Filed in History, Science

What's at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?

An exploration of the background assumptions of the modern age and the unique challenges they present.Linda Heuman

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Vanishing PathsIn the summer of 2010, I sat a Dzogchen retreat at Garrison Institute with my teacher, a well-known Tibetan lama. He gave teachings during the day and then in the evening handed the microphone over to several academic luminaries who were also attending. In the morning and afternoon we received instructions on attaining buddhahood; in the evenings we heard lectures on how Buddhism’s contact with the West was leading to cutting-edge advances in brain-science research, medicine, and psychology.

One hot night—this was July in New York State—a professor was addressing the excited crowd about developments in medicine based on laboratory studies of meditators. Maybe I was strung out on the heat, maybe it was the effect of keeping silence or of sitting over the course of days with an accomplished master, but something hijacked my better judgment, and when question-and-answer time came I raised my hand.

As I asked my question, the buzz in the room came to a sudden stop. For what seemed a very long time, there was dead silence. One hundred pairs of eyes turned toward me and stared. A few people fidgeted. Somebody laughed.

This was my question: “Given the depth of suffering in samsara and the possibility of a solution to it; given that the very texts we study outline a path to that solution; given that we have a realized master right here who is, we believe, capable of leading us on that path to that solution—why would we devote our precious human lives to exploring whether meditation can lower blood pressure?”

At least some of my fellow Buddhists who stared at me across the meditation hall were, I am pretty sure, puzzled at my puzzlement. Perhaps more than a few imagined they were meeting a Buddhist fundamentalist. Others might have considered me just naive, scientifically uneducated, or even rude.

But however clumsy my attempt, I was trying to put my finger on was a very real tension, a discord between what our Tibetan teacher had been saying and what the community seemed to be hearing. It was visible right there in the structure of the retreat, palpable in the response to my question, and familiar—at least to me, and I imagine to others as well—in everyday practice. This tension points to an issue of key significance in the transplantation and adaptation of the dharma to the modern West, to what is an often overlooked and important difference between Buddhism as it has been traditionally practiced and Buddhism as it is practiced in the West today.

The experience of being a modern Western Buddhist is different from the experience of all previous Buddhists in one crucial respect: we are contending with a radically different environment of faith. In discussions about Buddhism’s transmission to the West, most of the discussion about belief has focused on particular beliefs. What has been off our radar for the most part is an appreciation of the very different background of assumptions within which belief itself—both ours and that of traditional Buddhists—is construed.

This difference has been overlooked not because it is unimportant but because it is hard to see. It is operating at a level that is implicit, and therefore hidden. But our failure to acknowledge it threatens to sabotage a rich and meaningful dialogue with Buddhist tradition and in so doing to hinder significantly the fullness of Buddhism’s transmission to the West.

We know this difference by its telltale sign—that familiar tension. It shows up most vividly when we consider big themes: how we understand the central project of Buddhism—the nature of our selves and our problem, and the purpose and possibilities of our practice. For example, for the first time in history, to suggest today in some Buddhist circles that the purpose of Buddhism is exactly what the traditional texts tell us it is—which is to say, that it is concerned with the transcendent—can be to come across sounding like a rube or to meet with condescension.

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Richard Fidler's picture

As a secularist, I do not understand your post. Science is not dualistic: it says there is no such thing as "mind" apart from what the brain does. Mind results from interactions of molecules, neural networks, and the larger subroutines of the whole brain. In some forms of Buddhism, the world is an illusion--it consists of what we call constructs generated by the mind. Science takes the opposite tack: that there is an organized reality that is not simply a set of constructs. In other words the universe is understandable: the Greeks championed that radical idea. The conclusions of science have nothing to do with who makes observations or the culture of the scientist: water is always two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen no matter who does the experiment.

By the way, the word "materialist" is not appropriate in a scientific context since it implies an essence: matter. Science denies such essences--those concepts are dealt with in philosophy. Matter is composed of subatomic particles which obey quantum laws. Matter, on the other hand, points to observable features such as hardness, wetness, shape, color. These features relate to our sensory perception of the world, not to properties of the particles that make it up.

donsalmon7's picture

The vast majority of physicalists (if you prefer that term to materialist – which, I assume you know, has been for more than a century the word used to describe what is now called “physicalism” or “naturalism”) accept the idea of a “hard problem of consciousness.” That is, there is as yet no way to account for lived experience (see Michel Bitbol’s online essay, “Is Consciousness Primary” for more on this). That means, in essence, that as long as most scientists acknowledge they can’t account for the actual fact of experience (however much they may push their faith that it will some day be accounted for in purely physical terms – sometimes called “promissory materialism” – again, that word “materialism” which is still used in 2012 by most scientists) they are in practice, dualists, whatever beliefs they assert or monistic claims they make.

