1. Introduction
  2. What is Buddhism?
  3. What is Humanism?
  4. Main Humanist Principles
  5. The Principal Differences
  6. Some Problems in Buddhism
  7. Some Problems in Humanism
  8. Conclusion

Humanism and Buddhism

A Comparison of the Doctrines of
Humanism and Buddhism Considering
their Similarities and Differences

by Victor A. Gunasekara

1. Introduction

This essay compares Buddhism and Humanism. At first sight it might appear that the two have little in common. Buddhism is generally considered to be one of the major religions of the world, and many of its adherents also take it to be a religion. Humanism, at least in its " secular" version, is generally considered to be an opponent of religion. Thus one would expect humanism and Buddhism to be opposed to each other.

The presumed opposition between humanism and Buddhism is shared by many supporters of both systems. This is partly due to mutual misunderstanding. Buddhism arose in India in the fifth century before the Common Era (BCE) and most Buddhists still live in Asia. Humanism arose in the West comparatively recently and most humanists live in Europe or the areas like the Americas and Australasia occupied by Europeans. This separation in time and place may account for the mutual lack of understanding.

Another problem lies in the way religion is interpreted by humanists and Buddhists. The religions which humanists are most familiar with are those stemming from the Middle East which nurtured the Judeo-Christian-Islamic family of religions. These are based on the notion of an omnipotent God, an authoritative text, and people claiming to be the prophets of God. This notion is absent in Asian religions.[Note 1]     Some Asian religions like Buddhism and Jainism completely reject the notion of God while others like Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, etc. generally ignore the God concept. Thus the conventional notion of religion in the West which humanists are most familiar with will not easily accommodate belief systems regarded as " religions" in most Asian traditions.

Buddhism does not have a word for religion as it is understood in the West. It refers to its own belief system as Dhamma [Dharma].[Note 2]     This term really means " law" or " norm" and is viewed as natural law would be viewed in the West. Alternative belief systems are simply referred to as micc dii or Wrong Views.

In the context of Buddhism and humanism a definition of " religion" may be attempted. The status of Buddhism and humanism with respect to religion has been debated. As far as Buddhism is concerned it is generally considered a religion, but many who have studied the actual discourses of the Buddha argue that it will not fit the conventional definition of religion. Humanism on the other hand is considered to be a non-religious doctrine. But some critics of humanism argue that it is also a kind of religion. All these positions depend on the way in which the word religion is defined. What we need is a definition which includes Buddhism but excludes humanism.

Usual dictionary definitions of religion either require an explicit belief in God (or a supernatural equivalent), or requires belief in a " spiritual" principle or entity. A definition including God will not include Buddhism and the definition in terms of some " spiritual" principle or entity often becomes a circular one because " spiritual" is defined to mean religious and therefore cannot be used define what a religion is. The definition we shall advance here is the following.

A religion is a belief system which (i) contains a set absolute beliefs (which at the very least could be a set of absolute ethical principles) and (ii) must postulate some kind of post-mortem existence (" life after death" ).

Thus humanism usually postulates some beliefs which could be considered " absolute" These involve some ethical rules not completely relativistic and belief in the rational inquiry. It thus could be considered as satisfying the first criterion. But it has no theory of existence after physical death and therefore does not satisfy the second, and is thus not a religion on this definition. Buddhism too has a set of absolute values but it also claims that beings are " re-born" after physical death even though what is meant by this has been differently interpreted. It therefore satisfies both conditions needed for a religion. In a later section we shall consider the re-birth hypothesis of Buddhism. It could also be claimed that Buddhism has some supernatural elements and these will be considered in a later section. Why the supernatural is explicitly excluded from our definition of religion relates to the difficulty of defining precisely what a " natural" phenomenon is.

The outline of this essay is as follows. Sections 2 and 3 will consider the principal features of Buddhism and Humanism respectively. Section 4 will list the major principles of humanism and consider the Buddhist approach to them. Section 5 deals with principal difference between Buddhism and Humanism and consider those aspects of Buddhism which humanists would regard as " religious" (using the definition of religion given above). Sections 6 and 7 will consider some problem areas for both philosophical systems. The last section will provide a brief conclusion to this essay.

2. What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is the Western name for the doctrine propounded by Siddhatta Gotama [Siddhartha Gautama] in the fifth century BCE in India. He was born in 563 BCE to a princely family but at the age of 30 renounced the worldly life to become a wandering ascetic in search of the truth. In 527 BCE he claimed to have discovered this, and thus become the Buddha (which title means the " awakened" or " enlightened" one). In the next 45 years he preached his discovery until his death at Kusinara in India.

His discourses were compiled by his followers shortly after his death. They were preserved initially in an oral tradition but were written down in the first century BCE. These writings are usually referred to as the Pali Canon [Note 3]     and it is this kind of Buddhism that we shall be concerned with. Buddhists who regard the Pali Canon as authoritative are referred to as Theravada Buddhists.

In the subsequent history of Buddhism two major developments occurred. The first is the rise of Mahayana Buddhism. This first occurred in India about the time of that Jesus is said to have flourished. It subsequently became established in China from whence it spread to many countries of East Asia principally to Korea and Japan. Mahayana exists today in several different versions such as Pure Land Buddhism, Zen, etc. Mahayana Buddhism is very much more removed from Humanism than is Theravada Buddhism.

The next major development was the rise of Vajrayana Buddhism the most important example of which is Tibetan Buddhism. This is an extremely corrupted form much further removed from the teaching of Gotama than is Mahayana Buddhism. It combines a great deal of the primitive religion of Tibet with some Buddhist notions. It is this form of Buddhism that seems to be spreading most rapidly in the West. It is the furthest removed from Humanism.

