Secular Buddhism and the Real Reasons to Meditate

| July 23, 2018 | 8 Comments

In the most recent issue of Lions Roar magazine (July 2018), Buddhist teachers representing Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajryana lineages discussed the “real” reasons to meditate. While the responses were insightful and reflected the full range of beliefs among Buddhist lineages, there is a glaring omission: no one presents a secular Buddhist view of the real or fundamental reasons to meditate.

In one respect, the absence of a secular Buddhist perspective is not surprising as the magazine’s main focus is to provide the reader with a greater understanding of the rich variety of practices and beliefs found in traditional lineages. Lion’s Roar does a wonderful job at that and at explaining the basic concepts of Buddhism. However, my guess is that there is another issue at work here. For many Buddhists in the U.S., secular Buddhism is identified with the secular mindfulness movement; and the practitioners of that movement are primarily concerned with how individuals can use mindfulness to alleviate stress and have a more relaxed, present-moment relationship to their own experiences and the world. Secular mindfulness thus involves only a limited incorporation of the Buddha’s radical insights about suffering and the release from suffering. So, what can a secular Buddhist say about the real or fundamental reasons to meditate?

For the Buddhist teachers featured in Lion’s Roar, the real reasons to meditate go beyond stress reduction; they have to do with transformative changes in our self-conception, perceptions, and our ways of being in the world.  This transformation is based on overcoming our ignorance, delusions, and tendency to live in a dream-like state and gaining insight into or directly experiencing an ultimate or “true” reality.

There are differences, of course, in how this transformative process is understood and what insight into, or direct experience of, the ultimate is. So, for the Theravadans Thanissaro Bhikku and Bhikku Bodhi, the path of practice, while itself part of the web of causes and conditions, can lead to the unconditioned or nirvana. We gain liberation once we have developed the ability through our meditation practice and ethical actions to gain penetrative wisdom of the so-called three marks of existence – dukkha, not-self, and impermanence. Having attained that wisdom, we escape, find freedom, from suffering. That is the goal toward which meditation should be oriented.

On the other hand, the Zen teachers – Norman Fischer, John Tarrant, Melissa Myozen Blacker, and Koun Franz – view awakening or enlightenment as a fundamental alteration in how we view and relate to life in the here and now.  We are able to break through or go beyond our dream-like existence when we can experience reality just as it is, without mental fabrications and views of what should be. We can then recognize that life is ungraspable in terms of concepts and that, as Blacker says, we  can gain “…..direct perception of everything’s uniqueness…..recognize that everything is already absolutely perfect and complete.”  Rather than see the ultimate fruit of meditation as a release from the conditioned world, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi do, Zen emphasizes how meditation can give us access to the ultimate truth within our world.

Two of the Tibetan/Vajrayana Buddhist teachers featured in the article, Judy Lief and Gaylon Ferguson, view the real reasons to meditate within their framework of progressing through three stages of the path: individual transformation, the Bodhisattava’s effort to help all beings attain liberation, and the final stage, in which the practitioner recognizes the sacredness, the basic good nature, of all phenomena, including afflictive or difficult emotions such as desire, jealousy, and pride.  As Ferguson says, “….. the basis of the entire world and all beings is primordially good……This is original sacredness, the fundamental wisdom that is already present as our innate nature, complete and perfect from the beginning.”  The goal of meditation is to bring us into contact with this primordial goodness.

In the article only Rev. angel Kyodo Williams strongly emphasizes that the purpose of gaining transformative insights through meditation is not just to free individuals of suffering; she argues that we need to “….apply these liberatory practices to society at large” as part of a process of radical change.

Despite their differences in approach, these teachers all presuppose a duality between meditation as stress relief and meditation as a transformative process of liberation leading to an experience or state of awakening in which an ultimate or “truly real” dimension of reality is encountered. You can meditate for the former reason and that’s OK, but you’re not going to achieve the end goal of Buddhism. A committed practitioner should engage in the more arduous but ultimately transformative process of seeking liberation through meditation.

As a secular Buddhist, I think that this view is faulty in two important respects. In the first place, the notion of an ultimate dimension, however conceived, is inconsistent with a naturalistic approach to reality. Human beings are always embedded in and function as part of the web of causes and conditions which constitute reality. From this perspective, there can be no end-state or momentary experience of an ultimate dimension which either transcends or serves as the “ground” of the causes and conditions of the natural world.

Further, the dichotomy posed between meditation as stress reduction versus meditation as liberation through contact with the ultimate is a false one. I agree that some versions of mindfulness practice are limited in that they focus on the relief of stress and helping individuals function with more ease in our current society. In this respect, certain mindfulness practices are similar to those psychological therapies which seek to make the individual fit more easily into society rather than transform individuals and society so as to promote human flourishing.

