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Buddhism and Humanism

From a talk given by Charles Anderson to the North Yorkshire Humanists in July 2006


This talk was inspired largely by my own personal religious history, from my early upbringing as a Christian, through Atheism, then Buddhism, and more recently Humanism.

I became a Humanist a couple of years ago after nearly thirty years of calling myself a Buddhist. Surprisingly I found the transition fairly painless, and, even though my attitude to religion in general has hardened since then, I still retain considerable fondness and admiration for Buddhism. It therefore seemed to me that the two systems, Humanism and Buddhism, might have some degree of overlap. For a while now I've been wondering about just how big the differences between them are.

Let me start by explaining how I came to Buddhism as a teenager, and what about it I found so appealing.

I grew up in a nominally Catholic household. My first school (from the age of 4 to 6) was run by a Catholic Convent. The nuns gave me nightmares about my parents going to hell, and a mental image of my soul slowly getting covered with black marks that is still with me today. I had to receive Holy Communion, and go to confession every Wednesday morning when the local priest visited us. You quickly learned that you could get into trouble for claiming a sin-free week, and so I'd have to search my memory for any sins that I might have committed in the previous week.

No doubt the nuns believed they were acting in the best interests of my immortal soul, but today Catholicism is the one religion for which I have a deep seated, gut dislike, and I'm sure they were the ones I have to thank for that.

They also introduced me to C S Lewis's Narnia stories, which I loved without, I think, ever realising that they were Christian propaganda. He only wrote seven of them, but at age ten I discovered he'd also written a trilogy of science fiction novels. They were largely over the head of a ten year old, but I slogged my way through them anyway. In the last one the main character mentions that he didn't believe in God. Impossible, I thought—he's British! I was so surprised I had to go and ask my mother whether it was true that some people in Britain didn't believe in God. Thus was the concept of Atheism planted in my head by one of the country's leading Christian writers.

Two years later I became an Atheist myself. I realised that the universe made a lot more sense if you didn't claim that there was an omnipotent, benevolent being running it, and I've never believed in deities since. So why then, within just four years, was I willing to subscribe to another religion?

My first contact with Buddhism was through a series of books supposedly written by a former Tibetan monk, now living in the west. He called himself T. Lobsang Rampa, and enthralled me with his accounts of how he had been sent to a monastery as a small boy, had shown great potential, and been slowly advanced into the occult secrets of Tibetan Buddhism. An operation on his forehead activated the Third Eye, that allowed him to see other people's auras. Levitation, telepathy and other skills were also acquired by him. As I proceeded through his books a certain scepticism began to develop in me. When I reached the book that was allegedly written by his two Siamese cats and dictated to him via telepathy I decided that maybe enough was enough. Years later I found out that T. Lobsang Rampa was actually Cyril Hoskins, a plumber from Cornwall. Although he never actually went to Tibet, he did his research quite well. In particular, his descriptions of Buddhism were sufficiently accurate to make me want to learn a bit more about it.

Becoming a Buddhist

When I was sixteen years old I read a book on Buddhism by Britain's then leading Buddhist, a high court judge with the unfitting name of Christmas Humphreys. I tore through the book in just a couple of days. I don't know if you've ever had the experience of reading something and thinking, Yes, of course, but that's what it was like for me. Here was a religion that believed in a world run, not by capricious divinities, but by natural law. It presented an analysis of the human condition, and a prescription for how you could live your life in a way to improve it solely through your own efforts, and not with the aid of any external help. It was, I suppose, a universe that was fundamentally fair.

Buddhism was egalitarian. The Buddha, though brought up in the caste system, and a member of one of the highest castes, completely ignored it. Anyone could join his community, even the lowest-ranking members of society. The egalitarianism even spread to other species, with all life considered to be of value.

And Buddhism was also undogmatic. You weren't supposed to take anything at face value. Buddhas do but point the way, I read. The Buddha suggested to anyone wishing to follow his teachings that they should maintain a healthy scepticism, and subject them to examination and analysis. Indeed, early on in its history, Buddhism was known in India as The Analytical School.

To be honest, part of the appeal was in the exotic nature of an eastern religion. I would be the only Buddhist in my form, possibly the whole school. But more than that, the world view that Buddhism offered just seemed right. It fitted me.

Quick Description of Buddhism

Now I'm going to give you a very potted description of Buddhism.

