Secular Buddhism – some more bits
The discussion of secular Buddhism is to be continued in meatspace (otherwise known euphemistically as ‘the real world’). We’ve organized an event at the Buddhist Library in Camperdown, with the pleasant coincidence that it is on Bastille Day. I’ll be discussing the notion of secular Buddhism with Winton Higgins, an academic and Buddhist teacher who has been associated with the secular Buddhism circles in Sydney (Here’s an article giving Winton’s reflections on secular Buddhism in Australia). Moderator is Lizzie Turnbull (I can’t find a bio to directly link for her, but if you go here and scroll down you’ll find her biodata.)
Hopefully we can find some more light and less heat; and in the process raise some funds for the Buddhist Library’s Cambodia Project, a wonderful charity on which we can all agree!
Meanwhile, here are some more inquiries from a previous comment by Geoff.
If I may repost some queries as I am very keen on your feedback!
To quote some of your earlier comments on this post:
“The ‘Pali’ uses science, as understood in its day, whenever this is appropriate: cosmology, psychology, evolution, physics, biology, and so on, all are found in the early suttas, and all are based, more or less, on existing scientific assumptions.”
“And the point that people keep skating around is, some of those assumptions are wrong. There are no creatures thousands of miles long in the oceans, being heated does not make a substance lighter, there have not been civilizations speaking Pali and at the same cultural level as 500 BCE Magadha for millions of years”.
Might we also add the Buddha retracing his past lives which would mean seeing himself at one stage as a primitve mammal, a fish (or even earlier as a single cell organism), as present day evolutionary theory would suggest? How would the Buddha have conceived that? (Not to mention, eons of past universes expanding and contracting.) How literally should we interpret this facet of the night of his enlightenment?
Furthermore, if we are to take this literally, how much time would have been required for the Buddha to have recollected his ‘manifold past lives’? That is, for the Buddha to have gone into the detail that he did, “There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life“ over “many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion.” ?
Do we know how many “eons of cosmic contraction & expansion” the Buddha experienced? Wouldn’t this have taken him many eons to recollect?
Could you please clarify?
Re the first point, I agree: it’s really just taking further the point I made earlier, that conditions have actually been very different in the past, in ways that the Buddhist accounts of past lives simply do not reflect. Let’s be clear about this: until the development of modern sciences of archaeology, genetics, astronomy, and so on, we really had no way of knowing much of what had happened in the past, apart from dim memories passed down in myths, or for the more recent past, some scant and ideologized histories. When the Buddhist accounts of past lives were taught, for the most part those speaking and listening to them took them to be actual accounts of the past. They did not conceive them as ‘myth’ in contrast with ‘history’, because there was no notion of ‘history’ as we understand it. The past was the realm of the imagination, populated by the impossible and the improbable, and no more reliable that the memories of childhood.
There seems to be no problem like this today: accounts of past lives quite happily tell of places and times that are very different than our own. Presumably there is a cultural influence at play here, although as usual I find myself feeling the need to sound the anti-reductionist foghorn: just because something is influenced by culture does not mean that it doesn’t exist!
Remember the basic distinction I have insisted on all along: between the direct, formal, central statements of doctrine that can be plausibly attributed to the Buddha in the authentic early Suttas, and the stories, narratives, parables, and so on that are used to illustrate or jazz up a point. Of course, the vast majority of the Buddha’s supposed ‘past life’ experiences belong to the latter category; and perhaps all of them should be included there. Even if we confine ourselves to the Jatakas found within the four Nikaya, many of them are quite impossible: the Mahasudassana Sutta, the Ghatikara Sutta (set in the time of another Buddha in the far ancient past before homo sapiens had evolved, yet still having a similar level of technology and culture to 500BCE Magadha), or the Anguttara Sutta – whose name I can’t remember – that says Siddhattha was a teacher in the past when the lifespan was 60 000 years.
