A Reply to B. Alan Wallace's article "Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist"

Ted Meissner

The following is a reply to B. Alan Wallace's article "Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist". Readers may wish to read the article in its uncommented form before reading this response.

Stephen Batchelor has also written An Open Letter to B. Alan Wallace, which appears in Mandala itself, and is an excellent response.

Ted Meissner, The Secular Buddhist

The article from B. Alan Wallace was posted for review on the FaceBook fan page for the podcast on October 5, 2010, and prompted much interest and discussion. Many points and counter points were made, and some themes have risen to the surface. It is my hope to explain a bit more about what this practice of secular Buddhism is, why people are integrating the eightfold path in their daily lives in this particular way, and respond to some of the points that were made in the article.

I will do my sincere best to provide meaningful examples and dialogue, without engaging in logical fallacies of argument. As a human being, subject to mistakes, I may not catch my errors, and ask for your patience and honesty in helping me correct those mistakes when they are made.

This is a true statement, but incomplete. Buddhism is not exempt from the natural evolutionary process of adaptation, all religions go through cultural assimilation as they encounter new environments from the one in which they initially formed. They are all encountering modernity. The book The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David L. McMahan does a very respectful investigation of some modern impacts to our tradition.

There is also a positive side to this. Buddhism and other faiths do encounter prejudices, but they also encounter fertile ground for growth with people who have not heard the teaching and resonate with it. Any departure from classical early Buddhism, the whole of the rich Mahayana school, was able to come from that original teaching and provide a spiritual path to those who found it. Alan Wallace himself is an example of that growth, that opportunity for a Westerner to practice a tradition they would not otherwise encounter except for that very engagement outside of the land of its formation.

What is the definition of "reputable scholars of Buddhism?" Who is the defining authority for what is reputable? This touches on the first point of secularism I'd like to share, not simply in Buddhism but with all religious traditions -- authority is arbitrary. Anyone can (and many have) declared themselves the authority by lineage, divine inspiration, by years on the cushion, by fiat. Secularism is in total agreement with the Canki sutta's criticism of tradition, and the Kalama sutta, which describe authority as not being a valid means of determining the truth of a statement. This does not mean we completely reject all statements by figures with experience and skills in the realm for which they're speaking. It simply means that we can and should question the validity of statements made, and put them to the test for ourselves. This is in complete accord with the Buddha's teaching.

I agree that the Pali canon has rebirth, and liberation as being freed from the rounds of rebirth. Not all agree on that point, so please understand this is my own accordance. This, however, brings up a second point of the secular point of view. Again, in alignment with the Canki sutta, I am completely honest and open about not having been present 2,500 years ago, nor were my teachers, nor my teachers' teachers, for far more than seven generations.

The simple fact is I don't know -- none of us do.

We have a wonderful teaching in the words of the Pali canon. But, we weren't there. We don't know what the Buddha said, we only find some degree of reasonable expectation that what is said, when tested for ourselves, is of value in our personal spiritual growth.

This is a discussion I have had many times with devout Christians, absolutely certain that the words in their Bible are true and the divinely inspired word of God. And yet, without any clear definition beyond their own belief, they reject out of hand the Book of Mormon. And without any experience with Buddhism, dismiss it just as completely. Again, Buddhism is not exempt because we practice it -- there is absolutely no way for all religious texts to be completely and literally true, as they say different things. When you practice Buddhism and identify as Buddhist, or Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, you're making a choice to dismiss other traditions in favor of your own. And that is why I as a secular person reject untested acceptance of religious texts as the source of authority for my spiritial growth. It doesn't mean I don't find value in them, or that I don't resonate more with some traditions than others. It means I question what is said, and put it to the test.

This is not a dilemma for us in the least, because the secular expression is one of questioning and not adhering to that which is unproven, and has no basis in the natural world. And, again, who is the judge of what is legitimate, and why? I am being described quite clearly here as being like minded to Stephen Batchelor. I am; it has been my great joy to speak with him on these topics and have him as a guest on the podcast. I am unreservedly atheist in the sense that I do not believe in deities or the supernatural, there is nothing agnostic about it. I am also unreservedly Buddhist in the sense that I have a practice of personal growth, and that practice is the eightfold path. This is not a choice made out of faith in the Judeo-Christian sense, but in the Pali connotation of faith (saddha) being "confidence."

