Dhammadasa Gil Fronsdal
Note: This essay is an expanded version of a paper titled “Natural Buddhism” that appeared in the 2014 issue of the Insight Journal. That original paper was first developed from one of 20 presentations made at the BCBS conference on Secular Buddhism held in March of 2013.
As a Buddhist teacher, I am often asked to identify the form of Buddhism with which I am associated. While, most broadly, I identify myself with Theravāda Buddhism, different contexts prompt me to answer in any one of many possible ways, including declining to answer. Within the many sub-divisions of Theravāda Buddhism, I might explain that I am a Vipassana teacher in the lineage of the twentieth century Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw. To be more specific, I might further state that I am part of the Western network of Insight Teachers associated with the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California whose teachers have adapted Asian Theravada Vipassana teachings for a Western audience. Within this network of Insight Teachers, further distinctions sometimes become relevant. In some contexts, it might be appropriate to identify myself as belonging to the first generation of Western Insight teachers who had a unique social context that influenced the way we teach Buddhism. And within this first-generation group of teachers I might distinguish myself as having teachings influenced by years of Zen training. Or I might indicate that while I have some leanings toward “Secular Buddhism,” my preference is to view my Buddhist orientation as “naturalistic” and therefore to identify it as a Theravāda form of “Naturalistic Buddhism.”
I shy away from actually identifying myself with the designation “Secular Buddhism” because I understand the term to be oxymoronic. In ordinary English “secular” is commonly contrasted with what is religious or spiritual; as I view Buddhism as a religion and my involvement with Buddhism as deeply religious, I am disinclined to describe myself as a “secular Buddhist.”
Through the label “Naturalistic Buddhism” I refer to Buddhist teachings that rely on what can be observed in this very life through our natural senses. It does not require any beliefs, agency, entities or experiences that are supernatural, that is, that fall outside of the laws of nature as we know them or outside of what we can know for ourselves through our ordinary, natural senses. By using the term naturalistic, I am associating but not equating my form of Buddhism with the fields of “philosophical naturalism” (also known as metaphysical naturalism) and “religious naturalism” both which posit that only natural laws operate in this world.
While the idiosyncratic label “Naturalistic Buddhism” may be applicable only to myself, I use it because I believe it useful to have identifying labels for where one is situated within the context of Buddhism as a whole. It can quickly provide others with a general understanding of what teachings, orientation, and values a teacher is associated with. More importantly, when Buddhist teachers explicitly identify themselves with a particular tradition, school, sect, or type of Buddhism, they provide their audience a reference to which they can be held accountable, that is, teachers can then be asked how and why they may differ from or resemble the form of Buddhism they say they represent. Such accountability can prompt teachers to explain some of their assumptions, preferences, and reasoning, as well as the background for their particular formulation of Buddhism.
For example, by identifying myself as a Naturalistic Buddhist within the Theravāda Buddhist tradition, I am letting people know that, while my teachings are based on and accountable to the ancient scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, I have a naturalistic perspective, orientation, or interpretation of these scriptures, that is, the Pali suttas. When I teach, I don’t represent all of what is found in these scriptures; I don’t claim to represent the actual teachings of the Buddha as presented in these texts—a task that no discerning person can confidently do given the complicated historical origins of the surviving records. Rather, by identifying my naturalistic leanings, I am indicating that I have a particular perspective for interpreting and selecting teachings from the ancient texts. How accurately I am representing what the Buddha may have taught is itself a matter of interpretation, as is the case for anyone who bases their teachings on these scriptures. And if my Buddhist teachings differ from traditional Theravada Buddhist teachings, my intention is to be aware of and responsible for these differences. From the historical records I have seen, it appears that every generation of Buddhist teachers adapts and interprets Buddhism in new ways. When I studied with senior Theravada meditation teachers in Burma, I had the impression that they represented classical and orthodox Theravada Buddhist teachings; certainly, they presented themselves as definitively representing the original teachings of the Buddha. Later I discovered that decades earlier they had been radical reformers who had broken away from the orthodoxy of their youth. While I am clearly not trying to reform Theravāda orthodoxy, I do believe it is honest and helpful for me to provide my audience with an understanding of the orientation I have toward the Buddhism I teach.
By relying on a naturalistic approach to Buddhism, I am not asserting that what could be called supernatural is not real or true. While some day we may have natural explanations for such phenomena, for now, I simply see no need to include them in the Buddhism I practice.
