Dharma in the shadow of Buddhism: a response to Mike Slott and Winton Higgins

This short essay was inspired by Reexamining ‘Truths’ and ‘Tasks’ in Secular Buddhism by Mike Slott, which was recently published on the website of the Secular Buddhist Network. The article prompted a response by Winton Higgins, which was then followed by a rejoinder from Mike Slott. Both writers have highlighted the need to clarify the notion of ‘truth’ as it is currently understood in Secular Buddhism. Rather than address their conversation point-by-point, I try to frame the discussion from a broader, historical perspective. I am grateful to both Mike and Winton for having got this ball rolling.

Some years ago the scholar Johannes Bronkhorst published a book entitled Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. Bronkhorst argued that Gotama grew up in a part of north-east India (Sakiya) that was not yet ‘brahmanised,’ that is, in a society not yet organised into four castes; not yet embedded in the world view of a Creator God (Brahma) whose essential nature constitutes the true, eternal soul of each sentient being; not yet aspiring to a salvation in which one is liberated from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth; and not yet founded on the authority of Vedic tradition and brahmin priests. If Bronkhorst is correct, then Gotama did not — as Buddhist tradition and many modern Western scholars maintain — teach his dharma as a reaction against and critique of Brahmanism.

Over time, however, as Brahmanism (or later ‘Hinduism’) became the dominant social, ethical and religious worldview throughout the Indian sub-continent, Buddhists came to see themselves and their own tradition through increasingly ‘brahmanised’ eyes. It would have seemed self-evident for them to think of Gotama as belonging to the warrior caste and educated by brahmin priests. They would have seen him as a sadhu-like renunciant who rejected the social and religious norms of his society, and discovered a way to achieve salvation from birth and death by a path that no longer required either belief in a Creator God or an eternal soul. Gotama appeared to reject Brahmanism, but his teaching was entirely framed by Brahmanic ideas. The gradual Brahmanisation of India, which was already underway during his lifetime, created the conditions for a Brahmanic mindset to permeate Buddhism. Eventually, Buddhists came to accept the Brahmanic view that India had been a Brahmanic society since time immemorial. The brahmins thus succeeded, in Bronkhorst’s memorable phrase, in ‘colonising the past.’

For the most part, I find Bronkhorst’s arguments compelling. But if he is right, then we are challenged to imagine an entirely different starting point for the teaching of the Buddha. Rather than seeing him as a renegade Hindu, we can understand him as a man from a non-Brahmanic culture — probably one informed by animist beliefs and focused on sun worship — who sought to address the social, political, economic, philosophic and religious turbulence of fifth-century BCE India by teaching the practice of a middle way, which consisted of an eightfold path that engaged every aspect of one’s humanity. His goal was to find a way of human flourishing in an unstable world where cities and kings were replacing the ancient agrarian republics governed by councils (sangha) of elders. To become fully awake, he realised, required that one embrace the existential situation at hand, and respond to its suffering from the non-reactive perspective of nirvana. One of the aims of a ‘secular dharma’ today is to recover the threads of what may have been Gotama’s starting point before his project was taken over by his Brahmanically minded followers such as the ascetic ex-brahmin Mahakassapa. In this way, we might, in Don Cupitt’s phrase, be able to ‘start all over again.’

To the extent that Buddhism became an unwitting carrier and transmitter of the broader religious culture of India, it cast its Brahmanically inflected shadow over the dharma, thereby obscuring the counter-intuitive logic of Gotama’s teaching and key features of its practice of human flourishing. As I have argued in After Buddhism, what seems to have begun as a task-based ethics came to be replaced by a truth-based metaphysics. Today, whether we like it or not, we find ourselves in a situation where Buddhism sees itself underpinned and legitimated by two metaphysical doctrines: those of the Four Noble Truths and the Two Truths (Ultimate and Conventional). This means that any attempt to ‘start all over again’ will need to begin by questioning these two foundational doctrines, which introduce what Mike calls ‘truth with a capital T,’ thereby confronting us with what Winton calls ‘the religious hard sell.’

