Robert M. Ellis’s rejoinder to Winton Higgins’s comments on ‘Middle Way Philosophy and Secular Buddhism’

The first half of Winton’s response is easy to agree with. Yes, ‘Buddhism’ is a construction, and I’m glad that he shares my sense of the negative effects of ‘clinging to metaphysical views’. The second half, however, gets increasingly wide of the mark. I share with him a strong interest in modern thinkers, but why does that have to mean continental philosophers? I think we also have rather different views of what ‘post-metaphysical’ means. The idea that I’m engaged in ‘a well-intentioned exercise in ecumenism’ that may ‘wish-wash over important differences’ is a complete straw man that shows he’s either just not very familiar with my work, or has seriously misunderstood it. Finally, he shows that he also hasn’t even read my article with any attention by accusing me of ‘insisting on attributing a vulgar meaning (anti-religion) to the word ‘secular’ itself’. I did not insist on this sense at all: what I actually wrote in the article, acknowledging a different sense was “I do appreciate that Stephen Batchelor’s interpretation of the term ‘secular’ is rather wider than that, and is much more compatible with the Middle Way. If ‘secular’ means trying to be adequate to the conditions of the world, then we should all be trying to be ‘secular’ in that sense.”

Let’s take each of these points in turn in a little more detail. First, the affinity with modern thinkers – Middle Way Philosophy has just as much affinity with modern thinkers as Secular Buddhism, but the question is which ones. There are a whole array of modern thinkers that offer enormous insights into the Middle Way, and that I have drawn on extensively and sought to synthesise with the Buddha’s insights in my work. At the top of my list of these would be Iain McGilchrist, Daniel Kahnemann, Carl Jung, George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Jonathan Haidt, Robert Kegan, and Ellen Langer. I don’t agree with everything any one of these figures says, but each of them offers huge practical insights into the Middle Way. Not one of them, you may notice, is a philosopher in the normal sense, whether analytic or continental – not that philosophers don’t also have insights, but in my experience, after completing a Ph.D. in Philosophy, such insights are few and far between, and often couched in relativist or conventionalist terms antipathetic to the Middle Way. I also find a good deal of uncritical idealization of Western philosophers in the work of secular and other Western Buddhist writers, and an apparently complete obliviousness to the vast riches lying beyond them in psychology, neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, and systems theory: for an example see my review of a book by Goode and Sander. So, when we’re talking about ‘modern thinkers’, do we really mean those modern thinkers who most clearly support the practice of the Middle Way?  Or do we mean postmodernists whose relationship to the Middle Way is, at best, highly debatable?

On the second point, 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). Obviously some traditions have a lot more absolutization weighing them down than others, and one also has to be realistic about that before spending too long looking for the Middle Way in, say, Nazism. However, looking for the helpful and criticizing the unhelpful at the same time is far more likely to address the sources of conflict in the world in the long-term than simply castigating other traditions wholesale for being wrong. At the same time we need as individuals to work with whatever specific traditions we find ourselves in relation to, rather than trying to create a superficial eclectic alternative. There’s a more detailed discussion of the distinction between naïve and critical universalism in my recent book Buddhism and God.

Thirdly, there’s the meaning of the term ‘secular’. One can hear Winton’s exasperation in ‘Time and time again, secular Buddhists have reclaimed and explained its true meaning as relating to this time and this world, in contrast to preoccupations that are timeless and not of this world. But it doesn’t suit Robert’s mission to acknowledge the point.’ I’ve already said why this is an unfair accusation, and that I did acknowledge the alternative meaning, if not in exactly those terms. However, claiming to know the ‘true meaning’ of a term is also a bit of a big claim to make if one is trying to avoid metaphysics. I think everyone has the right to adopt more useful meanings of terms than those that may be more widely used, and that’s something I often do myself. But this needs to be justified by a practical argument about why that use of the term works best, considering all the conditions involved, including the current widespread usage of the term. My reason for not adopting the term ‘secular’ to describe my own approach, then, is practical – firstly, on balance, it is far more likely to be misunderstood than otherwise, and secondly it really doesn’t nail what it is most important to express in one’s position. It doesn’t seem to me especially important to emphasise that one’s approach is ‘of this time’ as opposed to eternity (which also sets up an opposition rather than a dialectical process). Of course it’s of this time, what other time could it be of? It’s far, far more important to try to identify, as universally as possible, the distinctive insights in the Buddha’s approach to navigating all the judgement in our lives, and to keep reminding oneself of those insights by putting them first in the labels one applies to oneself.

It has also not been my experience at all that, as Winton claims, ‘secular Buddhists don’t have a dog in any of the fights between metaphysicians, including ones between religionists and anti-religionists’. If you look at the attitudes expressed by secular Buddhists on social media, and especially if you look at the approaches of leading figures in the US-based Secular Buddhist Association, it’s quite clear that they back the anti-religionist dog: they usually identify with atheism, humanism and naturalism. I do realize that the approaches of leading figures in the Australasian variant of secular Buddhism, along with Stephen Batchelor’s approach, are more subtle than that, but it’s not obvious to me that references to postmodernism do much to help develop an effective Middle Way approach or dispel the anti-religious impression, at least if not leavened by plenty of other critical discussion of a variety of philosophical, psychological and other approaches. Here, though, I have to say that I have not yet read Winton’s recent book, or anything more he may say there about this. At the very least, Winton ought to acknowledge that there are many avowedly secular Buddhists with a much more polarized interpretation of ‘secular’ than his.

Finally, there’s the issue of ‘deracination’, which I should probably have explained more fully. I was talking specifically here about the depth of cultural association in the ways that we use archetypal symbols – such as those of the Buddha or God. The lack of such depth is a danger for individual Westerners engaging with Buddhism in general, and I was advisedly not referring specifically to Secular Buddhists. What I suggest is that we need to take into account how deeply symbols need to go to be effective, and that if we adopt Buddhist symbols in adulthood, the depth of association they can provide may not meet all our needs – which means that we may need to keep the door open in some respects to at least the symbology of other traditions (such as Christianity) in which we have childhood roots. I was not talking about whether a particular religion, philosophy or approach was ‘deracinated’, and indeed I’m not sure what that would mean. It is individuals who are embodied and thus have all these associative roots in their brains and nervous systems, not philosophies. I think it’s for individuals to negotiate these issues, but they need to do so in awareness of the dangers of adopting new archetypal symbols in a relatively superficial way.

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.


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2 Replies to “Robert M. Ellis’s rejoinder to Winton Higgins’s comments on ‘Middle Way Philosophy and Secular Buddhism’”

Ric Streatfield

A monk asked Zen Layperson Bu Yi –
‘I read somewhere that the colour orange was not referred to in Middle Ages England until they began importing oranges, the fruit, from Portugal. My question is, did the colour orange exist in England prior to this event?’
Bu Yi , pointing to a diagram of the spectrum of wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum hanging on the wall of the Zendo –
‘You tell me!’

Ric Streatfield

A monk asked Zen Layperson Bu Yi –
‘I read somewhere that the colour orange was not referred to in Middle Ages England until they began importing oranges, the fruit, from Portugal. My question is, did the colour orange exist in England prior to this event?’
Bu Yi , pointing to a diagram of the spectrum of wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum hanging on the wall of the Zendo –
‘You tell me!’

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