Against the spiritual




  1. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not material; supernatural: spiritual power.
  2. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.
  3. Not concerned with material or worldly things.
  4. Of or belonging to a religion.
  5. Having a mind or emotions of a high and delicately refined quality.
Synonyms: religious, unearthly, apparitional, ghostlike, ghostly, phantasmal, spectral

When you say the word spiritual, what do you actually mean? What is it that you are referring to in the world or in yourself? If you can define it in other terms, what does calling it spiritual add?

Look at the definition of the word spiritual above. Now ask yourself how much of this should have a place in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. Is meditation itself really a form of spiritual practice? If so, I personally may no longer be interested in it. I believe that the language we continue to use to talk about Buddhism and meditation in the West is bound too closely to the original baby boomer Buddhists who took their strong Judaeo-Christian cultural roots to the once exotic East and mixed them together with Hinduism and a rather romantic interpretation of Buddhism to produce a muddled hybrid. We are still caught up in their experiences and understanding of Buddhism and this stickiness has been further complicated by the infiltration into western Buddhist discourse of language and concepts that gained prominent usage in the New-Age of the 80s and 90s. Surely it is time we moved on! Surely we can find a better term than spiritual to describe what we are doing when we dedicate a sufficient part of our existence to an examined life, informed at a significant level by some form of Buddhism, whether traditional or post-traditional.

The dictionary definition above is a contemporary one and some of you may argue that we can reclaim something from the term if we go back to its Latin origins where we will find the word spiritus, which means breath or soul. Of course words evolve over time and pick up new connotations and meanings and a metaphorical reading could include not just the immaterial but a more general sense of non-materialistic concerns. I guess that sounds reasonable but it is still excessively vague for my liking. Some may argue that in diverse readings the notion of soul would be synonymous with the breath as that wonderful little miracle that keeps us alive, but it is hard to imagine that the idea of some sort of essence isn’t involved in this mixing together. In Buddhism, that shouldn’t be an option for us anyhow. In secular humanism, that shouldn’t be an option for us either. Even if we were to restrict the term spirit to representing the breath as the animating feature of a human life, trouble ensues from the potential confusion and we could just simply say the breath. What value does the term spiritual add? And if it can add something, can it actually do so without subtle notions of escapism and a material-immaterial split sneaking in?

One of the questions I like to ask of spiritual practices, especially when undertaken in the context of a humanistic, secular approach, is; what is it I am actually doing? Do the words describe what is actually taking place? Or are they simply a label for something human and therefore shared and available to anyone that would be better served by everyday language or a straightforward alternative? When a word does not specifically describe what is taking place or is very unclear or seems to imply a lot of extra stuff, which, on closer examination is not present, I tend to think the word is not particularly useful and can be set aside. Don’t you?

One problem in starting this sort of undertaking is that people are rather attached to their identities and beliefs, and words have a way of representing and signalling strong identification. Spiritual people generally feel very spiritual and like to signal this by calling life, themselves, the world, their tradition, rituals and habits as spiritual, which I think just means special. When we feel our sacred position to be challenged, reaction ensues, especially because it’s like, you know, really, really important to us. A typical response is to split the world into binary oppositions and to place ourselves strongly on what we perceive to be the right side of the divide: a most unimaginative of places to stand, however. A prominent historical divide between spirituality and secularity in the West has been between the material and immaterial and this has its roots in the transcendence associated with the religions of the old male God, who continues to linger on stubbornly in our collective imagination.

I am no defender of materialism, of scientism, or of atheism. I think they are all fab but my view is simply this that if spiritual practices can produce something transcendent, then ultimately that thing, experience or whatever, is not truly transcendent and immaterial, it is simply an aspect of the material world we live in that we have not yet understood fully or that is being articulated poorly. In such cases, the not understanding is usually a symptom of ideological identification and an unwillingness to take apart the experience, set aside the symbolic value associated with it and render it human and definable in other nonspiritual terms. This is a form of practice and a very under-appreciated one at that, which is unfortunate, as it can lead to profoundly enriching forms of insight and critical self-reflection.

I’m also not a cynic, a nihilist or agent of meaninglessness. Furthermore, I believe that generosity is a far better spirit with which to approach the wonderful flailing of our fellow humans, who are, after all, just trying to make sense of our collective lot and understand our place in the world whilst attempting to invent a decent approach to interacting with each other. Religion has been a ubiquitous part of this ever since we started babbling and grunting our way towards civilisation. Pretty much all of life is ritualised. A major challenge for a contemporary re-imagining of practice that is capable of giving meaning and value to life whilst establishing meaningful rituals that unify people in a sense of purpose is to see whether it is possible to do so as a human practice that provides many of the positive rewards of religion without the identity formation and insertion into ideological identification taking place. Perhaps it’s not possible. I don’t know, but attempting to find out is proving to be interesting and a better option than abandoning all possibilities of human freedom and liberation for nihilistic self-indulgence.

The good news is that life is by itself magical. It’s incredible what happens in this world as it turns on its axis without ever taking a break. It is amazing that my body works and that I wake up in the morning after disappearing for seven or eight hours into an imaginary realm of my mind’s own making. All of this is going on in this body of mine and incredible and magical would be apt descriptions for many of these processes if not all of them. The same goes for nature which my body is part of. It’s absolutely incredible what plants do with carbon dioxide, how trees bend in the wind instead of breaking, how clouds form, how animals migrate, how minerals are created and transformed over vast expanses of time. These are all real world phenomena that can be accessed and experienced by anybody. There is no hierarchy here. There is no specialness. No elitist separation from the masses. No refined exceptionalism. No transcendence of the material. No separation of consciousness from the organic sphere we are embedded in. Seeing the world in this way may lead us towards a pan-psychic reading of the world but that does not need to be a spiritual reading either.

