Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism

Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Mr Man » Sun Mar 25, 2012 4:36 pm

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:
The gravest danger of this "one life only" view is that it encourages the pursuit of selfish pleasures at any cost, and provides no incentive to abstain from unwholesome deeds, nor to cultivate wholesome ones.

I'm not sure if that is really true. Is the level of moral behavior significantly higher in societies were there is a deep rooted belief in kamma/rebirth or for those who have a belief in an "after this life"?

Though the non-believer in the doctrine of kamma and rebirth may not be totally lacking in morality, whatever morality he or she has will be conditioned by social norms, which in most societies will involve actions that are immoral or unwholesome from the Buddhist POV.


Isn't the Buddhist POV just another social norm?

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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sun Mar 25, 2012 4:42 pm

nowheat wrote:He uses the language of rebirth to describe what is happening here and now, and he expects us to understand that this is what he is doing if we have understood the lesson of dependent arising.

Rebirth is quite literal. SN 15.10:

    The heap of bones one person leaves behind
    With the passing of a single aeon
    Would form a heap as high as a mountain:
    So said the Great Sage.
    This is declared to be as massive
    As the tall Vepulla Mountain
    Standing north of Vulture’s Peak
    In the Magadhan mountain range.

SN 15.13:

    This is the greater: the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, not the water in the four great oceans.

    The blood you have shed when, being cows, you had your cow-heads cut off: Long has this been greater than the water in the four great oceans.

    The blood you have shed when, being water buffaloes, you had your water buffalo-heads cut off... when, being rams, you had your ram-heads cut off... when, being goats, you had your goat-heads cut off... when, being deer, you had your deer-heads cut off... when, being chickens, you had your chicken-heads cut off... when, being pigs, you had your pig-heads cut off: Long has this been greater than the water in the four great oceans.

    The blood you have shed when, arrested as thieves plundering villages, you had your heads cut off... when, arrested as highway thieves, you had your heads cut off... when, arrested as adulterers, you had your heads cut off: Long has this been greater than the water in the four great oceans.

    Why is that? From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabrications, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.

Thag 3.14:

    While wandering on I went to hell;
    went again & again to the world of the hungry shades;
    stayed countless times, long, in the pain of the animal womb;
    enjoyed the human state;
    went to heaven from time to time;
    settled in the elements of form,
    the elements of formlessness,
    neither-perception, perception-less.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby santa100 » Sun Mar 25, 2012 4:48 pm

Nowheat wrote:
"As long as our understanding of dependent arising is fuzzy, it will continue to seem as though the Buddha is talking about literal rebirth."

Literal rebirth and momentary rebirth don't have to be mutually exclusive. While momentary rebirth view might provide practical applications for one's training at the moment, literal rebirth also provides just as much if not more as pointed out by Bhante Pesala and others above. Taking the two together will allow one at least double the benefits as opposed to just one single view. And this is the approach great Buddha offered us in the Safe Bet Sutta: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby nowheat » Sun Mar 25, 2012 4:55 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:In the real-world this restrictive sense of the term "atheism" has been eclipsed by the inclusion of a myopic belief in the view of scientific materialism. This is the atheism being touted by popular authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and even Stephen Batchelor and other Secular Buddhism folks. Materialism is incompatible with Buddhist rebirth, and related teachings.


But this misses the point that what you are calling atheism is not inconsistent with the practice of the Buddha dharma, or with its morality. Materialism is incompatible with Buddhist rebirth, yes, but it is not incompatible with the morality that is the point of Buddhist rebirth.

The folks who were surveyed who put atheists in their least-trusted (right down there on the same level as rapists) list of people do so out of fear and ignorance, not out of actual understanding of how atheists behave. If it were proven that atheists in general had a strong tendency to immorality, then there might be some genuine basis for that mistrust, but this isn't the case. In modern times we have come to learn that a large part of human nature slants us towards cooperation and compassion -- I heard a talk on NPR recently in which there was a study showing that "giving" activates the same pleasure centers as sex does -- because generosity gives us a survival advantage. We are programmed to be social, caring creatures. This has nothing to do with belief or disbelief in retributional cosmic orders or higher powers (and a retributional cosmic order *is* a higher power, though we may not define it as a God -- maybe that's what you're meaning with "atheist"?).

I understand that the Buddhavacana describes materialists as those holding frighteningly wrong view because it should lead to immoral action, but the evidence of modern times (and my personal knowledge of many atheists -- though I am not one of them, being agnostic) is that this is not a problem in evidence. As was pointed out upthread, there are undoubtedly examples of atheists who are disturbed personalities who use materialism as the basis for doing bad things, but they are atypical and can't be used to judge the rest, just as religious extremists who fly planes into buildings should not be used to judge religious people in general.

