives in Buddhism, the dogma of unreasonable skepticism. No doubt he has been presented with countless valid reasonings proving the existence of karma and rebirth but has rejected them all out of ignorance.

Please, please, if you value your future happiness and care about others, don't follow this nonsense. Find a proper Buddhist Teacher and follow what the Buddha actually taught.