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!

84 thoughts on “Secular Buddhism – some more bits

  1. >> The Buddha claims to have exercised his memory over billions of years

    Hi Bhante,

    Can I ge the reference for this? I can’t seem to find it.


    • Umm, where is it now – the suttas say, if I remember rightly, ’91 aeons’; if an aeon is the same as the period from one big bang to another, this is now estimated at 13.75 billion years/cycle…

  2. First, let’s all hope that the friendly debate helps raise some funds for the Buddhist Library’s Cambodia Project!

    Regarding what is called secular Buddhism, in the article linked above, Dr. Higgins writes that Batchelor discerned a “deep agnosticism” in the Buddha’s own teaching. That’s not entirely correct. Batchelor offered assertions based on misinterpretations of a few passages from a couple of suttas. Batchelor didn’t discern a “deep agnosticism” in the Buddha’s teaching so much as he inaccurately asserted that there is a “deep agnosticism” in the Buddha’s teaching. There’s a difference. To my knowledge, the Buddha didn’t teach that he wasn’t sure about what he had discovered upon awakening.

    Otherwise, Dr. Higgins review of the shift from a monastic to a lay setting as Buddhist practices moved to the West (where, he says, it has attracted attention among those more familiar with the category of voluntary association in Western civil society) is entirely irrelevant to the discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of this secular Buddhism. Those who find benefits in the limited practices of what is called secular Buddhism, who seek a little bit of extra comfort in samsaric existence and who care not at all about the worldview of the Buddha, about the discovery he made, or about the goal of the Dhammavinaya, which is to help others reach the same shore, should not be tricked into thinking that the Buddha was really just one of them. He wasn’t. It’s just a fact.

    It’s incorrect to say that all Batchelor is doing is participating in the “re-rendering of Buddhism in culturally appropriate terms for Westerners who, from the 1970s, began to practice meditation seriously in this tradition in significant numbers.” To put this another way, if all the spiritual guidance and writings of the monks and nuns since the 1970s were taken away, or even if those who are teaching us and writing today were just to stop now, it would become apparent in no time that what is called secular Buddhism is not Buddhism at all and that it offers little more than the therapeutic value that, say, a good vacation can offer. In other words, it offers nothing more than a respite from work, materialism, and the fast pace of the modern world, much like what a good vacation offers.

    Finally, vipassana practice is about perceiving dukkha, anicca and anatta directly as a means to enlightenment. So what then is the goal of secular vipassana meditation practice? If it’s about achieving insight into the miserable nihilism that ultimately is the sum total of Batchelor’s teaching, then may their practice go well.


  3. Well, that’s a pretty hard assessment. I agree that removing rebirth ennervates the ultimate purpose of the Buddhist practice, but there is surely something more to it than just a holiday! While I don’t follow Batchelor down every path, I do appreciate that he is, in his own way, grappling with important questions, questions that the traditions often dismiss simply by saying, “That’s not what the Buddha said.” Yes, fair enough, that may be true – although it is equally true of many of the things asserted by the traditions – but it is only a starting point.

    • My assessment of what is called secular Buddhism does not stem from a sense that there is nothing of value in the practice that is presented in by people calling themselves secular Buddhists.

      It stems from a concern about Batchelor and others making claims about the Buddha’s teaching as part of what appears to be an effort to inappropriately claim authority for their piecemeal approach to his teaching.

      Batchelor’s teaching is obviously based on what the Buddha taught. It may even be better than what the Buddha taught (I don’t think it is). But it is not what the Buddha taught. If he cared about the Buddha’s teaching at all, he whould stop claiming that it is.

    • Again, well, kinda yeah. But really (to play Mara’s advocate here) is what he’s teaching actually any further removed from the Buddha’s teaching than what is routinely taught in any number of ‘traditional’ Buddhist schools? In some respects, like rebirth, I would say yes; but in other ways he is getting at things the traditions do in fact ignore. I’m not really trying to take sides here, just lookin’ for a little nuance…

      Having said which, I do agree with your basic point: I would be more comfortable if he described his philosophy as ‘Buddhist-inspired Humanism’ or something. But that raises the problem: do we really want to start making standards for what can be considered ‘Buddhism’? Not a very comfortable place to be…

    • It’s not Buddhism without the ultimate goal of the cessation of suffering. The temporary reduction of suffering is fine, but the Third and Fourth Noble Truths have a goal.

      Honestly, I am comfortable saying that any philosophy that does not uphold the cessation of suffering as the ultimate goal is not Buddhism. Batchelor offers the temporary reduction of suffering. Unless I’m missing something, there’s nothing more to his teaching.

  4. There’s another aspect of this issue that comes to mind.

    For all their shortcomings, the monastic traditions provide an environment that is conducive to studying the Buddhadhamma, and more importantly, practising and realising the fruits of the practice. Out of these traditions emerge many Monks and Nuns who have developed the practice to a high level, and from these there are a number who also have the temperament and skill to teach the next generation of trainees.

    The ‘secular’ alternative offers opportunity to study and to practise, but not to the extent that many of its followers could be expected to reach deep levels of realisation. It is unlikely to produce a steady flow of graduates with a deep enough understanding and experience to be able to teach at anything beyond a quite basic level.

    It therefore seems that secular Buddhism is not self-sustaining, relying instead on a stream of disrobing monastics to refresh the ranks of its teachers.

    In the end, this may not be a bad thing. At least the content of what is taught in this way should not continue to diverge from the core teachings.

    Or, perhaps we will see the emergence of a new ‘branch’ of Buddhism with its own monastic institutions – anyone for “Seculayana”?

  5. I still like that exchange between the Zen master and his pupil:

    Pupil: What happens after death?
    Master: I don’t know
    Pupil: What do you mean you don’t know? Aren’t you a great Zen master?
    Master: Yes, but I’m not a dead one

    I think Batchelor et al are merely interpreting the Buddha’s teachings from this perspective and suspect maybe the Buddha had a similar inclination before it became a religion. After all, none of us are dead ones (yet).

  6. Geoff wrote: ” After all, none of us are dead ones (yet).”

    That’s based on the assumption that one has to dead to know if there is rebirth or not and that there are no other way for a living person to know directly. ( However, if you are not able to know it directly through various means than you are entitled to not believe. Not directly knowing is not evidence enough to refute the existence of rebirth though.)

