The following is a my response to comments by DT Strain, the Executive Director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, to my article “Introduction to Bodhidaoism” at http://spiritualnaturalistsociety.org/introduction-to-bodhidaoism/
This was very interesting to read Jay – thanks for sharing. As you know, these four traditions form the basis of my own practice and I’ve spent the last 12 years studying their overlap so this comes as very fascinating to me. I’ve made some comments and thoughts about some elements of what you’ve written below:
Thank you for your comments, I appreciate an honest assessment of what I have written. Let me respond to your comments and thoughts as best I can. Since you have decided to publicly post these on the Spiritual Naturalist Society website, I have taken the liberty to respond on my own website. I respect the Society and consider you a friend, but my response will pull no punches.
Since this is the most you have ever commented on anything I have written, and the only negative criticism you have ever given publicly, I have taken a lot of care and consideration in responding.
Karma & Rebirth:
I accept karma and rebirth, and find them to be instrumental conceptions within a naturalistic practice. Rather than saying they are not true or real, I think instead the issue is overzealous or overstated claims and conclusions about the *nature* of karma and rebirth. Buddhism has within it, the provisions to be humble in approach to these dogmas such that the following interpretations could fit with such a person being fully legitimate to consider themselves Buddhist and not merely Buddhist-ish.
You say that you “accept karma and rebirth,” but do you accept Buddhism’s view of them? According to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, karma refers “to the doctrines of action and its corresponding ‘ripening’ or ‘fruition’, according to which virtuous deeds of body, speech, and mind produce happiness in the future (in this life or subsequent lives), while nonvirtuous deeds lead instead to suffering.” And it says that rebirth is “a beginningless process in which a mental continuum takes different (usually) physical forms lifetime after lifetime within the six realms of samsara.” But since you don’t believe or accept “subsequent lives,” you don’t believe the Buddhist’s view of karma and rebirth. They are your own views.
The fact is, as David L. McMahan explains, “What many Americans and Europeans often understand by the term ‘Buddhism,’ however, is actually a modern hybrid tradition with roots in the European Enlightenment no less than the Buddha’s enlightenment, in Romanticism and transcendentalism as much as the Pali Canon, and in the clash of Asian cultures and colonial powers as much as in mindfulness and meditation” (The Making of Buddhist Modernism 2008, 5). Bernard Faure says, “In their effort to modernize, Buddhists have sought to emphasize the compatibility of Buddhism with modern-day science, discreetly failing to comment on any areas of disagreement” (Unmasking Buddhism 2009, 104).
The truth is, as B. Alan Wallace explains, “The metaphysical views of materialism are in fundamental conflict with the Buddhist worldview regarding the nature of the mind; if materialism were correct, then the Buddha’s claims of having direct knowledge of past lives, karma, and nirvana would be invalid” (Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic 2012, 18). And by materialism, he means naturalism. And just for clarification, he is skeptical, not of Buddhism, but of “the faith of the Church Scientific” (127).
You can’t just claim “humility” and then substitute your own interpretation. If you are going to reinterpret karma and rebirth to fit philosophical naturalism, then be honest about it. And in the article you link to, you say, “Karma is actually the act itself.” But the Buddha said, “Intention, I tell you, is kamma (Skt. Karma). Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect” (AN 6.63). Is the Buddha right or are you?
The issue is not, in my opinion, about “overzealous or overstated claims,” but about Westerners who struggle with the ideas of karma and rebirth. They can’t accept the traditional and orthodox interpretation, and so secularize and naturalize it to fit modern science. And that is fine, if they are honest about modifying the Buddha’s teaching on karma and rebirth. But are you really a Buddhist if you don’t actually believe what the Buddha taught?
As you mentioned, Stoicisms ‘God’ can very easily be taken in a naturalistic sense and, in fact, was by even many ancient philosophers who were criticized by non-Stoics in their day as ‘theists in name only’. Therefore, such conceptions are not an ‘update’, ‘exception’ or ‘alteration’ of Stoic orthodoxy, but right at home.