As far as the other terms in your post – if you are speaking of molecules, neural networks, etc as something that exists apart from what Bitbol calls “lived experience” – I have no argument with you – not because I agree but because you are asserting something which is non empirical, unfalsifiable (in Popper’s sense of what is acceptable in scientific research), and literally, unfindable (as soon as you “find” it, or detect it, it becomes part of the context of lived experience – obviously!).

So in terms of the “properties of the particles” as something existing apart from any kind of lived experience (human or non human), virtually everything you point to is an assumption. It may be true but you’ll never have a way to prove it, or even point to its existence:

neural networks
subatomic particles

This is not a Buddhist statement. It’s simply a statement of logic. (By the way, Indians took the world to be understandable at least as far back as the Greeks – some scholars think it was earlier.)

I understand why this is difficult to grasp on first hearing of it. For more details, see my “Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor” and “The Feynman Delusion” at It gives more details on how to see more clearly the extent to which physicalism, like naturalistic secularism, is a faith based system based on constructs abstracted from living experience.

[And by the way, even among Buddhists those who took the world to be "merely" an illusion were a very small minority; even Shankara, whose name is, in India, most closely associated with the idea of the world as an "illusion", also accepted the investigations of empirically based science. But you'll rarely find in Indian, Arabic or even ancient Greek science the extraordinarily abstract notions of the "physical" that have prevailed in the West since the 19th century. There is a direct line from that abstraction to the breakdown of the worldwise financial system and worldwide ecological devastation. Iain McGilchrist (not a Buddhist) has written an eloquent account of this in his "The Master and His Emissary"]

Richard Fidler's picture

Sure, all those things you list are "concepts", but they are concepts of a very different sort than: "self", "mind", "American", "wisdom", "religion", and so on. The concepts I used--like "water"--have definite physical referents that exist apart from the person using the concept. In other words, "water" cannot be defined in any other way than something that is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. "Mind" can be defined in any way the user chooses--it has no physical referent. (Some languages have no such word at all!) It is a construct that speakers from different cultures can use in vastly different ways--making communication difficult. "Water" presents no such difficulties. Science discovers and describes the universe in terms of a language that, in the end, is largely free from debate. Water will always be something made up of hydrogen and oxygen. That is why science is so important--it comes up with a description that avoids the bias of the observer.

donsalmon7's picture

What do you mean by "physical"? My understanding of the way "physical" is usually used is something which will continue to exist outside of any form of lived experience, awareness, subjective context etc.

When you speak of something as having a "physical referent" you aren't using the word "physical" this way. You're simply pointing to a form in awareness which, given most people's mode of consciousness, appears to be shared (what "shared" means is a huge issue with layers of unconscious assumptions too, but that's too complex for the moment).

Do you mean that "Water" as a "physical referent - as you and I expeirence it - is something that exists apart from our awareness of it? If so then you're speaking of something utterly abstract and making an unprovable, unfalsifiable claim.

If you mean "water" as a "physical referent" - simply as the objective pole of experience, then why even use the word "physical" - why not simply speak of the objective pole of experience - which by the way, is I think what Dominic Gomez is saying.

For the sake of completion, I need to add a number of things that I'm not saying:

I'm not saying that physicalism is untrue.(nor am I saying it's true)
I'm not advocating for idealism, non dualism, or any other philosophic position (nor am I criticizing these positions)
I'm not attacking science (in fact, I'm defending it against fiundamentalist, dualist dogma)
I'm not saying the world is an illusion, nor am I saying it's not an illusion.

I'm simply point out the obvious - when the vast majority of materialists (yes they still call themselves that) or physicalists or naturalists or whatever new term is invented when the old one is seen to be nonsensical (I guarantee that secularism, physicalism and naturalism will be seen to be just as nonsensical as materialism and theism by the middle of this century) - when physicalists speak of the "physical" they are referring to an abstraction.

That's all. When that gets clear, then we can have a conversation about whether it is a helpful abstraction in terms of science or a hindrance. Which one, as Bitbol points out, accounts for a wider range of scientific findings?

But we're not there yet.

Richard Fidler's picture

Because science shows that water has a certain structure, it is clear that that structure is not "manufactured" by human brains--if it were then experiments would not point towards a single organization: H2O. In other words there is order out there. You are right--I shouldn't have used the word "physical". It is hard to break old habits. Science is about discovering relationships among components: defining terms rigorously and then seeing how they relate to each other. I do not think the word "physical" is appropriate to use--and you apparently agree.