Regarding the second point you made, I don’t think this is really an issue. To start with, though, notice that this is derived from a central doctrinal passage, and can’t be lightly dismissed as a mere parable. However, I don’t find it to be implausible that the Buddha could recollect such a vast span of time. How does memory work, anyway? We don’t really know, but we do know that astonishing feats of memory are possible. This recollection expresses the workings of perhaps the greatest mind in human history, and describe an experience that is the outcome of the most profound levels of samadhi. The mind simply works differently there, time does not work in the same way. I don’t think we can really compare in any straightforward way to our everyday experience.
And a further query if you don’t mind…..
In your response to Glenn Wallis earlier in this post you say:
”The notion that Buddhist discourse on other realms is metaphysical is in fact an unwarranted intrusion of Western dualism. (Here, ‘metaphysics’ is used in its traditional sense as ‘the “science” that studied “being as such” or “the first causes of things” or “things that do not change.”) Such matters are inherently unknowable, whereas all Buddhist truth claims are knowable, and may in fact be known by the practice of the Buddhist path. This is completely different than the situation in, say, Christianity, where the omniscience of God, or the fact that he created the Universe, may never be known by any existing or imaginable form of knowledge.”
But didn’t the Buddha attain a breadth (if not depth) of knowledge that no arahant (and therefore potentially the rest of us) has achieved? (I am confident I have heard you say this in one of your talks.) For example, has any arahant achieved the breadth (and depth) the Buddha achieved with the Three Knowledges on the night of his awakening?
Even if an arahant has achieved this, what is it that distinguishes the Buddha from an arahant? Whatever that is, isn’t that unachievable and therefore unknowable to the rest of us?
Could you please clarify this for me?
Much appreciate your time
Actually the Suttas don’t really say that the knowledge of the Buddha is inherently greater than that of arahants, although it certainly seems to be the case from a number of stories and situations. In any case, this is simply a matter of degree.
Stephen Hawkings knows things that I don’t. And I presume that, even if I were to devote my life to understanding physics, there would still be things that he knew that I wouldn’t. People are different in the mental capacities. This doesn’t mean that the difference is unbridgeable. I can know less than someone, but still I can ask, discuss, learn. I can appreciate that what they know is of the same order as the things I know, and that they have learnt them in the same way I have learnt the things I know, only they’ve done it better. So we can bridge the gap by inference, if by nothing else.
Remember, empiricism as I understand it, and as presented in the Suttas, does not mean ‘direct experience only’. (This is a fallacy commonly found among certain modern meditation teachers, but clearly against the Suttas and the entire Buddhist tradition, in India at least.) It means ‘direct experience’ (paccakkha) and ‘inference’ (anumāna). What inference is exactly is hard to pin down. Practically, it means that we stay relatively close to experience. If I have never drunk wine, I will have hardly any idea what it tastes like. But if I have drunk wine regularly for many years, I may never have had a Chateaux de Chateaux (which I hear is very passable), but I will have a pretty good idea what it will taste like.
Similarly, if I have recollected, say 3 or 4 past lives, it is not such a big leap to 30 or 40, or 300 or 400 lives. The basic fact of the thing is more or less the same.
This contrasts with what I have characterized as ‘metaphysical’ claims. The difference is precisely the difference between a very very big number and infinity. The Buddha claims to have exercised his memory over billions of years. The difference between that and our ordinary experience of time is very great, but not outside the capacities of inference. After all, geology and astrophysics claim to tell us what happened billions of years ago, relying on inference from fairly sketchy data.
Most religious doctrines, however, speak of eternity. God, the soul, the atman, heaven, or whatever lasts not for mere billions of years, but literally forever. It is not possible, and never will be possible, to infer from the data available in this temporal world to ‘eternity’. Any claim to ‘know’ this eternity is a claim to know something that is utterly and absolutely outside any experience of consciousness.
I hope that helps to clarify, please keep the questions coming. And I’ll see you on Thursday!