The life of the Buddha is wrapped around with legends and exaggeration. However, the core of it is that around 2500 years ago there was a country called Sakya, in what is now northern India and southern Nepal. The heir to the throne is a prince called Siddharta Gotama, who lives a life of splendid luxury. Abruptly, at about the age of 30, he renounces his privileged lifestyle and goes to live the life of an ascetic in the forests, to study with holy men until he finds the meaning of life. After five or so years of this he returns to the world and begins to preach the teachings that are nowadays known as Buddhism. He continues this work for the next forty years.

In the legends, prince Gotama's peace of mind is shattered one day when, while out on a chariot ride, he encounters an old man, supposedly for the first time in his life. On successive chariot rides he meets a diseased man and then a dead one, further distressing him. On the fourth and final ride he meets a wandering ascetic, who looks completely at peace with the world. So the story goes, Gotama realises that, in the face of the certainty of old age, sickness and death, the luxury he has been surrounded by counts for nothing.

For five or six years he studies with a succession of religious teachers, learning a variety of techniques for meditation and self-mortification. Eventually, still not getting the breakthrough he seeks, he decides to take a middle way between self-indulgence and austerity. On a night in May, he sits under a Bodhi tree and resolves not to leave until he achieves enlightenment. Fortunately for the legend, he does succeed. At this point he begins a life of wandering and teaching, attracting thousands of followers, both monks and lay people, before dying at the age of 80.

After two and a half thousand years, Buddhism has developed into many schools and traditions. The one that appealed most to me, and the one which I think has the best claim to be the nearest to the Buddha's original teachings, is the Theravada school, as practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.

What did the Buddha teach? I've found this a very hard question to answer succinctly. There are a number of key Buddhist concepts, often inter-related. As early Buddhists transmitted their teachings orally for several centuries, they are frequently presented as numbered lists, as you will notice.

Perhaps the best teaching to start with are the Three Signs of Being. These are the three aspects that apply to everything that exists, and they are:

  1. Dukkha - often described as suffering, but also covering the idea of unsatisfactoriness
  2. Anicca - impermanence; everything is subject to a cycle of birth, growth, decay and death. This also applies to states of happiness; hence the unsatisfactoriness
  3. Anatta - no soul, or not self. No matter how hard you look inside yourself, you cannot identify precisely what "self" means. (I used to regard this one as difficult or uninteresting; now I feel it's probably the most important of the three.)

Notice that these three signs apply to absolutely everything, including any gods, if they existed. The Buddha seems to have been quite happy to accept the possibility of divine and supernatural beings, but if they existed they would be bound by the same natural laws as everything else. They would have been born once, and one day they would die. The idea of a Creator God, ruling the Universe on a whim, is quite alien to Buddhism.

Following on from the three Signs of Being, come the four Noble Truths. These are:

  1. Dukkha
  2. The causes of Dukkha, which is desire, or craving
  3. The possibility of ending Dukkha, through the extinction of desire
  4. The Eightfold Path that leads to the ending of Dukkha

The Eightfold Path lays out how a Buddhist should live their life. The eight steps are:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

The first two can be grouped together as Wisdom, the next three as Morality, and the last three as Meditation. They are meant to be taken simultaneously rather than in sequence.

For day to day living the lay Buddhist is supposed to observe the Five Precepts (Buddhist monks have dozens of precepts to follow). These are a bit like the ten commandments with the God and worshipping bits taken out. You are asked to refrain from:

  1. Injury to Living Things
  2. Stealing
  3. Sexual Misconduct
  4. Falsehood
  5. Intoxication

There are many other of these lists: the Three Fires, the Ten Fetters, the Ten Perfections, and so on. I will only mention the Four Brahma Viharas, or Sublime States, which Buddhists should strive to attain in themselves to become a good person:

  1. Loving-Kindness
  2. Compassion
  3. Sympathetic Joy
  4. Equanimity

I've left until now the teachings that, in the West, are most associated with Buddhism, namely Rebirth, Karma and Nirvana. According to this, after living beings die they are reborn in a new form, and so on over and over again for eternity. Unless, through your own efforts, you break free and reach the state of Nirvana. Nirvana shouldn't be confused with Heaven. It's more a state of oneness with the Universe in some Buddhists schools, a state of extinction in others. Whichever, it's the way you get out of the cycle of rebirth and suffering.