Would you deny that the universe has structure? That we can understand that structure through the methods of science? What is different about science--different from other modes of thinking--is that science can say a particular conceptualization is wrong. H3O doesn't work. That is why science has made progress over the centuries--progress in the sense that our understandings have brought about advancements in medicine, growing food, transportation, and communications. It avoids the muddiness of questions that can't be answered, choosing only those that can. By pecking away with the little questions, it has shed light on the Big Ones: who we are, where we came from, how our brains work, and so on.

wtompepper's picture

donsalmon: you’re making exactly the same error which Popper makes, and which is why his theory of scientific activity has been generally dismissed. You assume that your “scientific findings” can be positively “accounted for”—that is, that they are not themselves employing abstractions, but are obviously true. For Popper, falsification requires that something be asserted as unfalsifiable—the results of the experiment are assumed to be self-evidently true or else they couldn’t “prove” a hypothesis false. This has, of course, been pointed out many times over the past half-century, and it is hard to imagine a philosopher of science still holding to Popper’s theories, but they continue to have popular appeal and to be assumed as truth in the pseudo-sciences.

And of course it is pointless to argue for (or against) Richard Fidler’s reductive materialist position, since if it were true all our arguments would be mere epiphenomena and getting them right would make no difference at all—we could never even “know” if we were right anyway.

donsalmon7's picture

and just to clarify one more thing - I perhaps didn't state it correctly in the last post - my intention is not to argue for or against Mr. Fiedler's position - only to point out certain assumptions he is making, that seem to me to be assertions of empirical facts.

donsalmon7's picture

Tom and I have had a long discussion over at Glenn Wallis' site, in regard to Tom's review of Alan Wallace's book on Buddhist skeptics...

Hi Tom - Do you mean I'm making an error by calling a reductive materialist position unfalsifiable? It sounds like you're agreeing with me. As far as your statement that I "assume.... "Scientific findings" can be positively "accounted far" - that's exactly the part of the physicalist belief system that I'm contesting. So I don't understand - or at least, don't recognize what I said in your comment. It sounds like we agree. I'm not supporting Popper's assertion; i'm attempting to speak within the physicalist paradigm, not saying I agree with it. I'm doing this in order to have a conversation with physicalists; I've found when you challenge physicalist premises outright, the conversation usually ends there. So I've altered my approach and am attempting to speak - as far as it's possible, which seems to be very limited -within that paradigm.

(a little bit later) thought a bit more about your post, Tom - you're right.. I shouldn't keep using the word "unfalsifiable. I thought that physicalists still believed in it, but if you're correct, it's outdated. Thanks, that was helpful.

wtompepper's picture

Basically, I am agreeing that the reductive materialist position is not falsifiable, but suggesting that the idea the anything is falsifiable in positivist terms is an error, an inherent contradiction. The point is that once you accept the "Popperian" terms of debate, you are forced into contradiction no matter what you say--so rejecting the whole idea of falsifiability as an epistemological instrument is the only way to make progress.

The physicalist may refuse to consider a challenge, but they have to, because to argue for their position is to disprove it--if it mattered whether you "understood" or "believed" their position, then that could only be because it is wrong.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In Buddhism, the notion of "mind" is interchangeable with that of "life". And non-dualism teaches that one's mind/life is observable as such physical referents as one's own body, those of others, and the material environment (both natural and social) of which human beings are integral components of. Mind and body, life and its environment may appear to be two separate phenomena, but at the deepest level they are one and the same thing. Two sides of the same coin.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The middle way foresaw conflict between extreme POV's and clarifies for us that dualism is an illusion. The material and the spiritual are two sides of the same coin, that "coin" being life (reality) itself.

donsalmon7's picture

agreed, which only goes to show that a batchelor or pragmatic buddhist casting aside common sense and clinging to one side of the dualism - the physicalist paradigm - cannot be said to be following anything resembling the middle way. Nice to see someone who agrees with Alan Wallace!

jackelope65's picture

Throughout my life I have loved all types of science and this love has continued to grow with continued study, whilst practicing as a physician. I can remember the day I realized that all that was written was not necessarily true. If science, as we know it, contains just truth, then why do we no longer have laws but theories? Is Quantum physics, despite the efforts of many, just the best guess that seems to work? If strings of " string theory " are correct, then what makes strings? When I chose a Tibetan Kagyu sangha out of the yellow pages, was that just chance, spooky action at a distance, or Karma? The more we discover about science, the more questions are raised. Having grown up unbaptized without any coherent religious beliefs, my starting bias was less. I studied at a Dominican College and a " born again Christian college" and have continued to pursue studies of many religious traditions. To my surprise, the core beliefs of many traditions are very similar and also contain mystical traditions. To me, science is also very mystical with a very strong suggestion of the interconnectedness and impermanence of everything. However, science has come no closer to the disproof/proof of God or rebirth than it has to the theory of everything. When I first joined the sangha, I was surprised by chanting, how, after a extremely hectic and stressful day at work, I was swiftly calmed and prepared for the subsequent meditation. I am sure there is a scientific THEORY to explain that change in mood with associated Functional MRI changes, or could the mystical effects of chanting and meditation result in those brain changes? Where's the PROOF?

