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Secular Buddhism in North America

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  • Moderator
    Aik TC's Avatar
    1,508 posts since Jun '10
    • Secular Buddhism in North America

      Justin Whitaker Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-07-21 |

      As Buddhism has grown in popularity in North America, one aspect that has come to increasing prominence is its potential affinity for secularism. Books such as Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (Riverhead Books 1997), Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (Spiegel & Grau 2011), and Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World (Yale University Press 2017) have given shape to the meeting of Western curiosity and skepticism with Asian Buddhist traditions.

      Defining Secular Buddhism presents a number of challenges. Each of the terms “secular” and “Buddhism” lends itself to a variety of meanings depending on context. Secular, for instance, is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary primarily in the negative: “adj. not religious, sacred, or spiritual.” It continues by giving the origin in Christian Latin as meaning “the world.” Batchelor himself notes his own struggle with terms such as “spiritual,” “religious,” “secular,” “agnostic,” “skeptical,” and others in the preface to Secular Buddhism.

      However, not all types of Buddhism that have arisen in North America match well with secularism, as many have retained a markedly non-secular quality. Before disrobing, marrying Martine Fages, and settling in Devon, England, Batchelor spent 10 years as a monastic in the Tibetan and Korean Seon (Zen) traditions, which Batchelor refers to as “traditional Buddhism.”

      By “traditional Buddhism” I mean any school or doctrinal system that operates within the soteriological worldview of ancient India. Whether Theravāda or Mahayana in orientation, all such forms of Buddhism regard the ultimate goal of their practice to be the attainment of nirvana, that is, the complete cessation of the craving (tanhā) that drives the relentless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. . . Despite their apparent differences, Theravāda, Zen, Shin, Nichiren, and Tibetan Buddhism share the same underlying soteriology, that of ancient India outlined above. (Secular Buddhism)

      In opposition to this, "secular Buddhism” refers to a Buddhism that rejects the supernatural, most prominently in doctrines such as rebirth, or many interpretations of karma, or beliefs in spirits or gods. Other aspects of Buddhism rejected by secular Buddhists include strong emphasis on ritual, belief in the power of amulets or relics, and notions of extraordinarily powerful teacher-student relationships. A tension arises here, as traditional Buddhists object that without these, one cannot be a “real Buddhist.” Batchelor responds:

      Each Buddhist tradition maintains that it alone possesses the “true” interpretation of the Dharma, whereas all the other schools either fall short of this truth or have succumbed to “wrong views.” Today, from a historical-critical perspective, these kinds of claims appear strident and hollow. For we recognize that every historical form of Buddhism is contingent upon the wide array of particular and unique circumstances out of which it arose. (Secular Buddhism)

      Is it possible for a “real” Buddhist to reject many of the beliefs of previous Buddhisms? Secular Buddhists think so.

      In a survey sent out to secular Buddhists, respondents defended their place under the umbrella of “Buddhism.” Jennifer Gentile, an atheist yoga instructor married to a Buddhist Zen priest, describes secular Buddhism as, “a guide for living ethically and morally, becoming more present without causing harm.” When asked about disadvantages, she responded, “I can’t imagine a disadvantage, other than some people might not understand what that means and be disrespectful or discriminatory.”

      Similarly, Tina Hamilton, a member of the board of directors of the Association of Mindfulness Meditation and Secular Buddhism, notes: “There have been numerous studies that show that meditation actually changes the brain in many positive ways. In my personal practice, I find that I’m less reactive, and able to think things through. I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, and have found that with meditation, I no longer need the medication to help me focus (no medication for 10 years now). Other things that I see secular Buddhism helping with is increasing compassion and equanimity.”

      Doug Smith, study director of the Secular Buddhist Association, defines secular Buddhism as: “Buddhism without speculative supernatural elements.” When asked about the benefit of this approach, he noted that, “We get the gains of Buddhist practice (wisdom, kindness, less stress) without the false or unscientific beliefs.” Gary Donnelly, a doctoral research student at Liverpool University in England, notes that secular Buddhism provides a “lack of hokum and regional superstition” and a “more realistic worldview.”

      Mark W. Gura, executive director of the Association of Mindfulness Meditation and Secular Buddhism (AMMSB) and vice president of the Atheist Alliance of America, suggests that “secular Buddhism is based on critical thinking, neuroscience, and the essence of Buddhist meditation and philosophy, without its supernatural elements. Its beliefs are held only on facts, while any other information is considered opinion or hypothesis.” To this, Gura adds that the AMMSB has recently become an official affiliate of the large American Atheists organization, which was founded in 1963. This, Gura holds, marks a “historical event for secular Buddhism” as it is the first time secular Buddhists “have been embraced by another large national atheist group.”

