Humanism is often described as a philosophical system/way of life that emphasizes reason, ethics and justice and specifically rejects the supernatural. In this regard I do not believe in the supernatural reality of Bodhisattvas (or sort of supernatural beings found in some schools of Buddhist thought) as I can not confirm their existence via reasonable, scientific means which is a hallmark of the Humanism that I bring to my Buddhist beliefs. It is actually also a hallmark of Buddhism as seen in the Buddha's pragmatic, famous teaching found in the Kalama Sutra that is interestingly quite similar to the scientific method:
Rely not on the teacher/person, but on the teaching. Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words. Rely not on theory, but on experience. Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."In fact, Buddhism has a very accepting, positive attitude and view toward science. The Dalai Lama has even stated before that if science proves an aspect of Buddhism in error then Buddhism must change to reflect the new reality:
“One fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to discard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds that the truth is different,” he writes in his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.
“If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts.”
That is all a little off track from my train of thought regarding Bodhisattvas. Part of my rejection of supernatural aspects of Buddhism comes from my practice of Zen Buddhism which tends (and I emphasize tends) to de-emphasize Bodhisattvas. I can not absolutely deny their existence and despite what many say, science doesn't and can not deny the possibility of something new being discovered and I, like many science based folks, am very open to new discoveries. That being said, either way, liberation from suffering (or happiness) is ultimately left up to us humans with the exception of perhaps Pure Land Buddhism. I do, however, believe in Bodhisattvas in a metaphoric sense as the ideal of altruistic excellence. As well as believing that certain living people can share many characteristics of the seemingly mythical Bodhisattva, such as great teachers, family members and friends who have changed our lives for the better. Also, I take great hope and refuge in the idea that we all have (sometimes latent within us) the wonderful attributes that the many Bodhisattva icons represent and we practice to cultivate those.
It would be a miscalculation to say that these Bodhisattvas are "deities" per se such as one would find in other religions. Though they are seen as supernatural, most Buddhists who believe in them see them as guides and teachers rather then "Gods."
In addition, I do not believe all the fantastic stories told in many of the ancient sutras as literal. I prefer to study, contemplate and ponder the essence of the teachings from these sutras rather then focus on the magical nature of some of their accounts. There are many Buddhist teachers who acknowledge their mythology and see their value in the messages their represent then whether or not they are "real."
In addition, Humanism and Buddhism both share the belief that there is no separable "soul" within sentient beings. This means the belief that we are a product of a series of subtle evolutionary changes over the years instead of the result of some divine creation such as being created in the image of a personal "God." Buddhists believe that nothing can exist on its own. It's the idea that in order to have paper you need not only trees but water, sun, soil and on and on. So if you mediate (which just basically means contemplation) upon this concept you can understand that there is all this other non-paper "stuff" within it. Here's another example, we label things such as this is my "body" but the body is merely the sum of its parts. You can not have a body without the brain and without blood you can not have the brain and without oxygen you can not have the blood and so it goes. So in reality we (and all matter) are all one giant organism experiencing itself in infinite ways, always changing, always adapting to new variations. It is the Buddhist concept of interconnection and interdependence.
Another aspect of Humanism is the belief in the value of this life. Humanists do not believe in an afterlife as such and thus emphasize realizing happiness now rather then constantly dreaming for some better life to come. For Humanists, the present moment is the only moment that exists and therefore it is in this moment, right here, right now where we find meaning and purpose. This is an idea that fits squarely within the Dharma (the teachings of Buddhism) and is in fact crucial and critical to the Buddha's teachings.
This leads in nicely to a discussion on rebirth. In a general sense I believe in rebirth within that frame work of interconnection and interdependence mentioned above. So that even though I will die, a part of me will live on in others as part of my genetic make up (DNA) lives in my young nephews and nieces and they will pass it on to others and so on. We are also reborn every time we influence another person's life for the better (or for the worse). For example, long after Einstein died his thoughts and essence live on in current scientists and the rest of us.