  7. PS Bhante

    Sorry I won’t be able to make it onThursday – I’m going away with the wife & kids for a few days – get more secular!! Give my regards to Winton

    For those who are interested, Winton Higgins is interviewed on The Secular Buddhist site (podcast). Glenn Wallis among others is also interviewed (for those brave enough to venture on the Dark Side).

    PPS By the way, where are you Glenn? I enjoyed you stirring the possum.

  8. Dear iMeditation

    Batchelor is not refuting the existence of rebirth. He is merely saying that while rebirth is very hard to refute, it is also very hard to prove and therefore best put to one side. (How do you prove the non existence of something? – this is the trick the Dalai Lama uses). Batchelor is happy for there to be more scientific research into the occurence of rebirth but would like to see more conclusive evidence. By the way, he is critical of Ian Stevenson’s research for not being rigorous enough, not that it has taken place eg has it undergone peer review etc, as we expect from other scientific research?

    Again for those who are prepared to venture – recent Batchelor talks can be heard on * (But don’t tell Ajahn Brahm – lol)

    I also admire Batchelor for being prepared to stick his neck out and presenting his perspective in an intelligent and polite manner.

    I think the reaction of Ratanadhammo et al says as much about themselves as about Batchelor. If Batchelor is irrelevant, why pay any attention to him?



  9. Robert, the topic of teacher credentials is quite active in secular Buddhist groups. It’s true — street cred as a teacher is currently based on having been a monastic. And perhaps over time that will change.

    Ratanadhammo, though you are correct that this new form is based on the teachings of the Buddha, it is not dependent on him any more than the veracity of e=mc2 is dependent on Einstein. If the dhamma is an accurate reflection of suffering and its cure, it is so for all sentient beings, not just those who adhere to a worldview from another land, time, and culture. We disagree about the result of our practice, certainly — I am convinced of the cessation of any possibility of any rebirth, due to a lack of evidence for any other result. That does not mean others are not welcome and encouraged to hold that view if it fosters their engagement with the eightfold path, it simply means I require the same evidence for it as you and I both ask for any other tradition’s belief about what happens when we die.

    • You’ve missed my point. What you’re calling Buddhism – albeit of a secular kind – does not offer a cure to suffering. It offers nothing more than a temporary reduction of suffering.

      What confuses me most about this secular Buddhism is why its adherents feel the need to assert that it is an accurate – indeed, a more accurate – representation of what the Buddha taught. It isn’t. There’s not even much to debate about the fact that it isn’t, which may explain why Batchelor – one of the main advocates who bases his claim to having authority to spout nonsense on the fact that he was a former monk – decided a few years back that he really had to stop debating it with people who know better.

      Get Batchelor here to debate what could possibly be the basis for the moral order of the universe as he understands it. Would it be e=mc2? What else could it be? Let me guess, the master of agnostic nonsense would say, “I just don’t know.” The Buddha had a few things to say about people who spun entire webs based on the unedifying phrase “I just don’t know.” Come to think of it, I think he more or less mocked them.

    • The Secular Buddhist:

      I just noticed that you provided the link to your website.

      Your Mission Statement begins with this assertion: “Share accurate information, clarify misperceptions, and critically examine the teaching and practice of early Buddhism of interest to a secular audience.”

      Any critical examination of the teaching and practice of early Buddhism must be a comprehensive examination of the teaching and practice of early Buddhism. You cannot dismiss this fact by adding to your assertion a clause like “of interest to a secular audience,” as if that gives you license to be selective in your examination while still calling it critical. You certainly have a right to chop up the Buddha’s teaching if you like. You should not, however, pretend that the results of what you’ve done to it amount to a critical examination of the teaching and practice of early Buddhism.

      After an odd nod to the style of the Pali Canon, i.e. your statement that you’ve made an attempt to imitate something of its style, you assert that your goal is to separate “what is accurate and what is not” in order to arrive at the “best understanding of what early Buddhism presents.”

      Well, what do you think that early Buddhism presents according to the Pali Canon?

      You write: “The Pali canon is a common root in Buddhist thought, and offers practical insights to leading a tranquil, happy life without dependency on anything but oneself.”

      The Buddha’s teaching as presented in the Pali Canon is most certainly not about merely “leading a tranquil, happy life” in the sense that you think it means, i.e. an ability to achieve a lasting happiness in this life. If you believe that such a lasting happiness is possible in samsaric existence, fine. But you cannot claim that such a belief accurately reflects the Buddha’s teaching as presented in the Pali Canon.

      And you certainly are free to think that you can cure suffering “without dependency on anything but [yourself],” but you can’t dismiss the fact that the Pali Canon presents the Dhammavinaya for a good reason. While it’s possible to become self-awakened, it’s exceedingly rare. That’s why the Buddha taught the Dhamma and formed the Sangha. To my knowledge, as presented in the Pali Canon, every one of the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis who entered the stream from the time the Buddha awakened to his Parinibbana did so as a result of his teaching, i.e. they did so not without dependency on anything but themselves. You have inappropriately tossed taking refuge in the Three Jewels as if there’s no basis for it in the Pali Canon.

      The closest thing to a goal of your secular Buddhism that I can find on your website amounts to finding a bit of comfort in samsaric existence, what you call “leading a tranquil, happy life” on the Mission page, and the notion that there being a community of practitioners is integral to “the positive development of society” on the Guiding Principles page.

      Neither of these goals is what is presented in the Pali Canon as the ultimate goal of the Dhammavinaya.

      If you return to Bhante Sujato’s blog, we should take a closer look at the way in which your views would twist the meaning of a sutta like the Upanissa Sutta, only to rob from it what the Buddha taught about the ability to gain knowledge of things as they really are and only to deny the ultimate goal of the Buddha’s teaching as presented in the Pali Canon, all while you’re inappropriately pretending that all you’re doing is examining critically his insight and teaching as presented in the Pali Canon.

    • Hi, Ratanadhammo — thank you for your replies, I do appreciate the dialogue and the points you are making. I want to give them thoughtful and meaningful responses, but am just packing for a trip out of town for a few days. I hope you will be patient, will start writing a reply tomorrow at the airport.

      With Metta

    • I think the first best step, focusing on the Upanisa Sutta, is to point out how your views fail to penetrate the meaning of dependent co-arising as presented in the Pali Canon and how your views, in fact, invert the meaning of saddha so that there is no possibility to gain knowledge of things as they really are or possibility of realizing the ultimate goal of the Buddha’s teaching as presented in the Pali Canon.