When many humanists refer to Buddhism as a religion not very different to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic family it is usually to the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism that they refer. However these versions of Buddhism cannot be foisted on the Buddha as many of their beliefs and practices are quite the contrary of what the Buddha proclaimed. If a meaningful comparison of Buddhism and humanism has to be made it has to be made with the authentic teaching of the Buddha which can be gleaned from the Pali Canon. It is this kind of comparison that is attempted here. [Note 5]    

A brief statement of the basic teaching of Gotama may be attempted here. The Buddha argued that all phenomena animate or inanimate have three characteristics - they are unsatisfactory (in that they do not constitute some kind of ideal), they are impermanent in that they will change with time, and that they lack an abiding essence. When these characteristics are applied to the human plane the first characteristic of unsatisfactoriness is usually seen as suffering (dukkha), the second in the human processes of ageing, decay and death (jar-maraa), and the third is the absence of a soul (anatt).

With reference to the human condition the Buddha proclaimed the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. These are:

  1. Suffering. This affirms that the human condition is characterized in the final analysis by suffering and unsatisfactoriness. If nothing else this is implicit in the very process of ageing, decay and death.
  2. The Cause of Suffering. The Buddha traced this to the basic human tendencies of craving and grasping. These in turn are caused greed, hatred (aversion) and delusion (i.e. ignorance of the true nature of existence).
  3. The Release from Suffering. The Buddha affirmed that a state that is free of suffering is possible. This is not necessarily realised in a post-death situation like a heaven or the Kingdom of God, but in this very life itself. A person who has secured release from suffering and has died is said to have reached the state of nibbana [nirvana] the precise nature of which is not described in the Buddhist texts.
  4. The Path leading to this release. This is Noble Eightfold Path consisting of Right View, Right Thought, Right Action, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Note that the usual religious requirements of prayer, blind faith, sacrifice, etc. do not figure in the Buddha's path.

It is not the purpose here to expand on the basic outline given in the preceding paragraphs as there are many excellent expositions of Buddhism from the Theravada point of view. [Note 5]     Sections 5 and 6 will deal with those aspects of Theravada Buddhism which are likely to create problems for modern humanists.

3. What is Humanism?

The word " Humanism" first entered the vocabulary of intellectual discourse in the West during the Renaissance period when it was used to denote the revival of interest in the ancient writings of Greek and Roman philosophers. Ever since the conversion of Constantine to Christianity the Christian Church had severely suppressed all alternative views and this extended to the ancient classical writings. [Note 6]     This was a period of stagnation for European civilization and has been rightly referred to as the Dark Ages. The attempt by the early humanists to go to a period prior to the triumph of Christianity in Europe may be regarded as the first tentative attempt to find an alternative to the stifling dogmas of Christianity. However many of these early Humanists could not free themselves from Christianity and for the most part were concerned with interpreting Christian teachings in what they considered to be a more humanistic light.

Humanism progressed from this early start and by the nineteenth century was able to adopt a secular form completely freed from the Christian religion and indeed combating the principal dogmas of this religion. It was greatly assisted in this by the growth of science both in the physical and biological areas. Early scientists like Galileo had indeed realised the conflict between the discoveries of science and Christian teaching. For this they were often persecuted by the Church. It was the triumph of Darwinism in the nineteenth century which for many humanists clinched the issue between theistic religion and science.

Today secular humanism stands in sharp contrast to supernatural religion which is based on the existence of God. Its principal concern is the advancement of humanity, and it does so using the methods of rational thinking and analysis. It differs from science only to the extent that it tries to construct an ethical code that is conducive to human welfare. Some forms of science are completely value-neutral and are not concerned with evolving a system of ethical norms that should govern human conduct. Rationalism, which many associate with humanism, is concerned primarily with the methodology of deriving valid propositions and is somewhat different from humanism. Scepticism, another trend usually associated with Humanism, is concerned with refuting claims relating to supernatural or supernormal abilities and devotion to things like the UFOs and alien abductions. By definition humanism is concerned with the human being and not with any external divine authority who stands in a superior position to man.

The humanist path may to a Buddhist not be as complete as that enunciated by the Buddha, but there is little in the humanist way of life that Buddhists will reject outright. This is in contrast to the way of life and philosophy underlying theistic religion which is in fundamental conflict with most basic of humanist principles.

It must also be mentioned that the term humanism has also been appropriated by religionists and some even speak of " theistic humanism" . [Note 7]     This is often an attempt to empty humanism of any real content and to make it a synonym for their own dogmatic beliefs, especially relating to what they regard as proper human conduct. [Note 8]     In this essay we shall completely ignore this kind of humanism and confine ourselves to what is called " secular humanism" , the qualifying adjective " secular" being used to dissociate this kind of humanism from the confusion introduced by theists.

4. Main Humanist Principles

The fundamental principles of secular humanism have been stated in many ways. In fact there is no complete agreement on this amongst Humanists and a good part of the humanist debate revolves around the correct enunciation and delineation of Humanist principles.

The present writer recently set out the basic principles of secular humanism as a set of twelve cardinal principles (identified below as H1 to H12). Let us consider each of these principles and see how they relate to the teaching of Gotama as given in the Pali Canon.

H1. The only relevant spheres of action for humans are humanity in a collective sense, individual human beings, and the physical environment (nature) in which they operate.

What this principle asserts is that there is no external divine agency between human beings and the physical environment in which they operate. The Buddha also repeatedly affirmed that humans have to rely only on themselves for their release from suffering. There is no external authority or saviour to rely on. Humanism too asserts the ultimate responsibility of human beings. Nature in the sense of the physical world (rpa) is the given datum which humans have to operate in. Both Buddhism and humanism affirms compassionate action towards other human beings. Thus there is no fundamental conflict between H1 and Buddhist teaching .

H2. Human beings are not subject to God or any divine agency. They have no obligation to love, fear or obey any such supernatural agent.

Buddhism is probably the only universal religion which unambiguously rejects the God idea. The Buddha showed that belief in the existence of a supreme creator God is a fundamental delusion which the enlightened person has to get rid of. The futility of belief in God, prayer and sacrifice addressed to God, was constantly asserted by the Buddha.

Secular humanism too rejects the notion of God, even though some humanists prefer to take an agnostic position on this question. In this we can say that Buddhism goes even beyond humanism in taking an atheistic, indeed anti-theistic, position.

