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How would Secular Buddhists and other Buddhists who reject rebirth, interpret the following suttas, which describe:

  1. An ocean of tears?
  2. Everyone being someone we have know in the past?

From Assu Sutta (SN15.3):

At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said: "From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?"

"As we understand the Dhamma taught to us by the Blessed One, this is the greater: the tears we have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans."

"Excellent, monks. Excellent. It is excellent that you thus understand the Dhamma taught by me.

"This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans.

"Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a mother. The tears you have shed over the death of a mother while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

"Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a father... the death of a brother... the death of a sister... the death of a son... the death of a daughter... loss with regard to relatives... loss with regard to wealth... loss with regard to disease. The tears you have shed over loss with regard to disease while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

"Why is that? From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released."

I think that rebirth scenarios are usually explained as different states of mind e.g. animalistic state of mind for animal rebirth -- but how could tears the size of an ocean and everyone being someone that we have known in the past, be explained in this way?

This sutta seem to make sense only if rebirth was actually true.


Similarly from Mata Sutta (SN15.14-19):

At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said: "From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find... A being who has not been your father... your brother... your sister... your son... your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find.

"Why is that? From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released."

How would you explain everyone being someone that we have known in the past?

  • Is this essentially a duplicate of this question, and previously of this question? – ChrisW Oct 6 '17 at 18:48
  • @ChrisW No. There's also another question on the secular interpretation of animal rebirth. In each case, Secular Buddhists have a different explanation. Now these are 2 cases which seem to fall outside of those explanations. So I'm curious to see how they may be explained – ruben2020 Oct 6 '17 at 18:52
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    Rebirth scenarios are usually explained as different states of mind e.g. animalistic state of mind for animal rebirth, but how could tears the size of an ocean and everyone being someone that we have known in the past, be explained in this way? – ruben2020 Oct 6 '17 at 18:55
  • Challenging suttas for Noble Lokuttara (not 'secular') Buddhists. The easy way is to simply reject them as Buddha's words however I will attempt to examine them & provide a Lokuttara explanation later. I have family function to attend. Regards – Dhammadhatu Oct 7 '17 at 0:03
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What is secular Buddhism? Are we defining any Buddhism that takes the Pali canon as only a beginning to truth, with any additional changes or perceived refinements as secular? Or are we wading into the difference between ideologies that contain religion/spirituality/faith and ones that don't? (For example, AN 4.95 would certainly question the bodhisattva goal of the Mahayana as a primary concern of the path, both as a refinement of scripture and as a change in the spiritual nature of the path, but it would not be called free of religion/faith)

The Buddha presented core ideas that define Buddhism. The linking of truth to direct experiential observation, anicca, anatta, the Four Noble Truths including the Noble Eightfold Path are a good start (and all should at least agree that this is at least the spirit of the teaching, if not the exact letter).

What aspects of secular thought come up against and stand to strip away aspects of the teaching?

The idea that modern secularism is a-religious and ideology free (the two words are parallel imo - both aim to define a complete, but not necessarily accurate, world view) is inaccurate. The secular world is rife with ideology and people adhering only to their ideology. Killing people in the name of/for some convoluted form of representative democracy is little more than engaging in that time old dualistic ideology of 'us and them', as one example. Modern thought is rife with philosophical ideology/sophistry, and rejecting rebirth seems to often happen because of some past uncomfortable brush with similar-sounding ideas, as a personally ideological move, not based on reason or evidence with regards to the exact concept that is being rejected, imo.

In addition, whilst rejecting ideology in spirit, but keeping it in the letter, rational secular thought has forgotten reasonable faith entirely. Reasonable faith here being the limited faith that the Buddha asked for - the faith that is gained from direct experience of aspects of the teaching (say anicca at first), leading to a faith that as yet unreached/not-comprehended aspects of the teaching should not be abandoned solely out of personal opinion, at least not until one experiences the contradiction directly. Buddhism asks for no more than a faith in a less numerically defined hypothesis test. Currently though, secular Buddhism doesn't follow MN27.