What’s more, I don’t see why gratitude, appreciation, love, tenderness, intuition, instinct, empathy, compassion, intelligence, affection, creativity, simplicity, contemplation, reflection, understanding, healing, emotional richness, openness, etc are associated with the word spiritual. What does the term add? Why are these facets of human experience locked away so often into an anti-materialist bubble typically defined as spiritual? The dichotomy between the material and immaterial is the stuff of the Abrahamic religions. If God is dead, and he/she/it bloody well should be, we should also abandon his legacy. Any form of spirituality has to be rooted in this finite Earth and set aside any notion of transcending it and it seems to me that the word spiritual is too tied up with magical ether type essences to do the job of labelling a worthy replacement for the escapism that characterises so much of contemporary spirituality.

The issue of transcendence is not going away and I would claim that the word spiritual is simply a stand in for transcendence. Read the definition from the dictionary above again if you disagree.

As time goes on and I leave traditional Buddhism ever farther behind, I find myself appreciating the spirit of Zen more. For among all the forms of Buddhism it has the greatest appreciation for awakening as an everyday act, as a mundane act, as a mirror of human normalcy. For me, a spiritual path is just that. It is a long roundabout way of returning to our normal, real-world existence without the family baggage and the ideological identification. Is the world re-enchanted as a result? I used to think it was, but perhaps I don’t any more and what would it mean to re-enchant it anyway? The world is or it isn’t. It’s up to us to deal with the is.

The human realm can be understood to be an elaborate theatrical performance. I also used to think that spiritual practice was concerned with learning to dis-identify from the dramatic events taking place in one’s life (read as transcend them). That it required us to dismantle the performance taking place, rise above the drama and entrapment in the scenery, give up memorisation and reproduction of the script verbatim, step out of entanglement in relationships, let go of attachment to the props and say no to obediently following direction from above. The idea of forever transcending such a stage was a mistake, but a necessary one to relieve me of the patterns of suffering and confusion associated with my upbringing, dehumanising ideological formation, reliance on reactive patterns and obsessive manipulation of events, whether in the real world or in my imagination, the overcoming of deep insecurity and the weakening of ignorance and its associated selfishness. In other words a longish process of healing and growing out of the unconscious enacting of the systematic flow of emergence and growth into the human realm and its formation of this being into a good unthinking subject. This presents me with a problem because it can be said that transcendence took place, defined within Buddhism as some sort of awakening or liberation, and yet, the last decade has been dedicated to returning to the material, not as something apart from the spiritual or in opposition to the spiritual, which is to say something immaterial, but as a form of reverse transcendence. I guess you could call it a descent.

I’m not interested in denying possibilities or closing my mind to spiritual claims. Rather, I am no longer interested in escapism and transcending my human life and do not believe it is at all possible anyway and I would tend to see spirituality to be in most cases a form of escapism, a practice of coping, or a social act designed to meet some social need. So what is it I am doing then with the Buddhist and Shamanic practices I continue to engage in? How about living well? Or is that too simple, too vague? For now, it will have to do. Learning to live is not the growing up stuff, the skills stuff, the knowledge stuff. It is the process that begins anew when I wake up every morning and consciously ends when I fall asleep. I have no idea if I will wake up tomorrow. I have no idea if the world will still be there. I have no idea if I will be conscious if either of those fails to happen for I am agnostic about what I cannot know. I do know that life is quite incredible by its very nature, disappointing to our dreams and fantasies, and that it is a miracle that this world exists and that I am capable of writing this and breathing all the way through to the end. Defining any of that as spiritual makes no sense to me any more.

I see practice as performance. I see practice as tidying up our emotional and mental excesses. I see practice as a means for relating to the world more effectively, creatively, openly. I see practice as the seeking of further insight and knowledge into anything that constitutes a worthwhile piece of our human world. I see practice as constantly being willing to greet experience as it occurs on its own terms. I see practice as a creative endeavour. I see practice as play and as ritualised forms of human creativity. I see practice as nakedness and exposure. There are other aspects too and a list would be very long before it were exhaustive.

None of the above is spiritual and because of this it may well be worth elaborating on further. I shall do in future posts and Stuart will join me on the next podcast for a doubles dive into practical aspects of a post-traditional approach to Buddhism and post-spiritual practice. Onwards and up…onwards dear companions.

Life is too short for transcendence.

P.S. For those who are new to the site and post-traditional Buddhism project, check out the accompanying Imperfect Buddha Podcast. It’s kind of wonderful


  1. Nice article. You say in your piece that you see practice ” as tidying up our emotional and mental excesses.” Could one not get this from martial arts, yoga and other practices? So why sit in meditation? Some of the best lessons I’ve had in self control and non- reactiveness have taken place in the dojo not the zendo.


  2. Do you mean tidying up our emotional and mental excesses? I can think of instances where I have practiced my martial art where I have seen how my overly aggressive or fearlful behaviour has not been helpful to me. However, I am just a beginner so I cannot say whether or not one learns from those experiences over time. I would like to think that the opportunity is there if one is willing to take it. In any case, there is so much to gain from martial arts (and other practices like yoga, tai chi etc) in the way of enjoyment, fitness, mastering a form and working with other people so it doesn’t necessarily matter. Personally, I think it has greater potential for self exploration precisely because it doesn’t come with the doctrinal baggage that Buddhism is beset with. I appreciate that someone might take up yoga with the view to getting a bit of stress relief, so there is some idelogical backdrop there, but I see that as a lot less burdensome than sitting down to mediate with the goals that you describe. I increasingly think that the understandings that you mention in your piece happen without our deliberate intention and sometimes in the most unexpected situations. To give you an example, I have started having Alexander Technique classes to deal with my ongoing postural issues – the very issues that have stopped me practicing my martial art. After the first class I found myself mentally in the same open space that I had often experienced when practicisng meditation. Now here is a practice that is focused on physical alignment and improved movement, which has within it the latent ability to provoke some quite profound understandings. That is not its intention and AT teachers aren’t therapists, but when you make people aware of the links between their mental thought patterns and their physical embodied experience you can open the door to some quite profound understandings. I guess what I am saying is that personal development is not the exclusive preserve of religions and spiritual practices and can be gleaned from all kinds of sources. Life itself is a pretty good teacher!