H3. All beliefs must be founded on reason and human experience. Where the progress of knowledge reveals that any belief is or becomes untenable it should be abandoned.

This is a cardinal principle of humanism, and one which would be familiar to Buddhists. The methodology which the Buddha recommended that his disciples follow is given in the famous Klma Sutta. The relevant section has been translated as follows:

"Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe anything simply because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conductive to the good and benefit of one and all then accept it and live up to it." [Note 9]    

Here we have a clear statement of the scientific method advocated by humanists, rationalists and scientists. It is the very opposite of the blind faith required by many religions, especially theistic religion. Thus H3 will receive broad support from Buddhists.

H4. All human beings are entitled to inalienable human rights such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There is no specific codification of human rights in a single place in the Buddha's discourses. However in various suttas the Buddha gives instructions on how individuals should conduct themselves. The Buddha was one of the first to condemn slavery as a right livelihood, and thus ensure this most basic of human rights. No other leader of a major religion has done so. The Old Testament endorses slavery and this has to be ascribed to Christianity as well. Christianity was used to justify slavery in the US and some of the founding fathers of the US were slave owners. Of course Islam completely endorses slavery and Mohammed himself was a slave owner.

While humanists affirm human rights there is no universally accepted code of human rights. The nearest is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but there are many specific rights mentioned there with which some humanists will not agree.

H5. These rights inhere to humans from the time the human fetus becomes a viable biological entity capable of independent existence without physical or organic dependence on another human being.

In Buddhism the starting point of a new life is conception. This event marks the conjunction of three things, the sperm, the ovum and the sankhara or residual kamma of a deceased being. The last named should not be confused with the soul- concept of some religion because the rejection of the notion of a soul is a cardinal principle of Buddhism.

Not all humanists agree withe proposition H5. Some would argue that it is the moment of birth that is the starting point of a new being while others will agree with the Buddhist position that conception should be the start of life.

H6. Humans do not have a right of dominion over animals and the environment, it being recognized that humans along with many other species of animals do change their environment by their very existence.

This is a cardinal principle of Buddhism. What H6 asserts is that the Biblical right extended to humans to exercise " dominion" over animals and even nature is not a human right at all. To the Buddha all forms of life were entitled to exist, and humans should respect this right of existence.

H6 should not be taken as a proscription against modifying the environment. Any species, human or animal, has to make certain modifications in the natural environment to accommodate its basic living requirements. What the Buddhist principle asserts is wanton and deliberate destruction of animal life and ecosystems is not an automatic right of humans. In this respect Buddhism goes much further than humanism does in the area that is now described as ecological conservation and responsibility.

H7. Children shall not be subjected to physical and mental abuse, nor to religious or political indoctrination by parents or others. The rights of children should be codified in a charter of children's' rights.

Buddhism recognizes that parents and elders have a responsibility towards their children and vice versa. The Buddha did not institute a right like Baptism or the thread ceremony of Hinduism under which children who are not really aware of what is taking place is inculcated into a religion. The Brahmanical customs under which children were initiated into religious life, even though less intrusive that the later Judeo-Christian- Islamic customs, were frowned on by the Buddha. Of course the Middle Eastern religions introduced the sexual mutilation of children (circumcision) and this is still done by Jews and Muslims. Christians gave up the practice only after considerable debate.

There is no formal charter of Children's' Rights in Buddhism. For that matter there is still no such Charter which is internationally recognized. The biggest impediment to the creation of such a charter will come not from Buddhists but from Christians who will not give up their right to automatically impose their religion on their children.

H8. Civil laws should be arrived at by a collective consensual process and should promote the common good, not the tenets of a particular religion or philosophy.

The Buddha was against despotic rule by tyrants and argued that rulers should be bound by rules of conduct based on Dhamma or moral law. This may not have been adhered to strictly then or now, but it has remained the standard for the ideal Buddhist king. When the news of the campaign planned by the Magadhan king against the Vajjians was brought to his notice the Buddha said so long as the adhered to consultative processes they would not come to any harm. The Buddha organized the Sangha on democratic lines. Thus democratic processes, subject to moral law, would have been the Buddha's preferred way.

H9. Special privileges should not be given to any group on the basis of religious or philosophical belief, nor should any group be discriminated against on such grounds like race, ethnicity, beliefs, gender, age, etc.

The Buddha opposed the suppression of alternative views. Instead the Buddha repeatedly urges that what others have to say should be listened to and errors pointed out. Discriminatory conduct which leads to the detriment of the well-being of others would clearly fall under the category of wrong action. Buddhism is a universal religion and it was accessible to all people and to men and women in an equal manner

H10. There is no conclusive evidence that life exists after death so humans should exert themselves primarily in terms of their present life.

This is the rule that might appear to conflict most strongly with the Buddha's views. The Buddha argued that post-mortem existence was not only possible but was in fact the rule. It is only in the case of liberated persons that death is the final end.

We shall examine the Buddhist theory of rebirth in a later section of this essay. But note that H10 merely asserts that there is no conclusive evidence of post-mortem existence and many Buddhists will agree with this.

H11. The following ethical principles should in general be promoted:

  1. Abstaining from conduct injurious to life and the physical well- being of persons.
  2. Abstaining from the theft of property of others
  3. Abstaining from sexual violence and misconduct
  4. Abstaining from falsehood, fraud and deception
  5. Abstaining from drunkenness, narcotics and mind bending drugs

This principle states in a somewhat weakened form the five precepts of Buddhism which the Buddha said should govern the conduct of ordinary persons. More rules were laid down for those who wanted to follow a stricter discipline including over 200 rules for monastics. Consider briefly these five rules.