      Next, I was going to point out how your views not only twist what the Buddha taught about dukkha, but also what he taught about anicca and especially what he taught about anatta.

      Without an understanding of anatta, there is no possibility for enlightenment or for ultimate liberation from suffering as it is presented in the Pali Canon.

    • Ven. Ratanadhammo,

      Like Robert and Alan, you are very sharp. Your argument has not actually touches or bring out any facts from the Canon yet. And yet your argument is sound just by merely using certain tool from a Philosophy branch called Logic.

      It is great that you are pointing out stuffs that people like me have difficulty understanding, and will not be taken for a ride.

    • easycompany,

      There is a limit to how far human reason can take us, but it’s definitely important to developing an understanding of the Dhamma.

      Perhaps that’s one of the key differences:

      I believe that the Dhamma as presented in the Pali Canon is correct and that there is more than what my senses and reason can perceive or discern.

      Secular Buddhists say that there’s nothing of value beyond what they can know via their senses and reason, thus they reject any notion of transcendental reality.

  10. Bhante sujato,

    I hope you don’t mind me asking why is it that pay lip service to democracy and yet censure people or block them when they express themselves. Why was Easycompany’s post deleted ?

  11. Ajahn Sujato,

    This is your blog. It is your full right, the right you have taken away from other and, very soon, me, to censored because my comment does not help you in anyway in dealing with this issue. But without me and others who sees differently on this issue (and maybe even trying to end this mess), the blog would not be so color full and it would be boring, wouldn’t you think? I mean hearing only praises and no blames. By the way guys, thanks for the back up (ice, Mocha), I appreciate your support eventhough they might think otherwise, but this is democracy. Oh, if you only prefer to hear one side of the opinion that support your campaign or whatever, is not that Communism?

    But if I still can post some more in the future, I might want to touch on other subjects, such as the book burning that might have contain Luang Poo Mum Pictures and Luang Ta Mahabua pictures and “Buddha Dhamma” volume by Venerable Payut Payutto. And of course this was a rumor and I have no concrete proofs or supports of it. But I know someone who might have come accross this matter and probably has proof. If it did not happened then it is ok, but if it has – it is like a cult thing of something that happened in history long time ago.

    If I am still alive I will see you guys again, but I am not holding my breath.. I had to do this, I had to come forward..

    “I dare do all that may become a man, who dares more is none”

  12. The area I struggle most with “Secular Buddhism” is that they have no answer (at least none that anybody has clearly explained to me) for the nihilism that seems deeply embedded in their approach.

    Why should we follow the Buddhist path when all aspects of what we are now are extinguished completely at death? If our (whatever “our” means) suffering completely ends at death, then is working toward awakening the best use of our time? In that world view wouldn’t the best way to reduce suffering to get rich and then use the power of wealth to improve the world? Suffering will end completely in death (in my understanding of Secular Buddhism), why work toward the end of suffering in this life? It will all be over soon, and if it gets too much, just commit suicide. That will end your suffering. Maybe the best way to enjoy our time in that universe is to have lots of sex. Being rich will help that, too. If you are only going to live 40-80 years and then kaput, distraction and climbing to the top of the material heap works just fine to keep you happy.

    Also, how many people will awaken fully in this life if they just have one life to follow the path? If my understanding of the Buddha’s core teachings are right, almost no one, not even the Buddha would have achieved full awakening if that was the case.

    The Buddha teaches that the reality of the world is middle way between eternalism (atta) and nihilism (complete destruction at death). I think that is a core teaching, not something on the fringes of his thought. Rebirth, in the Buddha’s teaching, is key to how the universe avoids the two extremes.

    Not making rebirth a core teaching because it is impossible to prove is not an argument that I agree with (yet). If there is skeptical and unbiased research to reproduce the work of the University of Virginia research into the previous life memories of children, and that research does not reproduce UofV’s results, then I might consider this a subject that can not be proved via scientific methods.

    But then, how can we prove any subjective experience?

    • Alan, this is the common critique of nihilism you get to hear from Christians, Moslems and every member of a faith group which does put much focus on after death. The most compassionate reply out of one’s own experience is, that those people, how old they might be, in their life time have failed to get intimate with themselves.
      There’s a substantial difference between Buddhism and other religions and because of it Buddhism deserves to be looked at as science of the mind: Every single peace of the core teachings is applicable to the short or long, happy or unhappy life we lead – until we die. This includes every aspect of the N8P. It’s a pity that religious people are limited to see human beings inherently as a egoistic, greedy bunch.
      If the Dhamma would apply only in relation to after death, of what meager value the teachings would be. They are much more, and many people do not realize this, with belief in ritual, blind faith and a flawed trust in the Dhamma to follow them on their ways.

    • Terrance,

      Yes, but there’s nothing new about that fact that Secular Buddhists had to uncover. In itself, the notion that the Dhamma is beneficial within this life is not a new contribution at all. The idea that the Dhamma is pretty much only beneficial within this one life, on the other hand, is all theirs…

    • Hello Alan,

      There are a couple of assumptions made in your comments that I’d like to address.

      One is that Secular Buddhists (as a whole) are certain there is no rebirth: many Secular Buddhists are agnostics who neither affirm nor deny rebirth — they acknowledge that it’s not in their direct experience so there’s no information there to use as a basis for making choices in life: no visible data on “cause and effect” as relates to rebirth.

      Another assumption you make is that certainty that there is no rebirth (let’s call that “atheism” though it’s a misuse of the term) equates to “nihilism”. Certainly Buddhist atheists say there is no *self* that goes on into a new life after death, but then, so do Buddhists of all traditions, don’ they? Does that mean that nothing we do in this life moves on? Atheists can see as well as anyone can that, sure, the consequences of our actions in this life get carried forward into the next — isn’t that what Buddhists believe too? They call the actions “karma” and the results “vipaka” and the unused vipaka carries on after death, doesn’t it? In one sense what the Buddha taught was nihilism — that what passes for the self is utterly destroyed at death (if not before then) and does not go on; the only sense in which anything to do with the individual in this life gets carried forward into the next is through that unused vipaka (unless you are working from one of the later schools that feels certain that consciousness moves on). Buddhist atheists seem to be saying pretty much the same thing — the part of us that moves forward, the part we are responsible for in this life, is the results of our actions, and if atheists say that our individual selves are not there in the future to “feel” that result, the Buddha says the same.