In Lawrence C. Becker’s book, A New Stoicism, he rightly says that “one thing that cannot remain intact is ancient Stoic cosmology and the theology derived from it” (2017, xiii). The Stoics believed in Providence and, as Becker explains, claimed that “the cosmos as a whole was a rational, purposive being” (28). This personal and rational part of their conception of God or the Universe has to be “updated” (if we are talking about neo-Stoicism) or rejected (if we are talking about Bodhidaoism).
As a Stoic, I prefer the ‘Sage’ label be reserved for the ‘perfect example’, even if it never exists in nature. I think there is much utility in the model. And so, even the likes of Epictetus I would not claim to know is a Sage.
In any case, it seems strange to call Socrates the foremost Sage in Stoicism. Stoicism was developed after him, along with many other of the Socratic schools. Therefore, while his immense wisdom inspired the many later developed systems of Stoicism, he himself was not truly a Stoic. Perhaps the founder, Zeno, or even Epictetus would be a better option. Even the much-read Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were not the best examples of a Stoic it seems to me. But, perhaps in your less perfect use of the term that is still ok.
But if the effort to reserve Sagehood for the deceased is meant to be some kind of protection, I’m not sure it has any real capacity for such. Cults of personality or authoritarianism can spring up over the words of a figure long-since dead, just as easily as they can a living person. What is important, rather, are the principles of rational inquiry, healthy skepticism, and first-person experience to protect against such worship or blind acceptance. With these in place, the living status of any fellow teacher/learner becomes irrelevant.
You say that you “prefer the ‘Sage’ label be reserved for the ‘perfect example’, even if it never exists in nature.” Since we are talking about preferences here. As a Bodhidaoist, I prefer to have models that I can actually follow, actually emulate, real people who lived real lives and overcame real obstacles. Perfect and unreal models can lead people into perfectionism. There is a danger in raising the bar so high that no one can attain it. But it is not an either-or proposition, Bodhidaoists have both an ideal and real world examples. To me, that is a bonus.
I find it strange that you think it is “strange to call Socrates the foremost Sage in Stoicism.” As Rene Brouwer points out, in The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates, “Zeno did refer to Socrates as a sage” (164). And as John Sellars states, “the early Stoics would have considered themselves to be continuing a Socratic tradition” (The Art of Living 2009, 59). “There is a very real sense, then, in which one might define the goal of Stoic philosophy… as the task of becoming like Socrates” (63). Notice, not becoming like Zeno or another Stoic. In fact, “According to the Epicurean Philodemus, some Stoics actually wanted to be called ‘Socratics’” (59). So saying, “The foremost sage of Stoicism is Socrates,” is not strange at all. Again Sellars says, “If only one or two sages ever existed, then Socrates is almost always cited as one of them” (63).
Reserving Sagehood for the deceased does have real capacity to protect the teacher, the student, and the model. It protects the teacher from abuse of authority and pride. It protects the student from abdicating the responsibility for his or her own spiritual life. And it protects the model from pretend Sages, who at the end of life are seen for what they really are. But just like any teaching, this rule’s real capacity is contingent upon its implementation. Exceptions to the rule prove the need for the rule. Anyway, you can’t really object, since your Sages “never exists in nature.” You remove them from the “living” as well. I just require that one’s whole life be the standard, not just a part of it.
On the other end, I wonder if too much attention to categorizing people, especially as muggles, might lead us into the unfortunate self-fulfilling prophesy of them never being reached or helped. Or, that it might create unwholesome feelings of us/them, superiority, etc. It seems more helpful to me to simple ‘love all beings’ and consider dialogue and interaction in the Taoist sense, meaning everyone may or may not be ready for certain talk at certain times, and there is no telling where a planted seed may sprout.
I don’t believe that I give “too much attention to categorizing people.” There are spiritual people and unspiritual people. That is a fact, and we can squabble over names and words. You call yourself a “Spiritual Naturalist,” which makes everyone else not a Spiritual Naturalist. This “might create unwholesome feelings of us/them, superiority, etc.” The issue is not with making distinctions, we all do, the issue is to make sure we do so with love and respect to all equally.
