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Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Non-Religious Buddhism?

This follows up on my previous post about respect, in which I mention Sam Harris. I've recently come across an interesting article Sam Harris has written in the March issue of a Buddhist magazine called The Shambhala Sun.

I'll quote a little of the article. The title and subtitle are as follows...

"Kill the Buddha," says the old koan. "Kill Buddhism," says SAM HARRIS, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism's philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion.
Sam Harris notes that there are "some ideas in Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison." He notes the example of some believing the notion that Guru Rinpoche was born from a lotus.

To add in my own commentary here: he seems to take little notice of the differences between the various schools of Buddhism (which vary in their degree of these things) with the phrase "ideas in Buddhism". He also doesn't seem to appreciate the degree to which the native ignorance, culture, and beliefs in which Buddhism has sprung has sometimes integrated with the practice of Buddhism. But then again, perhaps he does. He goes on to say...

For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha's teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). The spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.

In response, I would say that as a Humanist, I too am attracted to the core of Buddhism which doesn't require irrational beliefs. But it seems to me that Harris falls into a convenient trap constructed by history and language. By that, I mean an overattention, and perhaps a misplaced application of the word "religion".

In his book, Christianity without God, Lloyd Geering points out that it wasn't until the sixteenth century that the west began to use terms like "Christianity" and "religion". He says:

"Up until the sixteenth century 'religion' was synonymous with 'devotion' and referred to the feelings of awe and wonder, which along with the attitudes of trust and love, constitute the religious life. 'Religion' was an abstract term which could not be used in the plural."
The same goes for the names of religions. For instance, of 'Christianity' he says:

"This is why it is really only from the sixteenth century that people began to talk about an entity they called Christianity. Before that time people in Christendom talked about the church or about faith (by which they meant Christian faith) or about religion (by which they meant devotion), but never about something known as Christianity."
And this makes perfect sense. For example, we don't make up words for things like, "those who believe that humans have two legs". It is such an obvious fact of life to us that there is no reason for us to make up a term for it. That is, until a substantial number of people start believing that we have three.

Just as there was no term for 'Christianity' among Christians, I assume there was likely no word for 'Buddhism' or 'religion' among ancient Buddhists. Reifying 'religion' and calling Buddhism a religion comes from a decidedly European post-16th-Century practice in which all things were being reified to discuss them objectively.

Of course, it's a good idea to discuss things objectively and comparatively, and for that you need terms for things. But in this process, the tradition we call Buddhism was lumped under the label "religion" apparently under the assumption that it had a parallel structure to western religions.

But when we are discussing ancient traditions and practices, we must remember that we are imposing deliniations that did not exist then. There was no separation between what was 'religion' and what was simply the facts of the world they lived in. When one considers the layering of many other concepts that followed the core of Buddhist practice over history, it becomes even more difficult.

So, it's up to us to decide what is part of a religion and what is not. More important to Sam Harris' point, it is up to us to decide which elements are part of the Buddhist religion and which are parts of various Eastern culture which are mixed into the teachings.

I picked up a small booklet called The Buddhist Path at a local Buddhist temple recently. It outlines methods of meditation, and the eightfold path. Nowhere in it did it mention karma, rebirth, or being born out of a lotus.

As the various teachings within Buddhism are studied objectively and practice of them spreads, it is up to those people where it spreads to see for themselves what they find useful and question them, as the Kalama Sutra encourages. In the end, I myself will tend to delight in philosophies and practices I find true, rational, and useful from a variety of sources, religious or not.

Some people are using the term "secular Buddhist" or "philosophic Buddhist" to denote their practice of the teachings which are divorced from certain cultural beliefs, which is fine with me if it suites them. As for myself, I might fall under the category of Buddhist by the definition of some and not by the definition of others. In either case, to be sure, I fall under the category of Humanist, naturalist, skeptic, and Freethinker. But rather than focusing first on which flag I'm going to fly, I prefer to pick up good ideas and practices where they are. If others do or don't consider me this or that - or consider x to be a religion and y not to be - well that's up to them.


  1. Maybe this is something you have covered elsewhere (but is becoming clear to my "black and white" mind with which you are already familiar!), but it seems as if the core values, ethics, and practices attributed to Jesus, Buddha, and most other humanist oriented philosophers, are very similar in direction, but then doctrinal and dogmatic issues arise when we humans attempt to "organize" those concepts and make them "religions."
    An over-simplification I'm sure, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Hi father time!

    Yes, I think it would be difficult to differ with you on that. Perhaps we should rethink what we mean by something being 'made into a religion'. It seems a general assumption that this would entail dogmatism. I myself, when I hear the phrase tend to think of a stone slab with a bunch of "thou shalts" that are immune to all questioning.

    But I think Einstein and others have had some wonderful notions of what a beautiful human religion *could* entail, were it to embrace a healthy skeptical approach to claims and give up dogmatism. They also need to be content with promoting general principles rather than explicit detailed edicts (the difficulties of which you point out).

    Many groups are starting to form around more modern, democratic, and rational ideals. Some of them consider themselves religions and some don't, but either way, I think it's a good sign.

    Sam Harris is trying to convince the world to trash their religions, and he's got a huge uphill (if not vertical) climb ahead of him. I think it might be more pragmatic to consider ways in which we might encourage continued positive change within religions. For those on the outside looking in, I think a compassionate expression of the positive benefits of Freethought would be more helpful.

    As usual, the religions of tomorrow will surely be nothing like today. The only question is whether they will be a nightmarish sci-fi version of holy wars or something more decent, modern, beautiful, and useful to humanity.

  3. Have you heard of the book Buddhism Without Beliefs?

    Anyway, I've also questioned just how and why it is the original ideas attributed to "the Buddha" got turned into a religion. It's also seemed more like pure philosophy to me, and maybe more helpful without the superstitions such as karma, reincarnation and astrology.

    BTW, one of my online friend's parents used to live very close to Thich Nhat Hahn. You might be dismayed to hear that outside of his books and talks, [she said] he had a bad temper and was always yelling and cursing at kids. (And my friend IS a Buddhist--from Vietnam.) Sometimes you just never know whether some people are truly living the wisdoms they teach!

  4. I'm starting to think that most religions started as philosophies, even if not completely 'secular' in nature.

    As I was studying the history of the different schools of Buddhism, it seemed very familiar to me - much like the process that happened to Jesus' teachings when Paul and others started heaping on the pagan themes.

    As for tempers, the Dalai Lama also admits to having a bad temper. He has said in at least one of his books that he loses his cool sometimes, and then feels embarrased and has to ask forgiveness of his students. I guess we're all prone to our particular weaknesses. I wouldn't necessarily group all such examples under 'hypocrisy'. I suppose it depends on whether Hahn is up front about his failings (of which I have no idea).

  5. From attachment springs fear.
    From Attachment springs grief.
    For him who has no attachment,
    there's no fear whence grief.

    One can only marvel at the wisdom of the Buddha. It is simple, effective and mind altering in a very good way.
    Freedom from fear is at our fingertip and it is free.

  6. Thank you Dinglindank :)