    • Hi David,
      That’s helpful and clearer. I agree fully with your last two sentences and would add that life itself is the teacher and we might describe all of the facets of life as its lessons.
      The reason I asked the question is because, although I write with a certain amount of certitude, I don’t assume to be wise or all-knowing and I also don’t like to give trite answers. The simple answer to your initial question is evident in your second comment and it’s a yes. I do think there are important differences between physical practices such as Yoga and martial arts and some meditation techniques, however, and one of them is the purpose that such practices serve. Many of the meditational benefits of the former happen in spite of how they’re taught or in addition to their main purpose; self-defence, discipline and character development with martial arts, relaxation, postural improvement and some sort of spiritual extra with Yoga. Because of this they can usually only take folks so far in the sort of practices I write about here, which are deliberate and sought out.
      One thing I try to do with my writing is break Buddhist practices out of the grip of Buddhism as ideology which allows me to see it as purely human activity. You can do that with Yoga and Martial Arts too, right? Then they become capable of doing all sorts of additional things, often though, no longer what they are sold as. To assume either martial arts or yoga does not carry ideological baggage would be a mistake in my view. MMA carries minimal ideological material as does BJJ but traditional styles such as Karate, Aikido or Kung-Fu and even more modern inventions like Jeet Kun Do are loaded with it instead, though I agree to a lesser degree than traditional Buddhism.
      You’re right that the way I have described practice in this text is indeed a huge undertaking for most folks. I think Martial Arts and Yoga could offer a valuable contribution to it and would be essential for some folks but I do not think they could do all of the work that’s laid out in this piece on their own. There are subtle forms of resistance and manipulation that are difficult to uncover and undermine without slowing everything down and facing stillness, inactivity, boredom and the accompanying desires to maintain the experience of selfhood, which certain meditation practices are very well suited to. It’s good to remember sometimes that this work has never been carried out by more than a tiny fraction of Buddhists anyway and even though interest in mindfulness etc has grown of late, that will not change now as the main benefit sought from it are therapeutic.


  3. Hello Matthew,

    Here is a quote from your article:

    I am no defender of materialism, of scientism, or of atheism. I think they are all fab but my view is simply this that if spiritual practices can produce something transcendent, then ultimately that thing, experience or whatever, is not truly transcendent and immaterial, it is simply an aspect of the material world we live in that we have not yet understood fully or that is being articulated poorly.

    Are you sure “WE” live in a “material world”? Putting our attentive loyalty to our direct experience, what exactly is the “material” part? We live in worlds of significance, neither physical nor spiritual but fully human, historical or karmic, not material. Take a closer look!


  4. Hi Matt, hope I resolved your concerns with the rewrite of “bad penny.” Thank you for asking for a clarification. My concerns should have been addressed directly here, and I apologize for being indirect in my communications. What I was trying to disagree with, my quibble, is with the notion that the current location of Buddhist praxes in the realm of the spiritual can be attributed to “baby-boomers” (personally I much prefer being considered a “hippy Buddhist,” baby-boomer having come to have such derogatory connotations) and then to the New Age 80s and 90s. From the 19th century, at the very beginning of when the idea of “Buddhism as one of the religions” was given form, Buddhism has (obviously) been treated as a religion, and all of the preconceptions about what that means have been imposed upon it. Since “New Age” itself, including notions of personal growth and fulfillment, goes back to the late 19th century, your attribution is correct, but it is the 1880s and 1890s that are foundational for conceiving of Buddhism as spiritual. Indeed, at that time the same distinction currently framed as the difference between being “spiritual” (no institutional commitment) and “religious” (having an institutional commitment), was framed as the difference between being “religious” and being “churched.” (One of the terms for the former category, was “unchurched.”) In other words, like its psychological interpretation, the spiritual interpretation of Buddhist praxis is there from the very beginnings of the presence of Buddhist praxes in Euro-American society. There simply was no alternative category with which to think about it, and the category of “religion” was itself being transformed into a general one applicable to many different “religions” found (or actually given form by the category) around the world. These things are really deep in the culture.
    thank you again, Richard


  5. HI Matthew,

    Even when you interviewed me, I was resisting the accusation that I am a materialist, though my views had not yet settled on an effective way of describing how I view the world. I found the way forward in two books I read in 2016. The first was “Analysis and the Fullness of Reality” by Richard H. Jones and the second was “The Rediscovery of the Mind” by John Searle.

    Searle makes the point that materialists are dualists. Just like dualists they divide the world into mental and physical before deciding that only the material is real. Idealists do the same initial manoeuvre, but decide that only mind is real; dualistic nihilists divide the world and decide that neither is real. Descartes was a realist dualist – both parts were real. Materialism and realist dualism are members of one category of ontologies in which the world is divided. The interesting contrast is not between members of a single category of thought, but between these modes and ones in which the world is not divided into categories of phenomena.

