Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Exploring modern Theravāda interpretations of the Buddha's teaching.
Ripser
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Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Ripser » Fri Jul 14, 2017 4:17 pm

This is my first post here, but I've been reading yours for some time. So first of all thank you for your enlightening discussions :)

As you all know very well, in the West Buddhism has been labeled once and again as a pessimistic worldview. Of course it's just too vast and complex a doctrine to be confined to the limits of such a concrete philosophical standpoint, but I can understand why it might seem so if you strip its "philosophy" and place it amongst the main trends of Western secular cosmology and anthropology. Most of these share the prevalent conviction that we have only one life to live (there being no conclusive scientific proof of rebirth or karma) and that we’re nothing more than grown-up apes with little or no possibility to transcend our base animal nature. Within this one-life horizon, the goal to stop any future birth or the doctrine of suffering as something inherent to our human condition can be seen as a wet blanket with little to offer, since the existence of supramundane states and attainments is out of question.

No wonder "secular" Buddhism has softened the potentially "gloomy" side of the teachings, as well as the emphasis on monasticism and on the determination and zeal required to attain higher states of consciousness, a heavenly rebirth or, of course, Nirvana. As Bhikkhu Bodhi pointed out somewhere, this gradual adaptation seems to reduce Buddhism to some ancient form of psychological -or stress- therapy. We can see some results in the so-called Mindfulness movement, helpful as it may be for thousands of people who wouldn’t approach meditation otherwise.

That said, my question is the following: Do you believe there can be some sort of reconciliation between traditional Buddhism and the scientific-evolutionary-rationalistic mindset which doesn’t harm the former? Will Buddhism “without mythology”, in your view, ever be able to constitute a solid worldview on its own? Or does it need to be constantly supplemented by the Western modern worldview, losing perhaps too much (if not everything worthwhile) in the process?

As for me, the more I learn about Buddhism, the more it seems to me that it only makes full sense within the traditional set of beliefs of Asian Buddhism, which includes karma and rebirth, but also the existence of other worlds, gods or spirits, magic or miracles. With which I don't see anything wrong, by the way.

I guess it’s a difficult one, and perhaps there are one or several posts about this particular topic, but I failed to find them. My apologies for both.

With metta,
Oscar
Last edited by Ripser on Fri Jul 14, 2017 6:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Pseudobabble
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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Pseudobabble » Fri Jul 14, 2017 5:37 pm

The way I see it, a truly honest appraisal of the world entails admitting that we can only be sure of two things: our own experience, and logical tautologies. Our own experience can be inaccurate, as with optical illusions, but even then, we experienced the illusion. The person who 'knows' that physics accurately explains our world, is actually relying on testimony and authority (books and scientists), unless they themselves are a physicist who has validated the calculations - and they'd have to be quite the physicist to truly have validated with their own calculations all the different parts of the domain. And even then there are further problems.

This means that rebirth, hell realms, etc are within the bounds of possibility, as long as we are strictly honest with ourselves about the true extent of our knowledge.

You'll also be familiar with the fact that it is impossible to prove that something does not exist. We can say certain things have a very low probability of existing, but this introduces a reliance on assumptions, what we already know, and how our framework of knowledge is configured.

On the other hand, our scientific understanding works. You use, with some variation, the same equations which describe how bird's wings work, to put aeroplanes in the sky. And the same is true for fish buoyancy bladders, and submarine diving tanks. Etc.

So we know that whatever is possible, must be describable in the same terms which describe things whose workings we understand.

Luckily that still leaves us with considerable wiggle room, especially when you start bringing cyclical patterns and systematic phenomena into account. Let me ask you: what is a wave? An ordinary wave in the sea. Is it water molecules, or a pattern of movement, both? Is a pattern a 'real' thing?

These questions don't have clear answers, because our method of delineating 'things' relies on categorisation, but reality is not actually very friendly towards our efforts to categorise it, and only cooperates to a limited extent. Basically our definitions fail to capture, exactly and completely, the difference between 'different things'. Which is why scientists like numbers so much.

