Charles Taylor, exclusive humanism, and the Dharma

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.


16 thoughts on “Charles Taylor, exclusive humanism, and the Dharma

  1. You, dear teacher, offer the bright leaf and the underside of the leaf, and give me the way to realize that the bright condition and the shadow condition are the same invitation to the blessings of self-forgetting, of home-leaving, of self-arriving, of homecoming.
    I bow –

    • Mc! Dear friend, do you know this one, by Ryokan?

      Now it reveals its hidden side
      and now the other–thus it falls,
      an autumn leaf.

      The poem he recited on his death-bed, the story goes . . .

      Bowing, falling,

  2. Thanks for your comments! To your last inquiry, I would briefly suggest that we are not here so much to change human life as to be changed by our experience of it. The arrogant assumption that we are in any position to “help” each other has led to all sorts of misconceived crusades, evangelizing follies, and cultural superimpositions (like missionary positions), although if we personally do encounter someone in need, we can spontaneously lend a hand. In any case, we can’t fix samsara.

    In that light, there’s a relevant conversation currently in progress at the Buddhist Forum “Dharma Wheel” . For example, one poster, Indrajala, noted:
    “The problem is that if you make social work your main activity, practice time is sacrificed and a lot of community interests are subverted to such tasks as a means of justifying Buddhism’s existence in the world. Once you’re down that road, you can’t go back. Everyone will see your identity as being charity givers and organizers, not a community of practitioners trying to achieve liberation.

    The other sick fact of reality is that a lot of charity and goodwill causes greater long-term suffering than it remedies.

    Take for example vaccination and food programs done by NGOs in the third world. A lot of premature deaths are prevented, but the consequence is overpopulation, which leads to greater suffering in the long-term: depressed wages, competition, food shortages, disease, malnutrition and so forth. These new problems require increased complexity, which in our day is bought with economic development and increased fossil fuel use. So in order to grow sufficient food to feed your huge population you need infrastructure and industrial agriculture, all of which uses fossil fuels and pollutes the environment.

    What’s a really sick fact is that the world is already past its human carrying capacity and manages to get by for the most part only because of finite fossil fuels, so doing any charity work that adds more humans to the population and/or lets people live longer lives is actually doing more harm than good. The environment has to absorb that much more pollution and give that much more resources to support another human life.

    There is still merit in virtuous deeds, but we’re in such a messed up time that helping people can actually mean doing more harm in the long-term.

    Really the solution is to gain liberation from saṃsāra, which is the point of Buddhadharma. Social work and charity amount to palliative care. They’re still praiseworthy and virtuous activities, but you need to realize they’re not really a solution to the vicissitudes of time, civilization, ecology and saṃsāra.”

  3. “The arrogant assumption that we are in any position to “help” each other has led to all sorts of misconceived crusades….”

    A line I have always liked is, “Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help.”


    • Reminds me of the quote from “Conversations with God”:

      “Nobody needs your help. I know, I know…this is a difficult one. But it is
      true. Yet this does not mean no one wants your help, or that no one could use
      your help. It simply means the thought that another Aspect of Divinity is
      powerless without you is inaccurate. Do not do something, therefore, because you
      think someone else needs you. That only builds resentment. Do whatever you do as
      a means of deciding, declaring, creating, and experiencing who you are — and
      who you choose to be. Then you will never feel victimized, powerless, or without
      Yes? You see how simple it all is? Get out of victimhood.”

      ~Neale Donald Walsch

  4. Thank you for this essay and the questions that you raise, Hondo Dave. I’ve read some things by Judith Butler that might be of interest to you. As a political philosopher she begins with the thought that that all life is defined by it’s being precarious, and that humanism emerged in the context of defining which lives are grievable and which are not. Here is a link to a short video, in which she outlines how ethical obligations can and do overwhelm us from a distance, and in doing so emerge without our consent. I find that she expresses great trust in a “from the gut” ethical responsiveness, and holds it up as worthy of examination. In this video she states that the tug upon us to care for those in proximity and those at a distance is reversible, and in this reversibility bonds are wrought.

    I am drawn to those who critique the humanist tradition and in doing so find fresh ways to open out our experience, to ascertain capacity and in this case without fear of responsibility toward others as a defining term of our share in precarious life.

    With palms together, Catherine

  5. Thanks for this interesting discussion. There’s very little I would like to add, except to mention as an aside that within the humanistic tradition one can allude to different types of happiness. For example, Aristotle’s virtue-based eudaemonic happiness is different from purely hedonistic conceptions of happiness , and both are different from Dharma-based happiness. Analytic philosopher Owen Flanagan explored this idea in depth in his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain. Some kinds of happiness seem to put us on the level of cows contentedly grazing in a pasture, whereas others are imbued with active qualities like kindness, compassion, wisdom, determination, equanimity, and what we many call, for lack of a better word, greatness of soul. But I agree there is something self-centered about making human well-being one’s central concern, and that Buddhism encourages us to think bigger, and take responsibility for our planet and all its inhabitants — as the metta chant says, “sabbe satta,” “whatever beings there are.”

  6. Pingback: Zen in America and Exclusive Humanism

  7. I appreciate your attempt to de-familiarize your perception of ancestral worlds from that of our own present one. Is it possible to understand traces of thought that have descended to the present given differences between their assumptions about what’s really real and our own? The past gets stranger and stranger the more one studies it from one period and location to the next. Yet, didn’t even the most ancient writings stimulate us to practice in the first place — or strike a deeply familiar chord — and don’t they still? Can elements be isoalted that are perennial or are we just projecting mutual intelligibility because it suits our purposes? If that’s the case, perhaps we should just concede we’re making it all up and using teachings and writings from the past as a convenient source of authority in the present. Let’s face it, a lot of discussions that reference the past are often facile and self-serving. Good post – thanks. Brooks

  8. Thanks for this interesting post, Hondo. What pops up for me in this conversation are the terms ‘humanism’ and ‘exclusive humanism’. I suspect there is some fundamental difference, and that a thorough investigation of ‘humanism’ might produce something that looks a lot like Buddhism, while a thoroughgoing ‘exclusive humanism’ (which occurs to me as something of an oxymoron), might show up as something far different– reality t.v., for instance. Thank you very much for those questions!

  9. Pingback: No Zen in the West |

  10. Very interesting. I am a Christian pastor working through the book and I found your blog by searching “exclusive humanism”. You gave a very nice, clear summary.

    In reading the book and having some Buddhist friends I was wondering what you made of the “Reform” movement, the movement that was typified by the Protestant Reformation and the destruction of the two tier social imaginary where there is higher time and secular time, higher callings and secular callings, etc. How does this play out in Buddhism?

    In the Protestant Reformation it got played out in ideas like “the priesthood of all believers” and the end (at least in Protestantism) if the monastic life. It strikes me that Buddhism as well as other religions that require rigorous effort through meditation, etc. continue to have more of a two tier system. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Your blog post is over a year old so you may have simply moved on from the book since then so please feel free to ignore my question. Thanks.

    • Hi Paul,
      I post here along with Dave and just noticed your comment… very interesting question and too much to address in a little comment, but having done a little bit of study of Buddhism in modernity and the mainsteam contemporary Western Buddhism (across the sects) that is sometimes called “Protestant Buddhism,” it’s interesting to see the parallels. Part of the Protestantizing of Buddhism was exactly that one-tiering of it – something that in the Soto Zen context an obscure academic named Lobreglio highlights, as I mention in this post that you may or may not have seen,
      Blog commenting here at a below-snail-mail pace, so likely you’ve moved on as well.
      Thanks for landing here.

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