Sunday, April 15, 2007

Humanist Buddhists? Buddhist Humanists?

I recently wrote some brief thoughts about Christian Buddhists ("Christian Buddhists? Buddhist Christians?"), so now it's time to look at the compatibility, or lack thereof, between Buddhism and Humanism. Previously with regard to humanism ("To be or not to be secular, a humanist, or a secular humanist"), I have written:

By secular I mean the commonly used definitions of the term, which include "worldly, temporal, not overtly religious". It also means that which is common and enduring. It does not necessarily exclude the spiritual, as some may presume. I separate it from the spiritual here *only* to offer a distinction between people and ideas which are more focused on the principle of being non-religious and those which emphasize spirituality regardless of whether or not it is religious. As for spiritual, my view is that it includes "a contemplative attitude" and, a disposition to a life of depth, and the search for ultimate meaning" (as per Teasdale in The Mystic Heart). Throughout my writing it may become obvious that I do not regard these two perspectives to be antagonistic, much less mutually exclusive.
If we briefly take science as an example, it has both a secular and a spiritual component. On the one hand, it deals with the "worldly" and "temporal" and presumes methodological naturalism, which is decidedly on the secular side of things. On the other hand, it involves a "contemplative attitude" and "a search for meaning".

Another area where I find both secular and spiritual elements is humanism. For those who believe "spiritual" is some kind of dirty word and that it has sullied the good name of "secular" humanism, place your head between your knees, put a cold cloth on the back of your neck, and take several deep breaths. Now let us continue. The affirmative aspects of humanist thought are spiritually loaded, with notions of inherent (though not supernatural guarantees of) human worth and the affirmation of the importance of freedom, dignity, and quality of life of all peoples.

Having expressed my views on the relationship of the spiritual to the sacred cows of secular thought, it is important to realize that the door swings both ways. As suggested in the original (and in my humble opinion the far and away best) version of the Humanist Manifesto from 1933, "the distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained". This does not suggest that nothing is sacred, at least not to me. Instead it refers to seeing the everyday world, i.e. what is generally thought of as the secular world in the word's more ancient usage, as the foundation of the sacred. It is a rejection of the dualistic idea that the physical world is inherently wicked or fallen and that purity can only be found by escaping it...

Humanism obviously places emphasis on--you guessed it--humans. However I do not embrace any anthropocentric philosophies of human superiority or dominion over other species. In the most general of terms, humanists of all stripes sees humans as responsible for the course of their lives. People are not born good or evil, but may choose to do good or bad things. Humanism recognizes human strengths and frailties but usually emphasizes optimism with regard to our capacity to better ourselves. Religions, philosophies, political parties, or personal creeds which follow this kind of reasoning could be considered humanist.

This can be contrasted with those world views that suggest humans are inherently evil or unable to make a real difference in the world without the miraculous intervention and supernatural assistance of a Divine presence. Hence, you may also often hear humanism associated with the term secular (i.e. secular humanism) as a tacit rejection of religion as well as reliance on/belief in supernaturalism. There are, however, forms of religion and spirituality which are nontheistic (not dependent on belief in or rejection of an anthropomorphic creator God who dolls out blessings and judgments based on your beliefs) but which could still be considered humanist. Certain schools of Buddhism are good examples. In addition some branches of theistic religions, while accepting the existence of (a) God, believe that we are the miracles and cherish that human potential (summed up in the phrase "We are the answers to each other's prayers"). These faiths share humanistic roots as well.

I would add, to be clear, that this does not mean that said forms of sacred traditions do not emphasize the need to embrace the unknown or to surrender to the possibilities of existence. Such transformative notions often include teachings such as no-self or other expressions of going beyond the personal ego, but this should not be confused with giving up the power to chose or think. This subtle distinction is often lost in sweeping critiques of religion and spirituality, and it is also blurred by those wishing to prey on the vulnerable with brainwashing cult tactics...

Is Buddhism really humanistic? In a basic sense I would say yes, but I would also suggest that it is misleading to simply equate the two. I guess I would say Buddhism has a humanistic flavor, but then, that's going with how I've described humanism here. Many versions of what some folks consider humanism would not be so compatible.

[emphasis added]

I think from this point of view, it is possible to talk about being spiritual/religious AND being a humanist in the spirit of the original version of the Humanist Manifesto. While some may see principle #9 as rejecting traditional forms of worship, it seems to have more to do with attitude than form, though one could certainly debate this point. In any case, it is not an anti-spiritual or anti-religious document, but rightly has concerns about supernaturalism, superstition, and waiting on some grandiose miraculous divine intervention to solve the world's problems. But I see such a document as a starting point, not an end, to spiritual/religious exploration and growth.

