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

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.

Helpfully, he also provided us with a pragmatic matrix of interlocking concepts (‘the dharma’) with which to parse and interpret our own direct experience, so that we could take up his challenge by living consciously and purposefully. This was his ‘problematic’, we might say now. If he had a ‘philosophy’ at all, then it was a practical, open-ended one, in line with those of some of his famous contemporaries in Greece. However we choose to label it now, Gotama’s dharma grounded a living tradition that today’s secular Buddhists seek to recoup and reissue in culturally appropriate forms.

Since Gotama’s time, an array of religions and non-religious –isms have arisen that have obscured, ignored or done violence to Gotama’s problematic, in the name of their own imagined metaphysical ‘truths’. The violence has often been real enough. For instance, the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, a theological disagreement between Christians, was essentially fought over whether or not the Eucharist physically transformed wafers and wine into actual flesh and blood. In proportion to the world’s human population at the time, this war produced a death toll equivalent to that of the Second World War, including a third of the inhabitants of what is now Germany. This tragedy underlines Gotama’s teaching against clinging to metaphysical views.

As secular Buddhists we recognise that some religions and non-practical philosophies might shed some light on the human condition and the challenge we ourselves are working with. But we choose not to follow their way of asserting their view-laden identities. We also recognise a stronger affinity with modern thinkers, such as post-metaphysical writers, who pose problematics that converge with Gotama’s. I cite a considerable number of them in my new book, Revamp: writings on secular Buddhism. A standout example is Martin Hägglund, an avowed non-Buddhist whose problematic converges remarkably with Gotama’s. His This life: secular faith and spiritual freedom sharpens some of the big issues we face us as secular Buddhists.

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.

Robert casts secular Buddhists in this role by insisting on attributing a vulgar meaning (anti-religion) to the word ‘secular’ itself. 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. As it happens, secular Buddhists don’t have a dog in any of the fights between metaphysicians, including ones between religionists and anti-religionists.  We just want to get back to the big issues posed by our birth and death.

Robert worries that ‘western Buddhism often seems in danger of deracination.’ If by ‘western Buddhism’ he means secular Buddhism, then he can stop worrying. We have tap roots going back 2,500 years – to the dharma’s founding moment, and classical Greek practical (and sceptical) philosophy. The pronounced eclecticism of his middle way philosophy is the one running the risk of rootlessness.


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