Beliefs found in Buddhism that could be called supernatural are rebirth, the working of karma over multiple lifetimes, heavens and hells, devas and Māras, miracles, merit and merit transfer, and many of the psychic powers mentioned in Buddhist texts (for example, walking through walls, flying, talking with gods, and stroking the moon). I also include as supernatural any ideas of a self or consciousness that exists in a permanent and uncreated fashion, views that both contradicts the principle of impermanence that lies at the foundation of the Buddha’s teachings and falls outside the natural laws known to science. More controversially, I also include concepts of Nirvana as a transcendent, unconditioned dimension of reality as a supernatural belief.
I have a naturalistic orientation to Buddhism partly as a consequence of having studied with Buddhist teachers in the West and in Asia who did not require me to have faith in unverified beliefs. Instead, they instructed me to be deeply aware of my experience, including what beliefs I was holding. In fact, I suspect the deep questioning and skepticism of views and beliefs that they expected of me would have been inhibited by believing in anything that might be called supernatural.
Precursors to Naturalistic Buddhism
While the label “Naturalistic Buddhism” may be new, this orientation is not unique in the history of Buddhism; in addition to the modern appearance of “Secular Buddhism,” other forms of Buddhism share a family resemblance. Particularly noteworthy are the modern Chinese and Taiwanese movements known in English as “Humanistic Buddhism” and in Chinese (in English translation) as “Buddhism for Human Life” (rénshēng fójiào) and “Human World Buddhism” (rénjiān fójiào). In modern Theravada Buddhism, perhaps the most prominent teacher with a naturalistic worldview was the twentieth-century Thai monk Buddhadasa, who rejected the literal idea of rebirth and the teachings of karma associated with it. His teachings also ignored any literal concepts of hells, heavens and deities.
Perhaps the most significant precursor to Naturalistic Buddhism is found in some of the central teachings associated with the Buddha in the early Pali scriptures (suttas). Because the earliest surviving texts of Indian Buddhism include many examples of teachings free of supernatural ideas, I believe that “Naturalistic Buddhism” can be considered as an equally valid form of Buddhism as “Supernatural Buddhism,” the predominant form in existence today. An early text that supports a naturalistic approach to Buddhism is The Book of Eights (Aṭṭhakavagga), a text some scholars consider to have been composed earlier than most of the other texts contained in the sutta collections (Nikāyas). As the fourth book of the Sutta Nipāta (abbreviated Sn.) in the Khuddaka Nikāya, The Book of Eights provides a foundation for teachings that do not rely on any ideology or supernatural beliefs; in fact, depending on doctrines of any type is seen as problematic in this Buddhist text. For example, not only is belief in rebirth not required, the text discourages any concern with future lives or the wish for any future state of being. Accordingly, The Book of Eights also has nothing to say about ending the cycles of rebirth as a goal of practice.
Because having faith is often central to having supernatural religious beliefs, it is noteworthy that the word faith (saddhā) appears only once in The Book of Eights and then only in a passage stating that someone who has attained peace is without faith, that is, the person has no need for faith. While some form of faith may be implied in the teachings of The Book of Eights, no role for faith is mentioned. What is emphasized is having insight into what one can see for oneself, especially into the many forms of clinging and the benefits of letting go of these clingings.
In the hopes of demonstrating that the idea of a naturalistic Buddhism is not a far-fetched idea, I would like to present an overview of the main teachings of The Book of Eights.
Personal Peace Through Not Clinging
Rather than a transcendent, supernatural reality to be attained, The Book of Eights emphasizes a mental state accessible within the life that people actually live. The text champions a direct and simple approach for attaining peace (santi). The possibility of peace guides the teachings and practices the text advocates. Rather than a doctrine to be simply believed, these teachings describe means or practices for directly realizing peace.
Clinging is explained as the primary reason a person is not peaceful. Accordingly, the release of clinging is the primary means to peace. The value of these teachings is not found in philosophy, logic or external religious authorities, but rather, in the results they bring to those who live by them. The goal emphasized in this text is described both by the states of mind attained and by the mental activities that have been pacified or abandoned. The most common terms used to refer to what is attained are peace, calmness, tranquility and equanimity. In sharp contrast, clinging, craving, entrenchment and quarreling are the most frequently mentioned activities that are to be abandoned. The relationship between these two sets—the states to be attained and what is to be abandoned—is that to personally attain peace for oneself, one must abandon the clinging that prevents it.
There are three primary themes in the text that elaborate on the message that peace comes from not clinging. These themes are: letting go of views, the qualities of a sage, and the training to become a sage.