The first rule in the Buddhist code is more extensive that humanists are likely to agree to and excludes injury to all forms of life, including that of animals. The rule about theft is made difficult by how property could be defined. In Buddhism this rule is usually is stated as not taking that which is not given. This avoids the conundrums associated with the definition of property which will be a problem for humanists. The third rule in the Buddhist formulation excludes sexual relationship based on force, lust, etc. Sometimes it is equated to a rule of monogamy. Buddhism does not say anything special about sexual orientation in the case of laypersons. The fourth rule is encompassed in the Buddhist notion of " right speech" . It is taken as something more than the mere abstention from the things stated here in the humanist version. The last one is important for Buddhism because of the place it gives it gives to the culture of the mind through meditation which cannot be done if the mind is distorted by substance abuse.

The fact that the five precepts of Buddhism can be extended into the modern context shows that the Buddha's ethical precepts do not become dated simply by the passage of time. The ethical precepts of Buddhism do not contain any specifically religious requirements. Thus the first of the Ten Commandments of Judeo-Christianity is purely a religious requirement completely divorced from any ethical basis.

H12. Where a need is perceived to celebrate Rights of Passage these could be done in a nonreligious context.

Unlike other religions the Buddha did not require his followers to make events associated with the life-career of persons (birth, marriage, death) into religious rites. Many of these are treated as purely secular matters without involving any monks or religious officials. This is also the case with practice in Buddhist countries. If any event is treated with some religious ceremony it is death. But even here the ceremony is for the benefit of the living not of the dead person.

It must be mentioned that Western humanists too seem to detect a need for celebrations to mark birth, marriage and death. This is perhaps a hang-over from their Christian past. Christians celebrate birth because they think that it is a gift from God, marriage because they think that it is a sacrament, but what do humanists who devise secular equivalents to these see in them? Buddhists are more logical in this regard and do not see anything in particular need of religious celebration in any of these events.

5. The Principal Differences

The examination of the principles of secular humanism in the last section has shown that there is broad agreement with Buddhism on these principles. In this section we shall consider two principal differences between the two systems.

The rebirth hypothesis

The aim of Buddhism is to end the suffering (dukkha) which it sees as the essential feature of the human condition. Humanism has a different goal, viz. to defend basic human rights, promote a secular ethical system, and to free individuals from the control of institutions built on supernatural religion. While humanism considers the normal span of an individual's activity to be the term of his or her natural life, Buddhism has a much wider perspective and considers the life-span of an individual to be a single episode in a much longer story. This the first major difference between the two systems.

This aspect of Buddhism has been called the re-birth hypothesis (or more technically the sansaric hypothesis). It could be briefly described as follows. An individual consists of five components: one is the physical basis, three are psychological (feelings, perceptions and consciousness) and the fifth is something unique to Buddhism. It is called sankhra (volitional formations) and consists of a record of an individual's deliberate actions called his or her kamma [karma].[Note 10]     None of the five components are identified as a soul (tman), the express denial of which is one of the principal claims of Buddhism. All five are subject to constant change and on physical death all components except volitional formations vanish, this last component surviving just long enough to condition the birth of a new individual. [Note 11]     Only in reaching full enlightenment is the re-birth process completely cut off.

The Buddha does not give any more detail about the re-birth process, e.g. relating to the physical mechanisms involved. Neither is an objective proof of the rebirth process given. The Buddha realised that many people may not be able to accept the rebirth hypothesis merely on the basis of his sayings. Thus the principal claims of Buddhism, e.g. the three characteristics of existence, the four noble truths, the eightfold path, etc. do not depend on whether the rebirth process is true or not. They would apply even if humans have only one lifetime as materialists, sceptics, humanists, etc. believe.

The dispensation which the Buddha gave from strict belief in the rebirth and karmic hypotheses is contained in the Klma sutta to which reference was made earlier. Here the Buddha distinguishes four levels of confidence in the teaching, the first two of which are of relevance here. The first level involves acceptance all claims including those for which no proof is given, and the second level allows for some scepticism. In this sutta the Buddha says:

" If there is the other world and if there is the fruit and result of good and bad deeds, then there is reason that I shall be reborn into the sate of bliss, the celestial world, on the dissolution of the body, after death". This is the first confidence that he [the Buddhist disciple] attains.

" If, however, there is no other world and if there is no fruit and no result of good and bad deeds, then I shall myself lead here a happy life, free from enmity, malice and suffering in this very life" . This is the second confidence that he attains.

It will be seen that the second level of confidence of which the Buddha speaks is precisely what humanists assert. They do not believe in another world and they do not believe in the law of Kamma. Thus what they aspire to is in the Buddha's terminology the second level of confidence which does not require a belief in some kind of existence after death, nor the belief that all actions good or bad have consequences (if not in this life then later on). Furthermore the second level of confidence can be attained by the Buddhist disciple. Thus a Buddhist can be a humanist without violating the requirements laid down by the Buddha.

It must be mentioned that some Buddhists do not interpret karma and rebirth as requiring re-birth and post-mortem existence. In fact they give a different interpretation to samsra by considering the one life we are all familiar with as constituting the entirety of samsra as proclaimed by the Buddha. According to this all fruits of karma take place during the single physical life-time and any unexpended karmas being effectively written off. Re-birth is seen as a constant process that takes place during one's lifetime where individuals continuously change in response to physical and psychological events. Each such transformation can be seen as a " re-birth" . However this interpretation of karma and rebirth does not have general acceptance amongst traditional Buddhists, although it is popular amongst many Western Buddhists. It is difficult to cite passages from the Buddhist texts where the Buddha had advocated such a radical interpretation of the doctrines of karma and rebirth.

We may conclude this discussion of this point by considering another conundrum. This is how the notion of re-birth could be reconciled with the doctrine of anatta or the absence of an abiding essence or " soul" . The question has been put that if as the Buddha claims individuals do not have a soul then what is it that is reborn? This question is not directly dealt with by the Buddha, but the question naturally confronted the earliest Buddhist philosophers. The answer that is generally accepted amongst Theravada Buddhists is the answer that was given by philosophers like Nagasena and Buddhaghosa quite early in Buddhist history. This is summarized by Buddhaghosa's reply to the question whether the person who has died is the same as the person who is re-born. His reply was: " he is not the same, yet not another" (na ca so na ca a¤¤o). This asserts that no person is continually being re-born but there is a stream of karmic cause and effect which changes all the time. [Note 12]    

Mental Development

The second important difference between Buddhism and humanism lies in their views on what constitutes mental development of a person.

