The Dalai Lama, secularism and the west

In a recent visit to Australia, the Dalai Lama suggested that the world needed a ‘secular ethic’ not grounded in religion or faith. The comments follow his expression of other progressive sentiments, such as his claim that Buddhism should reform its metaphysical views if contradicted by scientific evidence. In the arena of politics, the Dalai Lama has expressed ‘great admiration for secular democracy’ and has made efforts to implement democratic reforms in the Tibetan exile community.

His remarks project the Buddhist religion as a progressive, liberal force in a world dominated by traditionalistic and illiberal religions. They create a sense that Buddhism may be a spiritual tradition potentially compatible with Western secular beliefs. Even the figurehead of modern atheism himself, Richard Dawkins, has remarked that Buddhism might be considered a philosophy, rather than a religion. Similar ideas have been championed by other liberal rationalists of our time, including the great Bertrand Russell.

Is this true? Are Buddhism and secular society really as compatible as the Dalai Lama and many other Buddhists would have us believe?

It is true that, in comparison to many other major religious traditions, some aspects of Buddhism are indeed harmonious with basic tenets of secular science and ethics. Central to Buddhist psychotherapy, which is a crucial and irreducible aspect of the doctrine, is a process that can only be described as a form of contemporary cognitive behavioural therapy, a treatment routinely used by psychologists and proven in its effectiveness. Furthermore, much of Buddhist metaphysics is essentially an atomic theory. Its basic principles – that the world is made up of tiny physical elements that, when assembled together, produce grosser entities – is not entirely at odds with the central presumption of the physical sciences. Finally, Buddhist moral theory is so principled that it basically demands universal pacifism to the point where, in the Pali source materials, the Buddha discusses a monk who would rather die than raise a hand in self-defence.

Yet there is much more to Buddhism than these shining examples of Buddhist secularity. Take, for example, karma and reincarnation. Many Buddhists, or would-be Buddhists, take a naturalistic approach to these concepts. They say that when the Buddha talks about karma, he doesn’t mean some mystical substance you accumulate so that you can be reborn in a happy future life. Instead, many claim that karma’s just the basic idea that if you do good, good things will happen to you: what comes around goes around, in other words.

This thinking has common currency with many ordinary non-Buddhists and has become simple folk wisdom. It’s almost a truism that if you do something bad that something bad will happen to you. Naturalistically minded Buddhists – and perhaps the Dalai Lama is one of them – will say that karma represents nothing more than this common observation.

Yet only the extremely optimistic – some would say naïve or foolish – would say that people never get away with bad deeds. The whole idea of ‘what comes around goes around’ doesn’t stand up as a universal moral axiom – unless we adopt some more tenuous, less secular, metaphysical principle such as the doctrine of reincarnation. In fact, this is what Buddhism has traditionally done.

Karma depends on the idea of reincarnation. Yes, the murderer got away scot-free now, but he won’t get away with it in a future life where he will be subject to all manner of torment. Indeed, the Pali source materials are quite insistent that those who engage in truly evil activities will be cast into hell, a place called Niraya, where they will be subject to torment from demons for many eons. They describe some of these tortures in excruciating detail. Tibetan Buddhism takes its cue from these source materials and their sacred Lamrim texts also presume the existence of hell.

As for rebirth, scholastic arguments for rebirth are studied and accepted by Tibetan scholar-monks; the assumption that rebirth is a reality is widely accepted in Tibetan Buddhist communities.

Such ideas are hardly compatible with the secular ethics championed by the Dalai Lama.

Examples like this multiply. We start off with a seemingly plausible metaphysical or ethical claim, but we soon discover that the view is inextricably connected to some supernatural or otherwise evidentially tenuous outlook. Supernatural powers, memories of past lives, supernormal cognitive powers, faith, the necessity of devotion and ritualism – these are not just incidental features of the Buddhist religion, but rather, upon further analysis, they turn out to be quite essential.

Why is the West so receptive to the idea that Buddhism is compatible with rational secularism? Part of the answer is that this is how we have always known Buddhism. When Buddhism made its debut in Victorian England the vehicle for its transmission was European scholarship. In the wake of the scientific and industrial revolutions, many intellectuals were increasingly dissatisfied with the religious traditions of the era. Yet many feared that a lack of religion would lead to nihilism and spiritual death. This led to alternative spiritual movements such as Theosophy, a doctrine invested in spiritualism, levitation, mediums, and parapsychology.

Buddhism represented another alternative, one that was rational and compatible with the secular spiritual needs of the time – at least, that is how it was represented by European scholars.

