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Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water: What humanists can learn from Buddhism


By Dr Helen Skilton


Helen is a Scientific Patent Advisor. She taught biomedical and health sciences for fifteen years. She is a practising Buddhist and lives in Brighton, UK. In this article, Helen explains how the principles and practices of Buddhism have tamed her inner demons.



I became interested in Buddhism about ten years ago. I was attracted by its emphasis on compassion for oneself and others, along with its many enigmatic, often paradoxical, stories. More recently, I became interested in humanism – attracted by its willingness to explore different aspects of the world and what it means to be a human. For me, the two traditions are very similar. Neither believe in a god and both believe that wisdom, which includes compassion, should be our guiding principle. However, Buddhism is a religion and humanism, by its very definition, is not.


Buddhist monks (AI-generated image)

 So what is religion? There are many definitions. This one seems to cover it all:


Religion is a range of social-cultural systems, including designated behaviours and practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that generally relate humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements—although there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion. Different religions may or may not contain various elements ranging from the divine, sacredness, faith, and a supernatural being or beings. Wikipedia

 

I'm not going to address every aspect of religion mentioned here, but I will attempt to discuss faith, transcendental/spiritual beliefs, ethics, ritual and devotion. 


I should mention that Buddhism has many different traditions and schools, each with its own particular set of rituals and practices. I can only write from my own personal experiences. I'm not ordained and don’t claim to be an expert. However, I have been practising for ten years. Most of my teachings have come from the Triratna Buddhism Centre (a mixture of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism brought to the West in the 1960/70s), and from a variety of other Western Buddhist teachings such as those espoused by the Insight Meditation Society and Plum Village which follows the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022).

 

All Buddhist traditions express faith in the Buddha’s ‘teachings’ – also called the Dharma (the path, the right way of living, or the ethical and moral principles that guide one's life). The Buddha (real name Gautama Siddhartha) was a prince, traditionally believed to have lived in the 6th – 5th century BCE in South Asia. He didn’t invent the Dharma, but rather learned it from the many nomadic teachers who were around at the time. He created the Middle Way which means gaining enlightenment by avoiding the extremes of self-gratification and self-mortification. He also encouraged critical analysis of the Dharma. Faith in the Dharma is not supposed to be ‘blind faith’ but based on contemplation and experience.

 

Central to Buddhist teaching is that we all suffer and that there is an end to suffering (by becoming enlightened). The word ‘Buddha’ means the Enlightened One. An enlightened being is one who has awakened from the sleep of ignorance and achieved freedom from suffering. In other words, an experience of transcendental or spiritual awakening.


The Noble Eightfold Path and the Threefold Way

In order to become Enlightened one must follow the Noble Eight-Fold Path, which contains many instructions. It can be simplified, or categorised, into the Three-Fold Way of Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom. There are many sources extolling the benefits of meditation so I won’t discuss it here, but what about ethics? Do we as adults really need to be told what is ethical or not? Don’t we already instinctively know? That is partially true, but a good ethical guide which you can study, critique and practise, is a really useful tool in your daily attempts to minimise harm and to develop kindness. Wisdom, as in the dharmic teachings, is vast and I would love to discuss this further, most notably that everything is impermanent. The only thing we can control is our actions (kharma) and we are all interconnected. There are some links at the end of this article about these teachings for you to peruse in your own time.


 

Meditation (AI-generated image)

Ritual and devotion

Lastly, there is ritual and devotion. Lighting candles, burning incense, reverencing the Buddha(s), chanting mantras and performing pujas (ceremonial rituals that involve offerings and devotional practices). Rituals can be very reassuring and the devotional aspect, such as the bowing and reverencing of a Buddha image, is about reverencing ourselves and our potential to become enlightened and/or giving thanks to the Buddha for his teachings. Many people enjoy these devotional practices and get a lot of satisfaction and support from them.

 

In conclusion, Buddhist traditions embody faith in the Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma). The Dharma, including ethics, meditation, wisdom, ritual and devotion, is intended to help gain Enlightenment – a transcendental/spiritual mental shift from the ordinary to the amazing. All this is an attempt to help people see the world as it really is and learn how to act skilfully, to reduce suffering for oneself and for others. The world is in desperate need of this.

 

Does it work? Well, it has certainly transformed many of my inner demons, so to speak, and I do believe that I have a clearer insight into the true nature of things. However, following the Dharma is a practice and it depends on a degree of discipline that can, far too easily, get interrupted. I may not have achieved enlightenment but I keep trying, because just being on the path brings its own rewards.


"Buddhism does not have a monopoly on how to strive for a clear and wise head and a kind heart. All religions at their core, along with humanism, strive for this."

 

Finally, I would say that Buddhism does not have a monopoly on how to strive for a clear and wise head and a kind heart. All religions at their core, along with humanism, strive for this. There are millions of religious people, whatever their creed, who actually achieve this or, at least, are trying. So, whatever you do, don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Religion has a wealth of knowledge and wisdom, acquired over thousands of years, that we can all learn from.


Useful links

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