Humanists have looked upon secular education and the use as the scientific method as the only way in which the mind of man can be developed. They cite the progress in the sciences and consider that a proper education should inculcate the ability to reason and analyze. The creative aspects of mental activity (literary and artistic ability) are not discouraged or denigrated, but " creativity" should not be an excuse to advance irrational and indefensible ideas. Indeed a major activity of humanists is to cleanse the educational curriculum of irrational elements which tend to promote dogmatism and entrench the religious view.

Buddhists would agree with humanists in promoting a proper education for all, especially for children whose developing minds should be protected from religious or political indoctrination of all kinds. However Buddhism argues that true mental development must also involve that kind of training of the mind which is generally referred to as meditation.

Meditation as generally understood in the West is not what is encountered in the Buddhist texts. Meditation in a theistic context usually involves some adoration the deity or some form of " silent prayer" . This is the kind of meditation that some Christian mystics (like St John of the Cross) have used; it is also the basis of Sufi meditation in Islam. They are part and parcel of the theistic approach is in fact an alternative way of adoring God to that undertaken in traditional churches and mosques. This approach has sometimes been referred to as " mysticism" and humanists have generally opposed it.

The Buddha too was opposed to this kind of mysticism which he saw amongst his contemporary Upanishadic teachers. However the Buddha felt that some kind of meditative reflection was useful in the training of the mind. The last two components of the Buddha's path incorporate this positive contribution. These two components are mindfulness (sati) and concentration (samdhi). These are not mystical processes. Mindfulness is being completely aware of what you are doing; concentration is the development of insight into the true nature of reality, particularly recognition of the three characteristics of existence both in oneself and in external persons or events.

One reason why the Buddha put so much emphasis on mental development (bhavan) is seen in the failure of theistic as well as of secular ethics. These ethical system often lay down a set of rules (" Thou shall not murder" , etc) but there is no technique by which persons can actually be trained (or train oneself) to do these things. They are looked very much like the laws on the statute book. The approach in the latter situation is to set up a police force to catch those who break the laws and then to try and punish them hoping that it would deter others. In the religious arena too some kind of ecclesiastical police did exist in Christianity in the past, and still do in some Islamic countries. [Note 13]     This has led to instances of people being burnt, stoned, drowned, tortured, etc. for infringements of religious dogmas or ethical rules based on them. However the theory of deterrence has been discredited and many crimes have been committed in punishments based on this theory. While the worst horrors have been alleviated in modern times (for which the humanists can claim some of the credit) this remains a potentiality within theistic religion.

In Buddhism the method by which the Buddhist precepts are encouragement is by promoting meditation. The Buddhist meditator can control the impulses which lead to infringement of ethico-moral precepts. This provides the principal justification for the Buddhist view that formal education alone is not sufficient and that the mental development brought about by meditation is a necessary requirement if people are to be equipped to lead a moral life.

It must however be mentioned that some Buddhist sects, schools and teachers have put an emphasis on meditation which is not supported by the sayings of the Buddha, very often making all other elements of the Buddhist path subservient to it. Such traditions like Zen and " forest" traditions in Theravada come to mind. This kind of fixation on one aspect of the path can have a distorting effect and end up in mysticism, which is the opposite of true mental development.

6. Problems in Buddhism

We must now consider explicitly what may be considered the outstanding problem areas in Buddhism, as seen from the humanist perspective. These relate in the main to " supernatural" elements contained even in the earliest texts, and to some later popular developments relating to worship.

Many humanists do not consider Buddhism to contain supernatural elements such as those against which Humanists stand. Thus Paul Kurtz, perhaps the most prolific modern propagandist for humanism, has written: " One cannot find a doctrine of the supernatural in Buddhism, at least as understood in religion" . [Note 14]     While the view expressed by Kurtz here is substantially correct nonetheless the question of the supernatural in Buddhism must be explicitly tackled.

We have dealt with the doctrines of rebirth and kamma in the previous section and whether one agrees with them or not they do not come within the ambit of what could be considered as belonging to the supernatural. Here we shall look at two kinds of phenomena frequently referred to the Buddhist texts which could be considered as falling into the province of the supernatural. These relate to the existence of non-human beings and the possibility of acquiring supernormal powers.

Non-human beings

Buddhist literature often refers to various categories on non-human beings. These beings are supposed to inhabit various planes of existence recognized in Buddhist cosmology. Some 32 planes of existence are recognized in some Buddhist texts, and of these we have direct experience of only two, the human plane and the animal plane.

The other planes are considered either as being more desirable than the human plane in terms of sensual comforts (usually referred to as " heavenly" planes), or even worse than the animal plane involving even greater degrees of discomfort (sometimes referred to as " hells" ). The inhabitants of the heavenly planes are usually referred to as devas (generally translated as " gods" ) and there is usually more reference to them than to the denizens of the lower planes of existence. The devas as gods invites comparison with the mythological gods of pre-Christian Europe (the Greek and the Scandinavian gods, for instance). But unlike these gods who are specifically named beings, often constituting a pantheon, with some ability to interact with humans the devas of Buddhism refer to a genre of beings who are much more numerous. Also the devas of Buddhism do not have a permanent tenure to that status, and when the karmas that led to their birth in deva domain are exhausted the could revert to some other plane, even that of humans or animals. This is not generally the case with the gods of other belief systems who are permanently in a different category to that of humans.

The question is: do devas really exist? In the Buddhist texts the devas are represented as visiting the Buddha, usually early in the morning, and asking him various questions in reply to which the Buddha would deliver a discourse or make a pithy comment. Very rarely are devas shown as conversing or interacting with humans. Of course the Buddha does not recommend praying to devas as they have no power over humans. Some people to tend to look at the devas as purely literary devices merely providing an opportunity for the Buddha to make some kind of pronouncement.

