Avoiding the conceit of superiority: a cautionary note for secular Buddhists

In a recent review of Bhikkhu Analayo’s 2020 book, Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions,  I praised Bhikkhu Analayo’s goal of identifying the ways in which important groups and lineages within Buddhism have wrongly asserted that their approach and perspective is uniquely correct – the so-called superiority conceit – and criticized other approaches as being inferior.

However, I sharply disagreed with his assertion that secular Buddhists are as guilty of this problem as are Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists. In his book Bhikkhu Analayo accuses the main proponent of secular Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor, of misinterpreting key Early Buddhist texts and of assuming a condescending, superior position with respect to traditional Buddhism. I pointed out that Stephen has never claimed that his interpretation of the Pali Canon is superior to others. I also noted that secular Buddhist organizations and individuals do not take the position that our perspective represents a pure form of Buddhism nor do we assert that we have the correct interpretation of Buddhist texts.

Secular Buddhism is at a very early, fluid stage of development, so early that it is not at all clear how this trend will develop in the coming years, and what perspectives and practices will be central to a secular approach to the dharma. Secular Buddhists don’t have a dogma to which we subscribe and there is a refreshing sense of openness to various perspectives.

However, since the tendency to take on a superiority conceit is very strong, I think it will be useful if we consider how, as secular Buddhists, we can avoid developing a superiority conceit in the years ahead.

The need to exercise caution in this area does not reflect any deep skepticism on my part about the value of a secular approach to the dharma. In my view, developing a secular Buddhist trend is an essential project.  By making Gotama’s teachings and insights relevant for our contemporary society, we can make an important contribution to individual flourishing and social transformation.

Rather, in the interest of promoting a culture of respect and dialogue among secular Buddhists and in relation to those who hold other perspectives, I will put forward two propositions which constitute, in my view, useful guardrails to limit the growth of a superiority conceit:

  • Secular Buddhism does not constitute the ‘correct’ way of understanding Gotama’s teachings in comparison to other approaches, including traditional lineages of Buddhism. Based on our values, interests and needs, secular Buddhists engage in a specific way with the texts and traditions of Buddhism. That mode of engagement is one among a variety of legitimate approaches; it does not represent the ‘pure’ or ‘right’ way. Like other individuals and movements who have offered us powerful, complex, and deep ways of understanding and acting in the world, Gotama’s teachings can and will be engaged with in a variety of ways.
  • And while the dharma provides valuable insights and practices, neither a secular nor a traditional version of Buddhism give us some ‘Master Key’ for understanding all the key processes and events of individual experiences and social life. Because Gotama’s teachings are limited or inadequate in some important respects, we need other theories and perspectives to complement, supplement, and/or revamp core Buddhist ideas.

Guardrail #1 – There is no one, correct interpretation of Gotama’s teachings

Let’s start with several key ideas that those of us who are Buddhist practitioners can agree with. First, Gotama’s teachings offer profound insights about human existence, in particular, the ways in which our tendency to ‘attach’ to and fundamentally misunderstand our experiences cause us various forms of discontent, dis-ease, and suffering. In addition, Gotama provided us with an overall path which integrates meditation, wisdom, and ethics for transforming our lives and substantially reducing our experience of dukkha. And third, his analysis of the cause of dukkha and his prescriptions for remedying dukkha are not limited to a subset of human beings but apply to all humans; his teachings are universal.

We also have agreement on more specific points as well: the conditioned and impermanent nature of all human experience; the interconnectedness of beings, events, and objects within nature; the need to move away from an ego-centric mode of being; and the crucial value of emotional ‘tones’ or attitudes which facilitate a more connected, less egoically-centered stance – loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

So, in an important sense, there is an agreed-upon core to Gotama’s teachings. Interpretations which fall outside that core can be assessed as incorrect or illegitimate. Thus, to pose the issue in an outlandish way, if someone were to say that Gotama supported a lifestyle based on commercialism, the satisfaction of immediate desires, and doing harm to others to achieve our own goals, then that interpretation would clearly be wrong.

But, of course, disputes within Buddhism over interpreting Gotama’s teachings are not as easily resolved as that. They have to do with how people, in various contexts and time periods, and with different interests and needs, have engaged with the core teachings – as we have come to know them in various texts and stories. If an interpretation or perspective about Gotama’s teachings falls within the core set of ideas, such interpretation is as legitimate as any other that accepts these core ideas.

Because Gotama’s teachings and prescriptions for living a good life have an immense depth, richness, and complexity, it is not surprising then that there is a wide a variety of interpretations, perspectives, and practices based on those teachings. It is precisely because Gotama offered us such an innovative and powerful vision of our human experience that for over 2,500 years people in many different cultures have sought to understand and make these teachings relevant in their lives. At any one time and within any culture, there are always divergent views about what counts as the most useful or best interpretation.

The current debate over how to interpret Early Buddhist texts is a good example of this process.

We can appreciate and have great respect for Bhikkhu Analayo’s scholarship, his superb analysis of the Pali Canon and other key texts, while recognizing that his approach not only includes the guidelines appropriate for a rigorous philological examination of texts, but is also shaped by his own approach to Buddhism. Bhikkhu Analayo is attempting to explain and make relevant for the contemporary world a version of Buddhism which validates the traditional notions of karma, rebirth, and the centrality of monastic life to the path of complete liberation from dukkha.