There are many Buddhists (especially western Zen Buddhists like myself--as well as many other Zen Buddhists and students from other traditions) who give concepts of an after life (rebirth) little thought, preferring instead to focus simply on present circumstances and let any afterlife that might occur take care of itself (or not). I personally believe that seeing the change and rebirth in every present moment to be more beneficial to our practice then constantly obsessing about an afterlife and what kind of rebirth we might experience. I'm not saying we couldn't literally be reborn as another being after we die but as I don't have enough scientific and logical evidence I haven't accepted rebirth to that extent in my practice and study of Buddhist philosophy. I believe that the bliss of "enlightenment" occurs in the seemingly mundane events of this humble human life. I do not spend much time contemplating Nirvana either as it is often said that such a "state" or concept to be beyond explanation or understanding.
For many Buddhists It is a matter of not assuming that our being is separate from everything else. If we are all interconnected then we can, for example, be reborn in the form of a plant when our ashes create fertile soil for a seed to thrive in. An actor playing a scientist in the American television show on the mafia, The Sopranos says it well. The scientist was sharing a hospital room with Tony (the Soprano mafia boss):
Pauli (one of Tony's most senior men): Look at you T. You do your uncle a kindness, you get shot for your efforts. You think you got family, but in the end they fuck you too.
Tony Soprano : [to the others in the room] He's grieving. His aunt just died.
Pauli: Each and every one of us, we're alone in the ring, fighting for our lives. Just like that poor prick. [referring to a boxer on the TV]
John Schwinn, a scientist: That's one way to look at it
Tony: You got a better one? ...
John Schwinn: Well, it's actually an illusion that those boxers are separate entities....Their separate entities is simply the way we choose to perceive them.
Tony: I didn't choose nothin.
John Schwinn: It's physics. Schrodinger's equation. The boxers, you, me - we're all part of the same quantum field...Think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air - two tornadoes. They appear to be two separate things, but they're not. Tornadoes are just the wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is, nothing is separate - everything is connected ...
Tony: Get the fuck outta here
John Schwinn: The universe is just one big soup of molecules bumping up against one another. The shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness...
This brings us to karma. There are many misconceptions about karma that come from language differences, cultural differences, the distortion of the concept by popular culture (movies, etc.) and those who willfully twist the idea for their own gain. Missionaries seeking to convert people from their Buddhist philosophy to their religion comes to mind.
I will only mention one misconception in this post for the sake of brevity. The general misunderstanding is that karma is a form of "score keeping" of points to build up so that we can cash them in for a prize or suffer our prized toy from being taken away. Essentially karma is the law of cause and effect, if you constantly insult people then you will end up alone and most likely miserable--that is karma. Sorry to take the Hollywood out of the teaching but that's the basic frame work.
One can also think of it this way, our lives are like waves emerging from a vast ocean (totality of all observable matter) subtle changes in wind speed and water temperature affect the size, duration and speed of the wave. In reality, this is a collection of molecules and atoms interacting in a series of complex events. But we use the abstraction of a wave to deal with the overall effect of these interactions. We can watch a wave move from one location to the other with our eyes, even though nothing of substance is actually moving between those locations. We even create complex mathematical formulae to describe the activity and interaction of waves. However, waves don’t actually exist as discrete objects; rather, they are a pattern of the collective causes and effects.
We create so many changes in our second by second existence that it is hard to see those fleeting, subtle, actions as creating our future reality just as it is hard to see one age second by second. It appears over-night that we have aged but such is not the cause. Our aging has been a slow but methodical collection of changes over a long period of time that eventually results in our death.
Humanism also gives prominence to individual responsibility which harmonizes with the Dharma as there is no savior in Buddhism, no God. The Buddha was merely a teacher, a guide. While teachers are very helpful, again, in the end our happiness and liberation from suffering is up to us.
Humanism also believes that to better the world we all need to work together through reason, tolerance and an open minded exchange of ideas which is important to Buddhism as well. The Buddhist philosophy emphasizes interconnection and therefore interdependence upon others. We are therefore encouraged to work for the greater good of humanity rather then just for what is good for ourselves. Humanism (as does Buddhism) believes that all lives are precious and equal regardless of religion, faith, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or creed.
For me the secular aspect of my Humanist philosophy definitely emerges from my western culture, upbringing and education. I firmly believe in the separation of religion and state for the good, betterment and survival of both.
I find it important to state one more thing, not all Humanists think alike as not all Buddhists think alike.
And finally, of course I do not and would never assume that my interpretations here should be taken as "better Buddhism" or in any way taken to mean that others should adopt them. They are merely the result and conclusions that I came to from following the Buddha's advice in the Kalama Sutra.
~Peace to all beings~