I disagree with the concept that we are intent on reshaping the Buddha in our own image. We are not. This brings me to the third point about secular Buddhist practice, that of providing another inroad to the dhamma.

We are all people. We all have the same propensity for suffering, for joy, for ignorance, for understanding. But we all do have different personal experiences, backgrounds, likes, and inclinations. Many of us know or are ourselves Westerners who started out with a Judeo-Christian background, but have come to have a Buddhist practice. Whether it's Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana, etc., they have left another tradition and taken the precepts.

For some, there remains a cognitive dissonance with having a very rational spiritual practice, but what feels like an irrational religious framework. Some have left their "home" religion because of rites and rituals -- the forms of religion which are among the first fetters to go upon stream entry -- which were meanginless to them. They came to Buddhism because of the practice, but remain uncomfortable having replaced one set of beliefs that can't be proven and provide no value to them, with another.

Secular Buddhism is about providing a means to practice the eightfold path to those of us for whom supernatural claims, rites, rituals, and lineage traditions do not contribute to personal growth. It does not in the least discourage others from practicing in that way if they find it beneficial to their practice -- far from it. Secularism is about choosing the practice that is best suited to the personal experience of spirituality, rather than insisting on adherence to its own views.

Stephen is very open about his experience as a scholar, and his book is a personal story, not an academic presentation. Of course there's conjecture, that is part of one's personal journey.

Huxley's definition of agnosticism is simply showing the difference between belief and knowledge. And, in keeping with not only the tentative and therefore corrective claims of science, it is appropriate to avoid certainty of conclusions about things that cannot be demonstrated. If that were not the case, every supernatural claim from every religion would be acceptable. I suspect that no one believes every claim of every religion. Secularism suggests we put things to the test -- as does Buddhism. Stephen is openly questioning the traditional texts and commentaries with rational and critical thinking. A view in opposition to many schools of thought does not make it incorrect. It is only the validity or invalidity of something that makes it correct or incorrect, nothing else. Not lineage. Not because it was written. Not because it was divinely inspired.

I would agree that the Pali canon represents the best we can hope to have as indicative of what an historical Buddha may have said. Again, this does not make it true, however much we may want it to be. We don't know, we only have some degree of reliance due to reasoned inquiry of scholarship and experience.

As for Stephen's agnostic stance, I share it, as do many others. And we still find the actual practice of the eightfold path to be of value. This does not mean we're trying to make it in our own image. It means we're embracing the practice within our own modern, cultural context. And though many of us have interests in Asian culture, we were not raised with it, and the practices are not a part of our personal heritage. The rites, rituals, and many practices that have been brought along from the East do not always create a comfort zone for practice in the West.

Quoting religious texts is not evidence, it's quoting religious texts. If someone quotes the Christian bible, do Hindus accept what it says? Neither do I. Nor should we allow our "preconceptions" for the validity of traditional religious alignment with the Pali canon cause us to ignore that and give our own interpretation greater strength. It is when we are most certain, that we are most in need of checking ourselves.

Stephen is conjecturing that the Buddha's teaching of the practice is not religious. The eightfold path does not involve rites and rituals, praying to divinities, or prostrations of any kind. In that, secular Buddhists are in agreement with this not being a religious path. This is one of several reasons there continues to be discussion about Buddhism being a religion or a philosophy, as it retains qualities of both.

Buddha very specifically stated in the suttas -- if that's what we're taking as evidence -- not to speculate about the workings of kamma, which Wallace points out right here as being directly associated with rebirth. Which brings me to the fourth point about secularism, that a belief in an afterlife of any kind is not necessary to the practice.

So, I'm on retreat. I'm practicing anapanasati, or perhaps mindfulness, with the same diligence as the person next to me. We both practice silence during this time, we both practice right speech at other times. And we both have personal experiences in the broadening of this present moment to help us make better decisions, to be free from suffering.

How does a belief in rebirth impact that moment by moment practice? Knowing that my grandfather was a toymaker or a horse thief has no more effect on my meditation than the other person's conviction that they were Eleanor Roosevelt, nor should it. Whoever I was in the past is totally irrelevent to what I choose to do this very moment.