Yet, even if we are critical of the idea that the goal of meditation should be limited to stress reduction, this doesn’t mean that the only way that meditation can have transformative effects is through contact with an ultimate or truly real dimension of reality.  I believe that the practice of meditation is transformative when it qualitatively shift one’s life toward a more compassionate, less reactive, and more equanimous way of living in the world. And that, I contend, is in fact the real reason for meditating.  Not contact with the ultimate via penetrative wisdom, but using the insights of Buddhism about suffering, impermanence, and interconnectedness in meditation practice to cultivate qualities of the heart and mind which promote individual flourishing and, as Rev. angel Kyodo Williams so rightly emphasizes, radical changes in society.

What do we do in meditation? Sure, we try to calm and settle our minds using various techniques. But, as the mind settles down, we can also gain a heightened, experiential understanding of the pervasiveness of constant change, our tendency to attach to all that we experience, and the fact that the self is much less solid and unchanging than we believe it to be. We learn how our misunderstanding of these three dimensions of human experience cause suffering beyond what we inevitably have to experience in life – pain, sickness, loss of loved ones, etc.

Through meditation practice and acting ethically, we begin to develop greater wisdom and a more compassionate stance in the world. We recognize the limits of our own control while we embrace our responsibility to act with kindness and strive for justice. We are less reactive to our experiences as we come to distinguish our feeling-tone responses (pleasant-unpleasant-neutral) from the perceptions and conceptions we apply to those experiences. We are more capable of being present and aware. We have more patience, a greater ability to be with what is painful, confusing, or frightening.  Recognizing interconnectedness, we feel a greater bond with other human beings, as well as other sentient beings. We have a stronger motivation to act kindly and for the benefit of all.

These are some of the key ways that meditation can be truly transformative, and that takes us far beyond a limited concern with our own physical and mental health, and our success in this society.  Of course, the extent of transformation varies in each individual based on her/his level of commitment to the path of change, social circumstances, etc.  But the basic indicators of positive change are common to all human beings: greater capacity for kindness and compassion, more equanimity, less reactivity, more presence, and a greater understanding of our unique role as embedded beings in the natural world of causes and conditions.

In the end, I would argue that the real reasons to meditate – if we choose this path – is to become better human beings and to create a society in which the flourishing of all human beings is our primary aspiration.

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About the Author ()

I have been a political and labor activist for over 40 years. In 2010, I became interested in Buddhism and began a regular meditation practice. As an agnostic and activist, I am particularly interested in exploring how to connect secular Buddhism with a radical political theory and practice.

Comments (8)

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  1. steve mareno says:

    Thank you. I’m in agreement with much of what you wrote, especially as to how the mindfulness teachings in relation to self help are only a part of the whole. I don’t, however, think that “enlightenment” is ultimate reality, it simply IS reality. Like the old saying….. before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

    The difference is that we KNOW we’re chopping wood and carrying water. We’re not caught up in the ego’s continual self referential dialogue in our heads. That is always about me, me, me!

    Anyone who has come into contact with someone with a narcissistic personality quickly understands that they are almost incapable of having empathy or compassion for others. It’s always about how what is happening with the other person or the situation is going to affect themselves. This is an ego that is on all the time. With all of us, the self dialogue is always the ego trying to make it appear that it is “us”. The ego exists as thoughts in our head, but it isn’t us.

    When we are in the moment, which is what meditation or mindfulness is all about in my lineage and in my life, my ego is not running me. I am still aware of it, it hasn’t gone anywhere, but it is no longer active in the world. It may or may not still be active in my mind, but I am aware of it.

    The word enlightenment has so much baggage attached to it that I don’t even use it anymore and prefer to say that we wake up because that is the fact of the matter. We wake up from our delusions and illusions, if even momentarily. That’s a big, big deal. It doesn’t need to be made into some incredible experience, even if it is an incredible experience. Reality is an incredible experience. We will never experience it w/o being fully present.

    • Michael Slott says:

      Steve,

      I appreciate your perspective, which is clearly based in Zen practice. If this has been a good practice for you, has lessened at times the role of the ego, that’s great. However, based on my own beliefs and experiences, I have a different approach. I don’t see the goal of meditation as a kind of breakthrough in gaining knowledge of “true reality.” When you say that we can KNOW that we’re chopping wood and carrying water, the capitalized “KNOW” implies some direct access to a reality which is usually clouded over by our desires, aversions, and delusions. This is often described as having contact or access to the absolute dimension of reality in contrast with our usual relationship to the relative world of forms. So, in Zen, the goal is to experience the absolute (another way of putting it is the “ultimate”) dimension of reality in our day to day (chop wood, carry water) lives. I don’t think that this contrast of relative vs. absolute makes sense and believe that we ought to view the goal of meditation as a cultivation of certain qualities of the heart and mind within the world that we live in.

      Mike

  2. Thank you for writing this post Mike, it was very thought provoking. The notion that there might be “real” reasons to meditate suggests there are “wrong”, “unreal”, or perhaps “improper” reasons to meditate. Is it more useful to judge the reasons people meditate from our own viewpoint, or see each individual and their practice as a product of their own causes and conditions?