    I do not divide the world into mental and physical. I’m a monist, not a (dualist) materialist. This is my overall position on ontology or reality. But of course we experience the world in a number of different ways through different senses. And mind is only available as a subjective experience. My mental events are only visible to the outside in the form of events related to my body. In Searle’s view, the mind is ontologically subjective – its mode of existence is internal to our bodies in a way that only we can experience it, just the way that “digestion” is internal and only we get the nutrients from the food we eat.

    Or looked at another way there is an epistemological distinction between how we experience our own minds and the rest of reality. Very often we mistake experience for reality – this is the mind projection fallacy. When we make this mind/body or subjective/objective epistemology into an ontology we make an error. This error is called the “mind projection fallacy”.

    In this view the idea of “materialism” is not very interesting. But what can be interesting is the contrast that Jones makes between reductionism and antireductionism.

    The people we we call “materialists” (like Strawson) are often better described as “metaphysical reductionists”. Metaphysical reductionists hold that only reductionism is valid: methodologically, epistemologically, and ontologically. Metaphysical reductionists are often indistinguishable from materialists. Jones points out that reductionism is the approach of choice for issues of substance or what things are made of. But it carries with it the assumption that bricks are more real than houses. Atoms are more real than bricks, and ultimately what is real is only the quantum fields that make up everything. But are bricks more real than houses? This is true only if we take reductionism as an a priori standard for knowledge.

    It we take all the bricks apart and stack them in neat piles, where is the house? It has ceased to exist. This is the main consequence of reductionism – complex wholes cease to exist when analysed into parts. Complex wholes can always be broken down into parts. Thus the reductionist feels vindicated. But a house has a number of properties that a brick does not have. A single brick, or even a pile of bricks, does not provide the shelter that a house does. A house encloses a space and makes it more amenable to human life. That property only exists when the bricks are arranged a certain way, on strong foundations, and made into a coherent whole by cement. A house qua structure both exists and has causal potential. If it has these two properties then by most definitions it is *real*.

    The upshot is that reductionism reveals only half (or less) of the universe. The universe is *made of* quantum fields, but quantum fields are *made into* complex stuff that has properties which quantum fields do not have. Layer upon layer of emergent properties make structure the equal of substance in ontology. But, since reductionism destroys structure, we have to approach knowledge of structure via *antireductionism*. A biologist might learn something of the organism they study by dissecting it, but ultimately they need to see it alive and interacting with its environment to fully understand it. Hence, most biologists are methodological and epistemological antireductionists, even when their training forces them to be ontological reductionists. Neuroscientists are the exception. Most of them are metaphysical reductionists (and thus will never understand conscious states, because their methods destroy conscious states).

    So ontologically I argue for substance reductionism (monism) but also for structure antireductionism (pluralism). I’ve been calling this “substance-structure dialecticalism” because I see that the argumentative gestalt between substance and structure is the key to understanding reality. Any coherent account of reality has to deal with both substance and structure. Needless to say this makes most mainstream accounts of reality incoherent or at best partial.

    Traditional Buddhism is inconsistent. One one hand, if we think in terms of skandhas, it explicitly denies that wholes can be greater than the sum of their parts. On the other, rebirth requires that something “more” exists to make rebirth possible by surviving death. The history of Buddhist ideas on karma and rebirth bears witness to this dilemma. Buddhists oscillate between eternalism and nihilism. But we get all this precisely wrong. Wholes *are* greater than the sum of their parts, but beings are not greater in the way that would make an afterlife possible. And crucially, not all being is absolute being.


    • Hi Jayarava,
      That’s great and very clear. I feel suitably educated so thanks. I cannot argue either way on these topics myself but can only throw in my amateur observations and say that what you lay out makes sense, especially the critique of mainstream accounts of reality, which seemed to be the case to me, but I would never have known where to begin in expressing such a view critically. As the post above indicates, my main concern here is with transcendence as a principle that is deeply problematic and I wonder if it is possible to see dualisms at base as being yet more attempts at transcendence. The idealists transcend the material by stating all is mind, the genuine materialists by stating all is matter; either way something is dismissed or demoted.

      Ultimately, I don’t have to worry too much about such matters, but rather consider the effect on individuals that holding onto one of those positions might have. I am slowly imagining an integrative approach, minus transcendence of our material humanity, that can generously incorporate the complexity and unknowns of our finitude without the New Age all is one nonsense, i.e. “I am deep down everything and will be fully whole when I finally merge with everything…as an aspect of the true ME.” The ontology I have most affinity for at present is a process-relational one of the sort that Adrian Ivakhiv has been working on for some time. I think that is best for describing life on this planet but I assume a problem remains as it fails to account sufficiently for materially separate objects. Again, I say all this with a very high degree of ignorance about the technicalities of it all.

      My approach is always at base phenomenological but with critical inquiry accompanying it and the reason for that is exactly the mind fallacy you mention, which I certainly got caught up in during my travels through all things spiritual. It took me a while to realise that my old New Age/Buddhist/Shamanic/etc beliefs about inner-wisdom/truth were suspect and that they were symptomatic of solipsism, rather than the gateway to great truth. Not that our subjective experience is not important, rather it is to be treated as objectively as possible, which means applying critical thinking skills and healthy approaches that are aware of our ongoing irrationality, drives and impulses and so on and that expose our ‘inner’ world to the world ‘out there’. The debate about what we can know continues in this vain too but rather than get lost in what is truly objective or truly subjective it seems practical and reasonable to once again think of the two as idealised positions on a line and that we operate to varying degrees on. This allows us to be more or less objectively right in our claims and in the value we assign to experience without getting caught up in whether it is absolutely true or completely subjective.