Secular practice does not require the promise of a better afterlife, or the threat of a woeful rebirth, to practice the eightfold path in this lifetime. The practice itself is unchanged. Secularists don't practice right action to get a reward later, or even just because it's the right thing to do, we practice right action to see and experience for ourselves cause and effect, which encourages us without reliance on an unprovable claim of rebirth.

Wallace is right, secular Buddhists do tend to view previous and past lives as a distraction. And again because a teacher said something, even Dogen (whom I admire, as someone who *is* from a zen lineage), doesn't make it true.

Stephen is also not rewriting the Pali suttas. That would be creating new Pali texts, or making wild claims of finding new ones that have been guarded by dragons. Does that mean we should dismiss all Mahayana tradition as dangerous?

I agree that Buddha's interpretation of rebirth (if we take the Pali canon at face value) differs from reincarnation in that there is no unchanging self which is reborn. What I think Stephen is saying is that rebirth as a concept, however much Buddha's introduction of anatta diverged from the norm, was pervasive in that culture. More than it is in, say, modern Western culture.

Again, quoting religious texts is meaningless as a source of truth, even for the Buddha. It is a guide. It is a reference to truth. It is not truth itself. Taking the suttas as absolute truth means one needs to take all aspects of the teaching as absolute truth. And all aspects of all religions, which no one is prepared to do.

I'd also like to point out that rebirth is hearsay, unless validated with evidence.

Wallace makes a subtle but profound change in wording here. Stephen is correct, the different schools do vary in their interpretation, and are all speculation. And Wallace is right, scientists do vary in their interpretation of empirical findings. That is conjecture, or more correctly for the context, hypothesis. Wallace then introduces "invalidates" to the topic, which Stephen does not, and then tries to use this incorrect transition from 'interpretation' to 'invalidation'.

Scientific findings are not invalidated by having differing hypothesis; indeed, it is the very nature of science to be tentative and corrective. In the case McLean v. Arkansas in 1981, science witnesses helped the court with defining science as having the following traits:

  1. It is guided by natural law
  2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law
  3. It is testable against the empirical world
  4. Its conclusions are tentative
  5. It is falsifiable

That is part of its great value, to remove that which is shown to be not true or non-contributory. Secular practice is the same. If there is no value shown, remove it. The Dalai Lama agrees in his book The World In A Single Atom with his statement, ".. if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims."

Of course, this is something of a logical trick, as proving a negative is problematic. As Bertrand Russell demonstrated with this analogy in 1952, "If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."

This is every bit as true for claims our own Buddhism makes, including those claims some of us hold most dear.

This mixes two concepts, that of naturalism and that of personal meaning. Stephen J. Gould views science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria" or NOMA as highlighting this difference. The scientific method is indeed the best way we have to learn about how the natural world works, unless we believe the Buddha's body-hairs are coloured deep blue and grow clockwise in rings, and that adepts in meditation can multiply their bodies. If not, perhaps even Wallace doesn't take everything in the Pali canon at face value, exactly like a secularist.

A method for learning about the natural world does not, nor is it intended, to ascribe personal meaning to the experience of that world. That's what this practice is about, not about providing a cosmological map of the universe with Mt. Sumeru at the center.

Stephen is committed to growing the eightfold path as a viable and practical method of training the mind, just like other secular Buddhists. We simply don't believe in supernatural claims, we're not tossing out the baby with the bathwater. One of the most common discussions secular Buddhists have is how to ensure the teaching does not get reduced to just another relaxation technique, as that is not what our practice is about, and not what we find of value.

I'm glad Wallace brought up the work done by Cliff Saron of the Samatha project, as I've had him on the podcast. We've discussed this work, and at no point is it intended to convey personal meaning. It is meant to quantify what is happening during the experiences of meditation, and what the long-term (within this lifetime) effects of meditation are.

Also, Stephen is not a "follower" of Huxley, any more than any secularist is a follower of anyone. That is completely contrary to secular practice.

Reporting experiences does not make those experiences true, any more than claims of stigmata throughout history are true validations of Christian belief, or the claim that communion wafers and wine are magically transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ -- unless he was constituted of flour and alcohol. As Wallace has referenced scientific studies, I'll reciprocate with a machine which recreates the out of body experiences such contemplatives claim to have. Such is just one example that our minds can be deceived.

Stephen's point is that emptiness is a reference to our concepts, that those concepts are not the actual thing, and the actual thing is not what we conventionally view it as. There is nothing mystical about it.

