Thursday, August 18, 2011

Secular Buddhism

In a comment on a previous post on this blog, Hadgu suggested I check out a couple of blogs by secular Buddhists. In a nutshell, secular Buddhism is a new movement which seeks to make Buddhism compatible with the worldview of scientific naturalism. Among other things, this entails stripping Buddhism of supernatural doctrines, as well as any doctrines which conflict with the discoveries of the empirical sciences; it also entails abandoning rituals or other practices which are predicated upon such doctrines. So, reincarnation is out, as well as propitiation of gods and spirits. Secular Buddhists also seek to reconcile Buddhism with contemporary ethics and politics.

Hadgu mentioned three blogs for me to check out: David Chapman's wordpress blog; The Secular Buddhist blog; and Zen Naturalism. All of these blogs are worth looking into if you are interested at all in learning more about secular Buddhism. In this post, I will spend a little time discussing David Chapman's blog.

I'm not sure whether David Chapman identifies himself as a secular Buddhist, but he's definitely someone interested in making Buddhism consistent with the discoveries of contemporary science. For example, he has a series of posts which effectively debunk the theory that contemporary Buddhist meditation practices are descended from the methods practiced by monks in the time of the Buddha. Chapman's central claim is that Buddhist mindfulness meditation (and even Buddhism itself) as we now know it was effectively a creation of the 19th century, by reformers in Theravada countries such as Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand influenced in at least some cases by ideas from the West. Chapman's claim is based in part on research by contemporary historians of Buddhism, but also on his own reading of the records of the founders of the modern meditation practices in Burma and Thailand. As pointed out in some of the comments on his blog, Chapman probably overstates the extent to which Buddhist meditation was invented in the 19th century; the term 'revived' is probably more apt, based on what is now known (and there is much about the 19th century revival of meditation that is still unknown). Nevertheless, Chapman is correct that contemporary Buddhists, especially traditional Buddhists, routinely obscure and rewrite their own history, and that they are irrationally hostile towards the work of modern researchers which challenges the stories they tell about themselves.

Chapman is also interested in challenging what he refers to as "consensus Buddhism", which is the family of views about Buddhism which predominates among Western Buddhists, particularly (or so it would seem) in the United States. I'm not sure the extent to which the concept of consensus Buddhism captures the complex and diverse reality of Western Buddhism as it actually exists, but many of Chapman's observations are to the point, such as his discussion of the way in which many Western Buddhists have down-played or ignored the traditional role of disgust, horror, and contempt in Buddhism (such as in the traditional meditation practice of the funerary contemplations). He has many interesting posts which summarize some of the current research on the history of modern Buddhism, which was transformed in the 19th and 20th centuries, both in Asia and as it was carried to the West (for example, see here, here, here, here. and here).

Chapman seems to be quite sincere in his practice of Buddhism (he is a dedicated practitioner of a lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism), and he is an effective expositor of issues relevant to secular Buddhism, traditional Buddhism, and contemporary Western Buddhism. Having said that, I wonder whether he is misguided to spend so much energy in what seems like attacks on fellow Buddhists. One thing that can be noticed on many of the excellent Buddhist blogs and websites out there (and I hope to discuss more in future blog posts) is the amount of time and energy dedicated to arguments with other Buddhists and with people from other belief systems. I resonate pretty deeply with the aims and methods of people like David Chapman, and with the secular Buddhists and Buddhist naturalists out there, but I'm not sure that the best way to spend the fleeting moments of your life is in bitter contention, or trying to relentlessly prove that your own way of looking at things is the best. Even if your way of looking at things is the best, there's something you miss if you lose sight of your actual everyday experience. (And this everyday experience is not really ordinary, but pretty surprising and extraordinary if you look at it closely enough.) I guess my worry is that too many of us interested in discovering and exploring the sacred (whatever that may turn out to mean) fritter away too much of our lives in sterile debate, and miss out on quite a lot of lived experience. That's something I'm trying to avoid on this blog--although frankly it's been something of a struggle, since my whole conditioning pushes me towards contention and condescension whenever I say anything at all. But I think those of us interested in naturalistic approaches to the sacred would probably do better to focus on providing a positive vision of what we're about, than to try to tear down the views of others. Here's hoping we succeed at that task.
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