Richard Fidler's picture

I must confess I had trouble reading the article upon reading the author's question. She is convinced she has found the Truth in the form of teachings of her Master. All that remains is to put those teachings into practice--and thereby alleviate the suffering of the world. How different from the path taken by Gautama Buddha so many years ago! He sought to find out for himself what the Truth is--and, in the end, the harder he looked the less he found, culminating in his discovery that there was no self, no Atman, no shining rays of the Absolute at his innermost core. Instead he simply explained the existence of suffering, the reasons for it, the way out of it, and the integration of that understanding into everyday life. No Master. No following scriptures. Only a powerful intent to understand how things work.

Why spend so much time seeing if Buddhism lowers blood pressure? Why not? Meditation affects our physiology--that is a good thing to know. In fact, to us secular Buddhists,it is an extremely important insight. Buddhists like the author have no problems accepting reincarnation, the Asian view of karma (the accumulation of merit), tulkus, the bardo, and other untestable doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism, but secular Buddhists do not. We believe the mind is what the brain does: so we treasure practice that can change our brains. The author should respect that point of view, too.

wtompepper's picture


Have you read Donald Lopez's book Science and Buddhism: a guide for the perpelexed? I wonder if it might change your perception of this question--particularly his introduction and last chapter.

The kind of meditation which is studied today as a means of changing physiology cannot be equated with Buddhism, as you do in your second paragraph. (Buddhism lowers blood pressure. . . ) Buddhist meditation, as Lopez makes very clear, has rarely been the "thought-free" kind, and that kind has traditionally been only a brief, initial stage. Most Buddhist meditation has been highly effortful and thought-intensive, requiring visualization, solving conceptual puzzles, or analyzing causes and conditions of phenomena. These are never studied as a means of stress reduction or of changing our physiology.

My point is, what you "reduce" Buddhism too can be found completely outside of Buddhism, and is never found in it. I've never seen anyone claim that any school of Buddhism suggest consciousness arises from the brain, or that morality is explained by evolutionary biology. If this is what your are interested in, the big question is why do you need to apply the label "Buddhism" to your thoroughly modern and Western collection of beliefs? Is it perhaps because the attempts to reduce the mind to the brain, or ethics to evolution, have been such an evident problem for so many thinkers for so long? Perhaps there is a sense that this positivist empiricism is missing something?

Richard Fidler's picture

Coming from experience practicing Zen, I do not recall participation in exercises requiring visualization, solving conceptual puzzles or analysis. The emphasis was on the breath--that giving way to simply being empty. Even koan work--not emphasized among Soto practitioners--had nothing to do with the forms of meditation you describe.
I did not mean to imply one does meditation to alleviate stress and anxiety--though if it does, so much the better. People do meditation for a variety of reasons: to become more peaceful, to deal with anger, to come to terms with loss, to become more skillful at human relations.
With all due respect, I wonder if you don't see Buddhism through the narrow focus of a particular sect. Vipassana and Zen mostly strip away the philosophical speculation, concentrating solely on practice. It does not matter why we practice. We only practice and benefits will come. Those benefits may include physiological changes or not--either way the practice is still Buddhism.

wtompepper's picture

What I am suggesting is a list of different meditation practices from a wide variety of schools. Personally, I am a Shin Buddhist, and we don't put much emphasis on meditation at all (so, for many Westerners, are not really Buddhism, despite being the sect with the greatest number of practitioners in Japan). The kind of Zen you describe is a particular school, not the only school, and certainly not the most common approach to Buddhism throughout the world or historically; I suspect (as many have argued) that it is most popular with Westerners because it does not challenge what they already believe. The idea that "it does not matter why we practice" is certainly not true for the majority of Buddhist schools, now or in the past.

Take a look at Lopez's book, though. Even if you don't agree with it, it will give you a lot to think about! I really don't agree with everything he says, but it did make me change my own thinking about some things.

Richard Fidler's picture

Not sure if a practice endorsed by more schools of Buddhism is necessarily superior to other modes of practice. (You indicate my view is in the minority)

Also, belief is not important to me, but practice is. (Belief is important for Christians--who recite a doxology, if I am not mistaken.) Your statement that Soto Zen is popular in the West because it does not challenge Western belief systems is off base, don't you think? Aside from putting down a major Buddhist perspective, you premise your statement upon your opinion that belief comes first, before practice. That is your opinion--and you are free to express it--but in the end it is only the opinion of one person. Will look at the Lopez book. Cheers.

wtompepper's picture

I would say that the number of school endorsing a practice is absolutely not an indication that it is "superior" in every sense, just that it is more common. I would admit that it is my opinion that understanding must come first, before practice, for the practice to be of any use, and belief necessarily comes first, or one would not be doing the practice in the first place. If I am, as you suggest, the only person to ever hold that position, I would still stick to it. I suspect, though, that I am not alone here.

Dominic Gomez's picture

That's how I started practicing Buddhism. I spoke with knowledgeable practitioners from whom I gained a greater understanding. Based on that understanding the practice made sense. As practice and understanding produced results in my life belief, or faith, grew.
For some people it's the reverse. Belief, faith or trust must come first. Then comes doing the practice and, eventually, understanding.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I'm wondering if there was a decline in people's ability to comprehend Buddhism that prompted the creation of easier ways to practice it. And if the goal is simply to alleviate symptoms of hypertension, then taking captopril has a better track record than meditating.