      Several respondents pointed to Batchelor’s books and videos as inspiration for their move into Buddhism, many coming from atheistic or secular backgrounds. Others actively practice with one or more traditional schools of Buddhism (Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada were all mentioned several times), but do not hold many of the beliefs of those schools. Dr. Carol Creech, community health coordinator for the Health Education Learning Project in Dallas, Texas, has stated that, “I am a former Christian practicing Tibetan Buddhism with a near complete absence of literal belief in Tibetan sectarian practices, such as Dharma protectors. And thus ‘maybe’ a secular Buddhist.”

      However, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, assistant professor of neuroscience at West Virginia University, says, “Sometimes there is a condescending attitude towards those with beliefs—I see that in Stephen Batchelor’s writings. This attitude, I fear could steer people away from more traditional approaches, or create a safe bubble so they never would venture into concepts like karma and rebirth, which can be tremendously beneficial (even if just taken as a provisional ‘raft’ to help one cross difficult waters, but with knowledge that it will someday be left behind).”

      Jennifer Hawkins, community director for the Secular Buddhist Association, who describes herself as a 32-year-old African-American, notes that her status as a minority has helped her establish greater dialogue with some traditional Buddhists. Her nuanced discussion of secular Buddhism suggested both hermeneutical and historical defenses of secular Buddhism. On the hermeneutical front, she suggests that secular Buddhists work to determine whether passages are to be interpreted literally or not: “It’s looking at these suttas and finding value—even if the original composer believed in yakshas and that one thing has turned out not to be true, does that somehow negate the whole value of a sutta? No.”

       

      On the historical side, echoing Batchelor, she states: “Buddhism changed as it entered each new land—and so it changes a little as it enters ‘the West.’ It is simply the natural process of change and not disrespect. Personally, I have a great deal of gratitude to Gotama Buddha for sharing what he found and to all of those who transmitted his ideas (and some of their own) through time so that it could reach me. Really looking closely at the suttas and at the history of Buddhism’s changes does not diminish that respect or gratitude—if anything, it adds to it.”

  • Weychin's Avatar
    1,757 posts since Jul '09
    •  

      Rebirth and karma pt I

      Let us ask ourselves:-

      When we ask ourselves questions; what is rebirth and what is reincarnation. What is karma? How does it work, what does it entails?

      If we talk about rebirth, then who or what is being reborn, where does it comes from, and if we are really reborn, what enters us and becomes us. And how is it that as buddhists, we experience rebirth and yet not reincarnation?

      Regarding karma, is it a matter of what you reap is what you have sown? Poetic, or divine justice? So of a scale of balance, just simply your just desserts? Then what of the downfalls of pride, jealousy, lust , ignorance, misery and anger? How does it comes into play?

      Edited by Weychin 16 Aug `17, 5:19PM
  • Moderator
    Aik TC's Avatar
    1,508 posts since Jun '10
    •  

      This is an excerpt of Jayarava's Raves definition of ‘Karma and Rebirth’ from BWB website which might be of some interest. Here is his definition on both subjects:

      My attempt at a non-controversial definition of Buddhist karma and rebirth is as follows: Karma is the Anglicised word for the process that links consequences (phala, vipāka) to actions (karman), as well as the actions themselves. Because karma does not immediately manifest as consequences, it accumulates over time. The main consequence of karma is rebirth (punarbhava), but karma may also manifest as sensation (vedanā). Rebirth is governed by a theory of how experiences arise, i.e. by dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda). Enlightened people don't make new karma. When enlightened people die they are not reborn.

      The doctrine of karma is the Buddhist version of the just-world myth and like other versions is tied to an afterlife in which the injustice of this life is balanced out. This myth produces a cognitive bias, in the Wikipedia definition:

      "The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person's actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to—or expect consequences as the result of—a universal force that restores moral balance."

      If we replaced "just-world hypothesis" with "Buddhist karma" in this statement, we would have a serviceable definition of karma. All the major religions have a version of this myth. And yet the world clearly is not fair or just. Evil actions go unpunished and good actions go unrewarded. The idea that actions always have timely and appropriate consequences is debunked by lived experience. And this inevitably leads religions to link the myth of the just-world with the myth of the afterlife. Judgement and reward in the afterlife is how religions rationalise an unjust world.

      The doctrine of rebirth is the Buddhist version of the Myth of the Afterlife. This myth is correlated with the cognitive dissonance associated with the knowledge of our own inevitable death. Life "wants" to go on, self-conscious beings consciously want to live forever but come to understand that they die. In the tension of the irresistible force (life) meeting the immovable object (death), the afterlife is born and thrives.

