Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
I’m trying to formulate a new world view that can take the place of Buddhist dharma. I have deinstitutionalized myself from Buddhist organizations, but I have yet to deinstitutionalize my mind from Buddhist dharma. For me, it has been Buddhist dharma that has been so seductive and had such a tenacious hold on my thinking.
A Unified Field Theory of Self and World
Buddhist dharma is an excellent system of thought not just because of its profound dharmas or doctrines about self and world, and not just because it does not rely on gods or mythology, but because the dharmas work together as a comprehensive theoretical system that explains both self and world, based on a unified foundational theory about the nature of reality.
There is not a similar unified system in Western science and humanities. Ecology and the natural sciences have much to explain the natural world and the cosmos. The social sciences, including sociology, psychology, economics (to the extent that it is a social science and not just an elaborate accounting system), political science, arts, anthropology, etc. explains much about the human social world. The problem with Western science is that it has not found a way to bring together the natural sciences and social sciences to produce a ‘unified field theory’ of self and world.
There is a similar problem in physics, which for over hundred years has developed two contradictory yet completely valid physical theories; quantum physics and a general relativity theory that includes gravity. Physics has not been able to unify quantum physics and general relativity into a unifield field theory that accounts for physical phenomena from the smallest particles to the largest objects in the universe and gravity, a single theory that explains everything.
Buddhism offered a unified theory about self and world, and within that unified system of thought, it also offered an ethics for how to relate to self and world. It offered a system of ethics, based on a foundational theory about the nature of reality, which was integrated into its unified theory of self/world. Western sciences and philosophy do not offer an ethics that is integrated with its many views of self and world.
Western science and philosophy offers a thousand different theories of ‘self’ (scientific, social, artistic) and a thousand different theories of ‘world’ (scientific, philosophical, cultural), but few if any of these myriad theories are integrated in any systematic way. On top of that Western philosophy and culture offers a thousand different versions of ethics, but they are not integrated with views of self and/or world. Indeed, these disparate theories of self, world and ethics are often contradictory and in conflict with each other.
The one system of thought that Western culture has to offer that comes close to that kind of integration is Humanism. Western Humanism offers a theory of self and world that is farily integrated, and an ethics—human rights—and takes individual and social suffering seriously. This is why Western Buddhists so often relate Buddhism to Western Humanism, despite the incongruitites. However, Humanism often excludes the lives of other species and the natural environment as a whole. It is not integrated at all into Western natural and physical sciences.
On the other hand, Ecology offers a highly integrated theory about the natural world which is well-integrated with Western natural science, but it cannot explain human social systems or treat individual suffering and well-being. Furthermore, ecology and humanism are not integrated and often at odds with each other: what is best for human well-being is often not good for the natural world, and vice-versa. (I know because much of my doctoral studies was on possbile integrations of ecology and social science.)
Buddhism offered a unified theory about self and world, and system of ethics for relating to self/world, and it did one more thing: it offered a profound explanation of personal human suffering (but not social) and offered some kind of solution. It said, “your personal suffering is real and it matters” and offered a practice that provided relief. Buddhism is to be commended for that. Furthermore, Buddhist dharma integrated its explanation of personal suffering into a unified theory about human nature, integrated with its unified system of self and world.
Buddhism offers not only an integrated explanation for ‘things out there’, the outer world, but it also offers a way of integrating the experience of the outer world with ‘experiences inside here’, wiith our interior world of experience, what we call our ‘psyche’, soul or spirit. And addition, it offers a way to understand the complex and dynamic inner experience of emotions, thoughts and motivations. It ioffers a practice for enhancing and maturing our relationship to our inner experience that creates a sense of well-being. Furthermore, it also integrates that inner experience with our relationship to the outer world. Buddhism connects the two worlds of experience, inner and outer, in an integrated framework, based on a foundational theory of the nature of reality, within a unified system of self and world.
