Sunday, April 1, 2012

Can we call the Buddha Sid?

One of the key features of a secular understanding of Buddhism is the viewing of the Buddha as a human being rather than as a supernatural being. It's seen as one of the 'three refuges'....that a human being achieved awakening which serves as an encouragement to the rest of us mere mortals that we too can do this.

In the first blog post on this site (Secular Buddhism: Does a Label Help or Hinder?) I attempted to explore the pros and cons of adopting the label 'Secular Buddhism'. One of the down-sides is the propensity to start locking down one's view as belonging to the 'secular' camp and possibly missing out on helpful things from other 'camps'. One antidote, I suggest is to use whatever means are available to continue encouraging open questioning. In this spirit I'd like to hear views on the pros and cons of continuing to call Siddhattha Gotama 'The Buddha' rather than Siddhattha or even Sid for short.

As I write this post I feel some anxiety which is the result of an expectation that this question will be seen as heretical by some and that it might spark some flames of objection that could come my way. I've actually been 'blow-torched' for questioning things in other realms of my life lately so the anxiety is even higher than normal. However despite the pain that sometimes comes along with it, the freedom to question is one of the few things that feel sacred to me, so despite the flammability of the question, I'm putting it out there.

My current thinking on it (subject to change with the considered views I hope are shared in reply to this post) is that, as with all things, there are advantages and disadvantages. I'll have a go at starting the list:


  1. It reinforces the view of Siddhattha as human and therefore the view of awakening as a real, attainable possibility for us.

  2. It helps keep us away from the slippery slope of pedestals, deifications and the religifying of the dharma.

  3. It prompts us to look at any attachment we might have to Sid being on said pedestal - we can ask 'what is that?' (as the Zennies would say) and does/how does it help?

  4. It keeps us focused on the fact that dharma practice is about getting to the other side of the river, not building a shrine to the raft.

  5. It helps prevent the adherence to the teachings just because they came from Siddhattha rather than subjecting them to the rigour of our own life testing.

  6. It helps us relate to the persona of Sid as a wise friend rather than an authority figure - those of us with a secular orientation are more likely to be influenced by the former.

  7. (For Australians) it's in keeping with Australian culture of nick-naming everything that we feel affection for and/or anticipate will have any kind of longevity in our lives.

  8. (Also especially for Australians) it helps circumvent mistrust of authority figures.

  9. It's a symbolic reminder of the fundamental shifts that come along with Secular Buddhism.


  1. The fact that the Buddha has an honorific title might encourage newcomers to test the teachings out more fully than they otherwise might if he was seen as just another self help guru.

  2. When speaking with the general population it's clearer who we're talking about.

  3. We are less likely to upset those of a more traditional Buddhist orientation

  4. It's easier to avoid 'us and them' identification between the secular and traditional approaches.

Believe it or not, I've tried very hard to be balanced about this. Any omissions in this list are due to the limitations of my own personal experience rather than an attempt to push an agenda. Based on the list above and my own view of the world, the advantages of 'Sid/dhattha outweigh the advantages of 'The Buddha' but I genuinely invite and look forward to hearing others' views.


  1. I agree that whatever helps us see Gotama as a human being like we are helps us understand that awakening is something within our grasp. I just want to mention that the name Siddhattha doesn't appear in the Nikayas and may have been originated after Gotama's death.

  2. Hi First may I suggest some rules be applied re posts, in the spirit of reasoned discussion no flaming, no attacking the person, no trolling; the usual stuff.

    Sid, a name I may use with friends in discussion in much the same way I use JC for Jesus Christ, or Betty for Queen Elizabeth but not one I, and this is merely my opinion, would use as a standard on the forum. I would use Siddhartha which is a human name and avoids the deification problem which may come from the term The Buddha. I do think the Buddha is deserving of respect and perhaps there is also a recognition of culture issue, or perhaps it is my age.

    Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I think such informality might, as you suggest, put new readers off and perhaps lose their opportunity to learn what the Dharma has to offer, a lot.

    Fourthly, I agree that it could create an us and them with others, Sid
    at least not Siddhartha.
    Finally, I agree with your points about the title possibly obscuring the teachings. How about a shrine on the raft rather than to it :-).

    I am looking forward to some interesting discussions on here. Thanks for starting it.

  3. I've actually been calling him Sid in my head for a while now, I did it first in writing here:

  4. Hi Lenore

    I believe it is good to pose the question.
    I think it was Loa tzu who said the 'the name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name'.
    And old mate Shakespeare said 'A rose by any other name is just as sweet'.
    Probably don't matter a fig, if we are truly lettiing go of affectations, pretentions etc.

    Kindest Regards

  5. Hi Lenore & all. Is this a question on which there needs to be a SB opinion? Several times you've emphasised the dangers of reification and the pitfalls of Social Identity and, to me, having a shared position on this (and probably other temptingly interesting issues) is similar to, or a first step towards, having that building and central address that Ted Meissner is pestered to establish. People can call Buddha what they like in their inner conversations and whatever allows them to be most readily understood in conversation; I'll probably continue using that name in conversations as I know a couple of Sids already.