      A seldom noticed feature of the Buddhism version of the afterlife is the bifurcation into a metaphysical narrative and a moral one. Buddhist metaphysicians have always stressed that the relation between us and our rebirths is governed by dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda). This is first and foremost a description of how mental states arise, but is applied in all sort of other ways. Thus the one who acts is neither identical with or totally different from the one who experiences the consequences. The latter arises in dependence on the former. Buddhist moralists (often the same people in a different didactic mode) emphasise that actions have consequences for us. Many suttas and all jātakas explicitly relate how actions rebound on us in subsequent lives, or that what we now experience is the result of our actions in a past life.

      I conjecture that this moral version of the Buddhist afterlife is necessary because without a strong connection between action and consequence for the agent, morality is not possible. That this contradicts Buddhist metaphysics is not problematised in Buddhism teaching, it is simply that in switching from one mode to the other, Buddhists simply ignore the contradiction. I don't see this as a disputed teaching, since the ability to segue back and forth between metaphysical and moral discourses with respect to the afterlife seems to be universal.

      Pure Land Buddhism completely circumvented karma by introducing the concept of a living Buddha from another universe responding to our cries for help. Now karma doesn't matter because it can all be over-ridden by Amitābha who, simply because we call his name, ensures a good rebirth and subsequent liberation. The magic of the name is so powerful that it can overcome aeons of bad karma.

      Everything else about karma and rebirth seems to be complex and disputed. There are a number of main areas of contention related to karma and rebirth. The next section of this essay will set out these areas.

      Continues at the link: http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Rebirth

       

      Any comments on what he have said? 

      Edited by Aik TC 16 Aug `17, 7:37PM
  • Weychin's Avatar
    1,757 posts since Jul '09
    • Thanks for the additional post!

      It'll take a while to digest the post as I am viewing rebirth and karma on a different context. I see morality more on the continuance of social order. 

      I need to switch gears!

    • Rebirth and karma pt ii

      Permit awhile my opinion:-

      Alaya consciousness, also known as storehouse consciousness, implies memory. While we are alive, conscious and interacting, we create and store memories.  Neutral memories, generally inconsequential, if the mind is focused and undistracted, may be stored as memories. Thus we have dreams when we sleep. Memories of such are subtle as compared below.


      Created memories with strong attachments, or emotional labelling as stronger, more distinct, especially if it corresponds with our core failings. Storehouse consciousness contain "seeds" which I consider one's karmic inclinations.

      We have a personality, we develop character, implying prenatal and postnatal tendencies. However, nothing is impermanent, we change according to our circumstances.

      Rebirth is very related to karma, our emotional tendencies. For instance, stories like Liao Fan's four stories, takes a social/ moralistic bent and its rebirth sounds more like reincarnation instead. It was meant for a certain audience of a period of time

      Nevertheless, if you do inherit it as part of your culture, it becomes part of your psyche, especially from an impressionable age. Similar, worlds differ if you are from an Hindu background or likewise, abrahamic beliefs. We have an inkling of what karma is because someone more authoritarian told us .

       Most of the time, it does not affect us, until it hits our conscience, when we are posed with a moral dilemma. 

      Also, contradiction grows when we don't  have science explaining the mechanics of rebirth and karma. Science, do not even recognize rebirth and karma, not as an established fact anyway. Most beliefs system have an expectation of invested faith anyways.


      Now using the term memory in lieu of storehouse consciousness, we have the active component, the creation and transition stage , then the storage in physical stage and physical storage in itself. (I will explain using computer technology as analogy even though I am not particularly IT endowed. Please correct me if it makes sense to you.)

      Let use the user of a computer as "Self" entity, it creates an identity and an avatar which it wants others to identify with. As we have thoughts as we type, electrical impulses are created and when viewed, is recognized as thoughts. But these are just electrical impulses without the proper transmitter or receiver. There are also protocols necessary. When they are created by the processor, they are held ;in the active cache and subsequently stored in the hard drive or memory storage.

      When we are conceived as a human, we are predisposed to being a human with human mental and physical faculties. What happens to us physically is physical karma, being born a partially or fully functional human. This only one aspect. Then we have  mental faculty which is developed somewhat to the level of an infant.

      It is believed in some circles that when we are born, die and even when we dream, we release the drug dimethyltrypamine (or DMT for short) from our pineal gland, sometimes referred as our third eye. DMT is a well known psychedelic drug which induce strong hallucinogenic effects.

      When we dream we release or create thought waves or energy from our memories. More so when we die, we trigger a massive amount DMT, releasing our memories and core karmic tendencies as energy. So in way, we transmit our storehouse consciousness or memories. With karmic seeds being the strongest. Our "memories" have a certain profile, or protocol. Perhaps password or passkey is suitable for this instance.