But even with numbers, things can be murky: this stone is 3 inches long, measured with a 12 inch ruler. Or is this ruler 4 'this long' stones long? Hmmm.

Anyway, to avoid going seriously off topic - yes, conventionally understood, Buddhism makes sense best within the traditional beliefs of Asia. But the secular, scientific view of the world is not nearly so hardened against uncertainty as most people think, and, if individuals are brutally honest about what they do, and can, know with certainty, there's plenty of space for possible, if probabilistically unlikely (within our current understanding) things.

In any case, Buddhism is about how to GTFO, rather than anything else. See Vacchagotta.
"Does Master Gotama have any position at all?"

"A 'position,' Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: 'Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception...such are fabrications...such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.'" - Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta


'Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.' - Genesis 3:19

binocular
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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by binocular » Fri Jul 14, 2017 6:17 pm

Ripser wrote:Do you believe there can be some sort of reconciliation between traditional Buddhism and the scientific-evolutionary-rationalistic mindset which doesn’t harm the former?
No.
Will Buddhism “without mythology”, in your view, ever be able to constitute a solid worldview on its own?
No.
Or does it need to be constantly supplemented by the Western modern worldview, losing perhaps too much (if not everything worthwhile) in the process?
Yes.

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Lazy_eye » Sat Jul 15, 2017 4:43 am

Do you believe there can be some sort of reconciliation between traditional Buddhism and the scientific-evolutionary-rationalistic mindset which doesn’t harm the former?
A question I find myself asking is this: suppose the "scientific-evolutionary-rational" view is correct. Is there then a reason to take up a path of seclusion and renunciation with nibbana as the end goal? What makes that path valid/worthwhile? Or would some other path make better sense?

I don't have an answer to put forward. But I do have one small observation: samvega, defined as a deep sense of dismay at the pointlessness of sentient existence, is said to be the driving impulse behind embracing the Dhamma. Samvega according to Buddhism arises because of eight factors. Three of these eight are connected to rebirth, but the other five aren't -- one, indeed, has to do with competition for resources, thus providing a link to evolutionary biology. That suggests that samvega would still be a problem even if science were to prove tomorrow that there is only this one life.

Another point to consider: there is major overlap/commonality between Buddhism and science when it comes to anatta -- indeed, this is probably one of the reasons for the modern Western interest in Buddhism. And anatta is arguably the distinctive Buddhist teaching.
Will Buddhism “without mythology”?
I'd say it depends on what you mean. Do you mean gods, spirits, miracles, and magic? Many woud agree, I think, that these are peripheral to the Dhamma. The suttas mention various supernatural powers but they are also clear that obtaining these has little if any relevance to the goals of practice -- i.e., if you're becoming a Buddhist specifically in order to gain these powers, you're doing it wrong.

If you mean kamma and rebirth, there's this. All 305 pages of it!

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by binocular » Sat Jul 15, 2017 5:45 am

Lazy_eye wrote:A question I find myself asking is this: suppose the "scientific-evolutionary-rational" view is correct. Is there then a reason to take up a path of seclusion and renunciation with nibbana as the end goal?
Absolutely not.
Or would some other path make better sense?
Social Darwinism.
I don't have an answer to put forward. But I do have one small observation: samvega, defined as a deep sense of dismay at the pointlessness of sentient existence, is said to be the driving impulse behind embracing the Dhamma. Samvega according to Buddhism arises because of eight factors. Three of these eight are connected to rebirth, but the other five aren't -- one, indeed, has to do with competition for resources, thus providing a link to evolutionary biology. That suggests that samvega would still be a problem even if science were to prove tomorrow that there is only this one life.
An implication of the theory of the struggle for survival is that one ought to embrace this struggle and maximize one's chances to win against the competition.
Traditional Buddhism would have us check out of the competition altogether.
Another point to consider: there is major overlap/commonality between Buddhism and science when it comes to anatta -- indeed, this is probably one of the reasons for the modern Western interest in Buddhism. And anatta is arguably the distinctive Buddhist teaching.
If Western science would in fact acknowledge anatta in any meaningful way, then Western science's whole reason to live would fall apart. If "someone is there" only provisionally, then the whole competition, the whole evolutionary struggle for survival is merely an absurdist game that even the most cynical couldn't play.