      A third assumption you make is that Secular Buddhists don’t find any wisdom in the Buddha’s teaching at all. (“If you are only going to live 40-80 years and then kaput, distraction and climbing to the top of the material heap works just fine to keep you happy.”) You point out that, without rebirth, wealth, power and sex would be the way to go, as if you believe that these *are* in some way satisfying, as if a good rebirth is the *only* point of the Buddha’s path. This makes me wonder if you feel it is some great sacrifice to give up hedonism or the pursuit of wealth or power — you feel they *are* inherently satisfying? that they don’t just lead to more suffering due to impermanence? — and so the Buddha was misleading us in teaching that these things are inherently *unsatisfying* and they lead only to suffering? — that either impermanence and suffering wasn’t part of his point or it is untrue — and only following the moral system that leads to good rebirth matters? Because, as an agnostic Buddhist myself, what I find is that the Buddha had a good point, with or without rebirth, things *are* impermanent, and trying to act as if they are — and we are — only leads to problems. Secular Buddhists recognize that the *whole* of the dharma works, with or without evidence of (or faith in) literal rebirth: all that stuff he taught about how we create our own suffering proves, on testing, to be true.

      I’d also like to point out that *if* this is the only life I get — I don’t *know* that it is, of course, but it is the only one I have direct evidence for — then why would I want to lead a life based on a false understanding of the world, a false understanding that fouls up all my interactions, results in me suffering more and causing more suffering to those around me? Why would I not want to make what might be my only shot be the best it can be? And if it turns out that rebirth is the cosmic order, won’t I have done the best possible thing by applying myself as if this were my only shot?

      I don’t find the “suffering” I do in this life to be so horrid that I would choose death and oblivion in preference. Some people do, of course, but it seems the vast majority of humans prefer life to just about any amount of suffering that is thrown at them — loss of everyone and everything they love in a tsunami, years in captivity being tortured — they keep on preferring a life with suffering to no life at all (even with the promise of heavenly life after death, people prefer to go on) so the argument that without rebirth, suicide is the best choice just flies in the face of observable human nature.

      Your point about the many lives it takes to be liberated is a bit of circular logic. If we take the stories of many past lives literally, then yes it takes many lives to be liberated. If we take the stories about past lives to be just that: stories (or metaphors), then there is no evidence that it takes many lives. There is, actually, a lot of evidence that it can be done in this very life: the Buddha pokes fun at those setting the intention to get a good rebirth — he does so at great length — and suggests that, instead, one could just practice and be liberated now. That generic advice, offered many times in the suttas, would not be appropriate in a world where most people still had many lifetimes to go before enlightenment — they should, then, aim for that good rebirth — but if it is possible for every one of us — if we turn our full attention to it — then making fun of aiming at a rebirth and suggesting aiming at liberation makes sense.

      In the end, the path that focuses on liberation from suffering in this life is the one that makes the most sense to me. Whether there is that “other world” so often referred to in the scriptures, or not, a practice where I put my best efforts into doing the best I can in this life will have the best possible outcome.

    • “With regard to this, a wise person considers thus: ‘If there is the next world, then this venerable person — on the break-up of the body, after death — will reappear in the good destination, the heavenly world. 

      Even if we didn’t speak of the next world, and there weren’t the true statement of those venerable brahmans & contemplatives, this venerable person is still praised in the here-&-now by the wise as a person of good habits & right view: one who holds to a doctrine of existence. 

      If there really is a next world, then this venerable person has made a good throw twice, in that he is praised by the wise here-&-now; and in that — with the break-up of the body, after death — he will reappear in the good destination, the heavenly world. 

      Thus this safe-bet teaching, when well grasped & adopted by him, covers both sides, and leaves behind the possibility of the unskillful.

  13. Hi qbrick, this is not a critique of Buddhism, which is not nihilistic (the Buddha’s teaching of rebirth takes care of that), but of Secular Buddhism, which I believe is nihilistic. I’ll admit I’m not sure I’m using the right term (nihilism is perhaps not right term, perhaps annihilationist is better?) but my questions are still the same.

    But really, if you are going to die completely at death, why study Buddhism? You will certainly gain some benefits in this life, but you probably won’t awake fully, few do. You will be happier, but would this study be the best use of your time? Would there be easier paths of happiness if we only lived one life? Distraction and money work fine in this life if you only have to distract “yourself” for 40-80 years. Doing so for a few hundred lives, though, just doesn’t work.

    And is “the” (I only use “the” here because English requires it) unconditioned, unborn, possible if mind does not exist in some form after death? What does it mean to be an Arahant in a the universe of Secular Buddhism? In Secular Buddhism, what does it mean to beyond death, as the Buddha and Arahants are taught to be in conventional Buddhism.

    Note that I am not Christian, Muslim, etc. but am a serious and dedicated practitioner of Theravada Buddhism. So these are not questions asked out of ignorance or out of an attempt to denigrate Buddhism in any form. That said, I’ll be the first to admit I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

    But the Buddha’s teaching with Rebirth answers these questions. And to my knowledge, Secular Buddhism does not. If I am wrong about this I would enjoy reading your answers.

    And if Rebirth bothers you because it can not be proved scientifically, have you thought about not studying consciousness? Science has no way of proving if something is conscious (not proof, just correlation). Science also has no way of proving that Arahants exist, either. There might be something seen in a sophisticated brain scan or a Arahant, but that is not proof, just correlation. Prove scientifically that the Buddha, (Ahjan Chah, etc.) was fully awake…can’t be done.

    • To qbrick, in my past post the term “you” was not directed at you, qbrick, but at the Secular Buddhist community in general. I apologize for not being clearer and hope I did not cause offense.

    • Alan, this is a positive comment to you. you are very sharp and as I am reading your opinion, my eyes are tearing and I am convulsing with laughter. This shows that you are real, for sure.

      Well done.