Richard Fidler's picture

double post. sorry

cmpascale's picture

I join with others on this blog to express my appreciation of this essay. It is an important topic. At the same time, I find the binary logic of the analysis to be quite problematic. Although secular and Western forms of Buddhism are often conflated, clearly not all forms of Western Buddhism are secular and there is great variation both among forms of Western Buddhism as well as among forms of secular Buddhism. The rich diversity among traditions is meaningful. At the same time, so-called Eastern and Western forms of Buddhims may also share much more in common than dualistic thinking allows us to see. We are not simplistic opposites of each other. The horizons of possibility for Buddhism are greater than perhaps at any historical moment. This is the reality. What do productive engagements with the moment look like?

mkwart's picture

I stopped going to my local Zen Buddhist center because one day I flashed on the realization that I was becoming my parents, except with Buddhism replacing Catholicism. The emphasis of practice was on learning rituals, paying the yearly membership dues, working at the center and being a kind person. Sorry--but I want more. I want what the original teachings were about and what led me to become a Buddhist 30 years ago--a way to directly realize truth and align my everyday actions with that realization. This has been an idea anathema to my center and many others. Japanese Zen Master Dogen's thought guides Soto Zen--no goal, the goal is practice, practice is enlightenment. This idea has squashed any emphasis on the wisdom side of the Buddhist equation, relegating all meaningful practice to the compassion side (evidenced by the Dalai Lama: My real religion is kindness). I think the transcendence makes perfectly good sense when using my life and the world as it is today as a benchmark. I think that Buddhist centers are settling for what is more graspable--the idea of living compassion. It is graspable because most of us have spent our young lives as Christians, where the gist of spiritual practice is compassion, following what our priests and ministers say, and materially supporting our church. There was no emphasis on transcendent wisdom. Occasionally there were saints who made the mystical leap or the Desert Fathers, or Thomas Merton, but wisdom as a path was inaccessible to ordinary Christians. That's why I turned toward Buddhism--for the wisdom side of the equation. I now am emphasizing meditation at home and mindfulness and the ordinary acts of everyday life as my koan, relying on my own intuition, reading and talking to others. I also did not like the idea that we Westerners were becoming the repository for maintaining other countries Buddhist cultural trappings. We need to find a truly American Buddhism--one that multi tasks yet has it's eye on the prize. It is anathema to many to even speak that way--but I am tired of pretending the emperor has clothes.

heartjewel's picture

I think this was the point of the article? Seems like you got it to me ~
" When we as Buddhists consider that all our experiences, along with the objects of our experiences—and even subjectivity and objectivity themselves—arise within the context of implicit background assumptions, we recognize what we call “conventional truth.” When we consider that therefore, as a consequence, no worldview can appeal to the objects of its own creation for its own validation—that no worldview rests on solid ground in this sense—we recognize “ultimate truth,” emptiness."

Lawrence Levy's picture

Great piece. Thank you. I would only point out that the barriers to transcendence have always been high. Turning Buddhas into gods or seeing karma and reincarnation as gospel truth can be just as potent enemies of transcendence as the pull of secularism, and many past masters rallied against these dangers. I also believe that, had those same masters had access to what we know today about evolution, the genetic code, the cosmos and the like, they would not have ignored it. Nor would their mastery have been any less.

The beauty of Buddhist ideas is their capacity to take us beyond whatever the conventional limitations of the day happen to be. But taking Buddhist practices as a transcendent methodology calls for two conditions:

- Guides capable of leading us out of the hall of mirrors.
- The courage to follow that path.

Without these, I don't believe any amount of secularism or non-secularism will open the door.

Lawrence Levy
co-founder Juniper | buddhist training for modern life

Ted Meissner's picture

Totally agree, Lawrence, nicely said. We would be well served to remember the context in which the dhamma was formed, and can grow *today*.

Jonathan.s's picture

thanks - great article. This is one of the concerns I have with secular Buddhism. It seems to me that in this framework, useful though it is, it is very easy to depict the 'truly transcendent' as simply 'culturally conditioned'.

Perhaps the problem is that the secular modern attitude doesn't have a way to frame the idea of 'the transcendent'. I have noticed in interacting with people, they have a lot of hang-ups about what they think of as 'spiritual'. They just don't seem to know how to relate to it naturally. Thinking about it, this is one of the things I have learned from Buddhist practice, although it is possible that the seeds of the idea were planted when I went to a church school as a child. But anyway, through meditation, chanting, and (importantly, I think) bowing, I have learned to 'relate to the transcendent' rather than try and assimilate it into my modern worldview. Of course, I still have many elements of that, too, but Buddhism tends to challenge it, from a place somewhere above and beyond it!