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by chownah » Sat Jul 15, 2017 7:14 am

binocular wrote: If Western science would in fact acknowledge anatta in any meaningful way, then Western science's whole reason to live would fall apart. If "someone is there" only provisionally, then the whole competition, the whole evolutionary struggle for survival is merely an absurdist game that even the most cynical couldn't play.
There are a few neurological studies which lean towards showing that our sense of indentity is a by-product of neural associations and not the driver in the wheel.

I guess these must not constitute meaningful acknowledgement.
chownah

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Ripser » Sat Jul 15, 2017 10:18 am

If Western science would in fact acknowledge anatta in any meaningful way, then Western science's whole reason to live would fall apart. If "someone is there" only provisionally, then the whole competition, the whole evolutionary struggle for survival is merely an absurdist game that even the most cynical couldn't play.
If you look at the endless struggle for survival without adding unwarranted individualism to it (such as in social Darwinism), or any other value for that matter, since science itself is unable to grant any moral grounds, then no doubt it's an "absurdist game", a pointless cycle of violence, precariousness and death, where millions suffer and die for the sake of millions who will suffer and die. Sentient existence as bait to be preyed upon by sentient existence. An even more crude take on life, I would say, than that of most of Buddhism. Good or bad I can' tell, but definitely pointless as per any human standard. And enough, perhaps, to develop a strong feeling of saṃvega or revulsion towards the whole thing.

But why wouldn't the answer be cynicism or some sort of annihilation-belief (uccheda-ditthi)? Not that the belief in karma is completely necessary to avoid those, as they melt down when non-self is properly understood, but that's not always for the many. Compassion also helps, and that's perhaps the reason why Mahayana is so popular nowadays: it offers the perspective of carrying on compassionately amidst the suffering of the world. It avoids nihilism in a culture prone to it, and it fits with the Western ideal -some would say 'delusion'- that life and the world can and must be changed, even if Darwinism doesn't particularly support that view.

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by SarathW » Sat Jul 15, 2017 10:36 am

My apologies for both.
No need for apologies.
Your question is quite valid and Buddha already knew this.
Hence you should take a safe bet.


http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
“As the lamp consumes oil, the path realises Nibbana”

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Dinsdale » Sat Jul 15, 2017 12:24 pm

Ripser wrote:Will Buddhism “without mythology”, in your view, ever be able to constitute a solid worldview on its own?
From what I know about Secular Buddhism, I think it already has. Effectively a new school has emerged as Buddhism has adapted to modern western culture. But this is nothing new, Buddha-Dharma has been adapting to different cultures continuously over the last 2,500 years, hence the great diversity and plurality we see now.

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by binocular » Sat Jul 15, 2017 2:39 pm

chownah wrote:
binocular wrote: If Western science would in fact acknowledge anatta in any meaningful way, then Western science's whole reason to live would fall apart. If "someone is there" only provisionally, then the whole competition, the whole evolutionary struggle for survival is merely an absurdist game that even the most cynical couldn't play.
There are a few neurological studies which lean towards showing that our sense of indentity is a by-product of neural associations and not the driver in the wheel.

I guess these must not constitute meaningful acknowledgement.
Then I'd really like to see you provide a justification for continuing the struggle for survival -- when there's really noone there.
Why do scientists work to provide people with a good education, work qualifications, improve their health, quit drugs, and such -- when there's noone really there?
Answer me that.