Letting Go of Views
In keeping with The Book of Eights’ emphasis on peace and non-clinging, the main teaching on views is the importance of not clinging to philosophies, religious teachings, or views of any kind. This would include ideas about what happens after death, the nature of the “self,” or whether or not it is possible to fly unassisted. The text teaches that someone should shake off every view without embracing or rejecting anything. In addition, a number of verses are critical of any judgment that one’s own religious beliefs are the truest or best while others are inferior.
For many readers, this seeming no-view teaching is a radical message. It undermines the importance of religious doctrines that some people base their lives on. The teachings in The Book of Eights provide no support for the idea that one should believe in supernatural teachings just because they are found in other Buddhist texts.
The Book of Eights includes plenty of examples of the problems that arise if one clings to views: attachment to concepts leads to the person swinging between feeling high and low; debating others, one can become anxious for praise and bewildered when refuted; and if clinging to views brings a type of peace, it is an unstable peace. In addition, The Book of Eights frequently mentions that clinging to views leads to quarrels with others, which of course does not lead to peace.
Finally, the goal of practice is described in terms of letting go of views. Those who have realized the goal—the sages—are not attached to views and so avoid debates, quarrels and any conceit that their views are better than those of others.
Letting go of their attachments, sages have no need for any doctrine and so do not oppose the doctrine of anyone else. According to one of the verses,
They are not enemies of any doctrine
seen, heard or thought out.
Not making up theories,
not closed down, not desirous,
they are sages, wise,
who have laid down their burden. (v. 914; Sn 4.13)
The idea that a wise person would not be an enemy of any religious doctrine suggests that those who adhere to a naturalistic form of Buddhism and those who adhere to a supernatural Buddhism do not need to be opposed to each other’s doctrines. They can co-exist, with each being a valid form of Buddhism, especially if they both lead to “laying down the burden,” a synonym for liberation.
The Sage Described
A second theme in The Book of Eights is the descriptions of the sage (muni). The text does not refer to those who have attained the goal of practice by using words that are common in other, probably later, Buddhist texts. For example, the terms arahant, Stream-Enterer, Once Returner, and Non-Returner are absent. In that rebirth has no role in the teachings of The Book of Eights, it is not surprising to find no reference to accomplished practitioners who return to be reborn once more or who will no longer return to rebirth.
Due to the sage’s proficiency in realizing peace, the sage is often described as kusalo, meaning a skilled person or expert. In that sages are wise, they are also referred to as “the wise one” (dhiro), “the learned one” (pandito), and “one of much wisdom” (bhuri pañño). With the shedding of attachment this person is called “the cleansed one” (dhono).
The most common attribute associated with a sage is peace (santi). Such a person is peaceful, sees and knows peace, and advocates peace. Using related words, the text describes the sage as tranquil, still and unmoving, unshakable, and equanimous. Though peace is clearly an attribute of sages, they do not depend on peace or intentionally take it up. This is because sages do not depend on anything or take up anything; rather they are characterized as letting go.
These designations and descriptions of the adept suggest qualities that can be discerned in oneself and which are directly relevant for how one lives one’s life. They do not suggest the sage has psychic or supernormal powers or has attained transcendent realities removed from this world. Rather, the sage has attained experiences, such as tranquility, equanimity, and peace, that are natural enough for humans to attain, at least in brief dosages.
What Sages Know and See
A significant attribute of skillful sages is their ability to know and see—sometimes they are called the “ones who know.” What is interesting is what they do and do not see. They do not see transcendent, otherworldly realities or supernatural events. They do not see the nature of ultimate reality or some form of ultimate consciousness.
Rather, sages know and see ways in which people struggle. They know what is not harmonious, what is dangerous, and what is dependent. They know the problems that come from pride and holding to opinions. They see how people selfishly thrash about, get elated and deflated in their disputes, speak with arrogance, and cling to teachings. By such knowing, a wise person knows not to get involved with afflicted states and knows to let go of them.
The second thing a sage knows and sees is an inner peace realized through not clinging. Being at peace and having overcome cravings, sages become, according to The Book of Eights, independent in knowing the Dharma. This means they know the peace of non-clinging through their own direct insight and experience.
In this way, rather than seeing ultimate, transcendent realities, their past lives, heaven or hells, or miraculous occurrences, sages see peace and what needs to be abandoned to attain this peace.
A third theme of The Book of Eights is that of training, that is, doing practices conducive to peace and becoming a sage. While all the chapters of The Book of Eights discuss the ideal and non-ideal behavior of someone who is on the path to peace, there are six chapters that give the most attention to this theme. These chapters describe the qualities and behaviors of someone who has attained peace, the peace taught by the Buddha.