  14. Alan, orthodox Buddhists and those you call secular Buddhists can very well practice side-by-side, without one knowing from the other if he/she is a secular or an orthodox. Scientific proof for rebirth is not what I seek. I seek for realizing/comprehending the three marks of existence in the present moment. You do the same. No difference! The Buddha recommended to drop the past and not to care for the future. It’s only natural that Western Buddhists with a secular background insist on the irrelevance of after death rebirths, but do care more for the re-becoming after this moment. For a lot of Westerners to have saddha in the Dhamma when considering our constant every-day re-becomings is a huge challenge already.
    I always found the Theravada path to be a path of liberation, not a quasi-theological cosmology. And there were and are a lot of valuable teachers in this school, who put the focus on the core of the teachings dropping the question of rebirth completely. (there are even respected Asian teachers, who interprete the pali term the ‘literal rebirth crowd’ is relying on, in a totally different way). It’s beyond me that in the XXI. century Western Buddhists arise to make a rollback away from what the Theravadan renaissance has brought us. I hope this is not the case, but only part of a Zeitgeist where even some Westerners think, to believe such things, to be more religious, to make a reconquista of the mystical realms would be a good thing.

    “But really, if you are going to die completely at death, why study Buddhism? You will certainly gain some benefits in this life, but you probably won’t awake fully, few do. You will be happier, but would this study be the best use of your time?”

    First of all, what do you expect not to die with death? The khandas – gone. What else? Nothing personal, that’s for sure. But Alan is a person quarrelling with me about the matter.
    Next, unborn not dying, sounds wonderful. Something of my puny distracted existence survives the dissolving of the khandas. Besides that it might feel warm and cosy for the person believing it, the unborn is not a perspective for this moment; ever tried to dwell in it for a while?
    You mentioned shortly Ajahn Chah (I’ve read everything of A. Chah I could grab); ever read this piece where he gives a last teaching to a dying woman? What is our real home he asks? Inner peace, he answers. What does he teach this old dying lady? Impermanence all the way. Rebirth wtf???
    Next, only few fully awake, you say. Well, the modern times are evil, with evil people living in them. At the golden age of The Buddha, people awakened one after one, legions of people did. But today we are living in deterioration, do we. Not really. I hope to awaken as much as possible, I strive to end dukkha, but if I fail, I have to endure dukkha. When taking into account that religion is derived from ‘religare’, then virtually this is a religious attitude. I hate to say it, since I am a secular.

    • The unborn IS a perspective for this moment!
      Bankei (late 17th century) is just great. Of course, no pragraph without the mention of hell and hungry ghosts and this medieval spawn, BUT: in applying his gloomy words of warning to reality, he always drops into the present. 😀

    • I seek for realizing/comprehending the three marks of existence in the present moment. You do the same. No difference!

      There is a difference. A Secular Buddhist will never fully penetrate the three marks – particularly anatta. Everything is just processes upon processes, right? Even the Buddha’s awakening is reduced by Secular Buddhists to an ongoing process that was never completed, not even, according to Secular Buddhists, when he fell over dead.

      I believe, on the other hand, that the purpose of meditation practice is to achieve a goal: awakening.

    • Ratanadhammo,

      I am not clear on what you are saying here: “Even the Buddha’s awakening is reduced by Secular Buddhists to an ongoing process that was never completed.” Could you please spell this out in greater detail?

      Thanks! and metta

    • Star,

      One way to reduce the Buddha’s teaching to something we can confirm is the simple process of cause-and-effect. And one way to think of the three marks of existence is that all phenoma are impermanent and interdependent with other things for their moment to moment appearance of existence. In this sense, there are processes all around us all the time, including the five khandha that give me the appearance of having a self.

      My assertion regarding the Secular Buddhist idea of the Buddha’s awakening being nothing more than an ongoing process that was never completed comes straight out of what Dr. Higgins said in the debate with Bhante Sujato last night (for me, very early this morning!). That’s exactly what he said, so I’d have to refer you to him for further clarification of what he meant by his assertion. Part of the point he was making with it was a rejection of anything transcendental – or complete – about the Buddha’s awakening under the Bodhi tree.

    • Ah, thanks Ratanadhammo. I think I was just thrown off by the wording of “incomplete process” when related to anatta — I was pretty sleepy myself during the talk, so I may have missed it if Dr. Higgins used those terms.

      Anatta is not a process that can ever be completed (anatta being a process that causes us to have a sense of a lasting self) any more than the process that creates light from a light bulb is ever “complete”. So “completion” doesn’t apply to “anatta” (though “destruction” sure does! — tear out the wiring!). We want that light to be ongoing.

      Completion is important to enlightenment though, in that there is “a process of enlightenment”. The difference between the two processes can be seen through Dependent Origination steps 1-12 = anatta-process (which is a description of the electrical system, so to speak), and Upanisa Dependent Origination (steps 13-24) = enlightenment, which the suttas show as having an end point.

      And yes, Dr. Higgins seemed to be saying that enlightenment is perceived by Secular Buddhists as being something that is never complete, that one never can fully destroy anatta. I don’t know that all Secular Buddhists take it that way, but certainly many that I have encountered do.

      Is that what you’re saying is the problem? If it is, I don’t see how that is “not penetrating the three marks — particularly anatta”.

      I see it as a fine penetration of what the three marks are, but a disagreement about what enlightenment is — a disagreement based on how Secular practice rests on what we can see rather than on speculation and faith in transmission of the teaching as dead-accurate and perfectly understood. The Secular Buddhists in this discussion haven’t experienced enlightenment so they cannot say that it is possible, and they don’t find it necessary to have faith that it is possible in order to practice — they will go as far as they can and if they become enlightened, then they will know what it is — speculation is pretty useless. But when enlightenment is defined as something mystical, some otherworldly state, they get a little skeptical. I think it is the perception of how enlightenment is defined that is the root of the difference in views.

      (see my most recent post under “Secular Buddhism discussion – live streaming” for a way of looking at it that, I think, reconciles the two points of view)

    • Star,

      Of the three marks, anatta is the only one that applies to both Dependent Origination steps 1-12 and Upanisa Dependent Origination (steps 13-24). In other words, both dukkha and anicca are characteristics of all things that are subject to causes and conditions, while anatta is a characteristic of both things that are subject to causes and conditions and the Unconditioned.

      The reason I’m saying there’s a problem with the view of Secular Buddhists is that the first step of Upanisa Dependent Origination (steps 13-24) is saddha, a confidence that the teaching of the Buddha can reveal more than what I can know by means of senses and/or reason alone. As I understand the teaching of the Buddha, being agnostic won’t get you to awakening. That’s the whole point of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and trusting in the roadmap even when it might seem at moments to not fit, well, our samsaric conditioning.

