Secular Buddhism: a diminishingly human Buddha

Update: recently reading Sarah H. Jacoby’s Life and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (New York: Columbia, 2014), and found that she makes an argument very similar to Will Tuladhar-Douglas’ discussed below, though she does not use the difference in metaphysics to question the boundaries of the category of human. Jacoby says that

Rather than dividing real from unreal according to a metaphysics foreign to Sera Khandro’s writing this book understands her social world to include not only others in her human communities but also supermundane forces, including enlightened Buddhist figures and powerful Tibetan deities and demons integral to her ability to reveal Treasures in specific places in the Tibetan environment, such as sacred mountains and lakes. The self that is the subject of Sera Khandro’s autobiography emerges through dialogue with these voices, as one point in a web of interconnected relationships that encompass multiple lifetimes and stretch into Tibet’s earth and sky via the land deities and celestial ḍākinīs who animate them. (17–18)

. . .

I have the pleasure of reading an essay by my friend Will Tuladhar–Douglas titled “From the Anthropology of Buddhism to a Buddhist Anthropology” (forthcoming, Thai International Journal of Buddhist Studies—my thanks to Will for sharing a pre-publication draft). The following reflections attempt to extend just one thread of Tuladhar-Douglas’ essay, which is rich in insights and deserves being widely read—especially by those concerned with the application of Buddhist thought to environmental issues.

In setting the groundwork for this essay Tuladhar-Douglas highlights the intellectual origins and contemporary consequences of what he refers to as “the rule of human exclusivism.” As Tuladhar–Douglas explains, this idea originates in Christian theology and was codified in Enlightenment social, political and legal theory. According to this idea, both agency and moral culpability are exclusively human. Tuladhar-Douglas points out that the very category of “religion” as found in anthropology and religious studies “is not a descriptive category but an instrument for defending the boundaries and privileges of a Euro-American worldview.” Tuladhar–Douglas’ analysis helps us to understand two dimensions of contemporary Buddhist discourse.

First, why the Secular Buddhist insistence on an exclusively human Buddha seems so unassailably reasonable, specifically when viewed from within the limiting constraints of modern, i.e., post-Enlightenment, thought. Within that socio-intellectual framework, anything else sounds irrational, superstitious and dangerously religious.

The interpretation of the Biblical creation myth as warranting human dominion over God’s creation has long been questioned by environmentalists, including engaged eco-Buddhists. Yet this is exactly the same notion of human exceptionalism that informs Secular Buddhism. Secular Buddhists uncritically embrace the false dichotomy of religious and secular—the former irrational and the latter rational according to the contentious rhetoric of opposition that characterizes the modern. This oppositional characterization derives from the Enlightenment struggles to establish civil society independent of religious authority and control. The modern conception of humans as the exclusive locus of consciousness, culture, language, agency, and morality is a secularized codification of the Biblical conceptions of human dominion over Creation.

(For clarity, let me note that for the sake of religious freedom, i.e., the freedom of minorities from religious persecution, not the freedom of religious majorities to impose their values on others, I am myself all in favor of the Constitutional separation of church and state, and indeed in favor of the strongest possible of walls of separation.)

Some Secular Buddhists have argued, indeed vehemently, that their interpretation is the only reasonable one for a modern world. In their view any other would be a retrograde descent into irrationality and superstition. From this perspective indeed a Buddha diminished to the merely human is reasonable—because that understanding of the Buddha simply appeals to our pre-existing prejudices regarding human exclusivism. It is in other words a view that is both familiar because it is grounded in cultural presumptions and comforting because it reassures us in those presumptions.

Tuladhar-Douglas’ essay is, however, purposely discomforting. He calls into question the familiar presumptions of human exclusivity. And he does so not by attempting any ill-informed resuscitation of a pre-modern Buddhism, but rather by a scientifically informed post-modern conceptualization of the human. This does not mean some techno-hip fantasy of technological enhancements creating a post-human, but rather a dissolution of the conceptual boundaries that divide the human being from that of its intestinal biota on the one hand, and its comprehensive  enmeshment with the natural world on the other. At the same time he also avoids the vapidity of neo-Romantic nature mysticism.

We can suggest that the careful delineation of the human in this fashion explains much of the impasse of the discourse on consciousness. It would seem that Secular Buddhists could easily accept localizing consciousness inside the head, and explaining it in material terms as a function of the brain. From that modernist perspective anything else will look like hypostatizing an immaterial soul, if not spirits and sprites and ghosts. Rather than either hypostatizing an immaterial soul, or embracing a reduction of consciousness to brain function, a post-modern view that does not limit the human by the boundary of the skin can understand consciousness as relational, as the nondual mutual creation of grasper and grasped (grahya and grahaka).

The second thing, then, that Tuladhar-Douglas’ essay explains is why from a post-modern perspective the Secular Buddhist diminishing of the Buddha to the merely human itself looks retrograde. By insisting on an outdated conception of the human, its proponents promote a nineteenth century version of Buddhist modernism, one whose “best by” date is in fact long past.

1 thought on “Secular Buddhism: a diminishingly human Buddha

  1. This secular vs non-secular (oppositional) argument seems to be heating up. I’m reading Stephen Batchelor’s latest – After Buddhism – in which he makes his strongest push yet towards a secular Buddhism. It is very appealing, I must say. But Will’s paper seems to be a good reminder to avoid the oppositional approach. Batchelor is more nuanced than a naive reading of materialism, but more voices in the conversation are important.

    Thanks for this, and I look forward to Will’s paper – it would be great to get a link when it comes out (any hints on how to get one?).

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