Here Stephen Batchelor, a British secular Buddhist, debates two monks committed to the Theravadan tradition. (Note: the first debate is two hours long, the second one hour; knowing that our attention spans these days are rather short, I place them here as reference, to be skipped through for major arguments. That way I can avoid long textual explication.)
It should be born in mind that Theravadan Buddhism, unlike later developments in Mahayana Buddhism, leaned toward what we would call a pragmatistic approach to reality, and thus was always suspicious of metaphysics; but it remained committed to the theory of re-incarnation, and remains so committed today.
I should explain here that the Buddhist theory of re-incarnation is somewhat trickier than it is understood in the West, which is really derived from the theory as understood in Hinduism. First, the Buddhist theory does not involve a self-subsistent consciousness, i.e., a soul, but more of what can be understood as a ‘life force’ (or, as Schopenhauer explicated it, ‘the world as will’). Secondly, this re-incarnation is *not* a good thing; since “life is suffering” as the Buddha propounded, then all re-incarnation gets you is more suffering (only it doesn’t get “you” that, but whatever your life force becomes). Nirvana, however else defined, must be the release of this life force from the possibility of rebirth.
(Traditional Buddhism holds that this could be accomplished by realizing the life force as such through enlightenment; secular Buddhism defines any possible enlightenment as occurring in the here and now – greater awareness, greater sense of peace, less suffering.)
Interestingly, Batchelor spent considerable time as a monk, first in the Tibetan tradition, and then later as a Zen Buddhist; both these sects are in the Mahayana stream of Buddhist thought. Tibetan Buddhism took the metaphysics of its day to its highest level of complexity; Zen came to reject metaphysics all together. Both remain committed to the principle of re-incarnation. Batchelor rejects the idea (as do I). It’s clear that Batchelor has spent many years internally wrestling with what he could or could not accept of the Buddhist tradition(s).
I don’t offer Batchelor’s example as having guru like status; there are other important secular Buddhists, e.g. Owen Flanagan, as one instance. But Batchelor is confronting the problems of the tradition while working out an ethical theory, and thus provides one example of the use one can make of whatever it is the man we call the Buddha left as his real legacy to the world.
The first debate is with Ven Brahmali
The second with Bhante Sujato