I would far prefer that we did not have to do this. For it obliges us to start by adopting a confrontational stance that rejects a pair of revered dogmas, to which Buddhists are often deeply attached, while, at the same time, opening us to the accusation of rejecting ‘truth’ wholesale. Paradoxically, we thereby find ourselves giving prominence to an issue that for Gotama was a non-issue. ‘I do not say: ‘this is the truth,’” he remarked in the Chapter of Eights (Sn. 882), ‘which is what fools say in contradicting each other.’ In the early discourses, it is striking how little the term ‘truth’ is found outside its endless repetition in the pericope of the ‘Four Noble Truths.’ When the word ‘truth’ appears elsewhere, it is generally in the context of speaking truthfully or being honest. Sacca (truth or truthfulness) is understood as a virtue, a skill, a parami, which is to be practised when we speak but also whenever we try to think clearly about and understand what is the case with a state of affairs in the world. Yet whatever conclusions we then reach are, as Mike explains, ‘not presumed to be universal, absolute, and permanent but are, like scientific hypotheses, provisional and subject to refutation or revision in the future. Truth claims based on this type of correspondence are small t “truths”.’

I recently had the opportunity to teach the dharma to a small group of educated, intelligent people who knew hardly anything about Buddhism and were unfamiliar with my writings. I began by introducing ELSA as a framework for leading one’s life in a way that would enable human flourishing. In the next talk, I explained that to be fully awake means to have recognised, performed and mastered the four tasks of ELSA — i.e. Gotama’s definition of awakening at the conclusion of his first discourse. I deliberately did not mention how these four tasks were a reinterpretation of the famous Four Noble Truths, despite my ingrained Buddhist habit-energy prompting me to do so. Yes, I still have the urge to apologise for what I am doing.

If I had had the time to elaborate the ELSA perspective in greater detail to these students, I could easily have done so without making the slightest allusion to any capital T ‘Truth.’ Yet on coming to the fourth task of cultivating the eightfold path and the practice of sammā vācā (‘right speech’), quite naturally we would have moved into a discussion of truthfulness in speech and thought, the need for honesty and accountability, the crucial importance in our time for truth-telling in public life and so on. In other words, it is entirely possible to cultivate a practice of the dharma that addresses all aspects of one’s humanity without making any big T truth-claims at all. For these kinds of truth-claims are not even wrong; they are irrelevant. In a secular approach to the dharma, the only reason we need to refer to such claims is in order to flag them as being unworthy of attention. It would be far preferable to ignore them altogether.

I recognise the danger of challenging the idea of truth as I have done in After Buddhism (Chapter 5). Although the critique of the correspondence theory of truth has been widespread in Western philosophy at least since the time of William James in the nineteenth century, people still find it a provocative and disturbing thing to do. Particularly for those drawn to religion (including Buddhism), to abandon such a concept of truth seems to remove any foundation upon which to build a philosophically coherent and ethically rigorous view of oneself and the world. Whether you call ultimate truth ‘God’ or ‘Emptiness’ makes little difference. In both cases, your religious faith secures you to something true that will never change and can never let you down (another nod of gratitude to Martin Hägglund).

Gotama’s most radical move, I would argue, was to teach a fully committed ethical life that is not underwritten by any ultimate truth (be it God’s will or the law of karma) at all. This is not because Gotama realised that there was no ultimate truth, which would have been just another ultimate truth claim, but because he chose to stop playing the language game of finding the truth and to start playing the language game of responding to suffering — to put it in Wittgensteinian terms. This is why, in my opinion, he spoke of his dharma as ‘going against the stream.’ He did not abandon the concept of truth altogether, which would have been absurd, but he had no need to ground his teaching on non-evident truth claims such as ‘craving is the cause of suffering.’ The Parable of the Arrow (MN 63), which Mike referred to, makes this abundantly clear.  The aim of the dharma is not to arrive at the Truth, but to remove the arrow of reactivity in your heart in order to be free to respond to suffering with care.