In the end, what is important about rebirth is that it should motivate people to behave in moral ways, but the atheists I've met who are also Secular Buddhists are already motivated to behave in moral ways. They spend a great deal of their time considering the Buddha's teachings, putting it into practice on the cushion and off, and seeing great improvement in their lives -- for themselves and those whose lives they touch -- through the practice. This motivates them -- strongly -- to keep practicing, to study more, learn more, share more, to strive on unceasingly.

I would think you would welcome such practitioners as kindred. And more, have faith that if your understanding of what the Buddha taught is accurate -- in both senses, as an accurate understanding of what he taught, and something that proves to be factually true in the cosmos -- then you would be glad folks had stepped on the path in whatever place they start from, because you can expect the truth will reveal itself in time -- if not in this lifetime, then in the next or in a later one.

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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby nowheat » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:08 pm

santa100 wrote:Nowheat wrote:
"As long as our understanding of dependent arising is fuzzy, it will continue to seem as though the Buddha is talking about literal rebirth."

Literal rebirth and momentary rebirth don't have to be mutually exclusive. While momentary rebirth view might provide practical applications for one's training at the moment, literal rebirth also provides just as much if not more as pointed out by Bhante Pesala and others above. Taking the two together will allow one at least double the benefits as opposed to just one single view. And this is the approach great Buddha offered us in the Safe Bet Sutta: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html


Santa, I appreciate your comments, but I don't see dependent arising as being about "momentary rebirth". And your "have it two ways" take still misunderstands the structure of the Buddha's lesson with DA. My problem in conveying it is that I can't do it justice in few words. I keep trying to inject the essence into debates in the hopes that some will see it from just that, but I'm beginning to suspect it needs the full thesis for anyone to understand why I see it this way. I am waiting as patiently as I can for the jurying process to be completed on a paper that should make it clearer.

I am familiar with MN 60 -- when I read it I see an intrusion that corrupts the logic that the Buddha uses in other similarly-structured suttas that don't have the emendations. The addition of the "A2" and "B2" texts (as the logic is described by our translators) destroys the whole point of the lesson on safe bets by telling us what to believe. Even Thanissaro Bhikkhu has pointed out the break:

MN 60 wrote:It is noteworthy that the arguments in A2 and B2 are not safe-bet arguments, for they assume that A is wrong and B is right. Whether these arguments date from the Buddha or were added at a later date, no one knows.


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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Prasadachitta » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:10 pm

nowheat wrote:As long as our understanding of dependent arising is fuzzy, it will continue to seem as though the Buddha is talking about literal rebirth. He was talking to an audience in his own time who will have been familiar with this way of framing things, and it will have been clearer to them than it is to us.

:namaste:


Hi Nowheat,

In my opinion we can enter into a relatively less "fuzzy" understanding of D.O. from either a macro or a micro perspective. Either way the notions and impressions which make up these perspectives occur in the here and now. I think that actively denying models put forth by the Buddha just because they have not helped me to understand, would be self centered and foolish. The Buddha set forth the Dhamma for the good and welfare of all beings. The "audience" is vast.

Metta

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"Beautifully taught is the Lord's Dhamma, immediately apparent, timeless, of the nature of a personal invitation, progressive, to be attained by the wise, each for himself." Anguttara Nikaya V.332
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby nowheat » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:14 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:Rebirth is quite literal. SN 15.10:
...
SN 15.13:
...
Thag 3.14:
...


They are lovely quotes, thanks. The suttas are full of them. This is exactly my point: If we understand the way dependent arising uses the language of rebirth to show us what is happening now, the language of rebirth can then be used throughout the Buddha's lessons to make the same point in a quite elegant way.

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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby David N. Snyder » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:15 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:There are gods and goddesses who have attained the noble path and are noble ones.


As there are humans who have attained the noble path and are noble ones.

Ñāṇa wrote:In the real-world this restrictive sense of the term "atheism" has been eclipsed by the inclusion of a myopic belief in the view of scientific materialism. This is the atheism being touted by popular authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and even Stephen Batchelor and other Secular Buddhism folks. Materialism is incompatible with Buddhist rebirth, and related teachings. Therefore, this pesky little word has significant connotations that are contrary to 2500 years of Pāli dhammavinaya and Theravāda Buddhism.


It is only a "pesky" term if you define it in such a broad way as you have done. You say it has been eclipsed by the view of scientific materialism; but this is just your view. There is no "official" board of atheists that I know of that proclaimed they are all scientific materialists. You are lumping all atheists into the camp of the people like Dawkins, which again is probably the guilt-by-association fallacy. There can be atheists who do follow Buddhism who don't have a problem with devas or rebirth; with the other definition for atheism (that you don't like).
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:16 pm

nowheat wrote:But this misses the point that what you are calling atheism is not inconsistent with the practice of the Buddha dharma, or with its morality. Materialism is incompatible with Buddhist rebirth, yes, but it is not incompatible with the morality that is the point of Buddhist rebirth.

