In preparation for our Flanagan discussions, I listened to several episodes of both The Secular Buddhist and Buddhist Geeks. I still don’t feel like I’ve really at bottom decided what I think of either of them, but both have articulate hosts and interview lots of people apparently big in the Western Buddhist community (I can’t comment on how representative or penetrating a sample they really represent), so I can recommend either for people who want to immerse themselves in that world. The obvious difference is that the Secular Buddhist has a specific agenda compatible with Flanagan’s (he appeared on the show), while Buddhist Geeks seems more of a catch-all to expose the wonderful world of different and disparate approaches.
For example, one of the more big-name guests on Secular Buddhist is Stephen Batchelor, who appeared first on this earlier, August 2010 episode to describe his approach: Similar to Flanagan, he focuses on the early Pali canon and remarked about the promising connections between Buddhism had Stoicism/Epicureanism. However, he mentioned the Abhidamma specifically as part of the later accretions that may have obscured what the Buddha actually advocated and he casts the emergence of secular Buddhism as political, i.e. in breaking from the exclusive teacher-to-student-through-the-generations traditions that constitute what little counts as religious authority in Buddhism to turn instead in sort of a Protestant Reformation-type move to go look at the texts yourselves and work with other secular-minded people to use the ethical tenets of Buddhism to create positive political change. Flanagan in our discussion with him did not seem so optimistic about the potential of Buddhism to yield adequate political philosophy given its history (and I’m wondering if any of our listeners took great issue with his claim that there’s never been a successful Buddhism-driven government).
Batchelor also then appeared on this episode from January 2012 to elaborate on the historical movement of Buddhism in the West, again with a mind to defending his non-traditional (selectively traditional?) approach.
Buddhist Geeks also featured Batchelor (see this episode from June 2010, where he among other things talks about the difference between atheism and agnosticism; it’s nice hearing about that outside of an Abrahamic context), but the episodes I was complaining a bit about in our episode were this one on Buddhist magic, which I found insufficiently skeptical, and moreso this interview with Charles Tart where Tart defends the paranormal as backed by evidence which no unbiased person could deny. For the sake of completeness, here’s another covering “Western Magick” more generally, back to Pythagoras. For more on Batchelor vs. Tart, you can read this long post by Dennis Hunter on the Buddhist Geeks blog, which focuses particularly on karma and rebirth.
My weariness with the supernatural in this context is the same as came up in our discussions here about the historicality of the resurrection of Jesus. Establishing a convincing lack of bias is difficult, particularly when the person you’re listening to has an admitted prior allegiance to religion or conversely (according to the accusations of the religious) is already committed to naturalism prior to reviewing the evidence. And in both cases, I’d much rather just take in the account of someone trustworthy who’s looked at the historical or in Tart’s case allegedly scientific data rather than slog through and try to in some way authenticate or debunk it myself.