    • Confidence comes from hearing a sensible teaching on what it’s all about (first step); trying it out and seeing it work (second step); and continuing along that line as we come to understand more and more. Confidence doesn’t come from accepting something blindly — that’s faith.

    • I agree. The point is not that you have to accept something blindly and that it will never be confirmed by means of experience. The point is that there are things that an awakened one, like the Buddha, could know because he’s experienced it, but that you and I, who are not yet awakened, cannot know yet because we have not yet achieved the insight and capacity to know things as they really are.

      You start with confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. After accepting things that may seem to us as counterintuitive (even impossible based on what we know from our senses and reasoning) and after a lot of practice, we finish with awakening.

      This is what the Buddha meant in the Kalama Sutta, by the way. His point is not that we should be constantly skeptical about all teachings. He meant that we should start with a teaching that seems valid, try it out with all sincerity as far as possible, and decide whether or not it’s valid only after making as much effort as possible to see if it bears the fruit of awakening.

      Note, for example, how far he went with the teachings of Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta and how far he took his ascetic pratices before concluding that they weren’t quite right or weren’t quite enough!

      What you’re suggesting is that a person who’s vision is clouded by the kilesas and asavas can evaluate the most subtle aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. I’m saying that such a person is very unlikely to get it right without trusting the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.

  15. Dear Ven.Ratanadhammo,

    “Secular Buddhists say that there’s nothing of value beyond what they can know via their senses and reason, thus they reject any notion of transcendental reality.”

    If there is nothing beyond what they can know via their senses and reason and so they reject any notion of transcendental reality, then what are the dogs barking at? Most animals can senses more than we could and maybe even see through their natural senses ( I don’t know how, but). And this just only within our realm (form state). And one more thing it would be foolish to dismissed other worlds existence since I can still see stars at night.

    “It is just goes to show that what the eyes can not see, the heart does not gieve over”

  16. Bhante

    re your remark:”And has Batchelor’s work on early Buddhism been peer reviewed?”:

    Yes it has, by a number of critics such as Bhikkhu Bodhi – but I haven’t seen any reviews of Stevenson by fellow scientists. I can certainly find plenty of sceptics.

    Can you please provide me some peer reviews so I can make an informed assessment, as I can with Batchelor?



    • A few moments spent checking the list of publications at Ian Stevenson’s website is enough to show that the ‘no peer review’ criticism is a pure furphy: there are dozens of peer reviewed essays listed.

      Incidentally, this page also refers to the fantastic recent book, Irreducible Mind, which i have referred to in several talks these last few weeks. Now available as paperback at a very reasonable price!

      Peer review doesn’t mean that someone writes a review of your work: it means that an academic peer reviews the work before publication in an academic journal. I’m not aware of any articles of Batchelor’s that have been peer reviewed in this sense. This was not meant as a criticism, simply to point out the inconsistency of criticizing Stevenson on the (false) grounds that his work has not been peer reviewed.

    • I would think that the publisher of Batchelor’s books has an interest in not having the work peer reviewed prior to publication and enjoys the fact that those who know better spend a lot of time and energy generating controversy around it after its published.

  17. Bhante

    I should correct myself and say that I have not heard Batchelor actually make that specific criticism of Stevenson re lack of peer review, that was my assumption. From memory all I have heard Batchelor say is that Stevenson’s research has “too many holes in it” but can’t remember the specific reasons. He did say he was all in favour of further research in this area but that in the meanwhile we should put this speculation to one side.

    I would certainly like to see more scholarly reviews of Batchelor’s work.

    Incidently he also makes some interesting observations re (an earlier?) six link version of Dependant Origination as opposed to the standard twelve link version, which he says doesn’t make any specific reference to rebirth.

    To quote Batchelor re the standard twelve link DO version:

    “(It is) a causal theory of why we get born and die that is rooted in ignorance. (Get rid of ignorance, we get rid of the ‘whole problem’ ie we won’t get born again, die and suffer). That to me is metaphysics. The really tricky bit is understanding how ‘ clinging’ gives rise to ‘becoming’. How does ‘becoming’ give rise to birth? Here you get into the sort of territory of ‘how many angels are there on a pin (of a needle)’. This is extremely difficult to understand”.
    (Nameform / Consciousness talk – teachers’ retreat Springbrook Aust Oct 2010 – Dharma Seed site)

    Thank you for giving me some leads including the book you mention. Of course it’s still one thing to demonstrate an occurance of rebirth per se, it’s another to demonstrate that this was the result of kammic (ie intentional) influences.

    Correct me if I am wrong but unlike your belief in rebirth, scientific claims to truth are always provisional.

    Enjoy the Rains



    • Hi Geoff,

      Stevenson’s work has ‘too many holes’ – ha! With all due respect, the seriousness, methodology, and almost obsessive care with which Stevenson has painstakingly assembled his evidence and addressed his critics over decades leaves Batchelor’s historical work in the shade. Batchelor is a philosopher of Buddhism, who refers to ancient texts so as to find support for his ideas, rather than being a scholar of early Buddhism as such.

      It’s a relief that Batchelor accepts that the 12-link DO is in fact about rebirth, unlike so many who prefer to interpret it away. There are many variants of DO in the Suttas. While attempts have been made to argue that some of these may be earlier than the standard 12 link DO, these attempts have not, to my mind, been successful, nor have they gained wide acceptance in scholarly circles. Essentially they just come down to ‘shorter is earlier’, and such arguments are always weak unless they can be reinforced with other kinds of textual considerations, such as language, vocabulary, and so on.

      My belief in rebirth is most emphatically provisional, as are all my beliefs.

      And you are quite right, establishing that rebirth happens does not prove that everything Buddhists say about rebirth is correct, including kamma. But it’s a start!

    • Hi Bhante Sujato,
      Do you have a basis for you belief in rebirth? I’m sceptical of the rebirth, as presented by the likes of Stevenson, Ajahn Brahm etc., as it doesn’t correlate with my experience. As my own death comes nearer and as I witness my own facilities and sense of permanence fall away. Also my experience of the aged, those near to death, stroke sufferers and the very recently deceased. Also from my experience of parenthood and seeing the development of a human from birth into adulthood. My gut feeling is that the rebirth belief, and the accompanying justifications, are more grounded in a fundamental fear of mortality and wishful thinking.