The Book of Eights focuses on fundamental, personal, and inner transformations in which individuals are responsible for themselves: “Each person must train for one’s own release” (v 940) and “not seek peace from others” (v 919). The text does not assume any helping role from the gods or external forces. To some modern, secular-oriented readers this would be less of a revolutionary message than it probably was at the time of the Buddha.
In many passages describing the goal, The Book of Eights emphasizes how skillful sages behave rather than an attainment distinct from how they live. For example, the text does not mention any transcendent and extraordinary states of consciousness. No mention is made of psychic powers such as the divine eye or the divine ear. Rather, the text enumerates the ethical behaviors such people would or would not do and the qualities of inner virtue or character they would have. In this way, the religious goal is always described in ordinary human terms, rather than in mystical, transcendent, or metaphysical language.
In focusing on cultivating behaviors and virtues that are aligned with the goal, The Book of Eights has very little mention of specific techniques or practices. Stated differently, the text not only does not emphasize religious practices that can be seen as steps toward attaining the qualities of the ideal person, it explicitly and provocatively says that religious observances and the practices in themselves are not adequate for becoming a person at peace. Rather, it encourages people to directly emulate the behavior of the ideal sage.
The Book of Eights avoids making a sharp distinction between the means and the goal. That is, the personal qualities that characterize someone who has already attained the goal are the same qualities one is to cultivate when training for that goal.
One is to train in being what one is to become. If the goal is to be peaceful, the way there is to be peaceful. If the goal is to be released from craving, the way there is a “training to subdue one’s inner craving” (v 919). In this way the achievement of the goal is not radically different from what led to the goal; the naturalistic goal is attained through naturalistic means. This is in sharp contrast to the attainment of supernatural states that are distinct from the training that led to their achievement.
As a conclusion to this discussion of The Book of Eights, I would like to repeat the idea that just as the teachings of The Book of Eights instruct one to avoid opposing or debating religious doctrines, so too, in my understanding, Naturalistic Buddhism is not opposed to supernatural forms of Buddhism. And, as the teachings of The Book of Eights discourages positing any doctrine as ultimate, Naturalistic Buddhism does not need to see its approach to liberation as better than other approaches. Rather, for those not inclined to believe in the supernatural, Naturalistic Buddhism points to a practice and an awakening that does not require believing in rebirth, ultimate realities, miracles, heavens, and hells, but instead teaches about the value of peace and letting go. While supernatural beliefs may be useful for some people, for those who cannot believe in them, both Naturalistic Buddhism and The Book of Eights teach that to be at peace, one must let go of all clinging, including clinging to both natural and supernatural Buddhism.
One who is attached gets into disputes over doctrines;
But how and with what would one dispute with someone unattached?
By not embracing or rejecting anything
A person has shaken off every view, right here.
(v 787; Sn 4.3)
Further Naturalistic Tendencies in the Early Buddhist Teachings
Because The Book of Eights is a minor anthology in the vast corpus of Theravāda Buddhist scriptures, and because it appears to be something of an anomaly in this literature, it can be easy to dismiss its naturalistic teachings as not representative of early Buddhism. However, it is relatively easy to find this same orientation in significant portions of other Theravada scriptures. One important set of passages are those that refer to the teachings the early Buddhist tradition emphasized that the monastics should memorize, chant, and teach others. Not coincidently, these are all in verse, perhaps because poetry was more conducive to memorization and recitation. Rather than relying on modern interpretations of what may have been important teachings of the early tradition, we can read these verses, which give voice to something the early Buddhists emphasized themselves.
The Book of Eights is one of these memorized and recited texts. The ancient scriptures contain a story of the Buddha asking a monk named Soṇa to recite the Dharma. Soṇa does this by reciting The Book of Eights. That the monk chooses this text to recite the Dharma for the Buddha suggests it was a valued formulation of the teachings.
A number of suttas contain a poem called “An Auspicious Day” that was also used for memorization, recitation, and teaching. The teachings here are similar enough to those in The Book of Eights to suggest a common understanding of what comprises the Dharma. “An Auspicious Day” is found in the Middle Length Discourses, one of the five large anthologies of scriptures attributed to the Buddha and his immediate disciples. The popularity of the poem is indicated by the fact that is occurs nine times in four different suttas, two of which contain commentaries on it. The poem reads as follows:
Don’t chase the past
Or long for the future.
The past is left behind;
The future is not yet reached.
Have insight into whatever phenomenon is present,
Right where it is;
Not faltering and not agitated,
By knowing whatever is present
One develops the mind.
Ardently do what should be done today—
Who knows, death may come tomorrow.
There is no bargaining with Mortality
And his great army.