Karma is the moral equivalent of Newton's Third Law of Motion. Any actions or thoughts you have will come back to you, at some arbitrary point in the future. Good actions will bring good fortune, bad actions will bring bad fortune, all in proportion to the original act. This seems supremely fair. In Christianity, you can be a terrible person all your life, then get to Heaven via a deathbed conversion. Alternatively you can be a good Christian for years, then one day decide it's all rubbish, get run over by a bus a minute later, and spend the rest of eternity in hell because of your one minute of atheism. In Buddhism, extremes like that are not possible.

It is possible to imagine a world with Rebirth but without Karma, where your new birth is chosen at random. Karma can't be imagined without Rebirth though, because clearly our actions do not usually produce an immediate reaction. And there are plenty of examples of good or evil people who die without receiving their just desserts. But if we have an endless cycle of lives ahead of us, there is plenty of time indeed for Karma to take effect.

You might wonder then, why the Buddha taught about Karma at all, when it seems it could easily be omitted. I think the answer is due to Buddhism's emphasis on the importance of Causation. It envisages a chain or wheel of causality, with every action both having a cause, and becoming itself the cause of another action. Karma is the embodiment of this.

I've tried to summarise a whole philosophy here, and not perfectly, I admit. I'll happily try to answer any questions at the end of this talk.

Problems with Buddhism

There were always some issues I always had with Buddhism. As it turned out, these were mostly the bits I had to abandon when I became a Humanist.

Reincarnation and Karma are central to the idea of the Wheel of Life. The problem is though, they're both completely untestable. There is no way that you can ever tie some piece of fortune to a previous action, unless the reaction is immediate. A child born with a deformity may be reaping the consequences of evil actions in a past life, but how can we prove it? Hitler may suffer terribly in his future incarnations, but his victims will never know about it.

And how exactly does Karma work? If developing a cancer, say, is karmic retribution, how did your karma cause the tumour to develop in you. If karma can wait for years before resolving itself, how does it remember the original act?

Karma may be a fair system, but you can no more argue for its existence on that grounds than you could argue for the existence of proportional representation.

Similarly, how can you ever prove reincarnation? True, there are some small children who claim to be able to remember past lives, but there are others who have invisible friends. All that proves is that small children can have vivid imaginations. Hypnotic regression to past lives seemed a promising avenue once, but too many of the best cases turned out to be based on long-forgotten stories. The first and still the most famous example involved Virginia Tighe, a woman from Colorado, Under hypnosis she recalled being Bridey Murphy, supposedly a 19th Century Irish woman, in a previous existence. It turned out that Bridey Murphy was actually a woman who'd lived opposite Virginia when she was a child. The stories she'd heard from her of 19th century Ireland remained forgotten inside her head until brought out again under hypnosis years later.

Another case involved a woman who remembered being a Jew during the massacre at Clifford's Tower in York centuries ago. Her story was very vivid, but was actually based on a radio show she'd heard years before and completely forgotten about.

Another big problem with reincarnation is that the human population is expanding, so where do all the reincarnating entities come from? Does it mean that more and more animals are having to get reborn as humans to make up the numbers?

In the Buddhist outlook, everything that lives is a fellow traveller on the path to Nirvana. All life forms must be respected. A good Buddhist tries to develop loving kindness towards them all, which is why Buddhists incline to vegetarianism, for instance. But is everything that lives really on the path? What about plants? Surely they can't be capable of progressing. What does leading a good life mean to something with little or no brain, like worms and insects? I've owned pets, and seen them grow old and die. Did they go on to a better incarnation? That would depend on what it means from a cat's perspective to live a virtuous life. As humans we probably will never know, unless one of them writes a book on the subject.

I was aware of these problems, but I tended to put them aside or rationalised them away.

Less easy to put aside were the mythological trappings that come with Buddhism. The Buddha's birth was reportedly attended by many omens, a visiting seer predicted to King Suddhodama that his newly-born son would become either a great king or a Buddha, a whole raft of supernatural beings watched anxiously as Gotoma sat under the Bodhi tree striving for the final breakthrough to enlightenment. And the Buddha himself was supposed to be able to perform miracles. All this stuff I had to actively reject for my intellectual peace of mind. I put them down as encrustations, added to the core teachings over two and a half millennia.

Being a Buddhist

What was it like being a Buddhist? Well, solitary for most of the time. My one experience of trying to be part of a Buddhist group was with a bunch of Tibetan Buddhists (though oddly, not actual Tibetans). It was interesting, but I couldn't see the value of chanting in Tibetan when I didn't understand a word of it. I didn't appreciate having to bow before a statue of the Buddha at the start of each session, and I left the group the day our teacher explained in some detail about the six realms of existence: Humans, animals, gods, demigods, demons, and hungry ghosts.