      An additional curiosity with mind I hold concerns the general unoriginality of its content. I know we have centuries of arguments over epistemology and what we can know or not know but it seems reasonable to state that mind encompass not just thought but emotions and perception and that there is not as much originality as some of us might like going on in these separate bodies. There is leakiness occurring in the form of empathy, powerful shared emotions, and so on, which might be understood as indicating that we share some degree of subjectivity. Group think, run away emotional moments such as that among football fans or even hooligans strike me as illustrative of how we experience together at times and the boundary of what is mine and yours becomes difficult to recognise. It is not complete and total but rather an aspect of being. Phenomenologically speaking, there is a degree of shared subjectivity, which is an element of what might be understood as shared consciousness. For some, it can take over completely for periods, for others it occurs alongside a degree of distancing. What is ontologically real is debatable in these cases and I imagine you will have your own thoughts on this but the experience is powerful enough and occurs often enough to be warranted attention. This is a topic that will come up in the next podcast episode when we finish up our discussion on post-traditional approaches to Buddhist practice.


    • This is really a brilliant post, love it! So much that I’ve been trying to express myself of late. I’m not sure I’d agree with your opinions about Buddhism being inconsistent though. I guess it depends on one’s own understanding of the definitive vs “provisional” teachings of any given x-Buddhism.

      But yeah, great thoughts.


  6. And actually I agree with Richard K. Payne that the association with “spiritual” goes back a lot further than the baby-boomers, although they weren’t always helpful in this regard.

    Take the case of Caroline Foley. A gifted scholar of philosophy, psychology, and economics, who got interested in Buddhism and languages while at London University (one of her tutors was friendly with another tutor, Thomas Rhys Davids, who would teach her Pāḷi and become her husband).

    Caroline had three children but was especially devoted to her only son, Arthur. During World War I, Arthur joined the new airforce and became a renowned and highly decorated fighter ace. Being an officer his mail was not censored and he wrote harrowing accounts of his exploits home to his mother (these letter still exist). Caroline suffered crippling anxiety as a result. Then Arthur was killed in action in 1917 and she had a nervous breakdown, and suffered what we would these days call “depression”. Like many of her generation she turned to Spiritualism for solace. For the rest of her life she kept journals of “automatic writing” (these also still exist) in which she felt her hand was moved by the spirit of Arthur himself and by other spirits from beyond the grave.

    After her husband also died in 1923, this interest in spiritualism intensified. Caroline began to comb through the Pāḷi Canon looking at the teaching on ātman for hints that the Buddha believed in a soul – one which would fit with her experience of Arthur through automatic writing. In the process she developed the basic methods that we still use for making arguments about the relative age of parts of the Pāḷi Canon. But she produced a series of arguments which argued that “originally” the Buddha had believed in a soul and that this had been imperfectly excised by later Buddhists.

    Of course this was never really credible. She was clearly driven by grief. Unfortunately it rather tainted her reputation. She was one of the great pioneers of Buddhist scholarship in the West, but is seen as rather flaky. She had a Doctorate of Letters from London University, but is still usually referred to as “Mrs Rhys Davids”. It’s only the post WWI speculative work that is suspect. One of her very early articles on the economics of fashion is now considered a classic of its age. Her editorial and translation work on Pāḷi texts made a huge contribution – she was the first to tackle the difficult Abhidhamma works for example.

    So this is one of many ways that Victorians connected Buddhism with the word “spiritual”. Although I agree that there is a mismatch and never use the word myself these days.


  7. Matthew,

    The above definitions of spiritual could probably be contorted into something intellectually defensible, but the word itself seems to be disliked on its face by pretty much every smart person I know. It’s essentially a conversation ender for them. So, as a word, as a carrier of meaning, that makes “spiritual” pretty useless — at least when addressing skeptics and critics. Perhaps “contemplative” is better. It seems to bring fewer cringes to faces.

    In any case, really nice post. Needless to say, I resonated​ with much of what you have written here. Actually, I’ve resonated​ with most of what you’ve had to say throughout your blog, and I’m glad that you go to the trouble of sharing your views both here and on the podcast, because I’ve enjoyed engaging with them.

    There are, however, a few counterpoints to your views that I wanted to raise, if only to explore where they might take us.

    Firstly, regarding tone and objectivity. I think the case could be made that the tone of this Post-Traditional work of yours errs a little on the side of being uncharitable to Buddhism. Perhaps this is the influence of Speculative Non-Buddhism on it. Whilst the “Non” in Non-Buddhism was meant to disembed us from an ideological attachment to Buddhism without rejecting Buddhism, I can’t say that I’ve seen this type of objectivity actualised in the commentary. Much of the writing at the SNB site would be aptly described as a rejection of Buddhism, and the more-tempered-yet-persistent irreverence toward Buddhism that’s peppered throughout your Post-Traditional work makes this “non” position seem merely theoretical.

    It seems that we can talk and write about being objective in all sorts of interesting ways, but are we really capable of being objective when we’re not sufficiently charitable to our subject? Given that so little of the content at SNB and PTB is elevating of Buddhism, one might think ‘not’.

    It could also be argued that some of the claims in your posts are somewhat weakly supported. Whilst Buddhist scholars like McMahan and Peacock are occasionally referenced, there are quite a few occasions where generalisations are being made from what sound like your own personal encounters with credulous seekers. In making this point, I feel somewhat hypocritical, because I’d also be found guilty of generalising what I’ve perceived to be the narcissistic confusion of many meditators. (I also think we might ultimately be right in our generalisations.) But for the sake of thinking clearly, it’s probably worth us noticing when we’re extrapolating from anecdotal evidence.