Materialism is a wrong view. Rejecting the actuality of the next world is a wrong view. Equivocating about the next world is a wrong view. It's impossible to attain the first noble path of stream-entry while maintaining a wrong view. Likewise, it's impossible to attain the higher paths and fruitions and full liberation while maintaining a wrong view.

nowheat wrote:I would think you would welcome such practitioners as kindred. And more, have faith that if your understanding of what the Buddha taught is accurate -- in both senses, as an accurate understanding of what he taught, and something that proves to be factually true in the cosmos -- then you would be glad folks had stepped on the path in whatever place they start from, because you can expect the truth will reveal itself in time -- if not in this lifetime, then in the next or in a later one.

I don't doubt that most of these individuals are decent people. That isn't an issue. I'm highly skeptical of these novel trends to jettison significant portions of the dhamma which aren't reducible to a neo-Lokāyata materialist worldview and epistemology.

In short, there is no Pāli dhamma teaching which denies the validity of rebirth. In fact, nowhere in the Vinayapiṭaka, the Suttapiṭaka, the Abhidhammapiṭaka, the Aṭṭhakathā, or the Tīkā is the validity of rebirth ever set aside as unimportant.

This notion of questioning rebirth, setting aside the teachings on rebirth, or denying that the Buddha taught rebirth is entirely a modern phenomenon occurring due to the influence of materialist views. This entire phenomenon is a dodgy enterprise -- a narcissistic urge to remake the samaṇa Gotama in one's own image.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:18 pm

David N. Snyder wrote:There can be atheists who do follow Buddhism who don't have a problem with devas or rebirth; with the other definition for atheism (that you don't like).

If someone accepts the existence of devas and higher realms then they are not atheistic.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby David N. Snyder » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:20 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:If someone accepts the existence of devas and higher realms then they are not atheistic.


Okay, in your opinion. My opinion is different. :tongue:
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:28 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:If someone accepts the existence of devas and higher realms then they are not atheistic.

Wait though. Muslims are monotheists, and yet they believe in angels and genies. If a belief in higher beings equates to a God belief, that would make Muslims polytheists, right? But clearly they aren't; they posit one God and other higher beings as well. The label "monotheist" still only applies to their God belief. In the same way, we as Buddhists believe in no God and other higher beings as well. The only difference is that our higher beings are even more transitory than, say, a Muslim's. So if they can be considered monotheists on no other basis than the fact that they have one God figure, why can't we as Buddhists be considered atheists on no other basis than the fact that we have no God figure?

You can say that materialism is a false Dhamma, and I would find much less to argue with. But as a proud atheist, and indeed antitheist, I am confused as to why you lump them together. Atheism is a broad, broad term and I would imagine most with no God view are in fact not materialists.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

Stuff I write about things.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:30 pm

David N. Snyder wrote:Okay, in your opinion. My opinion is different.

Yes, and that's all good David. There are people trying to associate Buddhism with the view of atheistic materialism. IMO it's worthwhile acknowledging this trend and voicing and re-affirming the traditional view of the Pāli dhamma and Theravāda.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby reflection » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:33 pm

nowheat wrote:
Spiny O'Norman wrote:I find it difficult to see how one can read the Pali Cannon and not come to the conclusion that the Buddha taught literal rebirth and the realms.


As long as our understanding of dependent arising is fuzzy, it will continue to seem as though the Buddha is talking about literal rebirth.


If you take the words and definitions given on DA literal, the suttas do speak about rebirth. Now, I've not read your essay of course, but I can already guess you're not going to take the terms literal. And with all respect, not taking the terms literal is the fuzzy interpretation, by the very definition of the word fuzzy.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:37 pm

LonesomeYogurt wrote:You can say that materialism is a false Dhamma, and I would find much less to argue with. But as a proud atheist, and indeed antitheist, I am confused as to why you lump them together. Atheism is a broad, broad term and I would imagine most with no God view are in fact not materialists.

I previously replied to you here. As for why I chose to focus on this particular term, please see this reply.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby nowheat » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:41 pm

Prasadachitta wrote:In my opinion we can enter into a relatively less "fuzzy" understanding of D.O. from either a macro or a micro perspective. Either way the notions and impressions which make up these perspectives occur in the here and now. I think that actively denying models put forth by the Buddha just because they have not helped me to understand, would be self centered and foolish. The Buddha set forth the Dhamma for the good and welfare of all beings. The "audience" is vast.


I agree that the audience is vast. I understand that the macro perspective could have its uses and I would fully support that if I did not see far too much of the huge amount of time it causes people to invest in small matters of merit (like whether it is safe to throw away a badly written book on Buddhism when it contains bits of actual Buddhavacana in it) rather than focus on what the Buddha was actually teaching -- skills to see cause and effect accurately and first-hand.

