Buddhism and humanism – is there a conflict?

The question I am considering is whether ‘awakening’ in Buddhism has anything supernatural or distinctly ‘religious’ about it, or whether it is a natural capacity that can be understood in the light of evolutionary biology and cognitive science. For some people this dilemma is not of any interest because they come down so firmly on one side of the question, however for me it remains difficult to think clearly about whether or not Buddhism should be called a ‘religion’. Let me try to sum up the differing perspectives.

The Buddha refused to answer metaphysical questions because they diverted inquirers from focusing on the cause of suffering and its solution, which is to stop clinging to a false conception of the self and to acknowledge deeply that everything is impermanent and conditioned by cause and effect. The Eightfold Path was his method to achieve this cessation of grasping and clinging. Robert Aitken Roshi, when he was asked to sum up the essential teaching of Buddhism, said, ‘Nothing lasts, and we’re in it together’. The first phrase affirms the Buddha’s fundamental observation about impermanence. The second sums up the Buddhist path.

This makes us the heroes of our own story, although it’s a story with a deeply tragic feel because our evolution from animals had no apparent design or plan and death is the end of our amazing individual journeys. For humanists, random or chance events are just that – if an accident occurs or someone falls seriously ill, humanists never say, ‘It was meant to be!’ Since we are evidently on our own, our task must be to prevent such purposeless suffering and give safety and dignity to all conscious creatures.

These schema will attract various comments. Here are some of my own. In Zen ‘giving up clinging’ is nuanced differently from the classical Pali and Sanskrit texts. Zen is about losing the separateness of self rather than the existence of self. In Zen the ordinary, experienced self is perfectly real. We clearly have unique bodies, experience our own consciousness and private memories, and make moral choices (moral agency requires a self). Zen awakening comes when, exactly as we are in body and mind, we experience intimate connection with the world, or more truly, identity with the world.

As a footnote I would add that if the Buddha intended that the five skandas should be understood as an exhaustive account of personhood then Zen identity of self and world was already implicit in classical Buddhism. I will return to this theme, but must first address the nagging question of whether Buddhism is a religion. In order not to oversimplify the problem, let me offer four not unrelated descriptions of religion through the ages.

Primal religion as defined by anthropology
Religion is seeking help from magical beings who control the world from behind the scenes, through sacrifices, prayers and rituals. Powerful, capricious, invisible spiritual beings are believed to control whatever humans most want and need, so people flatter and plead with the hidden beings to ward off sickness, ensure success in fishing and hunting, prevent crop-failure, ensure fertility and maintain the social order by enforcing penalties for bad behaviour. Finally there is the pinnacle function of religion, to ensure a good afterlife.

High religion in the classical age

Beginning about the time of the Buddha, (roughly between 480 and 400 BCE), a revolution took place around the world in conjunction with the formation of settled agricultural societies and the building of cities. Religion, although preserving the essential functions outlined above, now also mirrored the state, projecting an imagined monarch into the heavens, usually a male, kingly figure, who possessed great powers of creation and destruction. Priesthoods formed, often controlled by the monarchs, but also themselves gaining huge power and influence within their societies. These priesthoods created a rich and lasting literature of rules, doctrines and liturgy.

Elaborate theologies developed. Great churches and temples were constructed and much wealth flowed into religion, partly motivated by the wish to secure a better afterlife. Terrible and bloody religious wars were fought as sectarian groups competed for power. Prophetic and charismatic figures appeared who challenged the established priesthoods and gave birth to new religions such as Christianity. Some of the prophetic figures who reshaped religion were unusually gifted individuals with a proclivity for ecstatic visions, for example the Hebrew prophets, Jesus Christ, St Paul and Muhammad. (I don’t include the Buddha for reasons I’ll explain.)

Mystical religion
Ecstatic states have been experienced not only by the founders of the great religious traditions but also by a great many followers, giving rise to a rich tradition of literature and poetry by religious folk who felt they had a direct union with the divine. If they stuck their necks out, these people were often horribly persecuted by the orthodox religions in which they thought they had a home. New theologies and philosophies emerged from mysticism, reaching and reshaping even the core of the great classical religions, for example in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Spinoza, in Islam the writings of al-Ghazali, in Hinduism Ramanujan and Sankara, and in Buddhism Chandrakirti, Nagarjuna and Dogen. Great poetry flowed from the mystics in all traditions.

New Age Religion
My impulse is to throw up my hands and say, read Wikipedia about this profuse, eclectic development that has rubbed off on all of us in the last 50 years, beginning with the counterculture of the ’60s. Barely warranting the name religion, it nevertheless exerts a huge influence on people with a ‘spiritual’ bent. It has many more female than male adherents (two out of three) with interests traditionally favoured by women such as astrology, miraculous healing and witchcraft. Its core notion is that overarching our physical existence is an invisible spiritual reality that may be accessed through meditation, magic, crystals and above all channeling.