But the matter-of-fact way in which devas are referred to, and the fact that they have been readily absorbed into popular Buddhist culture, means that they cannot be entirely dismissed as a literary device. One way of looking at devas is to put them into the category of extra-terrestrial (ETs). Like an ET a deva comes from a different world but they may live for a time on earth. Of course there is no conclusive evidence for the existence of ETs but there is nothing in science which would preclude the existence of life outside earth.

The important thing about devas is not whether they are fact or fiction but whether they are essential for human conduct. The answer is clearly no. The destiny of humans are shaped entirely by themselves, not by devas. This is where the deva concept in Buddhism differs radically from the God concept of theistic religion. There God if he really does exist cannot simply be ignored just as a deva can be ignored.

Some people interpret the different planes of existence not a separate locales located somewhere in the universe but as meditative states that can be achieved in this very world. Indeed some of the 32 places are clearly meditative absorptions that can be achieved through intense concentration (call jhana or trance in Buddhism). In this usage devas are not ETs but persons who have achieved these jhanic states. According to this way of looking at this issue the beings inhabiting the lower planes are actually humans in extreme situations of insanity, suffering or despair. While this may be a comfortable explanation for the logically minded unfortunately not all references to devas and the sub-human categories of beings can be brought within it.

Thus we have to conclude that the non-human beings of the Buddhist texts do refer to a category of beings for which no scientific or empirical proof has as yet been adduced. However as they are of minimal consequence for the Buddhist teaching they may be safely ignored without dire consequence.

Super-normal powers

Buddhism also claims that certain states of spiritual attainment involve the ability to have super-normal powers (iddhi or abhi¤¤). We shall refer to these as " magical powers" . Examples of these magical powers are the " divine eye" (seeing things not visible to ordinary humans), " divine ear" (hearing things outside the normal auditory range), the power of making oneself manifest, the power of adopting another form, the power of letting proceed from the body another mentally created form, the power to remain unhurt in danger, the power of levitation, etc.

These powers should be capable of experimental verification. Usually these powers are attributed to persons of great spiritual attainment (arahants) or to the Buddha himself. The extreme rarity of person who have attained to these spiritual levels, at least in the modern world, make it extremely difficult to verify them.

Another point about supernormal powers is that they are specific to the person actually obtaining these powers. The powers do not usually involve any ability to create ex nihilio as is claimed for God. Nor do they normally involve any interference with the normal laws of physics. [Note 15]     Some of them are largely an enhancement of normal human powers like hearing or sight. They are made acute and could be compared to an athlete training himself to carry weights which normal human cannot or to run faster than is within the normal range. The only difference is that while athletic powers are obtained by physical exercise the spiritual powers are said to be obtained by mental exercise.

Also some of these powers are simply powers to create an illusion on others, e.g. the power " spiritual creation" (manomayiddhi). As we know empirically illusions can be created by magicians or by hypnotists using powers which would not normally be considered as being abnormal. The supernormal powers of Buddhism may well belong to this category.

Thus while the two categories of supernatural phenomena we have considered, viz. the existence of non-human beings and supernormal powers do create problems for a humanist they do not belong to the core of the Buddha's teaching. And of course any Buddhist who does not believe in them can reject them using the grounds which the Buddha has proclaimed in the Kalama sutta.

Faith and worship in Buddhism

Popular Buddhism in Asia and sometimes when introduced even in the West has developed a kind of faith and worship which cannot be justified on a strict reading of the original teaching of the Buddha. So while this would not be a problem to the way we have defined Buddhism confining it to the original teaching of the Buddha a few words on the subject may not be inappropriate.

Faith in Buddhism is a misapplication of the notion of confidence (saddh). The confidence which the Buddha expected of his followers was a confidence in his teaching based on a rational evaluation of that teaching and on personal experience. It was never expected to be a kind of blind faith as for instance in the Christian faith in God. It is however a fact that many Buddhists particularly in popular practice equating the confidence which the Buddha spoke of into a kind of reasoned faith.

It was a small step to move from faith of this kind into worship. Much of the devotional activities of popular Buddhists consist of various kinds worship. This shows the urge for a religious experience in the mind of man. It must be remembered that despite all the advances in Western science the bulk of the people there still rely on religious faith. Amongst Buddhists this yearning for religious faith has seen the rise of many kinds of worship.

Sometimes the worship has been derived from other religions like Hinduism. In the latter an important part of the practice is related to making ritual offerings to its various gods. These offerings may consist of food, articles of personal use, even money. Some Buddhists have burrowed the practice of pujas from Hinduism and the offering of trays of food before a Buddha image is a practice seen in many Buddhist temples.

The ubiquitous Buddha image can also be seen as a reflection of this trend. The original Buddhists did not make any representation of the Buddha in painting or sculpture, but this faded away, some claim under Greek influence following Alexander's invasion of India. Whatever it be the Buddha statue took off, and some people still hold on to it as an object of worship. Originally it was merely an object of meditation to remind people of the teaching of the Buddha.

7. Some Problems in Humanism

Just as Buddhism, at least in popular practice, has created problems for the humanist, so too has humanism created its own set of problems not only for Buddhists but also for humanists themselves. Humanism differs from related movements like rationalism, scepticism, free-thought and atheism, in that it claims to offer an ethical alternative to religion based on human experience. It is here that it has encountered its greatest problems. We shall consider this and some other problems in this section.

Humanist Values

Since humanism seeks to develop a value system, including ethical norms, we may consider how successful it has been in this task. The following statement issued by the American Humanist Association and published in each edition of its journal The Humanist can be taken as representative of the general approach of humanism to this question:

Free of supernaturalism it [Humanism] recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values - be they religious, ethical, social or political - have their source in human nature, experience, and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.

As an abstract principle there is much to commend it but the difficulty comes in defining the exact content of the value systems that are referred to. We may concentrate on the " religious" and ethical values that are mentioned in this statement ignoring for the moment the political or social values which are likely to be even more contentious.

