Over the last several months, I’ve been slowly (very slowly!) making my way through an incredible, dense, thought-provoking, boring, brilliant, obvious, startling book called A Secular Age, by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Part of why it’s taking so long is that I’m not always in the mood for it–it’s basically a detailed intellectual history of the West, and can get pretty dry in some sections. It also really is kind of obvious, or feels obvious at first blush. As I continue from chapter to chapter, though, the bits that seemed the most obvious, the most unproblematic and clear, start to get stranger and stranger, more complex, more surprising. It’s a disorienting experience.
Taylor begins with the fact that religious belief, for the first time in the history of the West, is now an option for most of us, rather than a given. At first, that feels like a pretty straightforward observation. We all know that, right? As he digs down, though, and looks at this in more and more detail and nuance, the observation gets deeper and stranger. As I read, I start to see more and more clearly how odd our particular cultural moment is, how different our lives are from the lives of our ancestors even just a few hundred years ago. I find myself reminded for the millionth time how inside of history we are, inside of culture, and how much in our general understanding of religion (or our general understanding of anything) is actually a very particular, historical view from a very particular, historical, conditioned, (we could say karmic) place–our Dharma-position.
Taylor is pretty committed throughout the book to dispensing with what he calls the “subtraction” story–the idea that once upon a time in the West people held all sorts of superstitious beliefs, but then with the rise of science we pruned away all of the magical nonsense and now live in the same world as our ancestors, but without the extra, unneeded bells and whistles. That’s a pretty common view of the rise of secularism, and Taylor demolishes it pretty thoroughly–it’s not the case that there’s a worldview with bells and whistles and then a worldview without. It’s rather the case that a particular worldview with particular bells and whistles is replaced by another particular worldview with particular bells and whistles. Not subtraction as much as change, or shift–from one complex, nuanced, internally dynamic way of being in the world to another.
So what is it that’s arisen in the West to replace the religious worldview of the year 1500, say? (Again, what entirely different worldview has arisen–not the same worldview with the superstitious bits taken out.) On Taylor’s telling, what’s arisen, for the first time in human history, is what he calls an “exclusive humanism,” a way of being in the world that locates the deepest sources of meaning with reference only to human life, rather than with reference to some reality outside of or beyond human life. It’s not exactly that people in medieval Europe were against finding meaning in the ordinary joys of human life–rather that there was understood to be an even deeper type of meaning available that was in quite serious tension with what we usually think of as human flourishing. Vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, for example, aren’t totally coherent if what we’re after is a good human life with reference only to human meaning–they only come into focus with reference to another, non-human-centered source of meaning.
Like everything else in Taylor, this point about exclusive humanism seems like a pretty straightforward observation at first. Okay, some of us in our contemporary age locate meaning exclusively in human life, rather than in something other-than-human, and that option wasn’t available in other historical eras. As I let the point simmer, though, I start to feel more and more its power and strangeness.
Which brings me to the Dharma. Taylor mentions Buddhism several times, but really he’s writing a history of the West, and stays pretty focused. I can’t help but think about the Dharma, though, and the place of an exclusive humanism in a Buddhist context.
In the Indian layer of our tradition, the importance of other-than-human fulfillment seems pretty clear. Nirvana is about getting free of our human experience in samsara, not about finding deep meaning in it. The Chinese situation seems less clear to me—Confucianism and Taoism are pretty this-worldly influences, but I think that there’s still a reference to an other-than-human, more-than-human realm—to the Heavens, to being in harmony with something other. A good life is in harmony with the Tao–but the Tao isn’t an exclusively human measurement.
But what’s the situation now, in the Buddha-dharma’s postcolonial postmodern global evolution? Is the Buddha-dharma secular? Is it humanism? Or does it continue to point towards the deepest source of meaning as somehow outside of or beyond human life?
I think this question is really profound, and I think there’s a genuine tension here. Some contemporary Buddhists, I’m sure, would be happy to fold Buddhism under a humanist umbrella–a lot of what’s sometimes called Buddhist Modernism is precisely the celebration of the ways that Buddhism offers a set of practices (centrally mediation practices) which can help perfect, transform, improve a human life with reference only to a human life. All of the pieces of the Dharma that seem to be in tension with exclusive humanism get played down, usually, or dismissed as superstitious accretions–devotional practices, for one.
On the other hand, I think there’s a thread in lots of contemporary Dharma understanding that’s suspicious of exclusive humanism. There’s an environmentalist critique of exclusively human-centered ways of making meaning, for example, that I think really resonates with lots of contemporary Dharma practitioners. Many people are drawn to practice in the first place, after all, out of some dis-satisfaction with the meaning available in an exclusively human-centered life: get a good job, go to therapy, take interesting vacations! Seems a little thin on some level.
Part of why this matters, I think, is that it points to the question of what we think a good human life is. If the best human life is one marked by exclusively human flourishing, then bodhisattva practice is about improving human lives with reference only to human lives–making sure people are fed and clothed, that our illnesses are treated, that we have shelter and community and so on. That we’re happy, as happiness is generally understood. On the other hand, there’s something very deep and very basic in the Dharma that points to the unsatisfactoriness of precisely all those things. The First Noble Truth is a pretty serious attack on the “good” things in a human life–family, friends, work. All of that, a piece of our tradition whispers, is in some way not-enough. Even in Zen, we call a priest ordination a home-leaving, right? To mark precisely the fact that even a home, even a happy, stable, loving home, is somehow not the entirety of a life. That there is a source of meaning which is in reference to something else.
If we connect to this piece of the tradition, then, a bodhisattva’s practice is not necessarily helping people be happy as that’s usually (humanistically) understood–food, clothing, shelter, medicine, good friends, stimulating conversations, good books, etc. A bodhisattva’s practice then would be actually to undermine that stuff, to return again and again to not-enoughness, to basic dissatisfaction, to pointing beyond.
A bodhisattva vows to help beings. But how we think beings should be helped depends a lot on what we think a good life is for beings. And some pretty different conceptions of that are tugging back and forth at each other about this, right at the heart of our tradition.
As I say, I don’t know that I’ve finished feeling my way through these questions. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve arrived at answers. But the questions themselves keep acting on me. Is the Buddha-dharma secular? Is it exclusively humanist? Does it point to something beyond a good human life? How, if we’re committed to helping each other, do we think we can actually be the most helpful? By adding to human happiness as it’s generally understood–or by undermining it, and pointing to its limitations? That last question especially–that’s a good one.