My approach to secular Buddhism
I’ve recently decided to begin exploring Buddhism as a practical philosophy, however, I am a secular skeptical empiricist (though not a materialist.) Despite being secular, I’ve had mystical experiences/ visions. These experiences have been achieved spontaneously and through meditation and nothing to do with a belief in the supernatural, I do not. That I have experienced them is true, and I cannot discount the validity of experience, so I must seek to either explain them or just accept them. Skepticism is healthy but it does not mean that ideas must be throw out because they don’t fit the current popular models, this is ideology. I can also not be skeptical that I have experienced something, I instead have to skeptical of what the explanations of the nature of experience. There are too many independent accounts of similar experiences for me to discount after having my own. I can reject their interpretations, but cannot discount that the experiences happened. These unexplained experiences lead me to believe, based on the evidence of my experience, that strict materialism is a myopic view.
I also feel it’s myopic to believe that all such experiences are due to mental illness or dreams. While I can support these claims via my own experiences, personal viewpoints are not valid evidence and cannot be used to reach a shareable conclusion. I base this claim first on a lack of understanding of these experiences to begin with, and our only claim that they are not a normal integral part of the human is that everyone doesn’t have them all the time therefore they are abnormal/pathological. This is a very reactionary point of view. The fact is that existing empirical science at best ignores the mind, and at worst actively denigrates it as unimportant. Based on my exploration so far, no one understands the mind, however Buddhism claims this understanding, empirically no less, and I’ve not delved into exploring its tenets.
My first foray is two fold:
- Identify supernatural assumptions and file them as ‘needs proving’. This includes Nirvana, reincarnation, or even the existence of a subtle realm. A supernatural claim, in this case, is a claim so far from our current experience that it is not imaginable as possible from our current view. It doesn’t mean it’s false (or true), just beyond what we consider as naturally possible. Everything possible, by definition, is natural. Supernatural in this case is really just an expression of improbability.
- Identify which hypotheses that are testable immediately. This is the first step in any scientific empirical measure. If I cannot prove some basic and core tenets, then there is no point to pursuing the next steps.
The primary supernatural claims I am skeptical of in Buddhism are reincarnation, karma/dharma, spirits, nirvana, and even the subtle realms. I personally believe in the subtle realms, but my personal belief is irrelevant. I believe in it because I believe that was the basis of my experience but I have no evidence that this is what it was. I am very open to changing those beliefs. A big part of the reason of the skepticism about the subtle realm is based on the fact I don’t really understand what they mean, so I reserve judgement on what I’m even talking about on that particular point.
Nirvana is an amazing idea: pure peace, satisfaction, and disconnection from suffering. I’ve never met anyone like this, nor have experienced it myself. I don’t have any basis to believe or disbelieve. I will work under the assumption that if all underlying hypotheses are true, then Nirvana is an explorable hypothesis, but without validation of the base concepts, it’s better left for another time.
Spirits are tricky. I can’t say I’ve experienced them, but I don’t see why they’re not possible. We don’t understand the mind, or if other realms exist, or if we can connect to them in any meaningful way. Given that from the material point of view there is about 75% of the matter in the universe is not properly explained, plus several multiverse theories, it’s somewhat myopic to think that a spiritual realm is not possible. I however have no reason to believe in it either, plus no evidence either way, even after my own mystical experiences (which had nothing to do with spirits). Like Nirvana, I leave this to the future when I have the tools to explore the existence of spirits.
Reincarnation is the primary problematic claim that I may never accept. This starts with the notion that all our personality traits come from our past lives. This is a strange type of determinism that implies that you are not currently responsible for whom you are because you were born that way. I can personally identify many of the causes in my life of a lot of my behaviors and beliefs. These two notions are counter to each other.