On the other hand, Stephen Batchelor is engaging with the same texts with a different purpose. While sharing with Bhikkhu Analayo the core set of ideas noted above, Stephen’s engagement with Early Buddhist texts is aimed at developing an approach which facilitates individual transformation and a ‘culture of awakening’ in relation to the needs, values, and perspectives of our contemporary society. He is not interested in preserving notions like rebirth and karma which are foundational to traditional forms of Buddhism, but in finding the connections between Gotama’s teachings and the challenges that we face today. He has done so by interpreting Gotama through a pragmatic, phenomenological, and ethical lens.  His approach is not more correct than Bhikkhu Analayo’s; it is simply different.

What I’ve argued about interpretations of Gotama’s teachings is the case with any innovative thinker who develops a new and powerful perspective that addresses the human condition. As someone committed to democratic socialism and a progressive labor movement, I have explored Marxist and radical political theory in great depth over the years. Just as the meaning and implications of Gotama’s teachings are vigorously contested, interpretations and uses of Marx’s writings have widely varied. Marx’s legacy has always been disputed, and to such an extent that two perspectives that claim to be Marxist can be so dissimilar as to seem to be polar opposites. It is not surprising that, in response to what he took to be a distortion of his ideas, Marx himself once said that he was not a ‘Marxist.’

And this same pattern is repeated in all the realms of human activity – literature, music, art, spirituality, the sciences, etc. A new, fecund theory or perspective that addresses an essential aspect of human life is continually interrogated and engaged with by people in different cultures and time periods as they seek to understand and effect positive changes in their lives.

When secular Buddhists interpret Gotama’s teachings in a particular way, we are engaging in a practice as old as human culture itself.

Guardrail #2 – Secular and traditional versions of Buddhism don’t have all the answers

Another guideline we need to recognize and internalize is the notion that no theory or perspective can provide us with a ‘Master Key’ to explaining the totality of life and providing solutions to the problems that we encounter. The reason is quite simple. Life is just too complex, uncertain, and changing to expect that one theory or perspective can provide us with all the answers. That’s true of secular Buddhism, traditional forms of Buddhism, Marxism, Freudianism, evolutionary theory, etc.

Please note that I’m not arguing, as some postmodernists have, that any so-called ‘universal narrative’ is suspect simply because it presupposes that there are objective facts and general truths which the perspective reveals. I’m not claiming that all perspectives are just forms of discourse and that our assessment of perspectives is so completely relativistic so that we can’t distinguish between better or worse perspectives.  My point is quite different. The fact that a perspective yields multiple interpretations reveals that it connects strongly with our human lives, with the reality of our experience. Such a perspective is thus more valuable than those perspectives which die out or are not engaged with.

Buddhism certainly fits in the former category. But Buddhism – whether in a traditional or secular form – is incomplete in some important ways. This makes complete sense given that human life is complex, uncertain, and changing; and that Gotama’s teachings reflected the particular conditions and culture in which he lived. As a result, the issues and disputes that were most important for Gotama and others at that time do not completely correspond to the challenges that we face today. From our contemporary perspective, his teachings thus have gaps, lacunae, that need to be filled in and contain ideas that have become less useful or mostly irrelevant to us.

Based on my own experiences, values, and perspectives, here are some key areas where I believe Gotama’s insights and teachings need to be complemented, supplemented, and/or revamped by other perspectives:

  • While Gotama’s understanding of our mind-heart-body provides the basis for a Buddhist psychology which has been enormously helpful in leading to various mindfulness-based treatment modalities for emotional and mental distress, the teachings lack a ‘depth psychology’ which identifies how unconscious aspects of the mind play a key role in psychological development, distress, and treatment.
  • While Buddhist teachings rightfully emphasize how the three ‘poisons’ of greed, hatred, and delusion in individuals have a negative social impact, Buddhism fails to recognize that exploitative and oppressive social structures are not just the result of individuals’ unskillful thoughts and actions but are a relatively autonomous source of dukkha. There is a mutually interactive or dialectical connection between individual and social dukkha, as well as individual flourishing and social transformation.
  • While Gotama’s teachings and the earliest sanghas represented a departure from traditional notions of social caste, gender, Buddhism was and is still marked by misogyny and a teacher-centric model which conflicts with contemporary values of equality, inclusion, democracy, and diversity.
  • While Gotama correctly understood the pitfalls of attachment and craving, the Buddhist prescription of renunciation as an antidote to craving has led to a tendency to deny the value of the body and sensuous experience.

Of course, this is just a partial list. Others will identify additional areas in which they find Buddhist teachings to be incomplete or not useful. But my list illustrates the basic point: while we are justified in believing that Buddhism makes a crucial contribution to individual and social well-being, so do other perspectives and practices. We need to see Buddhism as one of a number of perspective and practices that, in a fruitful conversation with each other, can help us to address the challenges that we face today.

Strong beliefs and equanimity

Among Buddhists, there is a tendency to assume that taking a strong position on an issue, feeling passionate about one’s view, is incompatible with the state of non-attachment we hope to move toward in our practice. Passionate advocacy somehow rules out the ability to be equanimous and kind to those who have different views.

Certainly, if our passionate support for a persepctive is mostly ego-based and depends for its gratification on the results that we want to see, then there will be a serious conflict between our beliefs and a crucial goal of practice. However, that is not always the case.

We can believe strongly and wholeheartedly that a secular approach to the dharma is a valuable perspective which can have a transformative impact on our lives and contribute to social change. We can confidently assert that position with others. Yet, to avoid the tendency to see our perspective as being superior, we need to be cognizant of the two guardrails. For these guardrails encourage us to have a stance of humility and non-attachment with respect to our views. They also give us a broader perspective within which to situate our advocacy of secular Buddhism.

With this type of attitude and approach, we will be in a better position in the coming years to develop fruitfully a secular approach to the dharma.


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