In order to respond non-reactively to individual or collective suffering, we need to understand as clearly as possible the nature of the specific dilemmas we face. In order to get to the truth of the matter, we need to free ourselves from whatever error or bias that might distort our perception of the situation. Ideally, we need to acquire as much  information as we can and carefully consider it before we go ahead and act. Yet however much we learn and understand, it is unlikely to be enough to tell us exactly what to say or do. There will generally be some degree of uncertainty and risk in the ethical choice we make. In writing this response to Mike and Winton, I am likewise seeking to be as truthful as possible in what I say, while recognising the provisional nature of many of my most heartfelt beliefs.

I do not know whether Johannes Bronkhorst is right or wrong in the claims he makes in Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. Given the extreme paucity of textual or archeological materials from that time, anything we say about what happened in north-east India more than two thousand years ago is bound to be tentative. Nonetheless, I do believe that Bronkhorst is onto something: not because his arguments are conclusive, but because what he says fits so well with other sources that have proved fruitful in my own work over the years. Scholars broadly agree that one of the main reasons Buddhism failed to survive in India beyond the twelfth century was because it had become so entangled with Brahmanism that it was increasingly difficult to differentiate it from the wider Indian matrix of ideas and practices current at that period. Bronkhorst’s work helps us understand how in the course of its development Buddhism reached this impasse. One reason the ELSA approach may strike such a different note from the orthodox Truth-based perspective could be because it carries echoes of the vanished non-Brahmanic culture of north-east India where Gotama was born, raised and died. One of the tasks of a secular approach to Gotama’s teaching is to recover the dharma from the shadow cast by the Indian religion of Buddhism. We could then let go of the adjective “secular” and simply talk of the dharma.

25 November, 2021


Mike Slott’s original article – https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/reexamining-truths-and-tasks-in-secular-buddhism/

Winton Higgins’ response – https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/response-to-mike-slotts-reexamining-truths-and-tasks-in-secular-buddhism/

Mike Slott’s rejoinder – https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/rejoinder-to-winton-higgins-on-reexamining-truths-and-tasks-in-secular-buddhism/

Johannes Bronkhorst. Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. Leiden: Brill, 2011. This can be downloaded as a PDF here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/294688170_Buddhism_in_the_Shadow_of_Brahmanism

Martin Hägglund. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. New York: Penguin, 2019.



One Reply to “Dharma in the shadow of Buddhism: a response to Mike Slott and Winton Higgins”

Ric Streatfield

Once again, beautifully put thanks Stephen.
To my mind Gotama was ‘secular’…..Secular as a contrast to ‘religious’ just as ‘atheist’ as defined from ‘theist’. He was a Naturalist Philosopher, as Thales and Heraclitus were, so there is no need to use the ‘secular’ descriptor.
Half tongue-in-cheek I have suggested that Gotama was the first ‘Biologian’. That is, he used an entirely natural, common, biological process of human sexual reproduction to rationally explain to Ananda in the paticca samuppada the underlying drives which come with ‘craving’. A Theologian, in contrast, would have referred to scripture and the super-natural.
In other words Dependent co-Arising, which Ananda apparently understood immediately and must have memorized and written it all down, is an understanding of the natural processes of the world we live in. This is completely compatible with understandings from modern day science. DcoA is the basis of physics, chemistry and the Biological Sciences – biological evolution, ecology, COVID, etc. and I am using this application as a framework for discussion in small groups working through such topics as – ‘toxic masculinity’, sexual violence, misogyny; caste and racism; (Putin as alpha male chimpanzee!); etc.
I feel we need to promote Gotama’s great gift to us far more widely through demonstrating its applicability to helping us understand our current problems and work out solutions together.

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