Reincarnation also suggests linearity in the life-rebirth cycle. It’s pretty convenient to have many different invisible type of entities to be able to have been reincarnated from to excuse things like population growth. The notion of choosing to reincarnate into a different entity implies a strange duality in the spirit realm. Either a deity decides where you go, or you do. If a deity decided then Buddhism’s tenet that there is no god is false. If you decide, then you are aware of your own progression through the Dharma, and it is in a sense you’re enlightened self making the decisions, effectively a supernatural version of yourself, which counters the linearity of the the process. I am personally a pantheist, or at minimum a panpsychist (I will support this hypothesis in another blog post, but bear with me for now.) If that is true, and we are in fact everyone and our individual self is an expression of a larger consciousness then we have no specific past lives, but are in fact everyone. But barring my personal beliefs, we have so little understanding of consciousness we can’t make an educated guess right now (and why Buddhist psychology must be investigated as a possible framework.) The materialist science view of consciousness is paltry and leaves a lot to be desired (another post on this topic pending) mostly because we have no basis for claiming that the subjective mind can come from material processes, this is an ideological assumption of materialism.
The Buddhist claim is that every moment of consciousness comes from another moment of consciousness therefore consciousness is eternal. I am willing to entertain this thought as is, though further thought or explanation is required to explain its logic and real world execution. However it does not mean that we are reincarnated. As far as I can tell, it’s an assumption based on another assumption that all consciousness must reside in a body or entity with agency. In fact, consciousness does not imply any amount of agency, just the ability to perceive, so the claim of reincarnation so far falls apart.
Samsara, the process of reincarnation, can be reinterpreted as the constant mental cycles of change and impermanence in the mind; it’s that roiling, impatient, and mercurial voice that leads to Dukkha (suffering). In this way, we can see reincarnation as a metaphor for the unquiet mind.
Karma and Dharma are the last two larger supernatural claims. Dharma implies an absolute way of being and Karma implies that there is a supernatural way of tracking deeds, both of which imply an absolute morality in the universe. In my opinion, the only absolute acceptable absolute morality is compassion for all sentient beings, and beyond that any absolute morality is problematic.
Karma can also be reinterpreted into a more useful form. Along with Samsara’s new form, Karma is the long term effects of life decisions and events. This is akin to the western notion of trauma, but in the sense that both good and bad impact the person. Trauma itself refers to profound negative stimulus, but even trauma can lead to positive outcomes as we gain skills while coping with the pain.
I’ve got no reinterpretation for Dharma at the moment, not only because I don’t understand it, but I’ve not yet found a justification to what I do understand.
There are a number of immediate claims Buddhism makes to the initiate:
- That it is empirical. This one is key because it allows us to falsify its claims and safely ignore it if it does not deliver on its predictions.
- That suffering is optional and to get there, we must calm our minds (simplistically). This is inherently appealing as no one really likes to suffer.
- That mediation is a path to a calm mind. This calm mind is more than just to reduce suffering but also allows us deeper investigation into the mind and in turn the further realms of existence.
Buddhism’s empirical nature is questionable off the bat. For something to be empirical it has to be reproducible and precise, not just logical. It may state that life is suffering, but figuring out what that means in a way that is empirically meaningful is more difficult. Maybe the Four Noble Truths are requisite assumptions, but if so, those assumptions must be validated themselves. As of right now, I have no basis for these assumptions, but am willing to entertain their validity while I look for evidence.
Reducing suffering is paramount, and worthy goal. To test this I would have to find others who have reduced suffering by the Buddhist methods. More importantly, I have to find people who have found true happiness via these methods. A good way to validate this claim is to see how many devout (as in follow the methods) Buddhists can claim to be truly internally happy. This could be accomplished by a scientific survey that measures life satisfaction.
The last testable claim is the one that interests me the most. I have ADD and have always been interested in where meditation can take us. Studies have reported many benefits to meditation, however I want to see a fuller breadth of data coming in, as I may have encountered a bias in the information that has come to me. This claim is somewhat different for me because I’ve had practice at mediation, though admittedly this was many years ago. I lost the habit but have kept some of the knowledge. Meditation has worked for me, my focus was not in calming or controlling the mind, but pushing on the limits of the mind by focusing away all stimulus. The experiment was successful, I had a mystical experience and found ‘something else’ but understanding what happened exactly is difficult. I’ll go into detail maybe some other time. If nothing else, meditation is practice at calming one’s mind down, and that in itself feels valuable.
It may seem that as a fledgling Buddhist it’s erroneous to begin my journey with such a critical analysis, but the Buddha himself asked that we question the practice and forego it if we don’t find it truthful or useful. My purpose here is not to criticize, but to pose questions I can begin investigating and begin collecting information to customize the practice to my own life and experiences.