    • Thanks for the link Terrance.

      I enjoid your “wild speculations”, and find something along those lines not that implausible. I think our levels of receptiveness are often underestimated.

  18. Bhante

    Thanks for your reply.

    Although you seem to go with the “shorter is earlier” thesis in your reconstruction of the Satipattana Sutta. (I’ve listened to all 3hrs 58mins of it – twice!! – maybe I should get a life – lol). You refer to it as the Source.

    From memory you argued that ‘bits’ tend to be added to suttas over time as the compilers would rather make additions for fear of leaving something out, as well as for more recent ideological reasons. This is the same point Batchelor makes.

    Why are the suttas concerning Satipattana different to those concerning Dependent Origination?

    Just like Batchelor should give more care to Stevenson, perhaps ‘traditionalists’ should visit some of Batchelor’s recent talks to make a sound assessment?

    You got to admit the issue of “becoming gives rise to rebirth” is a bit of a curly one for us “worldlings”….



    • The problem is not with the principle of ‘shorter is earlier’ – like all text critical principles, this is a useful rule of thumb. The problem is that it only really has weight when it concurs with a wide range of other methods of analysis. When i did my ‘A History of Mindfulness, I used a very wide range of methods to analyze the situation, all of which tended towards a similar conclusion. I have also read similar attempts to make such an argument regarding DO – for example, by my friend Rod Bucknell – and i was not convinced that the concurrence of different criteria all pointed in the same direction.

      It’s not valid to compare what I did with satipatthana and the suggestion that DO may have had less than 12 links originally. One is to do with a long literary text, the other with a often repeated pericope. With satipatthana, I confirmed that the basic specification of the satipatthana practice pericope is indeed virtually identical across traditions; what I showed was the the lengthy literary form that this had taken in one text was not identical across traditions. Similarly with DO, the 12 links as such are found identically across all traditions in the basic pericope, but of course the details of one particular sutta or other may be different. I am not trying to argue that the developed texts may not show signs of evolution, but that the basic specification of 12 links does not.

    • Bhante Sujato,

      It says on your website Ahjan Brahm is going to Sydney in August; but also isn’t it your retreat time – is he or is he not do you know?


      Have a great retreat 🙂

    • Geoff writes:

      You got to admit the issue of “becoming gives rise to rebirth” is a bit of a curly one for us “worldlings”….

      Yes, it is. The question is what Batchelor offers to help us understand it. To my knowledge, he offers nothing to help us understand it.

      I think it might be helpful to step back from the issue of rebirth for a moment and consider birth. At your birth, who or what was born?

      To put the whole matter another way, which of the causal links is based on something that is ultimately real according to the Buddha’s teaching?

    • Geoff, would you please define “ultimately real”? Are you talking measurable by science “utlimately real”? Or do you simply mean “not in any way metaphorical” — *literally* real? Or what?

    • Ultimate reality is that which is not dependent on any causes or conditions. The causal links of DO are not about ultimate reality so much as they are about samsara, an understanding of which helps us to get to what is ultimately real.

    • I understand the Buddhist division of reality into two, with Absolute Reality being perceived as a higher truth, thanks Ratanadhammo. But I am still not sure that that is what Geoff is talking about.

    • Oh wait, Ratanadhammo, I see now: that was *you* quoting Geoff, and then commenting. So your question is, then, in terms of the traditional Buddhist division of the world into Ultimate reality and lower reality, which you are (perhaps) saying is something like “samsaric reality” — what is “Ultimately” born at a human birth? I think the answer to that would be “nothing is” — in a world view where all the components that go into making up what we perceive as an individual are seen to be transient (samsaric), and anything that lasts beyond a life (ultimately) having come from “beginningless time” and arrived long before the moment of birth.

      I am not saying this is a worldview I would agree with, mind you, but it seems to be the view held by those who take the Buddha’s talk about the ocean of tears literally. I would disagree that he meant there to be something that moved from life to life “from beginningless time” — since that would be pretty darned eternal, wouldn’t it: something with no origin in causes. But working within a view that the Buddha was that sort of eternalist then what is born is, ultimately, nothing.

  19. Bhante

    Thanks again.

    Excuse my ignorance (no pun intended) but to get to the main point:

    How / why does / should ‘clinging’ give rise to ‘becoming’ and how does ‘becoming’ give rise to (re)birth?

    You’ll be clearing up that question for Batchelor as well.

    Much appreciated


    • Geoff,

      It looks like you missed my questions to you above.

      You wrote:

      You got to admit the issue of “becoming gives rise to rebirth” is a bit of a curly one for us “worldlings”….

      Yes, it is. The question is what Batchelor offers to help us understand it. To my knowledge, he offers nothing to help us understand it.

      I think it might be helpful to step back from the issue of rebirth for a moment and consider birth. At your birth, who or what was born?

      To put the whole matter another way, which of the causal links is based on something that is ultimately real according to the Buddha’s teaching?

  20. Maharaj: You are all drenched for it is raining hard. In my world it is always fine Weather. There is no night or day, no heat or cold. No worries beset me there, nor regrets. My mind is free of thoughts, for there are no desires to slave for.

    Questioner: Are there two worlds?

    M: Your world is transient, changeful. My world is perfect, changeless. You can tell me what you like about your world — I shall listen carefully, even with interest, yet not for a moment shall I forget that your world is not, that you are dreaming.

    Q: What distinguishes your world from mine?

    M: My world has no characteristics by which it can be identified. You can say nothing about it. I am my world. My world is myself. It is complete and perfect. Every impression is erased, every experience — rejected. I need nothing, not even myself, for myself I cannot lose.

    Q: Not even God?

    M: All these ideas and distinctions exist in your world; in mine there is nothing of the kind. My world is single and very simple.

    Q: Nothing happens there?

    M: Whatever happens in your world, only there it has validity and evokes response. In my world nothing happens.

    Q: The very fact of your experiencing your own world implies duality inherent in all experience.

    M: Verbally — yes. But your words do not reach me. Mine is a non-verbal world. In your world the unspoken has no existence. In mine — the words and their contents have no being. In your world nothing stays, in mine — nothing changes. My world is real, while yours is made of dreams.

    Q: Yet we are talking.

    M: The talk is in your world. In mine — there is eternal silence. My silence sings, my emptiness is full, I lack nothing. You cannot know my world until you are there.