    This brings me to the emphasis in your work on thinking, particularly thinking in the style of the humanities. Let me just start by making it clear that I agree with you that critical thinking is indispensable. And I think looking at Buddhist theory and practice through the lens of the humanities is both interesting and useful. But in your writing, there’s such an emphasis on thought, such a strong push-back against anti-intellectualism, that denigrating intellectualism starts to become warranted again. For instance, in your previous post you suggested the following ways of “getting practical” with PTB: One, think about how you define and understand your practice. Two, think about your motivation for practicing and take responsibility for it. And three, think about the historical and present-day contexts of your practice. Whist I would recommend people do all of these things, something seems missing here — and it’s more than just non-discursive actions.

    Perhaps it’s a deeper​ recognition of the limits of rationality. Perhaps what this work needs is an engagement with the cognitive sciences, so that thought itself can be contextualised and put in its place. Perhaps a different line of questioning is now in order. For instance, how do unconscious mental processes, i.e. our most fundamental intuitions, influence how we reason? How do experiences shape those unconscious mental processes? How does our sense of self and other improve or impede what we experience? And is such a frame of reference a necessary function of the mind/brain? These are questions that the humanities alone cannot answer.

    That’s one of the reasons I suggested on Twitter that you have a conversation with John Yates (Culadasa), a former professor of both neuroscience and physiology, but you didn’t seem very interested, citing an excess of ‘buddhemes’ in his speech. Again, this is where I suspect this “non” position is not really doing what it’s meant to. Because from an objective standpoint, what would be inherently wrong with using Buddhist concepts to communicate with a Buddhist audience? Couldn’t those concepts then be unpacked in post-traditional ways but in terms intelligible to such an audience? Well, that’s in fact what I think John does, which is to say he uses the off-the-shelf system of Buddhism for practical not ideological reasons. And I think a closer inspection of his work reveals​ this.

    To my final point regarding your views on transcendence and immanence. From what I’ve read, you seem to extol the virtues of immanence and are disparaging to the idea of transcendence, but I wonder if that’s in part because of the definition of transcendence you’re working with. It seems, in your view, transcendence is more or less synonymous with escapism and otherworldliness. But is there not another conception of transcendence we could use wherein transcendence means something like “going beyond ordinary limits; surpassing; exceeding?(1)” In my view, there seems scope for that kind of transcendence. And I would argue that critical thinking could actually be transcendent in this way, because in one sense, critical thinking is simply an effort to go beyond the ordinary limits of our human understanding, which includes our ordinary understanding of who and what we are. In fact, isn’t that what a credible and worthwhile conception of spirituality would be? But of course we don’t have it to call it that.

    (1) transcendent. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: March 21, 2017).


    • Thank you for your kind words and comments.
      You know, even the word “contemplative” is slightly bothersome. Everyone contemplates, reflects on this or that and it also sounds snobbish somehow! Anyway, I always return to the same questions when a key word pops up; what does the word add? What baggage does it bring along? Who does it allow me to converse with or not? What strategic or political value does the term hold? What does it allow a person to do or restrict them from doing? And, perhaps even, do I like it? This post does not rule out the use of spiritual of course. It’s perfectly fine if someone wants to rehabilitate it. It still comes out in my speech and I catch myself using it and looking at the big hole it leaves suspended in the conversation as I wonder what it is I am actually talking about. I still have no clue what to call the stuff I do that used to be labelled spiritual but there is a lot more room to move since I’ve started dropping it and forcing myself to be clearer, look for a better label, or simply own up to my ignorance.
      I agree with your statement regarding the SNB project and specifically its comment section. I think that you will find there is a more charitable approach on this blog, however, but not too much; Buddhism gets quite enough adoration. The prior post on getting practical with Buddhism offered reflection on how to approach any form of Buddhism in a critical manner as a practitioner and I have suggested throughout posts here that long-term, dedicated followers of traditional Buddhism could carry on as usual but apply some of the ideas that have been discussed here to expand their practice. That said, there is certainly a mild form of distaste for what we usually define as traditional Buddhism in the West because I think there is so much dishonesty going on in such groups albeit unwittingly and usually with perfectly good intentions. This topic will be addressed in part in the upcoming podcast episode on post-traditional approaches to Buddhism so we’ll see what you make of that.
      As for weakly supported arguments, sure, that is certainly the case. This blog is in great part my own exploration of the ideas I’m reflecting on, questioning, challenging and coming up against in my own practice, on and off cushion, so to speak, so I am in the posts and that is partly why I try to be rational and clear. This does mean that I am less concerned with the usual journalistic or academic standards for writing articles or essays as exploration is the drive behind writing. It also comes down to a question of time and commitments: I have little of the former and too many of the latter. I reread my own work from time to time and always find it wanting (as well as typos), but the ideas themselves are worth expressing and I figure that if I am talking nonsense, someone will hopefully point it out eventually.
      As for the list of questions you follow on with, they all look fine. It can be difficult not to sound dismissive on Twitter so I should say thank you for suggesting the guest. You have to appreciate that as soon as I see the linguistic clichés that accompany discourse on Buddhism, Mindfulness and their link to the Sciences, I can’t help but groan. One thing the SNB boys recognise is that the repeated use of Buddhist jargon is generally evidence that the person is still enamoured with Buddhism and likely caught up in notions from Glenn’s heuristic including Buddhist Sufficiency. It may be the case, as you suggest, that it is possible that John is using such terms playfully or for practical ends. I’ll take another look at his work and see what I think, but really, seeing yet another person use the catch phrase “Modern Science and Buddhist Wisdom” just turns me off completely. He’s missing the “ancient” which is good I guess but he does have the Buddhist name tag which you also felt a need to include.
      I have been asked to interview a few folks who all seem to be plugging the same connection between science and meditation and it always appears to me to be a sales gimmick or simply not that interesting. If the person is pushing Buddhism then inevitably the science ends up being in service to that push so that the claims are often stronger than they ought to be or utilised to justify the practice. This is partly why I lean more towards the humanities because, and perhaps this may seem odd to you, that is where you find religion and therefore traditional Buddhism and the possibilities of a human becoming more whole beyond simple materialism. I also hold a strong disinterest to the other aspect which makes up the new Buddhist validity triad: technology. Contrary to your concern that an over-dedication to rationalism may be the problem here, I am “deeply” interested in the whole person as a human and rationality is clearly but one small and vitally important aspect. Finally, whereas I can figure out a good deal of the philosophy, sociology and religious studies critique as a non-professional and therefore offer something that may be of worth, I have no training in the sciences and therefore could not meaningfully critique scientific claims that someone like John might make to back his other claims.
      I fully agree that the sciences and humanities should hang out more often, especially if we were discussing the anti-science faculties currently causing ruckus and I do consider the questions you wrote to all be important but if I am not particularly inspired by a topic I tend to invest my time elsewhere. This is not a copout but a reminder to anyone reading this that the blog and podcast are creative projects closer to a hobby than journalism or academia. We do our best to produce quality content out of respect for our potential audience but we suffer from the same challenges all non-pros face and this does tend to mean we go for the topics that inspire us most or are challenging us at present.
      Finally to transcendence. The main thrust behind my critique of transcendence comes from the interview with Glenn and subsequent reflection. I am still exploring the dichotomy between it and immanence. I’ve long considered Buddhism in the West to be beset by Christian concepts, much of it unrecognised, so that Western Buddhism very often ends up being a surrogate path for transcendence towards salvation with God becoming universal consciousness or Buddha Mind or something similar. The discourse of western teachers and their books are full of transcendent claims and a call to transcend disguised in other forms. This has great consequences and limits the potential of Buddhist practices and ideas to radically liberate. Again, all of this thought, these ideas, are work in progress. You may not know this, but Adrian Ivakhiv discussed the relationship between the two in his interview for the podcast a while back. I think that the idea of transcendence could be reformed to refer to lateral or horizontal transcendence where we go beyond our limitations and suffering as you suggest within an ontology that is relational and processional and he’s done great work on that. The term itself carries a lot of baggage and it is still difficult, considering our history, to transcend transcendence as a form of escapism. This idea of horizontal liberation (transcendence) is a topic that we will be discussing in our next series on meditation.
      Thanks again for your comments.