Despite a great deal of discussion on the need to develop a value system that is based on human reason and experience there is very little effort put into developing a code of ethics on which most humanists will agree. Indeed any attempt to create a systematic set of ethical principles is likely to lead to serious disagreements amongst humanists. In principle H11 of Section 4 of this essay the present writer has advanced a set of minimal ethical principles. Such statements are generally avoided by most humanists. This makes the task of finding what the basic ethical postulates of humanism are an extremely difficult task. [Note 16]    

Because of this failure to agree on general ethical principles most efforts of humanists in the ethical realm have been devoted to promoting specific ethical issues. Amongst such specific issues that are popular in the current debate are euthanasia, abortion of demand by women in the early stages of pregnancy, population control, genetic engineering, homosexual rights, etc. Now each one of these issues involve basic ethical principles and unless these principles are first established any position taken on these questions must have a certain degree of arbitrariness.

Another question which humanists have to resolve is whether their value system is going to deal with absolutes or be contingent on the specific situation. The quote given earlier seems to suggest that relativism is the favoured solution. [Note 17]     However the adoption of a relativist position may lead to contradictions, e.g. advocating one policy in a certain situation and its opposite in others. In this connection it is interesting to note that some humanists are supporting what is generally called " post-modernism" . This term has different meanings and is generally used to denote a completely value-relative position. Indeed some post-modernists even give equal credibility to theism as to atheism. It is clear that support for post-modernism of this kind can even knock down some of the basic principles of secular humanism.

Dependence on Christianity

As we have seen modern Western humanism arose from the background of Judeo-Christianity. Even though it ultimately took a different stand some left-overs from its Christian past seem to linger.

In fact many of the practical ethics of humanism seem to be barely disguised echoes of Christian values. It has been claimed that humanists are " motivated by compassion" but what it means by compassion is really what Christianity means by " love" . [Note 18]     Compassion is not a virtue generally promoted by Jesus compared to his constant urge to " love" . Humanists do not generally use the word " love" and this is probably related to this belief that humanism should be an alternative to Christianity. But the compassion they promote is barely distinguishable from Christian love.

The ethical precepts which humanists promote, when they rarely list them, seem to be derived from the Mosaic commandments. Some elements that are in the decalogue such as he first Mosaic commandment are ignored. But others like the commandment not to murder is taken over. But even here it is not an absolute, neither in the Judeo- Christian nor in the humanist versions.

Much of the humanist discussion on ethics concentrate on the issues in which it differs from Christianity (e.g. euthanasia, abortion on demand, homosexuality). Implicit in this in the belief that when it comes to the rest is agrees with Christianity. However no ethical position can be just taken over from Christianity or any other religions, it must be justified in its own right.

Atheism or Agnosticism?

Another problem for humanists is their attitude to God. On this question the three main philosophical positions are theism which affirms the existence of God, atheism which denies that such an entity exists, and agnosticism which asserts that both the two previous positions cannot be established by logical thinking and prefers to take a neutral stand allowing for the possibility that God exists.[Note 19]    

While many humanists disapprove the notion of a God not many move to a position of atheism and prefer to call themselves agnostics. The reason may be partly historical. Early humanists like David Hume lived at a time when it would have been dangerous to openly espouse an atheistic position. But agnosticism was permissible, hence they preferred to opt for this position. But this excuse is no longer valid. So the question remains why if humanism asserts the primacy of the human over the divine why humanists should take an agnostic position. Does this not involve a logical contradiction?

It may be practically impossible to disprove the existence of God if it is a pure invention of the human mind. On the same ground one has to be agnostic about the existence of the tooth fairy, on the existence of little green men on Mars, alien abduction, etc. The list could be endless. The scientific approach is that a proposition has to be rejected if it can be falsified. God is defined in theistic religion as a being endowed with at least three properties, viz. omnipotence, omniscience and complete benevolence towards his creatures. The old argument from evil asserts that the empirical evidence from the real world is that a being with all these properties cannot be reconciled with the existence of suffering by the creatures of God. This should refute the agnostic position.

The reason why humanists may favour the agnostic position may be also be due the Christian background from which it sprang. Buddhism on the other hand clearly takes and atheistic, even anti-theistic, stand.

The Primacy of Man

Some humanists affirm that man (humans referred to generically) has a primacy which exceeds that of other life forms, and even the environment at large. Once again this smacks of Christian thinking where God is said to have favoured humans above all other of his creatures, and indeed even of the environment which is there simply to serve humans. Buddhists in particular will disagree with this and regard that all life forms have an equal and natural right of existence which cannot be abrogated by the actions of human beings.

Today there is emerging an environmental crisis and humanists seem to be divided over the proper response to it. Some argue that human population should be limited even though there is strong disagreement how this could be done. Others argue that the standard of living should be reduced and if we go back to the standard of living of a century back then the threat to the environment from population growth would be reduced. [Note 20]     An active population policy like the one-child policy in China is rarely advocated on the ground that it violates a fundamental human right.

Sometimes a " modification of nature" right is given to humans but it is clear that such an explicit right can be extended to the complete elimination of important parts of the environment. Such a blanket right is not conceded by Buddhist ethics.

8. Conclusion

This brief essay has highlighted points of contact between Buddhism and Humanism as well as differences between them. It has shown that the core beliefs of Buddhism are fundamentally humanistic, and in certain respects relating to the lack of relevance of the God idea it goes even further than humanism which would be quite happy to take an agnostic position.

While the core propositions of Buddhism are verifiable, and indeed the Buddha asked that his disciples verify them before accepting them, there are some propositions particularly those relating to rebirth and karma which cannot be verified in a scientific manner (even though they cannot be disproved either). However the Buddha does advance a theory about the degrees of confidence that a disciple can exercise relating to Buddhist principles and it is possible to exclude the unverifiable elements by opting for a second level of confidence. On the reference to supernatural elements and the attempt to convert Buddhism into a religion based on faith we have seen that these either do not play a central part or are extensions of Buddhism to accommodate the demands for a popular religion and cannot be ascribed to the Buddha.