More directly, there is no interpretation of 'an ocean of tears' that can be contrived to not mean what it means.. It would also be a contrivance. One could argue that rebirth as a whole was added later to the texts, or misinterpreted, but that beings arise spontaneously is part of mundane right view. It would lead to a deep suspicions of the post-Buddha Sangha (and all that follows really), if such core aspects of the teaching of the Dhamma were so easily changed.

'Everybody' being related to 'someone'.. at 'sometime'.. is a statement that both requires Self and dilutes Self (broadens Self to all conscious Samsara, or even all Samsara), as well as being too broad to provide any useful information: 'Physics is everything, everywhere' doesn't say much about physics, or everything, or everywhere. All this shows me is that making concrete, definitive statements about a process whose range of action is unlimited within Samsara leads to needing to make linguistically empty (tautological) or contradictory statements.

What can be accepted in place of Buddhist rebirth?

Buddhism without rebirth - rebirth as a basic process that runs through Samsara as a whole - is Buddhism with death within Samsara. Buddhism with death is Buddhism with dukkha.

Rebirth as a concept that, using Western language, is not completely deterministic (MN135, and just because otherwise anatta is out). It is also not completely in-deterministic (otherwise kamma, the law of the regularity of action (not unlike Newton's third), is out). Neither Self nor irregularity (arbitrary, a-mathematical irregularity) are evident within direct experience, on any scale. This is true for the secular scientific method too, as like Buddhism, it allocates truth in concordance with observation/measurement.

QM Interpretations offer the least convoluted scientific/secular take on what actuality is considered to be.. not by all people - Einstein famously thought QM to be an intermediary explanation of motion, hiding a completely deterministic one below its surface.. Evidence against hidden variable/local realism is a strong experimental argument for QM being the base laws of motion within Samsara.

Choose your secularist for what their interpretation is! Many lay science people fall towards the deterministic Multiverse hypothesis. It is also a neat one for imagery. 'An ocean of tears' is a perfectly reasonable volume to cry if approximately every 10^10^58 years I come back and experience my impermanence (the logic of impermanence breaks down as this is a deterministic interpretation of QM).

A secular Buddhist would have to accept the relational interpretation though (6% of QM scientists accept this interpretation atm, which given 500m/7.5bn people are Buddhist, just about covers the Buddhist portion!). There are no observer independent (self-referential) objects/properties, just like for Nagarjuna (wave function is not 'real' independent of observation). It is neither deterministic nor non-deterministic (what are you determining, on the whole, given anatta?). There is no unique history (which agrees with the ultimate lack of distinction/uniqueness within anatta, and the Buddha's discussion on the fact that the law of kamma is not completely 'linear').

Dependent origination is relational quantum mechanics, relational quantum mechanics is dependent origination. But unlike for the Multiverse interpretation, there is no simple 'ground', or world-line, from which to concretely conceive of 'one's own' rebirth path.

Finally, what is 'secular'? If secularism is moving away from observer independent ideology such as God or Absolute Time (not just religion in the narrow sense), then the Western scientific method is secular in that it consciously aims for its truths to be rooted in observation/measurement. But the Buddha's method is a scientific method too: a doctor who limits their truths to only those that can be verified observationally, is a scientist. Buddhism, being ideology free at its heart, is scientific and secular.

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I'm not saying that Piya Tan is a secular Buddhist but I wondered what he had written about these phrases.


In Time and Time Again -- Reflections on cyclic life he says of the Assu Sutta:

The experiential part of the Discourse on Tears (“weeping and wailing…”) is in ultimate language because the truth reference is a direct one, that is, the discourse relates personal experience. The imagery portion (“the four great oceans…”, “death of a mother…” etc) uses the conventional language of the world.

Looking for his definition of ultimate and conventional, in Language and Discourse he writes,

There are two rules of thumb for detecting whether the language used is conventional or ultimate. The first rule of thumb is that the conventional language consists of referents (the finger pointing to the moon), while the ultimate language speak directly of realities (the moon). Secondly, it is not too difficult to detect a passage using the Dharma language: they directly refer to the reality of the three universal characteristics of impermanence, suffering and non-self, or any of them.