I would support the macro-literal-rebirth view as being a useful teaching tool if I did not find volumes and volumes being written debating whether there could be rebirth or not, rather than focusing on practice. It was undoubtedly a good teaching tool when it was the default belief system. I find that Westerners who do not have rebirth as their native view spend a great deal of time and effort trying to understand and adopt it, time that would be far better spent on understanding what the Buddha is saying at the core about how we create our false sense of self. With dependent origination, the Buddha is saying something very precise about where that "self" originates, how we create it, and why we should be doing something about it, and that is being obscured by efforts to get people to adopt a world-view that is not natural to them. A world view that they will have to let go of to be liberated unless it becomes evident through their practice to be a truth.

And here's the problem: If it is a truth that practice reveals, then sincere and dedicated practice will reveal it *regardless of whether a person believed it or not when they had no evidence*. Whereas, if it turns out to have been a virtual representation of truth (which is what I am saying it is) and people have invested a lot of time in learning to believe in it as a cosmic order, on little or no evidence, and they have to let go of that belief to be liberated -- we have then hindered their progress on the path by teaching them how to believe in things without good evidence.

This is my own Safe Bet: that it is better to stick to what the Buddha teaches about basing our choices on causes and effects that we have seen for ourselves with certainty, than to learn to believe in things unseen -- things that will reveal themselves if true, but are a bear to let go of once adopted if not true.

Now, if any of our sangha members have personal, first-hand experience of rebirth, or of directly seeing the rising and passing away of beings according to their actions, then they should certainly tell us about that and teach it as a fact they have experienced. I'm all for that. But otherwise, I follow the Buddha's injunction that we should not be talking about things we have not, ourselves, experienced.

The Buddha's system works fine without belief in literal rebirth, but I recognize that it is difficult to see that if one has never practiced the Buddha's path without having or working on belief in literal rebirth. One has to trust the Buddha a lot to let go of beliefs entirely and just see where the path leads then.

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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby nowheat » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:48 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:There are people trying to associate Buddhism with the view of atheistic materialism. IMO it's worthwhile acknowledging this trend and voicing and re-affirming the traditional view of the Pāli dhamma and Theravāda.


Can you cite an example of someone "trying to associate Buddhism with the view of atheistic materialism"? I ask because I am not sure what you mean by this -- whether by "associate Buddhism with" you mean "say the Buddha taught" or "say it's okay to be an atheist and a materialist and a Buddhist at the same time".

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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby nowheat » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:55 pm

reflection wrote:If you take the words and definitions given on DA literal, the suttas do speak about rebirth. Now, I've not read your essay of course, but I can already guess you're not going to take the terms literal. And with all respect, not taking the terms literal is the fuzzy interpretation, by the very definition of the word fuzzy.


The words are literal, but that is not all they are.

See my post that covers multiple meaning of aging-and-death here:

nowheat on "the Deathless"

"not-literal" does not equate to "fuzzy" when there is strong structure to explain the "not-literal".

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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby mikenz66 » Sun Mar 25, 2012 6:22 pm

nowheat wrote:I would support the macro-literal-rebirth view as being a useful teaching tool if I did not find volumes and volumes being written debating whether there could be rebirth or not, rather than focusing on practice.

Volumes?

In my experience these "volumes" (such as this thread) only get written in places like this simply to balance the claims that it can be proved that rebirth is not central to Dhamma (as opposed to the quite reasonable position that it's not useful to a lot of people). In normal real-world discourse I've never seen volumes of argumentation either way. Practitioners just get on with practicing...

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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sun Mar 25, 2012 6:36 pm

nowheat wrote:Can you cite an example of someone "trying to associate Buddhism with the view of atheistic materialism"? I ask because I am not sure what you mean by this -- whether by "associate Buddhism with" you mean "say the Buddha taught" or "say it's okay to be an atheist and a materialist and a Buddhist at the same time".

You've read Batchelor. While he tries to be careful with his use of language, it's clear that assumptions of atheistic materialism underlies his Confessions and other related writings. For example, in his article Suspending Belief:

    The idea that there will be something spiritual or subtle, some sort of consciousness that can escape the collapse of the body and brain, is not very credible in the modern scientific worldview.

And in No Future In A Parrot's Egg:

    I reject karma and rebirth not only because I find them unintelligible, but because I believe they obscure and distort what the Buddha was trying to say.

And again:

    As for the law of moral causation ('karma'): this is human justice dressed up as cosmic justice and then imputed to the impersonal workings of the natural world.

It's usually explicitly stated corresponding to the idea that "It's okay to be an atheist and a materialist and a Buddhist at the same time." Of course, this claim is a contradiction. If one is a materialist, then insofar as they consider themselves to be a Buddhist, they are a Buddhist who maintains a wrong view.
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