Buddhism for Humanists

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Westerners who are otherwise hostile to religion, particularly Christianity, sometimes say that they are well disposed towards Buddhism because it is more "rational" than other religions. But in recent years such opinions have been heard rather less frequently, thanks to the growth in popularity of Tibetan Buddhism.

Since the Chinese annexation of Tibet and the displacement of most prominent Tibetan religious figures, including the Dalai Lama, to the West, our knowledge of Tibetan religion has emerged from the realm of legend and mystery into the light of day. Numerous books on Tibetan religious practices have appeared and Tibetan monasteries have been established in many Western countries. Buddhism in many people's understanding is now synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism, which is characterized by esoteric beliefs, elaborate rituals, and complex meditation practices; it also assigns a central role to rebirth. As a result, the popular idea of Buddhism is rather different now from what it was a few decades ago, and rationalists are probably more likely today to dismiss Buddhism automatically as something that doesn't interest them.

More than one kind of Buddhism

But Tibetan Buddhism is not the only kind. Today there are two main forms of Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada. (There were others in the past but they no longer exist.) Mahayana Buddhism, which is the category that Tibetan Buddhism belongs to, is indeed elaborate and complex in comparison with Theravada Buddhism, which is relatively austere and unemotional.

As a rough analogy, Mahayana Buddhism could be compared with Roman Catholicism or perhaps Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity, Theravada Buddhism with Presbyterianism (appropriate, because "Theravada" means "Buddhism of the Elders", which is also what "Presbyterianism" means). But note that this is indeed only a very rough analogy, intended just to give a preliminary idea of the "feel" of the two traditions. (To complicate matters still further, Zen is classified as Mahayana, yet it is comparatively austere and has a degree of resemblance to Theravada.) Mahayana Buddhism contains elements derived from Tantrism, an occult Indian mystical system, and is associated with methods of inducing altered states of consciousness; hence much of its fascination for certain Westerners. The following comments are concerned mainly with Theravada Buddhism.

The role of belief in Buddhism

One of the ways in which Buddhism differs from religions such as Christianity is that it is not much concerned with questions of belief. You don't become a Buddhist in the same way that you become a born-again Christian, by undergoing an emotional conversion. Rather, you look at the ideas of Buddhism and, if you find they appeal to you, you may decide to incorporate them into your life. Alternatively, you may practise Buddhist meditation without necessarily calling yourself a Buddhist. Indeed, from the Buddhist point of view it is a mistake to become over-preoccupied with matters of belief; these are just opinions, and not of ultimate importance. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that if you make a big fuss about identifying yourself as a Buddhist you've probably misunderstood what Buddhism actually is.

Beliefs are seen as attitudes of mind, and therefore neither to be fought against nor adhered to. This has important consequences. It means, for example, that there is no need for Buddhists to get into a quandary about science. Christians quite often seem to worry about trying to reconcile the Biblical account (or accounts) of creation with modern Big Bang cosmology, and the rejection of Darwinism by Biblical fundamentalists in the USA and elsewhere prompts endless argument and even litigation. For Buddhism, all this is irrelevant; it's hard to think of any scientific discovery or theory that would threaten essential Buddhism.

God in Buddhism

Buddhism has often been called an atheistic religion, but this is misleading. The true Buddhist position is more that of standing aside from questions about God. The Judaeo-Christian religions postulate a God who creates the world, but Buddhism is unconcerned with such questions; for Buddhism, the world is simply there, given. It has the properties it has, and that is all we can say about it. In fact, gods do figure in Buddhist tradition, being inherited from Hinduism, but they are not creators; they are part of the cosmos, subject to death like other beings. And it is unnecessary to be concerned with them; as a monk once remarked to Richard Gombrich, "Gods are nothing to do with religion".

It is thus perfectly possible to be an atheistic Buddhist, whereas it is difficult to be an atheistic Christian (although some modern theologians seem to have come close to achieving this feat). But given the Buddhist attitude to dependence on beliefs, agnosticism might be the better option for the Buddhist.

For Christians, the problem of reconciling God's omnipotence with his benevolence is notoriously difficult. For Buddhists there is no such problem; the world is simply what it is and we don't have to explain or justify the existence of suffering within it.

The soul in Buddhism

The question of the soul is a difficult one for most religions today, since it appears to entail some form of philosophical dualism, which is hard to maintain in the face of our modern awareness of the critical importance of the brain as the basis of mind and personality. But a materialist understanding of the mind doesn't pose any real difficulty for Buddhists. Indeed, one could go further, for one of the central teachings of the Buddha was that there is no persisting Self. Of course, on the practical level we all do have a personality, which persists, with changes, throughout our lives; but the Buddha decisively rejected the view that there is some over-arching Self or Spirit beyond this.

