Secular Buddhism tries to keep the “core of Buddhism,” going, but if we stop and think about it for a minute, there isn’t much of a point to that. Without the supernatural elements, Buddhism becomes almost indistinguishable from Stoicism and Humanism. Meditation and mindfulness become stress relief tools instead of gateways to awakening.

 

By Johnathon Lee

Buddha is dead. Buddha remains dead, and we have killed him. Who shall wipe this blood off us? 

That’s a re-imagining of Fredriech Nietzche’s famous God is dead quote. Freddie didn’t mean that God was actually dead. It was a metaphor for how society was becoming secularized. Naturalism painted a picture of a self-created and self-sustaining cosmos. The scientific method became the new holy dogma, and it got results. 

Freddie was afraid that naturalism didn’t provide the meaning we need to fend off nihilism. With no after life, no absolute goods or evils, what’s the point? Are we just animals trapped on a pale blue dot that’s zooming through boundless space-time? 

That view tells us how we came to be, but it says nothing about why we came to be, or what we should do with ourselves. 

Freddie was afraid that we’d adopt a Last Person (Letzter Mensch) way of being.

The Last Person doesn’t have passion or long-term goals. They do their duty, and in return, they get comfort and security. Life is a practical, day-to-day affair. All that matters is that you do as your told so that society can progress to unimaginable heights. 

Then we’ve got the Beyond Person (Uber Mensch). This archetype replaces the messiah in Freddie’s work. The Beyond Person sees that everything’s BS, so they make their own way, realizing that meaning and happiness in life are personal pursuits. The Last Person has given up on purpose and fulfillment; the Beyond Person makes their own, and they’re motivated by a love of life and the Earth. 

Buddha is dead in the West.

Most Western Buddhist teachers and writers are naturalists. We’ve replaced karma, rebirth, deities, the six realms and nibbana with an amoral nature that creates life just to create more life. This might be more accurate, but it doesn’t offer us any advice about who we are, why we’re here, or how we should live. 

Secular Buddhism tries to keep the “core of Buddhism,” going, but if we stop and think about it for a minute, there isn’t much of a point to that. Without the supernatural elements, Buddhism becomes almost indistinguishable from Stoicism and Humanism. Meditation and mindfulness become stress relief tools instead of gateways to awakening. 

But if Buddha’s dead, if we only have this life, then we need to pause and consider our virtues, vices and values. 

If meditation just relieves stress and prompts spiritual visions, then why spend hours and hours doing it? There are more practical ways to reach those ends. If morality doesn’t exist, then why do we push ourselves to serve others when we might be happier saying, “Fuck all you people,” and living for ourselves? 

Secular Buddhism offers interdependence as a bandaid, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on oneness. We can reach the same conclusion by pondering physics or biology.

“Buddha is dead,” means there’s no point to being a Buddhist at all. The Western attempts to salvage the Dharma are in line with Freddie’s Last Person view. Having discovered there’s no one to bow to, we just keep bowing to nothing. On the other hand, Buddha’s alive and well in the East. Eastern Buddhists make offerings, say prayers, and live by the Precepts so that they’ll have good luck and better rebirths. 

Buddha warned about such things, but it’s been part of lay Buddhism for thousands of years. The agreeable, communitarian nature of Eastern Buddhists made it easier for communist dictators to take the East by force. These tyrants used superstition to become holy sages. Obeying the State is good karma. 

So, Eastern Buddhists have meaning, but no freedom. Western Buddhists have freedom, but no meaning. If we look at Buddhism as whole, it’s totally broken. 

A solid religion or philosophy has to provide meaning and well-being. If it doesn’t satisfy both of those needs, then what’s it for? Of course, Freddie didn’t like Buddhism in general. He saw it as a Last Person philosophy that values asceticism more than creativity. 

To save Buddhism from tyranny, bureaucracy and stagnancy, we could think of Buddha as the Beyond Person. The goal isn’t to worship Buddha, or view him as a historical person who’s been dead for 2500 years, but to be a Buddha. If you do that, you’re going to run into dogmatism from all sides. Everyone has their own opinion on what a Buddha is and how they should act. You’ve got to ignore those comments, and forge ahead with your own compass. 

Buddhism has been edited and added to so much over the millennia that we might as well say, “You’ve got to walk your own path.” 

Buddhahood is our own inner potential to live meaningful, happy lives. You can’t rely on doctrine to get there, because Buddhist doctrine is full of contradictions. You’ve got to do it yourself, armed with nothing but the idea that it’s possible—even though it isn’t really possible. Gautama became the Buddha because of supernatural elements. All we’ve got is nature.

So, Buddhahood will always be over the horizon as something we can approach but never settle with. That’s its creative power. That’s what aligns it with naturalist principles, yet it leaves room for meaning and joy. 

In the end, Gautama summed it up in his last teaching: “Be a light unto yourself, may the Dharma be your light.” Lamp or island are other translations. There are two clues there. Have faith in yourself, and understand the Dharma. In the West, the Dharma is natural law, and the study and worship of nature is called science. 

It’s up to you to figure out how science and morality go together, and then chart your course to implementing those insights into your life. 

 

Photo: Pixabay

 

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