So Buddhism offers an integrated system of theories of self/world/suffering/ethics, all based on a foundation that is a unified theory of reality. But I’m not saying that, therefore, Buddhism is ‘true’ or ‘right’. I think there’s a lot that Buddhism lacks (re: social theory) and in some ways is flat out wrong (re: rebirth). There are also difficult and long-standing contradictions within Buddhist dharma that have not been resolved. I’m speaking here primarily of the contradictions between some forms of non-dualism (shunytata, ‘emptiness’) and more empirical forms of dharma (Pali canon), Nagarjuna nothwithstanding. So I’m not saying that Buddhism is necessarily ‘right’ or ‘true’. I’m just saying that this is what Buddhism has to offer that Western systems of thought do not offer.
So-called Secular Buddhism of the type offered by Doug Smith, Ted Meisner, and Stephen Batchelor, isn’t really secular—it’s a religion. In fact, it’s a form of Western Buddhist Modernism, or North American Theravada, similar to that offered by the Insight Meditation Society. Secular Buddhism is not secular because it still relies heavily, indeed almost entirely on Buddhist dharma, and usually includes meditation practice. A truly secular Buddhism would not use Buddhist dharma at all, except perhaps as an historical reference.
A truly secular Buddhism wouldn’t even be called Buddhism because it would have nothing in it that could be easily recognized as Buddhist dharma, although there may be resemblances. A secular Buddhism, or secular dharma, would not merely repeat or reinterpret aspects of Buddhism, but it might rhyme. If we could develop a secular dharma that offers an integrated theory of self, world, suffering and ethics, we could supplant forms of Buddhism that are overtly religious and authoritarian.
Jiddu Krishnamurti was unique among Indian scholars because he offered an entirely different system of thought that attained many of the same goals as the Buddha, i.e. liberation of the human mind, but by a different route. Krishnamurti’s ‘dharma’ (if one can call it that) arrives at many of the same conclusions that Buddhism does, but without reliance upon rigid Buddhist doctrines or its authoritarian institutions.
In my quest to ditch the raft, I have embarked on a study of J. Krishnamurti’s system of thought to see if I can use it as way to liberate myself from Buddhist indoctrination. And again, I’m not saying that Krishnamurti is always right. Actually, after reading some of Krishnamurti’s books and watching some of his video lectures, there are many ways that I disagree with him as well. Furthermore, I don’t think Krishnamurti offers a unified theory of self and world—he is mostly concerned with human nature. So again, I’m not saying that Krishnamurti is necessarily right, or that Buddhism is necessarily wrong. I’m just saying that: here’s at least one Indian philosopher who arrived at the same place as the Buddha, but by an entirely different system of thought, one that displaces religion and undermines authoritarianism. I’m curious to know how he accomplished this feat.
I would also like to go through Western systems of thought to see if its possible to devise a unified field theory of self and world that also includes an integrated ethical system, and takes seriously the fact of human suffering and offers some kind of solution. I have been trying to do this in particular with systems theory, ecology, social science and humanism. Other thinkers who have attepted to do this are Fritjoff Capra, (see his book The Systems View of Life), and Scientific Naturalists, notably Sean Carroll. They also attempt to create a unified theory of self and world (but not ethics).
So again, I am not saying that ‘in order for a theoretical system of self and world to be true, it must necessarily be a unified system of thought.’ It’s quite possible that the Western approach, which is an encyclopedia of disparate systems of thought, might actually be the best approach because in total, it accounts for the greatest diversity of phenomena; that may be true. But I would still like to see if one could devise a Western system of thought that could come close to achieving what Buddhism has achieved, and learn a great deal in the process.
What amazes me about this process so far is that, in my attempts to ‘ditch the raft’, I have come to deeply appreciate the unique contribution of Buddhism to world culture. In trying to get rid of Buddhism, I have discovered its real beauty and elegance. Perhaps this is why Buddhism has lasted so long and spread so far in human history, and why it remains so attractive to me today.
The great thing about ‘dithching the raft’ is that, once you do, you get a better raft.