A central notion is that whatever happens to us was ‘meant to be’, not by a controlling deity but by the universe itself somehow. New Age religion is cultic, esoteric and has a myriad of luminaries and heroes. It holds to the reality of guardian angels, ascended masters, extraterrestrials and spirit guides, and likewise holds to afterlife beliefs in reincarnation and/or some kind of heavenly existence. New Age thought is hostile to rational and scientific inquiry (labelling it ‘reductionist’) and prefers dreams, visions and channeling as the source of what to believe. Most startlingly, New Age religion maintains that we can reshape reality itself through the creative power of our minds. For New Agers the material world is an illusion and death is unreal.

Is Buddhism a religion in all or any of the above senses? I don’t think it began as a religion but as a self-reliant yogic movement, developed by a sole genius with a rare scientific kind of mind, in order to address the problem of suffering. Stephen Batchelor, in his most recent books about Buddhist origins, is uncovering a non-superstitious, early Buddhism, showing how the beliefs of the surrounding culture were discussed by the Buddha not to propagate them but to illustrate principles that operate at a human level: ‘If you do this, that will happen, and if you do that, this will happen’. Gotama impresses as a proto-scientist or psychologist who looked immensely closely at how things work and drew practical conclusions, for example that hatred and anger have consequences that will inevitably be experienced. There’s no whiff of metaphysics and no punitive god about to smite people for their vengefulness.

However there is no denying that Buddhism very quickly became a religion fitting all four descriptions above. Everywhere it has been practiced for a long period it involves praying to supernatural beings for help. Almost everywhere it holds to myriad spiritualistic and esoteric beliefs about what exists above and beyond the natural human realm. Almost everywhere Buddhism assumes that there is some sort of controlling intelligence behind the visible world that keeps in place the laws of karma and rebirth, perhaps resembling a giant, computer-like mind that records all actions, words and thoughts of all sentient beings in order to determine their appropriate rebirth.

I’m uncomfortable with Zen being assimilated in people’s minds to New Age ideas and beliefs. Irrational belief still shapes so much of what happens in the world. Since 9/11 we’ve had religion-inspired terrorism. In the US, evangelicals recently got Trump elected, although he’s such an unlikely hero for them. Homosexuals are still tortured and killed under fundamentalist regimes. Africa is still the most irrational place on earth where superstition decides almost everything from health to politics. I vividly recall the Africa of my childhood and not much has changed since my missionary parents brought their supernatural beliefs to a land already chock-full of beliefs in ghostly spirits that terrified me out of my skin when I played with black children in the bush.

Personally, I’m not greatly interested in religious Buddhism. I find inspiration in artistic images of the Bodhisattvas of wisdom, action and compassion, and adore the humour and spiritual vitality of the Zen stories, none of which rest on metaphysical beliefs. I wanted a spiritual practice that could change my consciousness, relieve my isolation as a separate being and connect me with the natural world and other people. Here is the bottom line: Buddhist practice definitely can and does bring about a change in consciousness such that, no matter what is happening, our moment-to-moment experience is incandescently joyful and free.

It is good news, even great news, that our body, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, feeling and thinking, are all empty of any existence separate from the world that gives rise to them. This emptiness is exactly what frees us to be intimate with all we come into contact with. Awakening is a feeling of belonging in the world and loving the world as never before.

Yunmen, one of our greatest Zen ancestors, threw out a great challenge to our egocentricity when he said, ‘Every day is a good day’. What ‘I’ experience as a good day was never the whole story or even the best story. No matter what is happening to me, orcas still surface amongst the Antarctic ice floes. Supernovae still glow across the galaxies. Everywhere, men, women and children still live resourceful, generous lives of great courage and richness. Even things that seem to be mine, such as delighting in sunlight falling through autumn leaves or loving my friends, aver to no separate self. Instead, they disclose a selfhood that always was entirely relational and dependent.

How could Yunmen’s ‘every day is a good day’ be false, unless this wide world lacked anything to admire or love?

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  1. Jim Champion
    Posted August 10, 2017 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    There is a refreshingly different way to think about the religious, proposed by Ninian Smart, which has become known as the “Seven Dimensions of Religion”. It doesn’t attempt a definition, since that is notoriously difficult, but it does provide a framework to compare different religions, and also ideologies that may not conventionally be identified as ‘religious’ (such as humanism). I’ll not list it here, just signposting it as something useful in case you want to google it!

    It is reasonably well summarised on this website, and makes it quite clear that religion in this broad sense can be theistic or not. The more interesting thing for me is the division between a transcendent worldview and one that relies more on immanence.

    Looking at religion in this broad (seven dimensions) way is something that makes the ‘secular’ in secular Buddhism rather ill-fitting, in its more conventional meaning of ‘not religious’. Secular Buddhism, as I understand it, has aspects of all of Smart’s seven dimensions, and is why I find the term rather unsatisfactory – maybe one day we’ll find a better label?

  2. Posted August 14, 2017 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Jim – does the ‘Why Secular?’ page on this website respond to your concern as to the use of the term ‘secular’ Buddhism?


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