Before that,

In conventional (or worldly) terms, we say that someone is “born of a mother.” But in Dharma (or ultimate) language, birth is really the arising of the notion of the ego, the “I” resulting from ignorance, craving, clinging, etc. This is clearly explained by the Buddha in the teaching of dependent arising.

And before that,

The language of the Buddha’s teaching—whether that of the Buddha himself or of the early saints— employ two levels of truth or meaning: the conventional (sammutti,sacca) and the ultimate level (param’- attha,sacca). The Buddha, the saints and Dharma teachers speak on these two levels, namely, the worldly or layman level, using stories, images (comparisons, metaphors, etc), dealing with causes and conditions, and with conventional reality, and the Dharma or spiritual level, using technical terms (impermanence, suffering, non-self), directly dealing with the path and liberation, that is, ultimate reality.

Perhaps some people read "oceans" as an image or metaphor, rather than as a literal/exact comparison.


He hasn't translated/explained the Mata Sutta (SN15.14-19) -- I don't know why he hasn't, and (who knows?) maybe he will later, but maybe that implies he finds them less important than other suttas whose translations he finished earlier.


Also, in a (now-deleted) comment someone pointed out that the answer depends on who "you" are in the suttas, i.e. on who "we" are to who the Buddha's message is addressed. If "we" are all humanity, the human race or species, then yes there have been a lot of past lives (billions), a lot of wailing.

When I considered this argument -- trying to understand the message without identity-view, by interpreting "you" as "everyone" -- I wondered why he'd say "not easy to find" instead of "impossible" -- why did he say, "A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find", instead of saying, "Every being has been somebody's mother".

That reminds me of the story of the Mustard Seed, where he sends Kisa Gotami looking, for a mustard seed from a house/family in which no one had died -- an impossible task, but he made her look, rather than just saying "it's impossible".

So maybe "not easy to find" in that context can mean just, "it doesn't exist" or "it isn't evident".

  • Needs a lot of "I-making" to answer such a question and possible has less release, or? For the Buddha such situation of debts was lesser to even further cause additions but to get a feeling of "enough" of that and in that way he taught. – Samana Johann Oct 6 '17 at 23:36
  • And as mostly ever teacher today, especially popular, Piya Tan is a secular Buddhist, has his aspiration bound to the world. – Samana Johann Oct 6 '17 at 23:44
  • Sorry, but, I don't understand the comment about "I-making"? Are you saying I included the word "I" in the answer too much? Or that the last part of the answer talked too much about self-views, and identifying people (as mothers, etc.)? I think that the next part of the comment ("possible has less release") is your saying that there's a good soteriological reason to interpret it literally, i.e. that a literal (not "secular") understanding is more likely to lead towards liberation. – ChrisW Oct 6 '17 at 23:47
  • The taking on the right object to gain release is what is meant by yoina manasikāra, proper attention, Nyom Chris. – Samana Johann Oct 6 '17 at 23:53
  • yoina manasikāra explains you're thinking that "to answer such a question" was unwise reflection, for example, "what was I in the past?" etc. ... views of self, a thicket of views. – ChrisW Oct 7 '17 at 0:02
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Please bear with me in this answer as it needs a longer introduction in order to understand properly the main issue regarding your question.

In most cases, people who study Buddhism and interpret it in a secular way (by denying rebirth) are incapable of adopting the Buddha's middle way - they must (unknowingly) either side to one extreme ("self exists") or to the other extreme ("self does not exist") (which is in fact same as the first extreme ('self exists'), because there is a self who denies the existence of self).

The avoiding of extremes regarding self ("self exists" or "self does not exist") is clearly stated in this sutta:

"As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

Source: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.002.than.html

Siding to one of these two extremes ("self exists" and/or "self does not exist") is not in accordance to the Dhamma and is an indication of a wounded self (suffering).