    • Hi Nelson. A couple of quick points. Much of what you are seeing as an uncharitability toward Buddhism, at least where the non-buddhism project is concerned, is simply the result of a necessary move in the methodology. A much later step is a re-description of Buddhism based precisely on Buddhist material. So, ultimately, the project is quite charitable indeed. This re-description is, how termed a buddho-fiction, or a non-buddhist fabulation. It is, moreover, formed from the decimated Buddhist material. So, as you can imagine, it will not appear charitable to a person who believes in the existence, necessary and sufficient, of Buddhism, or what we term x-buddhism in order to account for Buddhism’s chaotic historical/cultural proliferation. The need for that seemingly uncharitable first move is, in fact, evidenced in your very comment. That is, the first step requires depotentializing and defetishizing Buddhism such that the subject (or implicit reader) sees it as a simple inert material. Once he sees it that way, the path is clear for other kinds of work that eventually permits a charitable, if buddhistically unrecognizable, re-description. I’ll quickly add that it’s charitabilty has to do with its generic humanness. That’s a long story. To your question “what would be inherently wrong with using Buddhist concepts to communicate with a Buddhist audience?” I would say that the wrongness of doing so has to do with the very necessity of that first move I just touched on. That is, a “Buddhist audience” is one that has already decided on the meaning and value of those terms such that they (the concepts) can only ever be “Buddhist.” This does not bode well for knowledge. It is only indicates and further engenders subscription to a program. Finally, what you suggest for a sense of the term “transcendence” is much too weak a sense of the word. Don’t words like “learning,” “growing,” “changing,” “realizing,” and so forth accomplish what you suggest? Why not leave “transcendence” for something much more consequential?


      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Glenn.

        Let me just make it clear, as a skeptic who grew up with Buddhist parents (at times resentfully), depotentializing and defetishizing Buddhism preoccupied me for a long time. So, I feel like, for me, the first part of the Non-Buddhism project has been flogged to death. After a long circumvolution, it’s the second part of the project, the ‘re-description of Buddhism’, that I’m interested in — and it can be called whatever people want. For all I care, it can be called Christianity.

        But for what it’s worth, it’d be interesting to know how long you think a person needs to see Buddhism as “simple inert material” before they can re–engage with it both charitably and objectively? Surely, if a person were to perpetually reduce the content of Buddhism to inert material, that’s all they will ever find. Whilst we never have to fetishize Buddhism, at some point we do need to keep our eyes sufficiently peeled to see what diamonds lie in the rough — that’s if we’re interested in diamonds.

        As for your reply to my question, I must say I’m a little surprised to see you argue for the *inherent* wrongness of Buddhist terms. Does context not matter when it comes to language choice? What about the context in which I posed the question, which was rhetorical and for the purpose of illuminating an exception to a rule: the rule of Buddhemes? The assumptions you (and I) make about how Buddhists attribute meaning to terms might be right much of the time, if not most of the time, but I think it’s reasonable to expect that they will not *always* be right. Being unwilling to consider that possibility seems a little strange to me.

        To your questions regarding my description of transcendence. As I defined it above, transcendence requires that we go beyond *ordinary* limits, which is to say it requires the extraordinary or the profound. So, ‘learning’, ‘growing’, ‘realising’, etc. would not suffice as substitutes. Case in point: learning how to make a soufflé or realising where you left your car keys are rather ordinary examples of knowledge acquisition, but learning how to make fire as homo erectus or realising the implications of Special Relativity as Einstein are transcendent.