Since Wallace is asking for evidence, I hope he'll please provide evidence of rebirth. He can win $1,000,000 from the JREF if he does. Or any supernatural power claimed by Buddhist contemplatives, for that matter.

Stephen makes no claims whatsoever about the universe or ultimate reality, Wallace is doing that. He's making claims about rebirth without "demonstrable evidence". Ian Stephenson studied this, and the most he could do was be intellectually honest in his book by stating that it was not evidence, but was merely suggestive of rebirth.

I would suggest that a 2,500 year old story of someone else's personal journey is not more reliable than one happening today. It's not the form, teacher, culture, or timeframe that matters, it's the teaching.

How is that different from what Wallace is doing here in his criticism? I would also like to point out that Sam isn't being dogmatic, as he is just insisting on proof for supernatural claims.

I've also found great value in that article of Sam's, and link to it frequently. He's right. If the teaching of Buddhism is correct as a teaching for sentient beings, it will hold true without the rites and rituals of the culture in which it manifests. It will be timeless and prove to be true without religious trappings which are not a part of the eightfold path.

What has come up in interfaith dialogues I've had is that this practice is of value to people. If it's only of value to Buddhists, there's a problem. The attitude that one must "become a Buddhist" to practice meditation, let alone the eightfold path, is a problem that must be overcome if the value it brings is to be brought to fruition.

Our culture is one that questions authority, questions supernatural claims, and puts things to the test. Buddhists need to rise to that challenge, and show that this practice is valid under all circumstances, not just when one adopts a belief in the unseen. If we can't, we should set aside our beliefs as being invalid.

Surely he doesn't mean domination in modern American culture, with constant attempts to introduce biblical creationism in the classroom as science, and a National Day of Prayer held despite a federal judge's ruling against it? Doubts exist about that kind of thing because they have no evidence, and as such, should be questioned.

I'm going to call "shenanigans" here. The Pope recently made the same biased error in historical revisionism that is being made in this article. Let's set the record straight, as I've had to do so many times with dogmatic Christians -- Hitler was not an atheist. He was a Christian. Here are a set of quotes of Hitler's, showing his adherence to Christianity. He also outlawed books criticizing religion.

I'm going to call "shenanigans" again. Yes, Wallace is suggesting Harris and Batchelor are similar to Hitler. Quite clearly. He made the tie between them in the same sentence.

But, more importantly, it is utterly irrelevant to the discussion. To say that Hitler was an atheist (though he was not) and therefore atheism is bad, is no more sensible than saying Hitler was a vegetarian, so vegetarianism is bad. The criticism needs to be made on the virtues or vices of the ideological stance, and when practiced correctly, its effects in the real world.

We're trying to preserve Buddhism and the wonderful teaching and practice it has, for the benefit of all mankind, not just the ones who believe in rebirth.

Galileo's faith is utterly irrelevant to the validity of his scientific work. And his treatment at the hands of the church -- when he was correct in his findings -- came from a fear of the loss of ascendancy of dogmatic belief that was not in evidence. My preference wouldn't be to associate my stance with religion on this particular topic! And that's an excellent example of why secularists find dogmatic belief to be harmful.

The scientific community is made up of people, filled with the usual set of human issues. That does not detract from the scientific method as a means of investigating the natural world as being vastly more effective than religious doctrines in that particular sphere of knowledge. This does not take away from our spiritual practice, and the comfort it brings us. It's not one or the other -- they both can have contributing roles in realms of learning, one as a way of knowing, another as a way of experiencing.

I agree that we should set aside biases. That means encouraging different ideological views to participate in meaningful dialogue, but it does not mean we simply give a free pass for every unsubstantiated claim those views make about the natural world. I would also agree that we need critical and disciplined study of the most reliable sources of the Buddha's teaching, and that does mean questioning every aspect of it, without a pre-determined conclusion about what the right answer must be. Asking questions only as long as one comes to the "right" conclusion isn't sincere inquiry, it's prejudicing the results.

Only then, when we have been transparent and completely honest about our inquiry, our practice of the eightfold path, do we eliminate the hindrance of doubt without remainder. Then we can set aside the raft, concepts of agnosticism vs. faith, us vs. them, and simply practice together -- as people.