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Protestant Reformation addressed a similar dilemma in Christianity. With a more secular understanding it returned spirituality to the people from the grip of an elite class of specialists and intermediaries.

Martinvonelm's picture

To me it seems, that despite being able to partially see the relativity of a secular world view, to see that it is just another construct and set of beliefs....this insight remains rather feeble compared to the daily experience of overwhelming technological evidence that science and secular world view are the most accurate description of the world, or at least the one which counts foremost, if you need to make a living and organize your life.
I find that being in nature makes me much more susceptible to experiences of non duality, while a technological, almost entirely man made city environment makes it immensely more difficult to maintain a clear experience of non duality.
Working as a psychotherapist i do sometimes have sessions which are going so deeply inside the mysteries of life that the world seems enchanted again..... until i enter the car and have to fight my way through aggressive Berlin traffic...
Just today the idea occurred to me that our citys are in themselves monuments and cathedrals of secularism... the whole rule set you need to survive in a big city is antitranscendent and architecture and technology around us confirm and reproduce a secular worldview.
Other worldviews are allowed nowadays, at least in the liberal western countries, but they are supposed to be something private... the individual pet transcendence...the hobby spirituality... practiced otherwise society is ready to call it superstition, sectarianism, fundamentalism... it is required of us that our main view of the world is the commonly agreed upon scientific secularism. This is the very basis of modern society, which is the heir of the movement of "enlightenment" (which is not the same as buddhist enlightenment but the rule and light of reason and the elimination of "superstition").
So how could Buddhism flourish in a society like that without becoming another wellness cult ?
I believe the only answer is: Buddhism will be able to gain respect for its transcendental world view if it can DO something which secularism cant. Any given worldview is in the end not judged by its logical coherency or aestetical philosophy but by the power and magic it makes possible. A view of the world as emptiness does not create great technology, but it can truly heal, individuals, societies, relationsships. To be healed in the end means to be free from the tyranny of egoic thinking habits and the suffering it creates. This is something the egodriven secular world can not accomplish by itsself.
If this can be proven, manifested, offered to society, Buddhism will be able to stand in its own right and also allow Buddhist practitioners to coexist more upright and certain of the benefits of their way.

Ted Meissner's picture

Hi, Linda.  Thank you for writing this, it was a very clarifying examination of the issues Buddhism faces as it encounters our increasingly secular society.  You're right, it's quite a challenge to question how can this happen such that the dharma is not fundamentally broken in the process, and something about which many of us are concerned.

I would like to respond to a few points as one of the secular masses, and as a scientific materialist.  Please understand that the development of a secular Buddhism is not out of any interest in dismantling traditional forms, it is about investigating what Buddhism might evolve into in this new and rich soil.  We are your fellow practitioners, and we're interested in taking the journey together.

"Secular humanists assume themselves to be commitment-free rationalists. But that is a profound misunderstanding. To assume 'this is all there is' is also to make a leap of faith."  I would like to suggest that the secular humanist, and scientific, points of view are less inclined to make assumptions than traditional points of view sometimes have been in the past.  Scientific method encourages questioning and learning, leading us to new discoveries about the natural world.  But the understandings gleaned from observation are provisional, and can certainly change based on new information.  That is part of having an open mind, and us scientific materialists are happy to be shown where there are errors of interpretation of what we see and experience.  The only thing we ask is that you show us, clearly and unambiguously, why the spiritual explanation is correct and the materialist one is incorrect.

"To be unaware that reality has moral and spiritual dimensions has always meant, as our texts tell us, that one is out of touch with how things are. To ignore reality’s moral and spiritual imperatives has a consequence — continued suffering."

Secular Buddhists also aspire to kindness, to compassion, to ethical behavior.  We don't need either specifically Christian, Islamic, or Buddhist ideological doctrine to create that aspiration.  As human beings, we share in that commitment to mutual support.  We certainly find that life has dimensions that are personally uplifting, transformative, and of value well beyond our internal experience, that provide a wonderful impetus for social change.  We have no need of any supernatural justification for ethical behavior, and don't need to cast it in the language of spirituality.

"Much of the meaning of a religion is conveyed in its symbols, rituals, and myths."

We all have stories that inform how we live, whether they're children's stories, epic myths, or even our conversations about our work day.  We can learn from them and find them of value, without having to necessarily accept all of them as accurate descriptions of the natural world.  Taken in this way, the suttas from the Pali canon are wonderfully educational, inspiring, and beneficial without us having to believe that Brahma physically appeared to encourage the Buddha to teach what he had found -- we can also view this as metaphor for understanding that not only is this a difficult path, but critically important on the highest levels of our interactions with others, for one (but certainly not the only!) example.

"From the point of view of instrumental reason, ritual seems like purposeless action."