(Please read until the end as it will become clear to you why I'm writing all this)

When self is wounded and this wound can't be healed by eradicating ignorance (with realization of anatta), there are only two options to ease this suffering:

  1. Kill the wounded self by rejecting its existence (altruism) ("self does not exist")
  2. Make the wounded self grandiose by decorating it (narcissism) ("self exists")

The above is nicely described by the Buddha:

"There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding."

Source: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html

In the above sutta, "That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects" is indulgence in desire which is typical narcissistic behavior and "that which is devoted to self-affliction" is self-mortification or the lack of appetites or desires by self-denial or self-discipline as an aspect of religious devotion which is typical for altruistic behavior.

Thus, the more the self is wounded (the bigger the suffering), the more he/she is an altruist or narcissist. Both altruist and narcissist suffer (have a wounded self) and the more they suffer, the more they make others suffer (altruist gives to others so much that others can't learn how to be responsible for their own suffering; narcissist takes from others so much that others suffer too much to learn how to be responsible for their own suffering).

An altruist who kills his/her wounded self and enters a spiritual path, usually believes in "rebirth but rejects its cessation", because he/she hopes for a better self in the next life ... actually, this next life is heaven, which is eternal life without suffering. Such person is more inclined to follow a religion and scorn Buddhist views. For an altruist religion can make perfect sense.

On the other hand, a narcissist who makes his/her wounded self grandiose and enters a spiritual path, usually believes in "no rebirth", because his/her self is so grandiose that it transcends EVERYTHING. In essence, his/her self is so grandiose that it becomes (a fabricated) Nibanna. He/she does not hope for the next life, because he/she is too perfect for it, that's why he/she rejects it. Such person is more inclined to follow Buddhism and scorn religious views. For a narcissist Buddhism can make perfect sense.

This fabricated Nibanna with which the narcissist's wounded self is decorated is so grandiose that is reachable only to the narcissist. It's for those reasons, that he/she has the belief "after death suffering ceases for all beings, no matter if ignorant or enlightened", because if it were otherwise, it would mean his grandiose self (fabricated Nibanna) is nothing special because it would be attainable to everybody after death. That's why he/she has the view that Nibanna is only meant for this one and only life (for HIM) and that after death there is actually "nothing"/"cessation of everything"/"void"/"emptiness". In reality, being ignorant and having such wrong views, he/she destines himself to a veryyyyyy long suffering in this very same "voidness". In reality, his/her wounded self is this very same "voidness", but he/she is denying it by projecting a fabricated Nibanna onto it. It's because of these very same reasons that he/she is destining him/herself to "(eternal) voidness".

Here comes the answer to your question ...

The more a person is a narcissist, the more that person distorts reality. Remember, he/she has no other choice ... his/her self is so much wounded, that he/she needs to fabricate a distorted self and decorate it in order to hide the wounded self. His/her distorted self can become so much decorated that in order for reality to conform with his/her decorated self, he/she needs to change reality itself. That's why he/she distorts reality and fabricates lies about reality. That's why he/she makes others believe in his/her lies. By making others believe in his/her lies, his/her wounded self is protected, because when others believe in his/her lies that is proof for him/her that his/her grandiose (decorated) self exists and that reality conforms with his/her grandiose (decorated) self. If someone sees through his/her mask (decorated self) and sees his/her lies, his/her wounded self becomes exposed to him/her, because when someone sees his/her lies, that is proof for him/her that reality does not conform with his/her grandiose (decorated) self, thus he/she sees his/her distorted (decorated) self is a fabrication and his/her wounded self becomes exposed. Because the wounded self is so much in pain, it is easier for him/her to deny the truth and fabricate new lies and make others who exposed him/her liars.

