What is Buddhist Naturalism?
This is a brief introduction to Buddhist Naturalism. I will begin with a brief definition of naturalism. Much more could be said about naturalism, but this will suffice. Next, I will explain Buddhist Naturalism, what it is, and how it is different from secular Buddhism.
Naturalism is the conclusion, based on the evidence, that the natural world is a closed system and that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws. Therefore there is no support for supernatural explanations. Questions about what exists are basically scientific questions, rather than philosophical or religious questions.
Just for clarification sake, Naturalism is a conclusion that derives from the scientific evidence. Everyone has an ontology, a belief in what exists. In practice, one either lives as if the natural world is all that exists or they don’t. Scientific Naturalism is simply a belief based on the best available evidence. It is not a bias but a conclusion, and it is a conclusion that is open to new evidence.
Contrary to some modern conceptions of Buddhism, Buddhism is a religion surrounded by the supernatural. According to the Pali canon, the Buddha was a god who descended to the earth, was born of a virgin, and performed miracles. After his awakening, he became a teacher of men and gods. At his death, he entered paranirvana, the unconditioned, said to be a state of bliss. He taught the supernatural doctrines of rebirth, karma, and believed in the six realms.
But the heart of his teachings was primarily psychological. Buddhist Naturalism is possible because the Buddhist teaching was primarily about suffering and the end of suffering. Even though gods are mentioned in the Buddhist texts, these gods were not central to the Buddha’s teachings. Even rebirth can be naturalized without too much modification to the Buddha’s original teachings.
Buddhist Naturalists are not Buddhists, they are naturalists who build their philosophical viewpoint on naturalism, and then incorporate Buddhist principles accordingly. Think of a building. For Buddhist Naturalists the foundation of their house of philosophy is naturalism. Then upon this foundation, they add naturalized and secularized Buddhist teachings.
In short, Buddhist Naturalism is a scientifically based, naturalistic interpretation of Buddhism. It is an interpretation, or reinterpretation if you prefer, that is free of ideas about rebirth, karma, or the supernatural.
In my view, Buddhist Naturalism is different from secular Buddhism. Secular Buddhism starts with Buddhism and then attempts to secularize it. In other words, it takes the teachings of Buddhism and subtracts the supernatural parts. Buddhist Naturalism, on the other hand, starts with naturalism, and then builds on top of it using Buddhist teachings.
But Buddhist Naturalism doesn’t just blindly accept Buddhist teachings, rather it critically evaluates it based on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and contemporary experience. In a number of cases, this means reinterpreting and even transforming a teaching.
Can the Buddha be Wrong?
Another difference between Buddhist Naturalism and secular Buddhism is that Buddhist Naturalists believe that the Buddha could be, and, in fact, was wrong. For example, he was wrong about rebirth. Secular Buddhists are usually not as willing to concede the fact that the Buddha was wrong. They usually put blame on the transmission of the Sutras as the cause of much of the supernatural elements in Buddhism. Or they say that the Buddha taught rebirth as a skillful means and for pragmatic reasons.
Buddhist Naturalists do not have sacred texts of any kind. The Buddha was a wise but fallible man. He may have had great psychological insights into the human mind and human suffering, but he was mistaken on many metaphysical notions, such as the six realms. We read the Sutras as we would read the work of a great psychologist. Authority, for us, rests on science, reason, and experience – in that order. Buddhist Naturalism begins with and ends with, evidence, not authority.
Innovation and Experimentation
Buddhist Naturalists are not afraid of reinterpreting and transforming Buddhist teachings in the light of the latest in science, psychology, and even philosophy. Innovation and experimentation are encouraged, as long as such is also subject to verification and critical thinking. There is a whole world of concepts and ideas to be rethought, reworked, and experimented with. Naturalizing karma, rebirth, and other teachings of the Buddha may shine forth new light on old ideas. It may help us better understand our own mind and situation better.
Modern practitioners of the Dharma are not monks, but are householder living and working in the real world. We do not have the same situation or opportunities that the ordained monks have or had. Therefore the teachings have to be more practical and better suited to the non-monastic life.
Another reason we are not Buddhists is that being a Buddhist puts you in a box. You are always asking what the Buddha taught. Every teaching must be based on quotes from the Buddha or his disciples. The Buddhist conceptual framework controls and limits your thought. As Buddhist Naturalists we can freely borrow from any or all systems. It doesn’t matter if the Buddha never taught it. No one has all truth.
Not being Buddhists also allows us the freedom to develop our own system without contaminating traditional Buddhism. We don’t want to change Buddhism, rather, we want to offer people an alternative if they are interested. There are a growing number of people who just don’t buy the whole rebirth thing. And if the Buddha was wrong about the afterlife, how are we to determine what he did get right? By following the evidence and not by blinding following tradition. For example, science has clearly shown that mindfulness was one thing the Buddha got right.
And evidence also includes personal experience. If a practice helps you live a better and happier life, go for it. But personal experience does not tell you what exists. You can;t get information about the universe through introspection, you get that through science. That is why science takes first place in being the most reliable source of knowledge we have.
Traditional Buddhists will disagree with most of what I have said. They will say that rebirth has not been proven to be unscientific. That is true, but they have made a mistake. The one making a claim has the obligation to prove it. You can’t shift the burden of proof. Rebirth has little or no evidence for it. The presumption of naturalism cannot be easily overturned. Of the countless number of experiments, not one has come back with a supernatural answer. All the question we have asked nature has returned natural answers.
The advantage of not being Buddhists, the changed leveled at Secular Buddhist of not being truly Buddhist, falls flat. We are not Buddhist and what we teach is not Buddhism. We are more interested in truth than in Buddhism. It just so happens that we believe the Buddha was the greatest psychologist of all time. We are interested in his psychology and even spirituality, but not his religion or metaphysics.
Buddhist Naturalism is awakened naturalism. It is the awakening to the reality that we are living on autopilot. That we are unaware of our mind, how it works, and how it causes us unhappiness. Spirituality is, in my definition, the quality or state of having or aiming to develop an expanded or deepened consciousness of our union and interconnection with reality, i.e., the natural world.
My vision for Buddhist Naturalism is the development of a scientifically based, naturalistic spirituality, that helps people love and accept themselves, calm their minds, and find inner peace. All that without having to embrace superstitious and supernatural notions. We can be rational and spiritual, scientific and happy, and live a fulfilling life in this one life.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
• Flanagan, Owen. 2011. The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
• Forrest, Jay. 2016. Secular Buddhism: An Introduction. Albuquerque, NM: J. F. Books.