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by binocular » Sat Jul 15, 2017 2:41 pm

Spiny Norman wrote:
Ripser wrote:Will Buddhism “without mythology”, in your view, ever be able to constitute a solid worldview on its own?
From what I know about Secular Buddhism, I think it already has. Effectively a new school has emerged as Buddhism has adapted to modern western culture. But this is nothing new, Buddha-Dharma has been adapting to different cultures continuously over the last 2,500 years, hence the great diversity and plurality we see now.
Secular Buddhism is a solid worldview on its own, sure. But does lead people to the end of suffering?

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Ripser » Sat Jul 15, 2017 3:05 pm

binocular wrote:
Spiny Norman wrote:
Ripser wrote:Will Buddhism “without mythology”, in your view, ever be able to constitute a solid worldview on its own?
From what I know about Secular Buddhism, I think it already has. Effectively a new school has emerged as Buddhism has adapted to modern western culture. But this is nothing new, Buddha-Dharma has been adapting to different cultures continuously over the last 2,500 years, hence the great diversity and plurality we see now.
Secular Buddhism is a solid worldview on its own, sure. But does lead people to the end of suffering?
I should say that with "on its own" I meant not being just a part of the modern Western worldview, that is, a modern, rationalistic, secular, humanistic, skeptical-leaning ideology or way of life among others not too dissimilar. Even though we can keep on arguing forever how much traditional Buddhism is indebted to the worldview of ancient India, it certainly is a worldview "on its own" in the global cultural landscape today (or a number of them with some very defined shared features).

So with " some sort of reconciliation" I guess I meant something in between. Not fully Western and "secular", not fully magical, allergic to science and so forth. If you want to share who's doing or practicing that, it could be fine. I happen to be more interested in what you believe than in the alleged existence of a real "reconciliation" out there.

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by aflatun » Sat Jul 15, 2017 3:41 pm

Pseudobabble wrote: In any case, Buddhism is about how to GTFO, rather than anything else. See Vacchagotta.
:rofl:

:goodpost:
"People often get too quick to say 'there's no self. There's no self...no self...no self.' There is self, there is focal point, its not yours. That's what not self is."

Ninoslav Ñāṇamoli
Senses and the Thought-1, 42:53

"Those who create constructs about the Buddha,
Who is beyond construction and without exhaustion,
Are thereby damaged by their constructs;
They fail to see the Thus-Gone.

That which is the nature of the Thus-Gone
Is also the nature of this world.
There is no nature of the Thus-Gone.
There is no nature of the world."

Nagarjuna
MMK XXII.15-16

binocular
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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by binocular » Sat Jul 15, 2017 4:43 pm

Ripser wrote:So with " some sort of reconciliation" I guess I meant something in between. Not fully Western and "secular", not fully magical, allergic to science and so forth. If you want to share who's doing or practicing that, it could be fine. I happen to be more interested in what you believe than in the alleged existence of a real "reconciliation" out there.
Postmodernism (ha ha*) can be said to be a "solid view of its own" as well. Even Justin Bieber fans have a solid worldview of their own ...
But my question was --
Secular Buddhism is a solid worldview on its own, sure. But does it lead people to the end of suffering?

(*Postmodernism is kind of the standard dead horse to beat; nevertheless, my point stands).

You asked:
Will Buddhism “without mythology”, in your view, ever be able to constitute a solid worldview on its own?
Or does it need to be constantly supplemented by the Western modern worldview, losing perhaps too much (if not everything worthwhile) in the process?
I think that Buddhism, in the process of secularization, loses too much.
Look at what some secular Buddhists say: they don't even believe that the complete cessation of suffering is possible; or they don't care whether they attain nibbana or not.

At least a consideration of rebirth, if not belief in rebirth, matters, because as soon as we take for granted that this one lifetime is all there is, that cuts off nibbana as a realistic possibility.
/.../
Writers who reject the idea that the Buddha is talking about the rebirth of a person in these two noble truths tend to argue in one of two ways: Either that the references to birth don't imply rebirth; or that they refer to rebirth on the micro level of momentary mind-states, and not on the macro level of beings or persons over time. Neither interpretation, however, does full justice to what the Buddha had to say.