They are masters in presenting an obvious lie as being the truth. They have been doing this since childhood. They are masters in projecting their (fake) reality onto others. They are delusional, but they make you think that you are the one who is delusional. They are very intelligent and clever. They make you think they are enlightened and know it all, and that you just can't understand what they know. When asked a question, they don't answer it, but provide ambiguous and complicated explanations or "proofs", so:

  • that you yourself can interpret the answer in the way that fits your own views or
  • the answer is just too complicated for you to understand (sarcastically: because you don't have the Buddha knowledge, as they do) and you let it go without bothering to ask for clarifications or
  • the clever and confident tone of the answer makes you feel like you're too stupid to comprehend it and you, too ashamed to admit that you don't understand it, fabricate a lie to yourself that you actually do understand it, following by you giving praise to the narcissist for his elaborate knowledge.

Hopefully, the Pali Canon is vast enough, so it's easy to see through this facade of lies.

So, what would be the secular interpretation for the Assu Sutta and the Mata Sutta?

You already know the answer. Just use your imagination. Remember, the interpretation given is delusional, but it seems legit, because he/she distorts reality in order to conform it with his/her "good looking self" which is just a mask for his/her "wounded self". The more the wounded self hurts, the more the interpretation will be delusional, or out of place, or just too complicated to comprehend for us poor mundane beings.

An uninstructed mind, not very well versed in the Dhamma, can quickly fall for such elaborate lies.

But an instructed mind, with an open mind, can't fall for it and will see through the lies by looking at the whole picture, not merely at the details that the narcissist points to. That's his/her game: he/she doesn't want you to see the whole picture, because if you see it, his/her mask would fall.

So, what would be the secular interpretation for the Assu Sutta and the Mata Sutta?

I'll try to answer this question. Thinking about it, it's not an easy task, but I'll try:

  • "Transmigration" is just a word given for arising and passing of mental states in this one and only life.

  • "a being" or "being" is just a word given to a mental state where there is grasping on the "I".

  • "father", "mother", "sister", "son" are merely a mind state with grasping to the "I".

  • "water in the four great oceans" is just a metaphor used to deliver the message how big is the suffering in this one and only life.

I'll add some more, which I found and can be related to other suttas:

  • "Birth is suffering" is interpreted as giving birth to children in this one and only life.

  • "Physical birth" and "physical death" is just a mental state with grasping to the "I".

  • When Buddha mentions the word "birth" he is really thinking about the arising of a mental state with attachment to the "I" in this one and only life.

  • When Buddha mentions the word "death" he is really thinking about the ceasing of a mental state with attachment to the "I" in this one and only life.

  • When the Buddha talks about eternalism and nihilism he is not relating eternalism and nihilism to life after death, but merely to forms of grasping to the "I" in this one and only life.

  • Nibanna means that suffering stops in this one and only life. Nibanna is meant just in the here & now, for this one life.

  • "heaven" and "hell" are just descriptions of mental states of mind in this one and only life.

  • When Buddha talks about "descending of consciousness into the mother's womb", he does not talk about the consciousness of the baby, but the consciousness of mother perceiving (hence "descending") she is pregnant.

  • "Realms" refer to different states of mind in people in this one and only life, where 'heaven' is pleasure, human is wisdom, animal is instinctual behavior, ghost is craving and addiction and hell is suffering.

  • "ending of rebirth" refers to ending of the arising of unpleasant mental states in this very same and only life.

Side note: Did you catch it? For them everything is a "mind state" ... nothing is real. The mundane truth is not real. They deny materialism. In fact, they are denying this very same existence. That's why this is nihilism and has nothing to do with real Buddhism. Denial of existence is so typical of narcissists. This very same denial is actually making them materialistic (carnal). Furthermore, the existence of their very same grandiose self is making them materialistic (carnal). Because of lack of insight due to a strong sense of self they can't see this. They actually think they are in conformation with the Dhamma, neither nihilists nor existentialists, etc. and they fully believe it as the truth. Off course they will deny my claims by using distortion and prove that, actually, it's me who is materialistic, a nihilist, a liar, Mara, religious, a Christian, delusional, etc. ... but that would merely be their projection of their own issues (strong belief in non existence of rebirth, which is actually coming from their grandiose sense of self which is actually coming from a wounded self) onto me. They are masters of distorting reality by making the victim look like the abuser.

