Since I was the author of the first book to carry the title Secular Buddhist, I think it is time to clearly declare that I am a full Buddhist. Let me explain.

I became a Buddhist in April of 2011. By 2015 I was already identifying as a Secular Buddhist. I appeared on Episode 236 of the Secular Buddhist Podcast to explain my transition from Pentecostal preacher to Secular Buddhist.

It is important to understand that, until recently, I was a dedicated naturalist. In fact, I was the educational director for the Spiritual Naturalist Society and wrote a number of articles for them.

Naturalism and Physicalism

My naturalism, which has become ambiguous for some people, would best be called physicalism. I believed that the natural world is all that exists. With Steven Pinker, I believed that the “mind is what the brain does.”

This presupposition required me to secularize Buddhism. I could not accept the supernatural aspects of Buddhism, such as karma, rebirth, the devas, maras, hungry ghosts, and the six (or five) realms. Nirvana had to be reinterpreted as psychological rather than metaphysical. In other words, peace of mind took the place of escape from samsara, also known as Mara’s realm.

I did try as hard as I could to embrace Buddhism fully. During one of these time I wrote a series of articles for Patheos in 2020. But I couldn’t swallow all the metaphysical and supernatural elements in the early Pali texts. I knew that if physicalism is true these metaphysical aspects were false.

I then returned to trying to create a hybrid of my own, which I called Bodhidaoism. I had already written a book on it. So now I returned to the project with renewed vigor. But I had to solve one big issue – what is reality? Is it matter, mind, or something else? This is the hardest question to answer, and one that took me to panpsychism.

Panpsychism

The truth is that we can only be certain of one thing – that is consciousness. René Descartes said, “cogito, ergo sum,” which is Latin for, “I think, therefore I am.” For even in doubting this proves there is a doubter. Denying this proves there is a denier. René Descartes realized that this is the one thing that cannot be doubted. Everything else is less than certain.

So the one reality we can be certain of is consciousness. But physical science has no place for consciousness. And no matter how hard they try, cognitive scientists have never come up with a good theory on how the brain produces consciousness. And there is no evidence that the mind emerges from the brain, only that they are correlated somehow.

Panpsychism “is the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world” (Goff). It is a vague enough term to include a number of different theories. For me, instead of matter producing the mind, I think that the mind produces matter, or at least what we call matter. You could see this as a form of idealism.

Idealism

On Jan 1, 2022, I said in my newsletter, “‘I have also changed my mind about metaphysics. I now see consciousness as fundamental. That means I have made the radical switch from physicalism to idealism.”

I actually don’t like the term. But then I didn’t choose it. Idealism sounds like the belief in ideas or ideals. As if only ideas or ideals exist. This is not what the term means. Idealism is defined as “any of various systems of thought in which the objects of knowledge are held to be in some way dependent on the activity of mind. Often contrasted with realism” (OED) The opposite of this is said to be realism, “the doctrine that universals or abstract concepts have an objective or absolute existence” (OED).

Many philosophers have been given this label, including Plato, Plotinus, Adi Shankara, George Berkeley, Georg W. F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Charles Sanders Peirce, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Arthur Schopenhauer, and others.

Scientists are beginning to question the physicalist assumption. After summarizing the implications of quantum theory, Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner state, “Quantum theory thus denies the existence of a physically real world independent of its observation” (7). The urge to explain away consciousness will not go away. After all, “The encounter of physics with consciousness has troubled physicists since the inception of quantum theory more than eight decades ago” (Rosenblum 269).

Vedanta Philosophy

One of the deep insights of Vedanta is that cognition and consciousness are not the same things. Cognition is a computational system like a computer. “According to Nagel, a being is conscious just if there is ‘something that it is like’ to be that creature, i.e., some subjective way the world seems or appears from the creature’s mental or experiential point of view” (Van Gulick).

In meditation you realize that consciousness is not thinking, it is an awareness that goes much deeper. It is the only reality we can be sure of. I am conscious, therefore consciousness exists. Physical reality has no existence outside of consciousness. If you were not conscious, nothing would exist.

So here is my new formulation. Perhaps reality is one thing, conscious energy. Its outside is seen as matter, its inside as mind. So reality is a constant flow of energy and consciousness. Perhaps matter is the form of mind, mind the flow of energy. After all, Albert Einstein taught us that matter is just another form of energy. And the energy is structured by information.

Yogacara Buddhism

So I reconsidered my physicalist presuppositions. I can safely say that I no longer believe that the universe is physical.

I have been reading Steve Taylor’s book Spiritual Science. In this book, he articulates a view he calls panspiritism. He explains that “the essence of reality (which is also the essence of our being) is a quality that might be called spirit, or consciousness” (p. 3).

This is so contrary to my previous physicalism that it has taken me a moment to readjust my thinking. It also means that I am going to have to leave Bodhidaoism (which is thoroughly naturalistic) in the past.

This led me right back to Buddhism. This time to Yogacara Buddhism, at least to their metaphysical position. This is known as the Consciousness-Only branch of Buddhism. Everything the Buddha says becomes possible, even likely if consciousness is the fundamental essence of reality.

Going Full Buddhist

This led me to buy into the full early Buddhist story. The Buddha was right about our psychology, now it became apparent he was right about metaphysics as well. This means that God exists, in fact, many do. Temporary heavens and hells exist as well. So do devils and demons, and ghosts and psychic powers. Oh my.

Clearly, I have gone full Buddhist. I am secular no more. I have become a religious follower of Buddhism. But not just any Buddhism, early Buddhism as taught in the Early Buddhist Texts. I don’t identify as Theravada or Mahayana, but Suttavadin. Suttavadin simply means I am a Buddhist who relies on the early suttas for my understanding of Buddhism.

In a sense, I have returned to where I started a decade ago when I became a Buddhist. I have returned to discover Buddhism again for the first time. This time with the eyes of an idealist. There is nothing like starting over to keep you humble.

No Certainty

I am, of course, getting into questions that are hard to answer with any certainty. And for every answer I seem to get, a new crop of problems arise. If it makes you feel any better, I could never have predicted that my research and meditation practice would lead me to idealism. It is so contrary to the physicalistic bias of philosophers and scientists.

Oh, it is a bias, even a prejudice. There is no evidence that the physical universe is all there is. It is an assumption based on the lack of evidence to the contrary. But that is only because we are looking in the wrong place and for the wrong thing. Why think that the “other” would be anything like the physical?

Consciousness is the key to this whole thing. It is a hard problem because it is not physical. It is what we can call spiritual. And it is the underlying reality of all things. At least this is how I see it now.

References

  • Goff, Philip, William Seager, and Sean Allen-Hermanson, “Panpsychism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/panpsychism/>.
  • Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. United Kingdom: W. W. Norton, 2009.
  • Rosenblum, Bruce and Fred Kuttner. Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Taylor, Steve. Spiritual Science: Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World. London: Watkins, 2018.
  • Van Gulick, Robert, “Consciousness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/consciousness/>.