You single out my use of “muggles” in this regard. Yet, Buddhism, Christianity, and every spiritual system has a name for people not interested in spirituality or wisdom. I think “muggle” is an improvement over “fool.” It is shorthand for “a person not interested in awakening.” They exist whether or not you have a name for them.
On the supernatural, I don’t believe we can conclude “there is no supernatural” just because a connection to it and the rest of the closed system of Nature has never been discovered – or even that it may not exist. Place these arguments into symbolic logic and it will be quite clear that is an invalid conclusion. It is rather merely that, if it hasn’t been discovered (and especially if a connection doesn’t exist) then there is simply no way to make meaningful claims about it and therefore no reason to include it in our practice or concerns.
There are two problems with what you said about not believing “we can conclude ‘there is no supernatural’.” Naturalism is, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, “the belief that the natural world, as explained by scientific laws, is all that exists and that there is no supernatural or spiritual creation, control, or significance.” Notice that naturalism is the belief that “there is no supernatural.”
Now in order for that belief to be rational, there has to be good reasons to believe it. In fact, it is the good reasons that led me to the conclusion. You make a mistake, because you confuse the possible with the probable. Very few things are certain, so almost all of our judgments are based on probability. If I say that “there are no pink elephants,” no one would argue with me. Yet that statement is just as invalid if, and only if, you are asking for absolute certainty. I can’t know that pink elephants don’t exist or haven’t existed somewhere in time or somewhere in the universe.
But the minute we move out of the abstract world of unknowable absolute certainty into the real world, the world of probability, “there are no pink elephants” is true. Likewise, “there is no supernatural” is true, in the sense that, since I am not omniscient and don’t know everything, and therefore absolute certainty is both unrealistic and unattainable, I can say that it is highly probable that “there is no supernatural.” But it is only in religious questions, where vested interests are at stake, does this argument ever come up. In almost every other area probability is accepted. It is only when God or the supernatural come up is the standard raised to un-human levels.
“There is no supernatural” is a logical conclusion based on the evidence. If I can’t make that conclusion, then I can’t make any conclusion. If we can’t make conclusions based on the evidence, then nothing is true or false. You have reached absolute relativism. If, however, evidence matters, then we can say, “there is no supernatural” because there is no justifiable evidence for the supernatural.
The second is the pragmatic reality of the excluded middle. You must either live as if the supernatural exists or live as if it doesn’t. There is not middle position. Now since you must make a decision, I think you should make the decision based on the best available evidence. Because this decision is based on evidence, it is a conclusion. So not only can you conclude “there is no supernatural,” you must, otherwise you are not a naturalist. You may like taking a neutral position, but you can’t live it.
I think it is healthy and appropriate not to have authoritative ‘gurus’ or innerrant messengers. But to not have a Sangha (spiritual community) seems extreme and potentially harmful. We are all responsible for our own practice to be sure, but we all need one another, as we are all both teacher and learner. The opportunity to help one another along is important to individual practice. We help one another through dialogue, support, encouragement, and by checking one another. Without that, it is easy for a practitioner to become stalled or fall into private dogma at best, or lose sight of reality at worst. There is no reason a spiritual community or Sangha cannot be one of equals. While there may need to be ‘logistical leaders’ in the sense of people responsible for managing facilities or whatnot, this should not be confused with ‘doctrinal leaders’ in the sense of feeding truth to others to ingest. A true spiritual community should encourage everyone to give and take wisdom as is right for them and by their own views and decision.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and it has made all the difference” (Robert Frost). Bodhidaoism is a road less traveled, the path of the solitary practitioner. It is not for everyone. Bodhidaoism is, to reappropriate Scott Cunningham’s words, “designed for the solitary practitioner, since finding others with similar interests is difficult, especially in rural areas” (Wicca: A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner 2000, xvi). Bodhidaoism is for those who don’t “need” community, but are happy if they find it, even if it is just online.
I am a loner by nature, and to say that the solitary or eremitic path is “extreme and potentially harmful” is to perpetuate a stereotype of the loner. “The mob thinks we are maladjusted,” writes Anneli Rufus. “Of course we are adjusted just fine, not to their frequency. They take it personally” (Party of One 2003, xvi). But the truth is, as she points out, “The loner is a force for good: all the stronger and purer for being concentrated in a single, solitary human being” (43-44). She lists many examples.