To be a radical secular buddhist you have to deny existence by claiming that it's just a mind state or, if you are really clever, deny existence by claiming that existence is Nibanna. Off course this Nibanna that you claim must not be anatta, but atta - your grandiose narcissistic self ... but your listeners would think that you're talking about anatta, so no worries ... you made a big enough distortion so that you feel important, which is better than feeling ugly, like your wounded self. Jokes aside, such denials of existence stem from narcissistic wounds inflicted upon the person in his/her childhood.

When a sutta is in contradiction to the narcissists grandiose views, they deny the sutta, distort it by cleverly twisting it and interpret it in such a manner to conform to their grandiose views of self which is some kind of (fake) Nibanna. If any sutta is too difficult for twisting, they use denial and distortion by raising issues with the authenticity of the sutta.

Looking at secular Buddhism in this way, it's clearly evident that secular Buddhism is really a kind of religion, no different than Christianity or any other religion, because both religion and secular Buddhism stem from self-views.

Off course there are other secular Buddhists who are less extreme and more open minded than presented here in this answer. Don't get me wrong, all of us have narcissistic wounds and use different methods to ease this suffering. The bigger the wound, the more grandiose can our wounded self become. By believing in no post-mortem rebirth, we actually prolong the healing process of this wound, that's why secular Buddhism is not the best solution. The best solution is to let go of all views as it was originally taught by the Buddha.

I hope you now see the truth behind it all.

Please note, I'm not an advocate of believing in rebirth nor rejecting rebirth nor do I think negatively about secular Buddhists or secular Buddhism. Everyone has wounds and uses whatever works to feel better. There's nothing wrong in it. With metta

  • This post is wrong because the "middle way" explained in SN 56.11 does not include "rebirth". Also, the middle way is not something between self & no self. The Buddha taught the self does not exist, which is called SUNNATA. This is the middle way. I also marked this post down because it does not include any references to suttas, therefore if is only a personal opinion. Worse, this answer gives the impression of stealing ideas from others yet attempts to criticise those same others; similar to a dog that bites the hand that feeds it. This post is mostly plagiarism, therefore I marked it down. – Dhammadhatu Oct 8 '17 at 9:32
  • "The Buddha taught the self does not exist" is not true. See MN 2. "the middle way is not something between self & no self" is also not true. In SN 56.11 it is stated that the middle way is the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of "right view" -> In MN 2 it is stated that "self exists" and "self does not exist" are wrong views, thus the middle way is to avoid these wrong views. (see my updated answer with suttas references) As for your accusations that I'm stealing ideas from others and plagiarizing, that's also not true. I wrote my post solely from personal experience and own insight. – beginner Oct 8 '17 at 14:41
  • MN 2 does not say this. Also, there is not such thing as "personal" insight. If your post was submitted as a university essay, it would be failed due to plagiarism, because it includes no references. You appeared to steal the ideas I taught you. Also, to repeat, MN 2 does not say what you claim. – Dhammadhatu Oct 8 '17 at 17:20
  • MN 2 states: "The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self." The reason both views are wrong is because both views include the idea of "I", i.e., "I" have a self and "I" have no self. – Dhammadhatu Oct 8 '17 at 17:24
  • SN 56.11 states "devoted to self-affliction", which means to punish the physical body. It does not mean no-self. – Dhammadhatu Oct 8 '17 at 17:25
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What would be the secular interpretation for the Assu Sutta and the Mata Sutta?

The Buddha's teachings are two-fold: (i) worldly; and (ii) supramundane (lokuttara). Therefore, there is no such thing as "secular Buddhism". The question should be:

What would be the non-materialistic Noble Supramundane (Lokuttara) interpretation for the Assu Sutta and the Mata Sutta?


At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said: "From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration.