As Philip C Almond has pointed out in his excellent book The British Discovery of Buddhism, many Victorian scholars viewed Buddhist cosmology as basically compatible with (then) modern science, in contrast to the prevailing Christian religion, which was known to be contrary to the scientific norms of the era. Buddhist ethics were also applauded for their high mindedness and compassionate normative principles. It is in this era that we find the debate over whether Buddhism is indeed a religion or whether it is instead a secular philosophy beginning to take shape, with many great scholars arguing for the latter. This is how Buddhism was initially interpreted; to some extent, it is this interpretation that we have inherited today.

It is important to keep this in mind when considering the Dalai Lama’s secular impulses. It isn’t so much a question of him pulling the wool over our eyes but rather giving us what we always wanted to hear. For many Westerners, things haven’t changed much since the early days of Victorian scholarship.

This, of course, suits the Dalai Lama. He is concerned with a broader political issue: namely, the survival of the Tibetan people and the continuation of the Tibetan religion. What helps keep Tibetan culture alive in the face of Chinese dominion is the continued interest of the West. To live in false consciousness is a far better thing than to let one’s entire tradition and culture be plunged into oblivion.

The need to prioritise the survival of Tibetan culture has similarly penetrated into academic Indo-Tibetan studies. Donald S Lopez, in his insightful book Prisoners of Shangri-La, claims that the purpose and nature of these Indo-Tibetan programs, which only really started in the 70s, were grounded mainly in the need to preserve and transmit the Tibetan Buddhist teachings. It was not, Lopez observes, considered possible to critique or even truly understand the wisdom contained within the texts being studied. In this way, the Dalai Lama’s impulse to preserve Tibetan culture has historically infiltrated Western academic scholarship. I would argue that this is the norm in Indo-Tibetan scholarship circles even today.

But it’s not just a question of survival. The Dalai Lama is also genuinely interested in spreading the virtues of Buddhism all around the world. A central tenet of the Dalai Lama’s brand of Buddhism is the notion that all sentient beings must be freed from suffering. Traditionally, though perhaps the Dalai Lama would like to argue otherwise, this can only be achieved through the adoption of Buddhism. If Buddhism can be plausibly sold as a rational religion, then increasingly more secular minded people will adopt it. If that is the case, then more people, at least from a traditional Buddhist perspective, will enter onto the path towards salvation. In Buddhism, even thinking one positive thought about the Buddha’s teaching provides the starting point for eventual liberation. Dressing Buddhism in secular garb is a vehicle for this ultimate good.

When I was visiting a Tibetan university in India, I was struck by one conversation with a Tibetan nun. She assumed that the only reason Westerners came to India to study Buddhism was because they were lost spiritually and needed guidance. It was implausible, as far as she was concerned, that someone might study Buddhism simply out of curiosity.

This attitude, I think, guides the Dalai Lama’s desire to project Buddhism the way he does. For him, the West is secular, scientific and rational. But at the same time it is also lost spiritually. By charming the West. he can win two victories with one blow. He can save his own people from destruction by harnessing the resources and interests of the West, but at the same time he can also save the West from itself.

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James Stewart is a Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. He recently completed his PhD in Buddhist Studies and Philosophy. His main area of research is Sinhala Buddhism, especially animal ethics in Sri Lanka and the effect it has on food and dietary practices. He has previously lived in Sri Lanka and makes frequent visits there to conduct fieldwork. His website is

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  1. I would argue that one could frame rebirth within scientific thinking – on two levels. 1. All atoms are recycled. Every atom in your body has moved from a star, through countless forms to your body as it is now. In Eastern philosophies the death is only of the ego, but the ego isn’t who we really are. So the ego, our personality, will die, but everything else will manifest into something else. 2. Energy doesn’t die, it too transforms. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can’t be created or destroyed. It can only change forms.

    As for karma, it is simply the law of cause and effect. I agree with you that sometimes it is understood too literally as generating ‘good’ or ‘bad’ karma through ‘good’ or ‘bad’ actions but karma is a law, like gravity – actions generate outcomes.