  8. Thanks Matthew. Again, I resonated with a lot of what you said in your reply.

    I didn’t mention this in my original comments, but I can understand that, like the rest of us, you have time and energy constraints, and these impose limits on your PTB work. I suppose, in pointing out the tenuous grounds underlying some of your arguments, I was attempting to create a bit of wriggle room in your views. But even if some mild distaste for traditional Buddhism is warranted, I think it’s worth remaining sufficiently charitable to Buddhism — not for Buddhism’s sake, but for our own.

    Perhaps it’s worth me stating explicitly that I feel quite indifferent toward Buddhism. For that matter, I feel quite indifferent toward the cognitive sciences, and certainly toward technology. To me, these are all just means to ends. What I’m actually interested in is ‘suffering and the end of suffering’, which was after all what the Buddha taught. In other words, I care about what is in fact possible when it comes to transforming ourselves for the better both individually and collectively. In pursuing this, it just so happens that the Buddhist system has seemed the most promising, particularly the one presented by John. But to extract what’s really worthwhile from Buddhism and integrate it with the rest of human knowledge, it seems we have to be sufficiently open to the possibility that there is something really worthwhile there. This is what I’m referring to when I speak of charity — and it’s quite distinct from adoration.

    I can understand that, to your ears, Buddhist rhetoric has become rather annoying and indicative of an unquestioned and ideological attachment to Buddhism. Having only ever dipped my toe into the waters of Buddhist sanghas, I probably haven’t had to encounter Buddhist cliches as much as you have, yet I too find them inadequate (if not irritating) 99 percent of the time. But then there is that one percent.

    This same principle probably applies to all the phony marriages between Buddhism and science. Whilst most of it seems suspicious to me too, there are bound to be some genuinely meaningful connections, and to those I think we should remain open.

    As for the emphasis in your work, maybe I’m mistaken in thinking it’s heavy on reason and rationality. I certainly haven’t read all your posts, and perhaps the ones that I have don’t best represent your overall views. However, I have listened to the podcast a fair bit, and the sense I got from there was that the path forward with Buddhism needed to be forged through critical thinking. That’s not to say you don’t give a nod to non-rational experience, because you most certainly do, but it seems that so little time is spent discussing the very real limits of reason. Hence the suggestion to have a discussion with a cognitive scientist or someone that could elucidate the relationships between intuitions, thought, the mind, and the brain.

    I can understand that, in having had no formal science training, you might feel limited in your ability to scrutinise the claims of a scientist. But I wonder if it’s possible to take a non position to cognitive science in the spirit of Laruelle? To my mind, the only difference between the claims of a philosopher and the claims of a scientist is the degree to which they are justified a priori or empirically. In either case, we can ask for reasons and evidence, and then we can decide whether to accept or reject those reasons or that evidence. Of course we have to be able of understanding the data, but a good communicator of science should be able to make that intelligible to a general audience.

    Just finally, I think cognitive science holds an important key to a Post-Traditional understanding of the goals of practice, specifically the goal of transcending the sense of self (‘horizontally’). This feature of our experience is now widely understood to be a cognitive illusion, but that illusion clearly isn’t dispelled through an intellectual understanding of that fact. What seems necessary is a shift in our fundamental intuitions, which are held unconsciously but shaped through conscious experience. All this seems to point to the fact that something other than thinking is necessary to go further with this stuff, but we need to figure out a way to talk about that.


  9. PS. if you end up taking a second look at John’s work, I was thinking this might be a good place to start:
    It occurred to me, after listening to the first talk in the series, that you and he actually have quite similar projects, so perhaps that talk might help bridge the gap.

    I was also thinking if you’d prefer a non-Buddhist voice on some of this cognitive science stuff, you might like Iain McGilchrist’s work — assuming you’re not already familiar with him. His background was in the humanities before he moved into medicine and psychiatry, so his style of presentation might be more to your tastes:


  10. I for one am pleased that Matthew takes a rational approach to this subject matter. Non-rationality takes us to the place of magical thinking where people end up believing in the possibility of life after death and full and complete enlightenment. I would also be suspicious about listening too much to scientists. It is amazing how blind so many scientists are to their own implicit biases – just look at the way eminent neuroscientists fawn all over the Dalai Lama. Every month there is some article making a link between meditation and low blood pressure, low stress and greater well being. But when you look at the studies, the sample sizes tend to be small and the controls poor. In fact all of the meta studies so far indicate that meditation has little impact on positive health outcomes. People would be just as well off going for a 20 minute walk, having a nap or staring out the window. So I really wouldn’t give much credence to what scientists have to say about spirituality.


    • David,

      I’m by no means suggesting Matthew take an uncritical approach to spiritual practice, only that he explore the limits of reason further, because it seems that there are important truths to be discovered there at the periphery. As it turns out, I actually agree with most of what Matthew has to say, perhaps so much so that I wonder if it’s really worth me splitting the hairs I split with him.

      As for the scientific research on meditation, like you, I don’t find the data particularly compelling. For me, what’s most interesting in cognitive science has little to do with meditation at all: mirrored-self misidentification, body transfer illusions, confabulation, implicit bias, backward masking, acquired savant syndrome, priming, etc; it’s the research into these phenomena that’s intriguing.

      If you want more of a sense of what I mean, you might want to check out these shorts on Michael Gazzaniga’s research into split brain patients:

      What’s compelling about this research is that there seems no reason to believe that the confabulations of the language-dominant left hemisphere are not occurring in people like us who have our brains intact. But because the stories of the left brain conform to our common sense intuitions, we don’t feel compelled to question them very deeply. However, once we consider that our current common sense intuitions could perhaps be wrong in some way, things get a bit more interesting.


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