It is a common view that secular Buddhists do not engage with any kind of ritual, but this would not be correct.  Many of us bow, or light incense, or chant.  We can find these practices to be helpful reminders to us, they can help us set the tone of our meditation, and exercise respect to our fellow practitioners and teachers.  We may not, however, find that believing our incense is pleasing to devas as a dependent necessity to the process of insight.

"Again, from the perspective of reason, myths are just bad theories or wrong propositions. But narratives can deeply shape our understanding—both intellectual and intuitive. They are deeply interwoven in our identities and can pull strings on our motivations—ask any psychotherapist, politician, or advertiser. Or ask yourself: Why do you practice Buddhism? Your answer will be a story."

Agreed, our stories are part of our lives.  That doesn't mean we have to uncritically accept them as accurate, especially when we can quite easily see that not only are stories often incorrect, but that our own experiences are as imperfect as we are.  We can still learn from them, we can still find inspiration from them, without having to true them up with reality.  It's not about the value of the narrative in a vacuum, it's about what it means to us personally and as social beings, and what we can learn from it to positively contribute to our practice.

We are, at our core, people who want to see the dharma flourish within our own cultural context.  Secularism is certainly part of that, and what will move us forward in this growing of Buddhism is companionable examination about what that means and the shape it can take to be of benefit to everyone -- not just Buddhists.

celticpassage's picture

"Please understand that the development of a secular Buddhism is not out of any interest in dismantling traditional forms"
Is that right. You seem to be quite blind even to your own thought process as indicated by your post.

"I would like to suggest that the secular humanist, and scientific, points of view are less inclined to make assumptions than traditional points of view sometimes have been in the past."
I'm sure you would. However, "humanists" are just as likely to make as many assumptions as any religious person does, and the followers of "humanism" can be just as dogmatic as any fundamentalist cult.

"us scientific materialists are happy to be shown where there are errors of interpretation"...that's funny.

Secular Buddhism is simply an oxymoron, you just don't realize it.

PeterG's picture

Yes. I also see the phrase 'secular Buddhism;as an oxymoron'. It seems to me that either we follow in the footsteps of the Buddha or we are not doing Buddhism but dabbling in mind-states and breaking the trade description act. But maybe I'm missing something. .

Mike Nielsen's picture

I am going to walk into a college classroom in just two hours and begin teaching a course called "The Nature of Reality." So much of what you write about here, Linda, resonates with my own struggle to balance the syllabus for the students so that they develop an appreciation for BOTH their ability to explore the universe in which they live via science and their ability to appreciate the complexity of the human experience of symbols, meaning, and values. I appreciate your insights. Thanks.

veronika.mathe's picture

Thank you for the thought provoking article, Linda.

Maybe the tension you write about exists on another level as well, created by the fact that practically all Buddhist texts (teachings, initiations etc.) are available for everyone, not only for the monastics who devote their whole lives to Enlightenment. I guess I have a very hinayanist view on this, but I do think that certain texts and practices were originally meant for the 'professionals' of Buddhism, the monastics, and lay people had totally different aims (better circumstances in this and following lives). So I could easily draw a parralel between 21st century lay Buddhists aiming for lower blood pressure and the traditional Buddhist views and practices by non-monastics. And then I see the tension between leading a lay life and aiming for monastic goals, i.e. Enlightenment (which can also be due to not believing in rebirth).

Dominic Gomez's picture

Mahayana was the movement early in Buddhism's development that addressed ivory towerism. A "greater vessel" capable of bringing all people to the shore of enlightenment rather than a "me only" affair.

lindy.warrell's picture

What a wonderful article. Thank you. I am a (retired) anthropologist and have been arguing in a similar vein to anyone who will listen against the whole idea of a 'secular Buddhism' which makes no sense to me. What is happening seems to me to be a democratisation of Buddhism in that anybody can now set themselves up as a teacher and so on. But, to say that Buddhism is not a religion misses the salvific point. There is a soteriology and that, in the end, is what defines a religion.

djlewis's picture


Read Alan Wallace -- his recent "Confessions of a Buddhist Skeptic", if nothing else.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Dualism contributes to Western misunderstanding of the Law. Science has its niche in society, as do economics, politics, the arts, culture and most especially religion. Granted such fragmenting of human activities makes for a clearer picture, but when people are unable (or unwilling) to utilize all these disciplines to create value for society as a whole (as non-dualism teaches), then each becomes a "fifth wheel". It looks OK standing alone but is basically unnecessary (or under-utilized) when dealing with "the bigger picture", i.e. life (samsara).

Richard Fidler's picture

Those of us who are secularists would not list science with the arts, economics, politics, and religion. Science says there IS order in the world and that that order is not simply a construct. Water is made of two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen--and that is not simply a viewpoint--it is a proven fact. For that reason you cannot accept science as another "facet" of human existence. It deserves a place of greater respect.