“Eremitical life is an expression of spirituality, not religion,” writes Paul and Karen Karper Fredette (Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life 2011, 32). The fact that solitaries are necessary “is proven by the fact that they exist in all religious traditions” (27). Plotinus speaks for all mystics, “Life is the flight of the alone to the alone.” The Buddha said, “If, while on your way, you meet no one your equal or better, steadily continue on your way alone. There is no fellowship with fools” (Dhammapada 61). Krishnamurt rightly pointed out, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
How can it be “harmful” to teach a spiritual path for the loner? Solitude is a spiritual discipline, not a spiritual disease. Just because a person is not part of a community, does mean that we can’t “help one another along.” And an online community does not really know one another, and that makes “checking one another” impossible. And Jonestown and Waco are evidence enough, a communities is no safeguard from people losing “sight of reality.”
It is interesting that we both have gravitated toward a practice that meshes Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, and Humanism. But where you seem to have envisionsed the product as an alternative to its inspirations, I tend to look on it as greater inclusion. It is the ‘and’ logical operator as opposed to the ‘not’ operator. I consider myself a Stoic and a Buddhist and a Taoist and a Humanist. Each of these traditions is vast, dynamic, and highly varied from person to person, region to region, culture to culture. It seems to me that the ‘takes’ of each of them necessary for them to consistently overlap without contradiction, each fit comfortably within all of these traditions such that the pracititoner has every justification to take on any of these terms without qualification or preceding adjective.
This does not mean that new labels for particular ‘cocktails’ or recipes of traditions aren’t necessary too, but I see no reason for them to be exclusive. That would seem to gravitate too much of our dialogue toward the topic of “what I am not”, and the remaining deficit of focus on “what I am” would seem to have real and deleterious effects.
It is inaccurate to characterize my use of Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, and Humanism in Bodhidaoism “as an alternative to its inspirations.” Rather, it is the critical examination of those “inspirations” and an exclusion of those without sufficient warrant. It is not that I am not sympathetic to your “greater inclusion” approach, I just think it would be dishonest for me to naturalize and secularize these traditions and pass them off as Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism. More factually, they should be called Secular Buddhism, Philosophical Taoism, and Neo-Stoicism.
Much of my own issue with modern interpretations of Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism is that it is more eisegesis than exegesis. That is, many untrained in hermeneutics read “into” the texts of Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism their preconceived ideas, rather than trying to bring “out” the meaning of the text within the historical, cultural, and linguistical context in which it was written. In other words, many untrained readers mistake what it means to them, for what the text actually meant when it was penned. I reject the Postmodern idea that any view is a legitimate view.
So Bodhidaoism is an attempt to do justice to each tradition within the tradition itself. It does not attempt to downplay or reinterpret aspects of a tradition just because they are supernatural or paranormal. These aspects are there if people are honest about it. I leave these traditions untouched by my philosophical naturalism and scientific literacy. I study them as they are, not how I wish they would be. That is why Bodhidaoism is not Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, or Humanism. It is both inclusive and exclusive; inclusive of insights that are in harmony with naturalism, and exclusive of those that are not.
The negative “what I am not” and the positive “what I am” are two sides of the same coin. There is no such thing as a one-sided coin, likewise there is no such thing as a one-sided label. To make both sides explicit is part of making the picture clear.
I regret the timing of your comments. As people will soon find out, I recently resigned as the Educational Director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society. My last day will be October 19th. My article (Oct 5, 2017) and your comments (Oct 7, 2017) came before I put in my two week notice (Oct 9, 2017). I did not read them until October 14th. They have no bearing on my departure.
But this exchange will likely give the wrong impression that I left because of internal disagreements. I just want to clarify that this is not the case. I resigned because of time constraints and my desire to focus of developing Bodhidaoism. I just want to be clear that I am still a proud member of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, I see real value in a big umbrella approach to Spiritual Naturalism.