  2. A polarised and presumptuous picture offered here of both ‘secular rationalism’ and Buddhist rationalism/irrationalism. Fact is Buddhism has been richly fertilising Western thought (and vice versa) since at least Schopenhauer and Hegel (ie. roughly two hundred years), and the mutual trade-offs seem hardly as reductively opportunistic as implied here, at least, of HHDL. Recent (extended) research in neuroscience and the mind-sciences has, rather, suggested, that both Buddhist Mahayana metaphysics and meditative praxis (moreso than the early Abhidhammic theory cited here by Stewart) and theoretical psychology (also physics) have been for a good decade at a cutting-edge of theorisation around mind-matter non-duality, with various results, of authentic interest to both ‘sides’ of the so-called ‘scientific-religious’ spectrum. More sceptically, if HHDL’s intention was for 60 years mainly to garner political ‘interest’ in the Tibetan cultural cause, as well as offer ‘salvation’ to wayward Westerners, it can be reasonably questioned whether either of these have in fact got very far at this point. (In fact, far less than try to ‘sell’ anything, HHDL has for many years explicitly urged the West NOT to convert to Buddhism, but live first within their own faiths, if they have any.) Perhaps a more constructive and accurate reading is to consider the ways both Western secularism and Buddhism (of many schools, including Theravada and Zen, highly significant in the West now but unmentioned here) have been genuinely engaging in cross-cultural dialogue that continues to offer much of vital interest to both sides, such that the boundaries between them have become more negligible (and much less intentional) than characterised here. Isn’t it time in 2013 to start breaking down some of these tired and now unhelpful dualities? We live in a world where the best of theoretical science and (at least Mahayana Buddhist) metaphysics meet – on the margins, no doubt, but as open interlocutors, not mutually-exclusive options from which to adjudicate.

  3. Hi Anna, and thank you for your comments. I absolutely agree that Buddhism can be framed in a scientific discourse. My concern is that this can only be pushed so far without running into significant technical difficulties when trying to square this with the source materials and the practices of real Buddhists.
    You are also right that it is entirely possible to interpret many Buddhist teachings in what I have called a ‘naturalistic’ manner. Nonetheless, while this is possible, it is not consistent with how Buddhism has been traditionally interpreted in many Buddhist countries and does contradict important parts of some of the Buddhist source materials. Importantly for this discussion, I do not believe that this is the conventional interpretation in most Tibetan Buddhist communities.

  4. Anna-

    I’m not sure that your rationalist interpretations get very far in any philosophical sense-
    The first, while true, is just a basic material fact with no obvious metaphysical consequences, any more than plastic recycling has. There’s no obvious conflation between the continuation of human consciousness and the indestructability of matter.
    Likewise, the 1st law of thermodynamics. The energy manifest in my living body will not ‘die’, it’s true, but it will most likely continue in the form of a slight increase in the temperature of the mortuary slab or the kinetic energy transferd to the bucket I finally kick down the hill (sorry,an English expression).

    And if Karma is merely cause and effect, then it has no ethical or spiritual consequences as far as I can see. Doing bad is as likely to have good consequences for the perpetrator as doing good- so as a guide for living,, it would be pretty useless.

  5. Hi Ashin – thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree that Buddhism can be articulated in a secular and rationalist manner. My point is simply that this is to be expected given the history of Buddhism in the West.

    You cite Schopenhauer and Hegel. Both are problematic examples: Hegel viewed Tibetan Buddhism as nihilism and Schopenhauer regarded it as a pessimistic religion for similar reasons. This, of course, was the common understanding of Buddhism at the time. Both philosophers also routinely conflate Buddhism with Vedantic philosophy – again, a common interpretation of the time caused by an over reliance on Hindu gurus as a source of information on Buddhism. So, yes, Buddhism and the West have long cohabited – but this cross fertilisation has not always been as profitable as one would think and has often led to miscommunication.

    You are also quite right that there are many subtle forms of Buddhism that were not covered in my discussion. These were not discussed because I was trying to focus mainly on the Tibetan Buddhist view.

  6. Hi John,

    I could go further into the analysis of karma and rebirth but I just wanted to take it to its simplest scientific parallel to argue that those ideas could be compatible with scientific rationalist thought.

    Karma simply means action. It is the law of cause and effect. It is too simplistic to just divide things into good and bad karma. Having said that, I think karma works on a couple of levels. 1. We create the world we live in with our actions. In this way it is simple to see how things like anger and negativity lead to more of the same in our experience with the world. 2. the collective karma of the entire cosmos. This means sometimes bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people because of the entire interconnected web of creation.

  7. Thanks James. Problem is – those ‘subtle forms’ ARE central aspects of Tib. Buddhist theory. In any case, new and cogent theorisations of karma and rebirth are still possible and extant (if speculative). (And yes, whether the 19th century German idealists actually understood Buddhism is moot; my point was just that the dialogue has been long and ongoing and predates by far HHDL’s current efforts, part of a long and nuanced history.) My main concern was re. your suggestion that given concealed motives HHDL was “living in false consciousness” – a bold and contentious claim and perhaps worth a rethink? (ie. presuming it to be the case doesn’t offer a strong argument for its truth, and by evidence of his consistent claims points another way). Also, contemporary Buddhist scholarship and thought has moved on in significant and compelling terms (given new intellectual/scientific resources) from the early ‘Protestant’ version that you (rightly) claim still conceptually undergirds its current reception.The point is that there now IS an actual convergence of scientific-religious concerns in this case, not a merely contingent or possible one.

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