      Correspondingly, although not at the same time, it is believed that when we are born, we also release tremendous amount of DMT. Other then physical and mental attributes we have not yet developed our core personalities we can begin to described as "us". As we release our DMT, we also open or start receiving  seed consciousness or memories. Thus the moment of our DMT release fits a certain protocol or profile, equivalent of a password or passkey. Thus " memory files" are send off, or more appropriately released on one side, and another side, the recipient, open to receive "karma or personality software". 

      Thus we are now born with a personality which is a combination of all those conditions. Each sides is attracted to each others due to both affinities with each other.

      This is just a theory circling around my mind for awhile. May it offer you some food for thought.



    • Originally posted by Aik TC:

       

      This is an excerpt of Jayarava's Raves definition of ‘Karma and Rebirth’ from BWB website which might be of some interest. Here is his definition on both subjects:

      My attempt at a non-controversial definition of Buddhist karma and rebirth is as follows: Karma is the Anglicised word for the process that links consequences (phala, vipāka) to actions (karman), as well as the actions themselves. Because karma does not immediately manifest as consequences, it accumulates over time. The main consequence of karma is rebirth (punarbhava), but karma may also manifest as sensation (vedanā). Rebirth is governed by a theory of how experiences arise, i.e. by dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda). Enlightened people don't make new karma. When enlightened people die they are not reborn.

      The doctrine of karma is the Buddhist version of the just-world myth and like other versions is tied to an afterlife in which the injustice of this life is balanced out. This myth produces a cognitive bias, in the Wikipedia definition:

      "The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person's actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to—or expect consequences as the result of—a universal force that restores moral balance."

      If we replaced "just-world hypothesis" with "Buddhist karma" in this statement, we would have a serviceable definition of karma. All the major religions have a version of this myth. And yet the world clearly is not fair or just. Evil actions go unpunished and good actions go unrewarded. The idea that actions always have timely and appropriate consequences is debunked by lived experience. And this inevitably leads religions to link the myth of the just-world with the myth of the afterlife. Judgement and reward in the afterlife is how religions rationalise an unjust world.

      The doctrine of rebirth is the Buddhist version of the Myth of the Afterlife. This myth is correlated with the cognitive dissonance associated with the knowledge of our own inevitable death. Life "wants" to go on, self-conscious beings consciously want to live forever but come to understand that they die. In the tension of the irresistible force (life) meeting the immovable object (death), the afterlife is born and thrives.

      A seldom noticed feature of the Buddhism version of the afterlife is the bifurcation into a metaphysical narrative and a moral one. Buddhist metaphysicians have always stressed that the relation between us and our rebirths is governed by dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda). This is first and foremost a description of how mental states arise, but is applied in all sort of other ways. Thus the one who acts is neither identical with or totally different from the one who experiences the consequences. The latter arises in dependence on the former. Buddhist moralists (often the same people in a different didactic mode) emphasise that actions have consequences for us. Many suttas and all jātakas explicitly relate how actions rebound on us in subsequent lives, or that what we now experience is the result of our actions in a past life.

      I conjecture that this moral version of the Buddhist afterlife is necessary because without a strong connection between action and consequence for the agent, morality is not possible. That this contradicts Buddhist metaphysics is not problematised in Buddhism teaching, it is simply that in switching from one mode to the other, Buddhists simply ignore the contradiction. I don't see this as a disputed teaching, since the ability to segue back and forth between metaphysical and moral discourses with respect to the afterlife seems to be universal.

      Pure Land Buddhism completely circumvented karma by introducing the concept of a living Buddha from another universe responding to our cries for help. Now karma doesn't matter because it can all be over-ridden by Amitābha who, simply because we call his name, ensures a good rebirth and subsequent liberation. The magic of the name is so powerful that it can overcome aeons of bad karma.

      Everything else about karma and rebirth seems to be complex and disputed. There are a number of main areas of contention related to karma and rebirth. The next section of this essay will set out these areas.

      Continues at the link: http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Rebirth

       

      Any comments on what he have said? 

      Let me share my thoughts on this portion first:-


      "Pure Land Buddhism completely circumvented karma by introducing the concept of a living Buddha from another universe responding to our cries for help. Now karma doesn't matter because it can all be over-ridden by Amitābha who, simply because we call his name, ensures a good rebirth and subsequent liberation. The magic of the name is so powerful that it can overcome aeons of bad karma."

      On the point of death if one can single mindedly hold the thought of Amitabha in mind, reciting Amitabha. One can be reborn into the Pureland until the final birth before one attains Buddhahood. Even with a single distraction at death, one will still fall back into samsara according to one's karma.

      To practice Pureland is to devote oneself to Pureland practices. That leaves not much time and inclination for other non beneficial activities. It is no use if one chants Amithabha and one minds wanders around, giving rise to unwholesome thoughts and actions.


  • Fuusha99's Avatar
    1 post since Aug '17
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