The assertion that we would have no morality without religion is simply untrue. Many cultures embracing many religions have generated moral codes: all of them reject theft, rape, and murder and treasure sacrifice for the common good. Beyond that there are various takes on marriage, divorce, use of language, and so on. All of which implies that evolutionary biology has implanted in us certain moral principles--the important ones. Religion cannot take credit for something it has not created.

celticpassage's picture

"...would not list science with the arts, economics, politics, and religion."
Then clearly you don't really understand what science is.

"Science says there IS order in the world and that that order is not simply a construct."
Science says nothing of the kind, it simply ASSUMES there is.

" It deserves a place of greater respect"
I always find it quite funny that 'secularists' keep insisting that 'science' deserves respect. What secularists really mean is that they desperately want people to respect them and can't believe it when people prefer to get their wisdom from art, literature, religion, and philosophy...much better sources in my opinion, since science contains no wisdom.

"The assertion that we would have no morality without religion is simply untrue." and your following statements and conclusions about it appears to be of the canned variety. It seems to me, your responses betray an unthinking acceptance of the typical types of stories that are circulated among 'secularists'. Perhaps your source is Skeptic magazine?

Richard Fidler's picture

Odd that I don't understand what science is when I have been teaching it for thirty years. Science says there is verifiable order in the world. It is not simply another point of view. Its methods are open to all (unlike some religions). Science is based upon evidence, evidence that rules out certain hypotheses and supports others. The only thing science assumes is that the universe can be understood, that it has order, that the methods of science shed light on how it works.

Science contains no wisdom? You mean evolution has nothing to say to humankind when it shows that all life is related? That the universe is ancient and immense and that humans are not at the center (as most religions insist)? That ecology demonstrates that living and nonliving systems interact and depend utterly upon each other? That the living world is far more diverse than ordinary humans ever expect? No wisdom? You do not know science at all, do you?

And you construct an ad hominem argument, saying secularists only personally want to get respect from other people, an essentially selfish view? I don't care if you respect me or not--you obviously don't--but I would like to have you understand my way of thinking. Isn't that the point of this discussion?

heartjewel's picture

If it isn't it should be. I think the key point of the article may be getting lost: to be willing to subject our background assumptions to continual analysis. This would require, I think, that even 'facts' be subjected to the same process. If not then as you say the world would still be flat and static as the center of the universe.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Science seems to have been burdened with a superiority complex since day one, hasn't it! Equality with life's other facets is not disrespectful. It is realistic. I do not assert that we would have no morality without religion. In fact, the amorality (not immorality) of science is what gives it a bad name, in view of the other disciplines.

Richard Fidler's picture

double post

Franzwsm's picture

Thank you Linda for such a thoughtful and thought provoking essay. This in the same issue as Stephen Batchelor's make for terrific reading and discussion.
Following Tom's comments, I wonder if the binary between pre and post modern is quite as rigid as presented here, esp assumptions about the privacy of individualised Spiritual life. As you observe Linda struggling with the meanings and effects of background context has also been part of our note, contemporary world.

celticpassage's picture

I always find it amazing that many (most?) people think that if something is real or true that it must have the blessing of 'science' behind it, and of course the corollary that if 'science' doesn't give it's blessing then it can't be true. It seems to me that 'science' is a widespread modern delusion, as is it's protector, the fear of appearing foolish if one questions or disavows 'science' as the only source of truth. Of course, the protector, fear of appearing foolish and it's consequent, fear of rejection primarily through ridicule is a powerful one and has been busy since the very distant past.

eternallyperplexed's picture

Well said, celticpassage. I don't know the author of this quote that I wrote down a long time ago in the middle of my 'scientific' training: "If human beings are composed of matter,body,mind,soul and spirit, then science deals handsomely with matter and body,poorly with mind, and not at all with soul and spirit" (although I am not too sure it deals all that handsomely with body).

celticpassage's picture

Thank you EP.
Nice quote, although as you suggest, science has found matter not quite as simple or unmysterious as perhaps when the content of that quote was spoken.

Sareen's picture

Perhaps the role of science in the context of buddhist practice, as Jack Kornfield said at the end of a retreat about one year ago, is simply to apply the scientific method and confirm what we already know from our own experience. When you practice for a while, you simply know that practice works.

Is there a benefit to society for scientists to get involved? I suspect there may be side benefits, similar to the material benefits that come from the study of theoretical physics.

There are all sorts of traps to get into and over time, when we follow the instructions, do the practice, the traps show their illusory nature. The same will evolve with the application of the scientific method. It's no replacement for following the instructions and doing the practice.

Our society has given power to science. We generally look to science to explain reality. So when scientists are introduced to buddhism, they naturally bring their tools with them. As long as we realize that they are using a method to explain reality and that the conclusions are only as accurate as the experiment which is designed to test reality, then I think we are okay. When science comes to realize that the experiment in the case of buddhism has to be personal and that it requires following the instructions and engaging in many many hours of practice, they will come around to what Jack Kornfield said, you know that practice works by doing the practice.