Occasionally I read books about Buddhism (I hadn't realised how many until I started researching this talk). I would meditate from time to time, and found it to be relaxing, though without leading to any great psychological insights, other than how hard it is to concentrate on one thing for more than ten seconds. For long periods of time being a Buddhist was little more than a label, though as I flatter myself I lead a fairly virtuous life, I was quietly confident that I was doing okay for myself in my next life.

By the time I realised I was actually a Humanist, I think it's fair to say that I had turned into the Buddhist equivalent of most British Christians: identifying myself as one without actually doing much about it.

Moving to Humanism

I came to Humanism by chance, via an offer of three free issues of Free Inquiry, a leading American Humanist magazine. On the inside cover of each issue they print a statement of 21 Humanist Principles. I was surprised that, despite being a Buddhist, I could already sign up for 20 of them. The only one that gave me difficulties was No. 2, and only a third of that: the part that deplores efforts to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms. I realised that if I dropped my belief in karma and rebirth, which I'd always had problems with anyway, it turned out I was a Humanist already.

Actually I was ready for this change. I had been subscribing to Skeptical Inquirer (Free Inquiry's sister magazine) for a while, and practicing scepticism in my daily life. I'd got to the point where I instinctively question almost any fact I get presented with. The next step was to turn my scepticism towards my already-held beliefs. I was coming to the unpleasant conclusion that many of the things I believed in I held to more because I wanted them to be true than through any ability to justify them through rational arguments. Clearly I had to either come up with those arguments or abandon the beliefs.

So, just at the point where I'm wondering how to justify belief in reincarnation and karma, along comes Humanism, suggesting I don't need to believe in it at all. Ironically, I noticed the free offer I mentioned earlier in a copy of Skeptical Inquirer, so Scepticism not only weakened my Buddhist beliefs, it also led me to an alternative, in Humanism. As a Buddhist I would have explained that in terms of my Karma playing itself out.

How has my life changed since I became a Humanist? Well, obviously I read books about Humanism now, and I'm Secretary of this group. But seriously, my outlook on life has changed in some significant ways.

To begin with, my idea of the perfect life has altered. For a Buddhist, the ideal in life is to become a monk or nun, devote yourself to Meditation, and strive to reach enlightenment. But is that really suitable for a Humanist? That may be the way to achieve tranquillity and inner peace, maybe even psychological insights, but in doing so you would have cut yourself off from the rest of the Human Experience; the adventure of being part of the human race. If all the great achievers of history had chosen the solitary path of a monk, how much less rich the world would be today.

Secondly, there is my attitude to other species. When I was a Buddhist I tried to look on all life as One. All creatures were worthy of respect and kindness. In many ways it's a very green outlook. But now, as a Humanist, I regard humans as unequivocally the most important species on the planet. This isn't some form of species-centrism. I don't believe that we have the right to exterminate other species on a whim, or subject animals to unnecessary cruelty. The nub is that I regard humans as important because we are conscious beings. Similarly I regard whales, apes, elephants and the other species that exhibit signs of self-awareness as more important than those that don't. For me the most amazing thing in the Universe is Consciousness; the fact that inanimate atoms can group together and form entities capable of self-awareness, able to look at the world, and speculate on its origin, its future, and their place in it.

Looking Back at Buddhism

Quite recently I've started re-evaluating Buddhism. As I said, I have a fascination with the mystery of Consciousness. I think Consciousness is most likely something that emerges when brains reach a certain level of complexity. But it is such a qualitatively different phenomenon from anything else we know about, that if researchers ever announced that they'd found some mysterious component of the Universe that is involved in Consciousness, well, that wouldn't shock me.

Buddhism, too, has a fascination with Consciousness. There is a vast quantity of Buddhist writings to do with analysing it. Intriguingly, one of the core Buddhist conclusions about the nature of Consciousness is now looking suspiciously like the findings of some modern day researchers: I mean the notion that there is no such thing as a continuous stream of consciousness; consciousness only arises in response to an internal or external stimulus, and ceases when the stimulus ceases.

Also, recently I read Sam Harris's brilliant book, The End of Faith. After several chapters demolishing religions like Christianity and Islam, he is surprisingly complimentary about Buddhism. He doesn't categorise it as a Faith religion, and believes (from his own personal experience) that Buddhist meditation techniques have a lot to offer us in the search for personal happiness.

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