    Q: It seems as if you alone are in your world.

    M: How can you say alone or not alone, when words do not apply? Of course, I am alone for I am all.

    Q: Are you ever coming into our world?

    M: What is coming and going to me? These again are words. I am. Whence am I to come from and where to go?

    Q: Of what use is your world to me?

    M: You should consider more closely your own world, examine it critically and, suddenly, one day you will find yourself in mine.

    Q: What do we gain by it?

    M: You gain nothing. You leave behind what is not your own and find what you have never lost — your own being.

    Source: “I AM THAT”, Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

    • Peter,

      Thank you for presenting this exchange. The Buddha dismissed the distinction, teaching instead anatta – no-self. For an arahant, there is no “your” world or “my” world, no “yours” or “mine” at all. The distinction, instead, is between those who are attached to self and perceive phenonema through the lens of self, and those who are not and do not.

  21. Bhante,

    In case you get a chance to respond before you go on the Rains (I certainly got wet coming to work today – lol)

    Thanks again for your previous response re DO.

    Excuse my ignorance (no pun intended) but to get to the main point:

    How / why does / should ‘clinging’ give rise to ‘becoming’ and how does ‘becoming’ give rise to (re)birth?

    You’ll be clearing up that question for Batchelor as well.

    Much appreciated


  22. Peter

    I don’t know if Bhante is still there….

    (Unless we are enquirying about his new book – lol)



    • Just to clarify, I am still checking my blog and email at this time as I am following up on the situation with the nun in Nepal. There are some positive developments happening and I want to do my bit to help. However, i won’t be getting into any in-depth Dhamma discussions until the end of the vassa, i’m afraid.

  23. Peter

    Don’t hold your breath. I have a backlog of about half a dozen queries from Bhante going back to June. He is now fired up with the release of his new book, so I expect that to be the dominant issue in October.

    Maybe I’m being a bit cheeky here but I would have thought Bhante’s primary role was to help us grapple with the issues that matter to us, matters of life and death literally. I would have thought his own pet projects would be a minor issue.


    • Geoff,

      I’ve tried to engage you in discussion several times now, only to be ignored. Frankly, it’s becoming hard to see you as a sincere person trying to understand the Buddha’s teaching as much as someone who drops by only to try pulling at threads in the teaching to see if it’ll unravel.

      If Stephen Batchelor wants to play the role of the Dan Brown of Buddhism, it’s not Bhante’s role to give all his attention to unraveling Batchelor’s messes.

  24. Peter

    Your might want to check out Glenn Wallis’ podcast on The Secular Buddhist site on the issue of beliefs and knowledge. There are some other interesting talks there.



  25. Bhante (when you get back & if you find the time),

    To quote you above:

    “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.”

    So “the Buddha claims to have exercised his memory over billions of years”?. Do you honestly feel this is “not outside the capacity of inference” and still hold that this figure was human? You can draw on claims to empiricism and “capacities of inference” and try to distance yourself from ‘metaphysics’ but it still sounds like another religious “leap in faith” to me.

    Hope you enjoyed your Rains

    Cheers Geoff

  26. Hi Bhante would like to learn the route of power (Iddhi-Pada) to achieve abhijna, that is, what are the practices that lead to the development of these skills step by step, following the noble eightfold path Ethics (sila), meditation or concentration (Samadhi) and knowledge (panna) lead to the achievement of these skills? which according to the Pali Canon in the first five powers possess the Brahmas and Devas of the traditional cosmology and the Bikkhus very advanced, with the exception of the sixth that only have the Arahants. thanks

  27. Ratanadhammo,

    “What you’re suggesting is that a person who’s vision is clouded by the kilesas and asavas can evaluate the most subtle aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. I’m saying that such a person is very unlikely to get it right without trusting the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.”

    I like this comment. Very awakening for all who seems to even question the Buddha himself.

  28. Most of us had to trust our parents on what they know until we grow up. Even when we can make our own choices, we can still make mistakes and misundertood things. So, as long as we are not free from kilesa, no matter the degree of intelligence, we would still be ignorant. It may have seem right at times.

  29. Bhante

    PS my previous comments below:

    You say “The difference is precisely the difference between a very very big number and infinity.”

    But is it a “very, very big number” or is it indefinite? eg did the Buddha go back 134.3569 billion years & then say “that’s it – that’s as far back as I go”.

    Or did he go back trillions & trillons of years? Or was it more than that?

    If that’s the case, “the difference is precisely the difference between a very very big number and infinity” is becoming increasingly blurred.

    Also the Buddha is increasing losing any conceivable human characteristics and becoming a man/god.

    Could you please clarify



    Geoff / Jul 24 2011 1:38 pm

    Bhante (when you get back & if you find the time),

    To quote you above:

    “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.”

    So “the Buddha claims to have exercised his memory over billions of years”?. Do you honestly feel this is “not outside the capacity of inference” and still hold that this figure was human? You can draw on claims to empiricism and “capacities of inference” and try to distance yourself from ‘metaphysics’ but it still sounds like another religious “leap in faith” to me.

    Hope you enjoyed your Rains

    Cheers Geoff

  30. Ratanadhammo,

    No secular Buddhist has issue with you following whichever tradition you feel most comfortable with. I don’t know any secular Buddhist who will criticize other traditions, even though we decided not to follow them. I fail to understand your motivation for criticizing secular Buddhism, particularly since your understanding of it is lacking so thoroughly.

    Why do you feel so threatened by secular Buddhism that you have to bad mouth Batchelor? Batchelor has no intent or desire to have traditions disappear. He simply sees secular Buddhism fitting the modern needs of a different society. But for those who follow those other traditions . . .fine. We have no issue! Enjoy, get out of your tradition what you can.

    The thicket of views you appear to be caught in seems to be causing you to lash out. If you don’t care for secular Buddhism, don’t practice it.

    You remind me so much of heterosexuals who adamantly object to gay marriage.

    Read up on the history of Buddhism. Various traditions arose out of societal needs. Each changed Buddhism and added culture, sometimes religion, as befitting the people. The same is true about secular Buddhism. We just don’t have any issue with being honest about it.

    Whatever tradition you belong to, may your cravings and attachments cease, may you suffer no more, in this very lifetime! You see we benefit from the practice in this life, which is why it’s not nihilistic, and you can do so in your own tradition as well.


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