I have been reading up a little on “secular Buddhism” lately because at the Albuquerque Vipassana Sangha someone is running a study group on it. Those of you who read this blog know that I am unabashedly a “religious Buddhist,” and as such I know only peripherally about secular Buddhism. So I have taken this as an opportunity to read up on it.
Ajahn Punnadhammo has written a very clear and intelligent criticism of the book “Buddhism Without Beliefs” that is smarter than anything you are likely to read here. You can find it at http://www.arrowriver.ca/dhamma/woBeliefs.html.
As for me, I will start with three comments. First, upon reading and studying the Pali Canon, I have come to the same conclusion that many others have, that is to say that a) it accurately represents the teachings of the Buddha and b) that it is “consistent and cogent.” The word “cogent” is often used in conjunction with the Buddha’s teaching. It means that there is a “compelling truth.” This does not mean that every word has been transmitted perfectly or that there are not any inconsistencies. It does mean that you can glean from the Pali canon a path of training that will lead to insight into the ultimate truth of life, and that this also leads to freedom from suffering, transcendent happiness, and final liberation.
The second comment is that the Buddha did, indeed, see into the ultimate nature of reality. You can see this in (at least) two ways. The first is from reading (and understanding) the Pali canon. The second is from seeing the many people who, over the centuries, have seen what the Buddha saw. It is a repeatable experiment.
The third comment is that the Buddha – indeed, any Arahant – is incapable of saying something that is not true. The importance of speaking the truth is held in particularly high esteem in the Buddha’s teaching.
If you take these three assertions together, it is impossible to make some of the claims made by secular Buddhists, most notably the denial of the truth of rebirth. The Buddha did teach rebirth, ad nauseum. (I actually heard one teacher at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies say that the Buddha never talked about rebirth!) This is undeniable. So to claim that the Buddha taught rebirth as “skillful means” is to deny any or all of the above assertions. It is to either trivialize the experience of Awakening/Enlightenment, it is to deny the overwhelming evidence that the Buddha taught rebirth, or it is to claim that the Buddha was not speaking the truth.
There is a kind of hubris in looking at the extraordinary accomplishments of the Buddha, the vast quantity of teachings that we have from him, and to start cherry picking what we want to believe. As I am fond of saying, something is true. And it isn’t just true in Asia or Burma or the West. It is true everywhere throughout the universe. The truth isn’t limited to what an infinitesimal number of people on one land mass on one tiny planet at the outer spiral arm of the galaxy believe.
Of course, this is not to say that you believe everything that you hear or read mindlessly. It is to be done – by definition – mindfully. But a better approach is to accept what the Buddha taught as a hypothesis, and to put it into practice. Run the experiment in an honest way. See the results for yourself. It is perhaps the most fundamental teaching of the Buddha to observe your actions and to see the consequences. I suspect that you will find – as I have – that your own opinions about how things are begin to fall away, and that you open up to a way of seeing that is more vast than what you could ever have imagined.