The Buddha did not speak in English. 'Saṃsāro' does not mean 'transmigration'. Samsaro is explained in SN 22.99:

"Just as a dog, tied by a leash to a post or stake, keeps running around and circling around that very post or stake; in the same way, an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for people of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma — assumes form to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form.

"He assumes feeling to be the self...

"He assumes perception to be the self...

"He assumes (mental) fabrications to be the self...

"He assumes consciousness to be the self, or the self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in the self, or the self as in consciousness.

"He keeps running around and circling around that very form... that very feeling... that very perception... those very fabrications... that very consciousness. He is not set loose from form, not set loose from feeling... from perception... from fabrications... not set loose from consciousness. He is not set loose from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is not set loose, I tell you, from suffering & stress.


A beginning point is not evident, though beings (sattānaṃ) hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are roaming around & wandering on.

The above translation is probably inaccurate because the central concept of the quote is the word "sattanam" or "beings". As explained or defined in SN 23.2 and SN 5.10, "a being" ("satta") is merely a state of attachment & a view, idea or convention. SN 5.10 unambiguously states to believe the five aggregates are "a being" is the view of Mara because, for the arahants, "a being" is only a wrong view.

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Therefore, the above quote is probably saying something like: "from an unknowable beginning ignorance & craving have been producing the delusion of beings which cycles, runs & roams around like a monkey mind".

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What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while roaming around & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?"

This can only be a metaphor or teaching principle. It cannot be literally or materially true, otherwise stories like Noah's Ark in the Bible would be true.

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As we understand the Dhamma taught to us by the Blessed One, this is the greater: the tears we have shed while roaming around & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans."

The Dhamma taught by the Buddha was explicitly defined by the Buddha as visible here-&-now, inviting inspection, to be experienced by the wise.

This makes the above verse, if taken materialistically or literally, contradictory & questionable.

"Excellent, monks. Excellent. It is excellent that you thus understand the Dhamma taught by me.

This cannot be true because the Dhamma taught by the Buddha is not blind faith in ridiculous ideas such as a person (atta) has transmigrated over billions of personal lifetimes and has cried more tears (over their family members) than the four great oceans. Given there is a water cycle on the planet earth, it would be impossible that millions of selves (atta) could cry tears over millions of lifetimes greater than the four great oceans, otherwise the planet Earth would have flooded.

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Those reincarnation scholars, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi, Sujato, Analayo, etc, who also believers in climate change, particularly concerned ocean rising, should understand how ridiculous 7 billion people crying more tears than the great oceans would be.

In summary, if the Buddha did speak the above words, it was obviously a metaphor rather than literally or materialistically true.

More importantly, the belief in reincarnation does not lead to enlightenment. Instead, the perception of impermanence leads to enlightenment.

When the Buddha was passing away, his final words were: "All things are subject to vanish" rather than "all things are subject to reincarnation".

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"Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a mother. The tears you have shed over the death of a mother while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

The important word above is "mother", which is another ignorance-created "being" (satta), as described in SN 12.2, where 'jati' is defined as the mental production of the idea of "beings" & various orders or groups of "beings".

"Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a father... the death of a brother... the death of a sister... the death of a son... the death of a daughter... loss with regard to relatives... loss with regard to wealth... loss with regard to disease. The tears you have shed over loss with regard to disease while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

Similarly, the various groups or orders of "beings" are described above, where the ignorant mind creates craving-attachment-becoming based ideas of "beings" that cause suffering due to aging & death, such as "my father", "my son", "my daughter", "my (diseased) body", etc.

The "beings" described above are not strangers. They are "beings" created from craving & attachment which are a "being's" hierarchy of "beings", which causes suffering.

"Why is that? From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released."

The final excerpt above shows the hypocrisy of the reincarnationists who passionately use SN 15.3 to argue in favour of reincarnation because the whole purpose of the teachings is to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.

SN 15.3 is simply describing the meaningless characteristic of life, where from an unknowable beginning, people have been engaging in sex, reproducing & crying over loss of loved family members, generation after generation after generation.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ChrisW Oct 8 '17 at 15:20

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