As has often been remarked, the Buddha's teaching about this is remarkably similar to the view of the philosopher David Hume. Among modern philosophers, Derek Parfit and Galen Strawson have noted the relevance of Buddhism to their ideas. The psychologist Susan Blackmore, likewise, finds her view of the mind to have much in common with Buddhism.

Rebirth in Buddhism

This is probably the Buddhist idea that most often troubles Western intellectuals who feel some interest in Buddhism. In fact, it's quite a difficult question for Buddhists themselves, because, as noted above, it is a fundamental notion in Buddhism that there is no persisting Self -- no detachable soul which could continue from one life to the next.

Nevertheless, the Buddha appears to have accepted the correctness of the general Indian belief in rebirth which was already current in his time. But how could this be, if there is nothing to continue from one life to the next? One explanation offered is that the last thoughts of the dying person condition the birth of someone who is due to be born later. But this does not seem to be a fully satisfactory answer, and it's one that raises as many problems as it solves. At least one prominent Buddhist teacher in modern times is reported to have rejected the rebirth idea, and my own experience of Theravada monks in Britain has been that they tend to adopt a non-committal attitude to the matter. Certainly all the emphasis is on the here and now, with little being said about any possible future or past lives.

The Buddha himself consistently refused to be drawn into metaphysical questions of this kind, and it is still entirely possible for someone to practise Buddhist meditation and call themselves a Buddhist while being agnostic about rebirth or even dismissing it altogether as an outmoded belief. Belief, once again, is not the issue.

The wider picture

In his book on the Buddha Michael Carrithers (see below) writes: "His teaching was suited to a world of different political philosophies and different religions, but a world in which certain basic values must guide personal relations if we are to live together at all, and it is difficult to see how that mastery could be irrelevant to us." This seems to me to be essentially correct. Many of us today feel that the world is faced by almost insuperable problems: war, terrorism, ecological and environmental catastrophe.

All these things arise from our own minds; they are in principle soluble, but the solutions appear to be beyond our reach. What makes them unattainable is, in large measure, human greed, human desires. We are blinded by our own desires, and trample others and destroy our world in order to attain our ends. A world in which Buddhist values were the norm rather than the exception would certainly be a much pleasanter place to live in. It may well be that such a state is unattainable, but unless we do at least approach it, there seems little chance that our society will endure for very long. This is surely something that concerns rationalists as much as the religiously minded; in fact, rather more, since for rationalists this is the only world we have.

Suggested reading

Here are some of the books that I have found valuable in learning more about Buddhism. There are many others that might have been cited, but these should give a balanced introduction to the subject. More extended reviews of some of them can be found on my book reviews page in the religion category, along with reviews of books on related subjects.

  • The Buddha, by Michael Carrithers (Past Masters: Oxford University Press). A short but very good "biography" of the Buddha, with an exposition of the basic teaching. (Review available)

  • Theravada Buddhism, by Richard Gombrich (Routledge and Kegan Paul: London and New York). An excellent and detailed account of the origin and development of Theravada Buddhism, from the earliest time to the present day. It gives a good sociological impression of how Buddhism works in practice as a religion. (Review available)

  • Buddhism: its essence and development, by Edward Conze (New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London). Conze was a scholar who specialized in Buddhism. The book reflects a rather older view of the subject (it was first published in 1951) but is still worth reading.

  • The Buddhist Religion, by Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson (Wadsworth Publishing Company: Belmont, California). This book provides a historical overview of the development of Buddhism as a whole, including the Mahayana. It is one of the best places to find a general picture of Buddhism. But probably few people will read it from cover to cover, and it is probably best suited to dipping into or using as a mini-encyclopaedia about Buddhism. (Review available)

  • The Monk and the Philosopher: East Meets West in a Father-Son Dialogue, by Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard; translated by John Canti (Thorsons, London). J-F Revel is an eminent French philosopher; M. Ricard, his son, is a former scientist who has become a Buddhist monk. This book is the record of a conversation between them in which they compare their ideas. (Review available)

  • Teachings of a Buddhist Monk, by Ajahn Sumedho (Buddhist Publishing Group). Ajahn Sumedho was for a long time the Abbot of Amaravati, a large Theravada monastery in southern England. American by birth, he is a highly respected teacher who trained for 10 years in Thailand under one of the best-known Thai masters, the late Ajahn Chah. His talks have been collected and published; they are extremely readable and are one of the best sources to get a `feel' of what Buddhism is.

  • The Heart of Buddhism, by Guy Claxton (Crucible: Wellingborough). Claxton is an academic psychologist who has written books on education and on Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. He recommends Buddhism as a path to mental health and stability in a fractured world.