    De-pedestalling is of course not an unambiguous internal move in itself. Are we dethroning in a spirit of perhaps unconscious defiance? If so, we are probably as attached to the "specialness" of the throned one as a worshipper and, of course, also attached to our rebelliousness.

    Having said all that, and going back to your first post, by naming and agreeing between us (us = humans in general, not just those interested in SB) to use a name, we both delineate the concept and make it socially or inter-subjectively addressable: i.e. it allows us to talk about "it" and be asked questions by others. So I'm in favour of using the term Secular Buddhism to more or less roughly point to a worldview that applies Buddhist thought and values to our lives without the assertions of supernatural phenomena more usually associated with Buddhist thought.

    It'll be part of the challenge for us in talking about and living this worldview to include, as a matter of practice and discourse, awareness of the spiritual, psychological and intellectual perils of reification or nominalisation which are ever-present manifestations of Mara (or mara, if you prefer).

  6. Winton Higgins on 7.4.12 opined:

    I'm not in favour of the 'Sid' nomenclature, and I don't think it's a matter of mere personal taste or ethnic style. To me the issue turns on our sense of tradition in general, and the Buddhist tradition in particular. The sense of tradition that quite a few secular Buddhists accept is that put forward by Alasdair McIntyre: any human practice worthy of the name is held and informed by a tradition; a living tradition is a vibrant and informed conversation going on between generations and always subject to reform and development, one that constantly returns to the original questions that the tradition began with. A living tradition contrasts starkly with what usually attracts the terms 'tradition' and 'traditional', namely a dead tradition whose practitioners have no informed sense of how it began and how it has developed, so they're stuck with whatever they've inherited just as it is, endlessly repeating and re-enacting it.

    A central aspiration for secular Buddhism is to help restore the Buddhist tradition to its original vibrancy and relevance, in terms appropriate to our time and culture. To do that, we need to locate ourselves right inside it, claim our place in it, not outside it by buying into some sort of dichotomy like 'traditional' Buddhism versus secular Buddhism. That dichotomy underpins the polemics of our 'traditionalist' critics, those who tend to espouse some moribund version of the tradition. We shouldn't give them any oxygen by letting them declare, for instance, that we're really disrespectful 'Siddists' who've vacated the 'true' Buddhist tradition.

    In closing, let me offer my hearty congratulations to Lenore and others who've got this site up and are busy developing it. May your good wishes all succeed!


  7. I’d like to pick up Winton’s thread on “tradition” and our co-existence with traditionalists from, perhaps, a tangential point of view. I agree entirely with the contrast he paints between adherence to dead , “pure” traditionalism and participation in that never-ending conversation across generations re-addressing the core concerns informing the tradition’s inception.

    I seem to have two major points to address:

    1) For me, the conversation with Buddhism has at least one other interlocutor grounded in western European culture: our tradition of science, roughly speaking, from physics to cognitive science and philosophy of mind. We might also include, less directly, our evolving social/political/economic traditions. So the project for me is finding or cultivating an integration, in intellectual content and in practice, of multiple traditions, each of which, to the extent that it is still healthy, is engaged in that conversation with its roots.

    2) . I would hope for continuing cooperative conversation about values, practice and philosophy between all people using Buddhism as a guide to their path, and indeed between all who take the imperative of living an ethical life seriously. However, I’m not clear on the advisability of making possible assertions by “traditionalist” Buddhist commentators about our respect for the tradition a significant criterion influencing secular Buddhist practice, philosophy or language. Any more than I would be overly affected by, say, a Christian practitioner’s assertion of the ungodliness and cultural irrelevance of any Buddhism, secular or otherwise.

    As far as polemicists painting non-traditionalists in unfavourable light, that’s already an aspect of the conversation. I was impressed by the contrast between the tones of Batchelor and Wallace in their online exchanges of a couple of years ago and am here taking secular Buddhism seriously at least partially as a result.

    Certainly it is wise to respect one’s teachers and not to provide ammunition for those who would attempt to denigrate our particular practice. At the same time I’d like to refer back to an implication in my previous post: people of many different levels of emotional development are attracted to secular and traditionalist Buddhism, bringing attitudes ranging from quiet respect to, probably, rebellious head-kicking. In my view it will be counter-productive, and probably contrary to productive practice to guard, or grasp, our reputation too closely in light of the inevitability of disparaging comment.

    To declare my own bias, I don’t have a particular investment in Buddhism per se: it simply, for forty years, has seemed to me the most coherent and practical amalgamation of ethics and practices to civilise and/or confer sanity on those aspects of our humanity which lead us away from humane and ethical behaviour. So I am gratefully reverent of those in all traditions who have inspired, interpreted and transmitted the heart and limbs of the matter through 2,500 years. My personal focus is on, as I said above, the ongoing exploration and development of how this life (me) lives itself in light of the contingent world in which it finds itself.

    Warmly and with gratitude to Lenore and those working to set-up and maintain this site.