At the same time, humanism has come to be virtually synonymous with secular humanism, and for many this in turn has become synonymous with atheism/irreligionism. Others see humanists, especially those who dialog and reach out in partnership to religious groups, as atheists who can't fully commit to the full implications of their atheism.

Along these lines, upon receiving a reply to something I had written, I briefly revisited the issue of humanism, or more specifically, secular humanism ("Revisiting secular humanism"), in dealing with the idea that humanism prefers "cold truth" to a "warm lie" (note all of assumptions and biases bundled into those terms):

I don’t find ‘truth’ to be ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ or otherwise. It simply is. But that doesn’t preclude compassion. For example, let’s say a mother has lost a child to an illness. According the formulation that seems to be suggested in the quote, the ‘warm’ or ‘soft’ lie is to believe that little junior is Heaven with the angels, and the ‘cold truth’ is that he is worm food. This dichotomy and debate obscures the reality of a grieving mother who needs a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, and a friend to lean on.

It also highlights the need to appreciate the unique and irreplaceable nature of all phenomena, including the singular existence of each sentient being. No configuration of the ever-present moment in any life can be rewound or replaced. Once it is done, it is done. To that extent I would agree with the ‘standard’ secular humanist position (if there is such a thing). But that observation is the beginning for me, not the end. It’s one thing to intellectually assent to that position, it is another to take it heart, to sincerely and deeply make the realization of that fact into an awakening. For me it is also accompanied by other observations, such as the interdependence (dependent co-arising) of all phenomena (regardless of their 'position' on time and space). In turn these observations suggest that in fact what we refer to as ‘meaning’ is just a shorthand or model of the real thing, a formula or description of the nature of the relationships between phenomena, whereas actual meaning *is* (are) the relationship(s) themselves (objects depend on relationships, relationships depend on objects is the very brief version). Meaning is constantly arising and integral as the substance of existence. Hence, the answer to that ‘ultimate’ search to understand our own nature is present in/is every moment.

I cannot say how many ‘secular humanists’ would or would not agree with this, or how the Buddha used it to describe the delusion of a sense of separate intrinsic existence as the root of our suffering...

This started me thinking about how the perception of religion for those not in traditional religious systems in the West might affect/be affecting Buddhism, both in how it received and how it is presented ("I sometimes wonder"):
In the West, there is the long shadow of mytho-historical literalism mixed with the prophetic nature of revealed religion. Others can talk about basic individual and social psychology, sociological and cultural dynamics, historical factors, and how this is tied together to explain why Western religion tended to gravitate towards certain forms of belief. But, the reaction against this was to set up a dichotomy between faith and reason, religion and science, etc. This I believe contributes to what has been discussed before by many people in the emergence of so-called Western Buddhism. If we make sure we don't really believe in anything other than as symbols, and if we make sure we cleanse any ideas tainted with forces or actions that might be at odds with so-believed-to-be "empirically driven" rationalism, and as long as it has demonstrable benefits to the individual and society, then Buddhism is great. You don't have to pray to (a) God or feel the presence of the Divine. Naw, it's just a nice rational system of observations and applications that is practically a twin of what people tend to see as/think of as science...

It all gets into how people view/conceptualize religion. In my view, people really are often talking about many interrelated things. For example, there is the idea of the self, which is defined as any individual by it's beginning and ending, birth and death. So the nature of the self, including questions about the afterlife, what does or doesn't remain after a physical life form "dies", etc, is one element. Then there is "God", or the Ground of Being, or the Divine, or the Tao - some reflection of a beginning and end - kind of like the issue of the self only on a universal scale of identity, birth, and death. There is spirituality, a sense of connection to something greater than the limited individual. This frequently (but doesn't always directly or obviously) ties into the Greater sense of self alluded to under the idea of God. Then there is faith and the supernatural, which frequently go hand in hand and which are, again, often tied (but not always directly or obviously) to these other elements.

Anything which seems to touch on one or more of these elements, especially when it's more than one, is frequently tagged as "religious". And as mentioned, there is this idea, sometimes consciously manifested, sometimes lingeringly patently in our reactions and perceptions, that religion is just a failed way of explaining things, a primitive science that people cling to out of tradition and an inability to deal with reality as it is (cold, hard, impersonal). Hence the aforementioned cleansing to weed out the "troublesome" aspects of Buddhism so that it's true, nobler essence can be brought forth to shine a light of reason and compassion on all who gaze upon it...

