Robert M. Ellis

(also formerly known as Upeksacitta, when ordained in the Western Buddhist Order 2004-8)

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Published books:

A Theory of Moral Objectivity

The Trouble with Buddhism

A New Buddhist Ethics

Truth on the Edge

Theme and Variations (fiction)

North Cape: Selected Poems

Middle Way Philosophy 1: The Path of Objectivity


Brief personal biography

I was brought up in various parts of England, the son of a liberal Baptist minister, but tended to reject religion as a child and teenager. At the age of 18 I had a religious experience which I associated at the time with God, but have since come to understand in alternative ways. This led me to want to engage with different religious traditions. At Cambridge University I studied English, then Indian languages, then Religious Studies, at the same time becoming gradually more involved with Western Buddhism, after being impressed by the Buddhists I had met there. Poetry, green politics, Quakerism and classical piano were other important early interests.

After graduating I tried living in a Buddhist community, but was not really ready for what it could offer me. Instead I then went to Greece, teaching English as a foreign language, then returned to England, trained as a secondary school teacher of Religious Education, and married. Religious Education (R.E.) in the UK involves some degree of open enquiry about religion and philosophical issues, rather than just instruction in religious belief. I think that the subject is potentially a force for good in British society, though I was personally better suited to teaching older students. For a total of twelve years now (since 1992, with a gap from 1997-2001) I have taught Religious Studies, Philosophy and Critical Thinking to older teenagers in sixth form colleges (16-19 colleges), and more recently by distance learning to students scattered in schools around England. More recently I have also taken up teaching Politics, drawing on my interest in political philosophy.

Between 1997 and 2001, however, my career took another direction, as I left college teaching to study for a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Lancaster. My immediate motivations for this began with an increasing engagement with Western philosophy and a desire to re-engage with Buddhism. At the same time I was wondering about the problem of moral relativism, and had been much struck by the close relationship that relativism had with absolutism in the approach of an evangelical Christian colleague to teaching Religious Studies. I already had a sense that some of Buddhism's insights might hold the key to resolving the unholy alliance between absolutism and relativism, that tends to lead people to oscillate between one and the other.

At Lancaster I studied for my Ph.D. in a philosophy department, at the same time as teaching undergraduates part-time and trying to develop my practice of Buddhism in the context of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO - now Triratna Buddhist Order. I persisted with this as I felt that philosophical theory and spiritual practice needed to be throroughly interrelated, but my approach to Buddhism was already looking a bit too non-traditional to some of my fellow Buddhists.

I completed my Ph.D. in 2001 with a gathering sense that I was onto something important, a sense that was confirmed by the positive comments of my examiners. However, getting the thesis published or finding an academic post proved much more difficult. Having insights expressed in an original and important theory is not enough: people also have to gain access to them. The more complex and wide-ranging the theory, the harder it is for them to access it. The more you challenge prevailing assumptions, the harder it also is for even the most sympathetic people to understand what you are saying, let alone accept it. I have been experimenting with writing and presenting my ideas in different ways in order to help make them accessible, and this website is one outcome of that experimentation.

Since 2001 I have supported myself by continuing with A Level (16-19) teaching, and continued to do further writing developing the ideas in my thesis. I have also continued with Buddhist practice, but often struggled to reconcile my commitment to practising the Middle Way with the very different priorities other Buddhists seemed to have. In 2004 I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. I enjoyed the fellowship that this offered, but by early 2008 had sadly concluded that I could not reconcile the formal commitments it involved with a sense of integrity, given the widespread assumption (even amongst the most liberal) that "Buddhism" necessarily involves commitment to the revelations of the Buddha, gaining enlightenment, following gurus, believing in karma and rebirth, and other unhelpful metaphysical distractions. I continue to think that "Buddhism" could potentially mean something very different and more helpful than this, and that the way Buddhists mix their insights with traditions that contradict them is due to confusions which are not inevitably part of Buddhism. However, given my lack of cultural and emotional affinity with the Buddhist tradition, I am probably not the right person to try to reform it. I remain grateful, though, for the amount I have learnt about the practice of the Middle Way from members of the Western Buddhist Order.

So, I am now a philosopher and a practitioner of the Middle Way, but I have ceased to use the word "Buddhist" to describe myself. A lot of the older material on the white pages of this website, however, does use the word "Buddhist" to describe a practitioner of the Middle Way, since that has been my use of the word for many years. 

Robert M. Ellis, October 2008


Links to some other more personal parts of the website

Prologue to the thesis

The Middle Way and religion

FAQ about this website and its status


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