  8. It's funny, the Shakespeare quote arose in my mind as I wrote the post. For me, the less you make of the title, the more the substance has to stand up for itself and the dharma has so much substance! Still, not everyone looks at things this way, so it's good to hear other view points. Thanks for yours Ken.

  9. I agree with the two key points you've made here Simon. And to clarify, I wasn't using the 'we' (in 'Can we call the Buddha Sid?) to mean an official SB 'we'. It was intended as a generic 'we'. I don't have any intention of trying to get people to conform to a particular name, however it's useful to get a feel for the issues involved so that 'we' (SB we) can take those into account in the way we communicate on our forums.

    Your point about being mindful of our intentions when challenging is also a good one. I've always been a questioner but at earlier times in my life this would have been at least partly for different reasons. At this stage and in this context for me it's fairly and squarely about helpfulness....being free to adapt the dharma so that it's helpful in our time and place. Given that it hasn't come to us in a culture-free form I see that some fearless questioning is needed. My own personal driver is compassion for others - I know how incredibly valuable the dharma is in my life and I can see clearly that others could benefit similarly. Where tradition stands in the way of sharing this benefit perhaps a bit of rebelliousness can be helpful.

  10. Thank you Simon. You articulated much more intelligently the foggy questions that came up for me in reading Winton's went something like - 'why is it important for us to be within the existing tradition?'. I see possible visions of different camps wrestling to define 'Buddhism' - the vision seems to hold a lot of wasted energy. Those who might want to wrestle us are unlikely to share our approach regardless of our wrestling prowess. A quote I read somewhere years ago has served me well: Don't compete, create!

    Darwinian evolution springs to mind. A mutation occurs in a species and that mutation is adaptive, i.e. it helps the individual survive and over time that individual's genes proliferate due to their relevance to the conditions. So maybe SB is a mutation of the dharma (still the same species) and time will tell whether the adaptation is adaptive and will proliferate. To the extent that the mutation is relevant to our current conditions that's likely to happen. It's almost certain that others of our species will criticise us for being different and not the real thing. The question that comes up for me is: why does that matter?

  11. Thanks Lenore. I very much like your analogy from evolution: very apt, in my view. We each and all do what we do and it inspires others or doesn't... And life continues. :-)

  12. In my experience, the deification of a person or name is an action of my mind. Given its apparent universal 'appeal', deification is possibly a natural tendency, so I wonder why what the buddha should/could be called is of importance to us? Why not just call him what you want to?

  13. hmm does that mean we are then secular siddies or maybe secular siddites. love it!! unfortunate acronym however.

  14. I'm reluctant to refer to the buddha as Sid simply because of the attachment i always have to the first name i know a person by. I have this everyone i meet. I have good and old friends who i can never call lou or shaz because i met them as louise and sharon and never felt comfortable being to make the switch. I know, I know...

    But on a more serious note, calling the buddha "the buddha" hasn't stopped me questioning what he taught and the possibility that he might have been wrong. I'm a pretty irreverant person at the best of times. I am not good at doing "sacred". I am not even good at pretending to do it. Although i don't mind bowing.

  15. I'm surprised no one suggested using "Gotama" instead of Sid -- Mark used it that way (setting the example but not being explicit about it) and Lenore mentions the name -- but no one points out that "Gotama" got used quite a bit in the oldest works we have.

    Perhaps I'm too old-fashioned (I'm the sort of person who thinks it's a bit presumptuous in a money-grubbing sort of way for the teller at the bank to see my name on my account and call me "Linda" as if we're buddies when we haven't even been introduced, much less become friends -- which is what's being implied and built on by having businesses use my first name) but I find that the use of "Sid" can, through its informality, appear to imply disrespect; it says "this person had nothing worthy of any particular respect to contribute -- just a regular Joe" whereas I find what the man Gotama had to say is worthy of respect, and his ability to come up with the idea, and the life he led presenting it, and the methods he came up with -- all worthy of respect.

    I understand the urge to knock the Buddha off the pedestal and I think that is worth some effort; I understand "Sid" as an attempt to balance the tendency to worship, and find nothing wrong with the attempt, though I may not agree with the methods. But I find, for myself, no need to act as though he was not worthy of any particular respect which is the way people might interpret the use of "Sid".

  16. Thanks for posting this Linda. It's funny but over the past few weeks I have indeed started writing about the Buddha as Gotama. In the same way we use last names like Descartes or Newton to refer to people, Stephen Batchelor pointed out to me recently that Gotama was his last name and he is referred to as the Pali eqivalent of Mr. Gotama throughout the Pali Canon. For me, this seems to strike a nice balance between acknowledging the significance of the insights and teachings, and avoiding the deification/ pedestalling tendencies. So until/unless there are further posts that change my mind, I think this is the way I'll refer to him with my writings including those on this site.

  17. Perhaps we could shorten Gotama to Got .

    Seriously though, I am 'attracted' to the idea of using Mr Gotama and have an 'aversion' to using Buddha.