Whoever dwells thus ardently,
—active day and night—
Is, says the peaceful sage,
One who has an auspicious day.
(Middle Length Discourses 131-134; MN iii 187 cf.)
Except perhaps for the reference to Mortality’s great army (which could, of course, be taken as a metaphor), the teachings in this poem are remarkably naturalistic. The poem contains no references to transcendent, divine or supernatural realities. Its message that one should not focus on the future discourages concern with rebirth and future lives. Instead it emphasizes attaining insight into the immediacy of one’s present experience, an activity that gives one an “auspicious day.” The reference to a “peaceful sage” also suggests that peace is the desired attainment, as it is in The Book of Eights.
Because “An Auspicious Day” is a single short poem, we shouldn’t use this alone to draw to conclusions about early Buddhist teachings. However, together with The Book of Eights, the poem begins to reveal a pattern in the kind of teachings the early Buddhists memorized, recited and taught one another.
This pattern is also seen in The Book of the Way to the Other Shore, another collection of poems found in the Sutta Nipāta. The early scriptures provide evidence that this text was also memorized and recited by both monastics and lay people. The simplicity, directness and naturalistic quality of this anthology of sixteen poems are represented by the following verses:
Subdue greed for sensual pleasure.
See renunciation as peace.
Let there be nothing
You take up or reject.
Let what was in the past fade away,
Make nothing of the future.
If you don’t cling to what is in the present,
You can wander about calm.
(verses 1098-1099; Sn 5.11)
Here too we come across the instruction not to be concerned with the future, an instruction that suggests not thinking about rebirth. The goal of attaining calm is a thoroughly naturalistic goal that is something attainable in one’s own lifetime.
Rather than The Book of Eights, “An Auspicious Day,” and The Book of the Way to the Other Shore being anomalies in the vast anthologies of early Buddhist scriptures, the fact that other scriptures refer to these texts as having been used for memorization, recitation, and teaching suggests these teachings may well laid at the heart of the earliest Buddhist community, and perhaps even constituted the core of the Buddha’s original message. If the core of these early teachings was naturalistic, this would certainly appear to support a naturalistic approach to practicing the Dharma.
The Dhamma well proclaimed by me is clear,
open, evident, and free of patchwork.
—The Buddha (MN i 141)
Putting aside The Book of Eights, An Auspicious Day, and The Book of the Way to the Other Shore, a survey of the Buddha’s teachings in vast corpus of Theravada suttas repeatedly suggests that his core teachings are so thoroughly naturalistic that the label “Naturalistic Buddhism” is not a radically new or strange designation, on the contrary, it reflects one meaning of dhamma, one of the key terms used to designate the Buddha’s teachings. While the Pali word dhamma (Sanskrit: dharma) has a multitude of meanings, in addition to signifying “doctrine” and, more specifically, the doctrine of the Buddha, the Concise Pali-English Dictionary provides “nature” as one of its meanings. Similarly, the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary offers “natural law” as an applied meaning. The dictionary associations of dhamma with nature make it a short step to adopting the adjective “naturalistic” as a descriptive quality of the Buddha’s teaching.
Certainly, in the Pali suttas, the Buddha is depicted describing and discussing many supernatural elements. Prominent are the concepts of rebirth, heaven and hells, and deities. Even if the Buddha actually accepted and taught these ideas—something that is impossible to know for sure, based on the sources available to us—this does not mean that these are central aspects of his core liberation teaching. For example, in the many passages where he explicitly teaches the “Dharma in brief,” rebirth, heavens and hells, and deities are not mentioned. The Buddha is also depicted in a few places as performing supernatural feats, such as both walking and talking within minutes of his birth. He is also reported to have visited heaven realms. Textual analysis of these and other suttas containing supernatural events suggests that they were composed well after the Buddha’s death, at a time when the stories of the Buddha were becoming more like pious legends than actual historical records.
In the discussion above, I do not intend to claim that what I refer to as Naturalistic Buddhism faithfully represents the teachings of the Buddha. Rather, I view Naturalistic Buddhism as a valid and effective way of selecting, interpreting, and adapting Theravāda teachings for people with a naturalistic orientation. The vast amount of naturalistic teachings in the early scriptural discourses provides a rich source of inspiration, information, instruction and insight for the naturalistic practice of Buddhism. At the same time, the abundant presence of the supernatural in these early texts encourages any of us with this orientation to not insist that Naturalistic Buddhism is truer or better than other forms of Buddhism. The presence of these supernatural elements can serve as a reminder to be open to possibilities that fall outside the views of those of us who have naturalistic understandings.