Robert M. Ellis and Winton Higgins discuss Middle Way Philosophy and Secular Buddhism

June 8, 2021

Robert Ellis on the ‘Middle Way Philosophy and Secular Buddhism’

In his SBN article ‘Middle Way Philosophy and Secular Buddhism‘, Robert M. Ellis explored the connection between secular Buddhism and his Middle Way Philosophy. Ellis contended that while his Middle Way Philosophy shares with secular Buddhism a critical approach to the Buddhist tradition, he argued that ‘secular’ is not a term that provides the criteria we need to skillfully interrogate Buddhism and other traditions. Ellis described the relationship of the Middle Way Philosophy and Buddhism in these terms:

For the past twenty years I have been developing an approach that I call Middle Way Philosophy, which is an attempt to articulate some key practical insights that I initially found through Buddhism in a more universal way. This approach has become the basis of a number of books, such as Migglism (2014) and The Buddha’s Middle Way (2019 – with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor). It’s also the basis of the Middle Way Society, which has been running since 2013 and now has various ongoing discussion groups and retreats.

Although Buddhism is obviously an important influence in this work, it’s far from the only one, and it gets a lot of its whole point from what I’d call ‘critical synthesis’. It draws on a lot of different kinds of sources, though in a discriminating way, and identifies common patterns of what works in practice, in the long-term, in different contexts. The idea of the Middle Way, which is of course a term that is Buddhist in origin, is central to my understanding of what works, but I also find it very important not to be limited by Buddhism, and to investigate other sources of insight wherever I find them.

I do not describe myself as a Buddhist, because that process of practical examination of what works is far more important to me than loyalty to any tradition. Instead, I describe myself as a ‘Middle Way practitioner’ – where the Middle Way is understood as a universal principle that can be found both in Buddhism and in many other places….

Click here to read the full article.

Winton’s response:


Winton Higgins, a frequent contributor to the Secular Buddhist Network and the author of Revamp: writings on secular Buddhism, has responded to Ellis’s article. Higgins disagrees with Ellis’s criticisms of secular Buddhism and argues that the Middle Way Philosophy’s eclecticism, while well-intentioned, obscures important differences in the way we understand our spiritual quests:

Robert Ellis is right about many secular Buddhists’ unease around the ‘Buddhism’ label. Two hundred years ago a Frenchman coined the term and invented the concept as embracing a range of Asian practices and institutions that had little in common other than a notional provenance in the work of a man called Gotama, who lived in India in the fifth century BCE. In the beginning was the word, the Bible asserts, but in its 200-year-old existence, the word ‘Buddhism’ hasn’t produced an iota of coherence to make it a sensible category with a clear meaning. Contrary to Robert’s assertion, it isn’t a flag to wave, but a flag of convenience drooping from the stern to let people know, very roughly, where we’ve come from. Maybe we should call ourselves secular Gotamists instead.

But let’s get down to tin tacks. In his first teaching, this chap Gotama suggested we need to ground ourselves in the obvious fact that, as human beings, we will encounter birth, ageing, sickness, death, unpleasant associations, painful separations, frustration, and all round vulnerability. These days most secular Buddhists would add a footnote to ‘death’: it’s final. The challenge he spent the rest of his life issuing, given this starting point, was: how are we to live a truly meaningful life, and become the best individuals and communities we can be, according to an ethic of care and without metaphysical presuppositions….

….Robert’s own ‘middle way philosophy’ seems to me to be a well-intentioned exercise in ecumenism that extends to both religious and non-religious traditions and schools of thought. It’s a worthy business, sitting down for chats with imams, priests, rabbis etc., not least in our modern multicultural societies. They can head off faux pas like inviting the Muslim neigbours to a barbecue lunch during Ramadan. They can also build broad fronts to tackle an overarching existential threat like the climate emergency. But they can also tempt us to wish-wash over important differences in the way we understand our spiritual quests (which arise out of contrasting traditions), and to type-cast those who are perceived as raining on the ecumenical parade….

Click here to read the full response by Winton.

Robert’s rejoinder:

In a rejoinder to Winton Higgins’s response, Robert M. Ellis Robert M. Ellis disputes Winton Higgins’s criticisms of Middle Way Philosophy and contends that this approach, rather than secular Buddhism, identifies and applies the valuable insights of the Buddha in the most universal way available:

….it’s difficult to understand where Winton has got the impression that I’m interested in ‘a well-intentioned exercise in ecumenism’. I have had no particular relationship to or influence from ecumenism or the multi-faith movement, and I have been very careful to differentiate Middle Way Philosophy from what could most unkindly be called New Age mish-mash. At the heart of that differentiation is the distinction I make between naïve universalism and critical universalism. Naïve universalism is the belief that all traditions as a whole are by definition the same, or have the same ‘essential’ message – a top-down monistic assumption that at worst can be intolerant in its inclusiveness (think of the Hindu insistence that Buddhism is ‘really’ Hinduism), or at best ineffectual because it’s terrified of offending anyone. Critical universalism, on the other hand, is a hard-headed attempt to sort the wheat from the chaff wherever you find it: all traditions are responses to human experience that have tried to address conditions in their context, but they’ve also all been subject to absolutization (metaphysics)….

….Yes, overall, I get the message of Winton’s riposte: something like ‘We don’t need lectures on the Middle Way thank you very much. We’ve already got it.’ I think that’s a superficial assumption that it’s easy to fall into, but there is always more to learn about the Middle Way (for me as much as anyone else). If you look at the history of ideas, it is littered with movements that revolted against the previous established assumptions in some respect, and then thought they had the whole story – but they didn’t. The French Revolutionaries didn’t have the whole story, Martin Luther didn’t have the whole story, Newtonian physics didn’t have the whole story. The story of the Buddha’s early life reminds us that we need a two-step process to reach a more adequate position every time: from the Palace to the Forest, and then beyond the Forest to find the Middle Way. I’m yet to be convinced that that two-step process, beyond the mere reaction, is really important to most secular Buddhists, and thus that they’ve identified and applied some of the most practically valuable insights of the Buddha in the most universal way available. However, I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

Click here to read the complete rejoinder by Robert.



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