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04 November 2013



Hi Chris

I agree that the profile of Buddhism is changing, but I don't agree with how you frame this issue. You juxtapose 'those who embrace secular attitudes and practices' and 'those who stick to a conservative and/or dogmatic religious orthodoxy'. I think there is considerable middle ground between these two positions, and this is what people who are committed Buddhists need to be exploring and defining.

Secular Buddhism leaves out a great deal - notably nibbana. I've seen your discussion of this in your next post, and I just don't think you are talking about the same thing that Buddhist tradition has in mind. Buddhism has always been careful to distinguish nibbana and mystical experiences, or even particular insight experiences, and holds out the possibility of fundamental and irreversible transformation of the deepest strata of consciousness. It also typically leaves out devotional and ritual elements of Buddhism. I think that's because secular Buddhism is often a critique of Buddhism from the viewpoint of western rationalism, adhering to whatever survives the encounter. However, its proponents often fail to critique western rationalism from the viewpoint of Buddhism.

It's true that Buddhist practices are infiltrating western societies in secular toms on an unprecedented scale, and I rejoice that this is happening. However, rather than simply accepting the secular Buddhist account of this process, I hope that people with a grounding in Buddhism will find ways to re-invisage their traditions that address the needs and concerns of people in the modern world but don't reduce their richness to the elements that make sense in purely secular agenda.

Chris Ward

Thanks for the comment Vishvapani. I don't think that an orthodoxy has been established in secular Buddhism. As I say in my post things are still evolving and this label may simply refer to a collection of trends rather than a new and well-defined form. There are a range of positions and I simply identify the two extremes. In practice most of us occupy a footprint between these extremes and we are exploring what is pragmatic and has integrity. But the Zeitgeist is very much towards secularisation and I am comfortable with this. (Many young people that I meet have an almost visceral revulsion towards 'religion', or just see it as a quaint old idea of no relevance to them). I also note that Triratna has embraced secular approaches (breathwork, yoga, etc) and this seems to me to be a very good thing.

As to nibbana, I agree that this is a powerful transformation, but also that it is natural, ie open to scientific study and having its roots in neuroanatomy. Otherwise it is supernatural? It is hard to discuss these issues without getting lost in semantics. But we could use 'mystical experience' as a general collective label that includes nibbana and samadhi states. We would then need to define and agree the differences. Looking at Christian mystical experiences it is clear that some of these have had a profound and enduring impact on the individual.

But it depends on how you understand nibbana and its relationship with enlightenment and also what your experience is. Would you think it probable, for example, that stream entry is not that unusual today? If not why not?

Although secular Buddhist attitudes would not support supernatural explanations of nibbana, I think they would be fine with the 'natural' approach that I have outlined.

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