I think ideas like "God", rather than staying as a verb, a perpetual process of creation and unfolding, where phenomena arise and fade, emerge and recede, there is the tendency to take the unlimitable and limit it with names, values, desires, wishes, thoughts, feelings, even a distinct "body" of some kind. Just as we see ourselves as bounded individuals rather than ever-changing aspects of the whole, so too is our idea of "God". And, with so many people believing so many bizarre things in the name of religion, it gets tagged as something for the ignorant or feeble-minded. And so, again, spirituality and everything else becomes "tainted" as belonging to the realm of fools, the insane, the desperate, and those who would manipulate such people. Again, this isn't an unfounded or groundless characterization, but because it is so ubiquitously applied, there is no real discussion of how most of the "flaws" of religion are just manifestations of human nature, not some social illness that can be eradicated. Hence, instead of focusing on things which can infect any institution, and to which religions are particularly vulnerable, folks who do not count themselves as religious often just conflate it all as a nasty mess from the stone age that we should rid ourselves of. But they fail to see that even if you get rid of all the current religions, our religious nature and its pros and cons would remain.

Which takes us back to so-called Western Buddhism and what it should or should not be. And the aforementioned desire I suspect to be at work in some circles to "cleanse" Buddhism of any non-rational elements, with the caveat that rational often means what we think makes sense, hence what fits our current "paradigm", which for a number of potential or actual Western Buddhists is, again, the so-called empirically based rationalism which is often associated with the methodology of science but which is often co-opted into what is sometimes termed ontological naturalism, which means anything that smacks of supernaturalism is out...

I count myself among those who are not supersitious. However, if we are saying that Buddhism is just the science of suffering, and only based on observation, what does that mean? Is it just a window dressing for our established preconception of reality? Oh, well, I embrace only empirical rationalism, and so my definition of "observation" technically is limited to that perspective? Or, when we talk about Buddhism being rooted in observation, is it observation freed from believing "this" or generally accepting "that" - a kind of wide open embrace of existence that does not rely on how we define this or whether we divide the universe like that?

In the end, are we just making a new, secularized, empirically-safe finger to latch onto? Does the nature of the Dharma change whether we call Shunyata (emptiness) the Tao or even God? Or if we fail to name it? Does it change if we believe in magic? If we do not? If we pray or do not? For who or what do we need to reinvent or reconstitute Buddhism "in the West"?

[emphasis added]

So then here we are, with the same questions underlying much of what we think of as Buddhism in the West. I believe that if we take terms like religion, spirituality, faith, and the like strictly in terms of their most superficial usage in the "fundamentalist Abrahamic religionist"/"cynical anti-theist" debate, we might as well chuck out Buddhism right now along with every other religion, because we would be missing something like 60-80% of what is being buried under such simplistic definitions. And in that missing chunk are the core spiritual elements that are shared by the various sacred traditions of the world. What would be left would be the trappings, the decor, of the rich history and collected insights of contemplative traditions and the kind of compassionate life they inspire and describe, a hollow shell. If we are the kind of humanist who runs away from such "dirty" words, I don't think what we would practice as "Buddhists" would be permitted to take us beyond our own predetermined comfort zones where we feel in control/think we fully grasp the sum of our experiences in light of our concepts of reason and intellectual comprehension.

On the other hand, if we can get past the knee-jerk reaction to religion and spirituality, and give such sacred traditions an honest and open inquiry, then we may see that while a move to secular humanism might help us shed our previous assumptions about concepts such as God or faith, it can also serve as a clean slate/firm grounding upon which to take our first shaky steps back into pondering the great questions of our existence. If we have the courage and interest in leaving that seemingly secure shelter of Vulcan-esque logic* and getting back into a messy world where we appreciate that all belief systems, even secularism, involve foundational assumptions which must simply be accepted, where intuition and emotion are not denied in our decision-making process, and where there are possibilities beyond the defined borders of rational/empirical understanding, then we can be the kind of humanist who can truly appreciate and practice various paths including Buddhism.

[*lest a Trekkie object to my usage of Vulcan logic in describing secular humanism, yes, I am aware that Vulcans all have a well-developed/realized awareness of the existence of God; yes, this did happen before when I made a similar comparison]

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