On the positive side Buddhism extends the concept of the training of the mind from formal education to the culture of the mind through psychological exercises particularly the cultivation of mindfulness and concentration. There is nothing equivalent to this in humanist practice. It provides a powerful tool to motivate individuals to do that which is deemed good, whereas both theistic religion and even secular humanism have to rely on the compulsive force of the law and the use of its sanctions as a deterrent.

We have seen that humanism too has its problems particularly in the identification of its set of values. To some extent its values are derived from the Christian religion which was the background from which modern humanism sprang. If this background is widened to encompass other philosophical systems which have evolved in other parts of the world it can only be to the gain of Humanism. An explicit consideration of the values inculcated by Buddhism can be very useful in this regard.

We have seen that both Buddhism and Humanism have problems in extending their belief systems and practices to the reality of the modern world. But because of the great deal of common ground between the two a dialogue between these two systems can be to the benefit of both. It is the hope that this short booklet would contribute to the commencement of such a dialogue.


[1] An exception to this statement may be Hinduism which is the most theistic of Asian religions. However Hinduism is not a uniform system and here are some forms which interpret God in non-personal terms. Modern Hindu revivalist movements liek the Hare Krishna and the Brahmo Samaj are heavily influenced by Christianity.

[2] Ancient Indian languages in which Buddhist texts are preserved are Fali (for Theravada) and Sanskrit (for Mahayana). The Pali terminology will be used here but where the latter is the better known it will be given in brackets. Sometimes the word agama is used to denote religion , but the term really means text .

[3] Not all sections of the Pali Canon are of equal antiquity. The first two sections on vinaya (discipline) and sutta (doctrinal discourses) are earlier than the third the abhidhamma (philosophical and psychological analysis). There is however no fundamental conflict between these three sections. Here we shall concentrate mainly on the sutta section of the Pali Canon.

[4] A comparison may be made with Marxism. When many people condemn Marxism it is the words and deeds of people like Lenin, Stalin, Mao-tse Tung or Fidel Castro that they refer to. However this is not fair to Marx who would have condemned them himself. Marxism has to be judged in terms of the writings of Marx, just as Buddhism has to judged in terms of the discourses of Gotama.

[5] We may mention What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula, The Buddha and his Teaching by Ven Narada, and The Buddha s Ancient Path by Ven Piyadassi as giving authoritative expositions of Buddhism.

[6] There were some exceptions. Christian theologians (St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, etc.) had used some ancient Greek philosophers (notably Aristotle) to support some of Christian dogmas, but in general the more critical and liberal aspects of the classical writings were suppressed.

[7] See e.g. Humanistic Theism by Gardner Williams in The Humanist Alternative (ed. Paul Kurtz).

[8] Some Christian humanists use the Christian dogma that Jesus was both fully God and fully human to justify their position. However the Christian claim that Jesus was both God and Man is an untenable proposition. God being so much superior to man in the Christian theology that a claim that somebody was fully both these cannot be tolerated.

[9] Anguttara Nikaya I, p.188. PTS Edition. This extract states oflly 5 of the 10 conditions which the Buddha said should not be the basis for a well-founded belief in some principle or doctrine.

[10] Just as kamma adds to the store of sankharas, so some consequences of accumulated kamma, called their fruit (vipaka) deplete the store of accumulated sankliaras. The sankhara component could be compared to the balance in an account, some transactions adding to the balance and other depleting it.

11 It was stated above in the discussion on humanist postulate H4 that according to Buddhism the conception of an individual requires three components: the ovum, the sperm and the sankhara of a deceased individual. The biological processes involved in the joining of the sperm and ovum are known, but there is no physical evidence of how the sankhara component attaches itself to the new embryo.

12.Not all schools of Buddhism have been content with this answer. Some posited the existence of a subtle being (Puggala) which not being the soul, nonetheless has some kind of resemblance to it. This school arose in the centuries after the Buddha s death but today there is no major school that subscribes to it.

13 With the religious jurisdictions declining some of these powers have been shifted to the statute book (e.g. the policing of blasphemy laws). Today the penalty that is held out to those who break the moral code is punishment in hell. But this has been made a mockery in Christianity because however much you may have sinned if you believe in the saviour the sins are forgiven, so there is no punishment.

14. Eupraxophy, Living without Religion (Prometheus Books, 1989) p.70. Very few humanists make explicit mention of humanism, and even Kurtz treatment of the subject is extremely brief.

15. An exception may be levitation which of course would negate the law of gravity (unless exercised in outer space). But levitation is rarely referred to in Buddhist literature, and the claim that meditation leads to the ability to levitate is not actually made in any Buddhist text.

16. In the publication The Humanists issued by the Humanist Society of Queensland a case was made for accepting the Golden Rule as the basic ethical postulate of humanism. This rule states that people should do to others what they would like to be done unto themselves. However this involves a dangerous degree of relativism and has been criticized by the present writer.

17. Thus culture is included as a source of humanist values. But usually culture includes religion and given that humanism generally contests values based on purely religious principles this may involve a contradiction.

18. It must be mentioned that love for Jesus was primary love of God, with love of your fellow human coming as a poor second. Furthermore Christian love is love with attachment, primarily attachment to God. Christian love should be sharply distinguished from the notion of metEa in Buddhism which is primarily a love without attachment. In contrast to a general lack of emphasis on compassion in Christianity in Buddhism compassion (karuna) is a primary virtue. Humanism would find more support for its general position in Buddhist rather than Christian ethics.

19.We may identify a fourth position on this question which could be terms anti-theism. This position is even stronger than atheism in that asserts that the very notion of God involves a logical contradiction. An anti-theistic position will rule out not only God as defined in the Bible but also some innovations introduced by some modem theologians.

20. Some humanists, for example, agree with some advocates of population restriction that the optimum population for Australia should be around 20 million (or even less). This seems to tacitly assume that Australians are naturally entitled to their standard of living which is many times above the world average. The irony of this is that the indigenous people are held to a standard

of living similar to that in third world countries.