Writers in the first group have made much of the fact that the Buddha used the word "birth" rather than "rebirth" in the first noble truth, concluding that rebirth is not necessarily meant here. This conclusion, though, ignores the relationship of the first truth to the others. All the forms of suffering listed in the first truth are caused by the second truth, and brought to an end by the fourth. If birth were a one-shot affair, there would be — for a person already born — no point in looking for the causes of the suffering of birth, and no way that the fourth truth could put an end to them.
/.../
Had the Buddha assumed that birth were a one-time affair, he wouldn't have explored its causes through becoming, clinging, and on down to name-&-form. He would have stopped his analysis of the causes of suffering at the realization: 'Aging & death exist when birth exists. From birth as a requisite condition comes aging & death.' He thus would have limited his analysis of the origination of suffering to what happens after birth. Only because he saw that birth was a repeated process did he probe into the causes of birth and trace them through the factors that he later taught in his description of dependent co-arising.

In other words, if the Buddha hadn't assumed rebirth, he never would have discovered or taught the central tenets of his teaching: the four noble truths and dependent co-arising. His analysis of suffering and its causes would have been much more limited in scope. And as we will see, the Buddha discovered that the processes leading to suffering are self-sustaining, meaning that unless they are deliberately starved they will continue repeating indefinitely. In this way, not only birth, but also every factor in dependent co-arising is prefixed with an implicit "re-", from re-ignorance to re-death.
/.../
In principle, the path to the end of suffering can be completed in one lifetime. The Canon contains many stories of people who gained full awakening after hearing only one of the Buddha's discourses, and MN 10, among other discourses, states that in some cases even just seven days' determined practice can be enough to complete the path. But that's in principle. Each person's awakening, though, is a specific case, and the Buddha knew that, for most of his listeners, the path would be a multi-lifetime affair. And it's hard not to imagine that many of his listeners — just like many people today — looked at the entanglements of their lives and realized that they would never have enough free time in this lifetime to devote fully to the practice.
/.../

The Truth of Rebirth And Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Lazy_eye » Sat Jul 15, 2017 5:00 pm

binocular wrote: An implication of the theory of the struggle for survival is that one ought to embrace this struggle and maximize one's chances to win against the competition.
I see a couple problems here. One is that in a world of constant competition, no one can win all the time. Inevitably we will have the experience of failing to get what we want. Not getting what we want is a cause of suffering.

Also, even when we do get what we want, there is the problem of impermanence, which is likewise a cause of suffering.

The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha), monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering — in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering. (SN 56.11)

If one, longing for sensual pleasure,
achieves it, yes,
he's enraptured at heart.
The mortal gets what he wants.
But if for that person
— longing, desiring —
the pleasures diminish,
he's shattered,
as if shot with an arrow. (SN 4.1)


There is a scientific basis here as well. From an evolutionary biological point of view, we are probably not wired in a way that allows us to find lasting happiness in wordly phenomena; rather, we are restless and start grasping at the next shiny thing.

A further point is that, according to the Buddha, mundane sensory pleasures are not the finest pleasures that exist. Jhana states are said to be far superior -- so much so that those who experience them lose interest in the "coarser" types of pleasure. So even if we make the optimization of happiness our core principle, then by following through on this principle we should ultimately arrive at spirituality. Because we want the greatest happiness, right? Jhana is better than worldy happiness, and nibbana is even better than jhana. And just about any level of spiritual practice is better than floundering like fish in a puddle.
If Western science would in fact acknowledge anatta in any meaningful way, then Western science's whole reason to live would fall apart. If "someone is there" only provisionally, then the whole competition, the whole evolutionary struggle for survival is merely an absurdist game that even the most cynical couldn't play.
Realizing that "the whole competition, the whole evolutionary struggle for survival is merely an absurdist game that even the most cynical couldn't play" sounds like a good reason for taking refuge in Dhamma. As I mentioned earlier, dismay over the competition for survival is one of the eight causes of samvega.
Then I'd really like to see you provide a justification for continuing the struggle for survival -- when there's really noone there. Why do scientists work to provide people with a good education, work qualifications, improve their health, quit drugs, and such -- when there's noone really there? Answer me that.
Because people want these things. Most of us are putthujana and we have a self-view, along with the desire for survival and proliferation. From an objective point of view, we can look at split-brain studies, etc. and conclude that the unified "self" is a fiction -- nevertheless, it's a fiction we all believe in to some degree or another. Unless we are arahants, I guess.

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Garrib » Sat Jul 15, 2017 7:54 pm

I think we should be careful not to conflate the doctrine of annata and the idea that "no one is home so nothing matters" - in no way are these the same things. Beings experience suffering, and human beings have needs and desires, and it is kind and right that we should wish and support others to have a decent quality of life. The fact that there is no inherently existing independent eternal self or soul has nothing to do with the practical fact that a hungry person needs food. Non-self is not nihilism - it is meant to dispel a persistent delusion that leads to suffering, continuously.

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Ripser » Sat Jul 15, 2017 8:25 pm

binocular wrote: Postmodernism (ha ha*) can be said to be a "solid view of its own" as well. Even Justin Bieber fans have a solid worldview of their own ...

There are differences indeed, but if they're from a Western background I think they're likely to appear as two sides of the same coin when compared with many of the views on life and the universe of some average rural Cambodian, for example, even if the latter likes Justin Bieber...
Of course, these are just coarse definitions and generalisations. Anyway, conceptual proliferation seems to be our lot when referring to this conventional world of ours.
Metta,
:anjali:

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Lazy_eye » Sat Jul 15, 2017 8:32 pm

Garrib wrote:I think we should be careful not to conflate the doctrine of annata and the idea that "no one is home so nothing matters" - in no way are these the same things. Beings experience suffering, and human beings have needs and desires, and it is kind and right that we should wish and support others to have a decent quality of life. The fact that there is no inherently existing independent eternal self or soul has nothing to do with the practical fact that a hungry person needs food. Non-self is not nihilism - it is meant to dispel a persistent delusion that leads to suffering, continuously.
:goodpost:

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by Aloka » Sun Jul 16, 2017 9:57 am

Ripser wrote:
No wonder "secular" Buddhism has softened the potentially "gloomy" side of the teachings, as well as the emphasis on monasticism and on the determination and zeal required to attain higher states of consciousness, a heavenly rebirth or, of course, Nirvana. As Bhikkhu Bodhi pointed out somewhere, this gradual adaptation seems to reduce Buddhism to some ancient form of psychological -or stress- therapy.
Here's Doug Smith of the Secular Buddhist organisation talking for 7 minutes about "What is Secular Buddhism".

(I'm not a member of this group myself, by the way.)





.

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Re: Does Buddhism really "resist" secularism?

Post by binocular » Sun Jul 16, 2017 10:43 am

Garrib wrote:I think we should be careful not to conflate the doctrine of annata and the idea that "no one is home so nothing matters" - in no way are these the same things.
Yet this conflation is precisely what so often happens.
Beings experience suffering, and human beings have needs and desires, and it is kind and right that we should wish and support others to have a decent quality of life. The fact that there is no inherently existing independent eternal self or soul has nothing to do with the practical fact that a hungry person needs food.
In traditional secular terms, it's (innate) personhood that is the highest criterion and the greatest good that justifies actions. It's why Westerners help those poor hungry Africans, "because they're people too."

To be a secular Buddhist, one has to take away nibbana as a goal or the greatest good (because it is "too mystical" or whatever).
But taking away (innate) personhood (due to embracing the anatta doctrine) as well means there is, for the secularist, also no traditional secular greatest good anymore, hence, for the secularist, qualities like kidness, compassion, etc. become the greatest good and an end to themselves.
And from a secular Buddhist perspective, this of course makes sense. From some other perspectives, it doesn't.

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