    You write that Lions Roar “does a wonderful job … at explaining the basic concepts of Buddhism.” I question how useful such a publication is to those who want to create a society in which the flourishing of all beings alive in this world is a primary aspiration. As you stated, rarely if ever has a secular Buddhist been invited to offer their thoughts between these covers. Also, I wonder how useful many of the concepts developed over the past 2,500 years that we read within Lions Roar are for us today. Our secular Buddhist voices I suggest need to be louder, more confident, more insistent.

    Many of the views presented in Lion’s Roar appear to have arisen over the years within the wide variety of institutional forms of Buddhism, and at that time they may have made sense. From what I can recall, there’s scant appearance in the early teachings of the notions of relative and ultimate reality, for instance. And the idea that humans have an “innate nature, complete and perfect from the beginning” appears to have been adopted into early monastic Buddhism from Vedic teachings rather than being from Gotama’s own teaching.

    Where I would be a little less critical of traditional teachings is around the proposal that there may be different stages in a person’s meditation practice, though as we don’t share their framework we may not agree with the stages they present. From my experience teaching a secular Buddhist approach to meditation in New Zealand, in particular from mentoring individual practitioners (both face to face and online), people give different reasons as to why they meditate, those reasons come with different goals, and as their practice deepens their views on what they’re doing and why change.

    For most of the people I’ve spent time with, their practice goes through three stages.

    1 – I want to meditate so I can be happier, less reactive, less anxious, and get to sleep more easily. My goal is to reduce the many ways in which I suffer.

    2 – Okay, I’ve been meditating for a while and I get it. So what is this secular Buddhism, anyway? My intention is to notice when I stop, and savour those moments of stillness, peace and freedom that come and go when I manage to let go of instinctive reactivity, greed, hatred and confusion, both in my meditation practice and in daily life.

    3 – Tell me something about a secular Buddhist approach to the eightfold path, the five precepts, or the five mindfulness trainings, and how I can use them to thrive, find happiness, and lead an ethical life? Now, I practice meditation for its own sake, regularly.

    Also, as someone’s practice develops when they use what I’m calling ‘experience-based meditation’, I’ve seen a tendency to open up to a connection with not just humans but all beings, but only if at the same time they’ve rejected rule-based legalistic ethics as their basis of living (expressed initially, above, as the eightfold path or the five precepts or the five mindfulness practice), and live life based on situational ethics, causes and conditions.  Interestingly all three goals can arise in any one meditation session, as well as afterwards. This pattern can be seen in the majority of the practitioners I’ve mentored.

    Thank you again for a provocative post.

  3. Michael Slott says:

    Ramsey,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that, looking at the process as a whole, meditation practice does have various stages in the cultivation of mind/heart qualities which help us to flourish as human beings. A meditation teacher can be incredibly helpful in assisting one in dealing with the obstacles and challenges that inevitably come up at different points in the path, providing encouragement, and helping one move forward. My meditation practice has been based in the insight tradition and I’ve found much value in the guidance and perspectives offered by teachers in that tradition. What I find problematic, however, is the notion shared by all Buddhist teachers – including those in the insight tradition – that the goal of meditation is awakening/Enlightenment/Nirvana via a correct understanding of reality in its essential/absolute/ultimate dimension.

    Mike

  4. XenMan XenMan says:

    My view is very much as an outsider, as I’m only interested in the meditation.

    Although we all have some bias, I will do my best to give an objective view of the place for meditation as part of the bigger picture of Buddhism. I will be brief so this isn’t a dissertation; anyway I don’t think many people are interested as they have their own journey.

    Meditation is inherently difficult, especially the time required for progress, so there will be a huge range of abilities. The experience of separation of awareness and thought (Rigpa), which is the ultimate goal, needs some sort of perspective when achieved or it is just another empty mind experience. From my position, the philosophy and contradictory teachings from various teachers over millennia makes a mess of this simple perspective application of the experience.

    It really is just as simple as ‘I have my awareness which is me, devoid of any thought or emotion, and there is my mind which interacts with the world and does all sorts of human things that I may not like; over time I can control my mind more and make it more like my awareness’. Compassion comes from realising that all beings have this simple, empty awareness that is the common ground for all of us, even if it isn’t accessible to them.

    The philosophy incorporates roles for those that have limited meditation abilities so they can be part of the Dharma through belief and practice. With limited meditation abilities, you can ‘act out’ the revelations of Rigpa with cognitive and behavioural changes.

    You should read this with an arrogance towards meditation as being the real deal and anything else as just going through the motions, because that is how the traditional progress was set up, with you stopping at the limit of your abilities from Sutra, to Tantra to Dzogchen.

  5. Mark Knickelbine says:

    I agree with your conclusions, but I wish you had not used the old canard about secular mindfulness only being about stress reduction. Kabat-Zinn felt he had to name MBSR by referring to specific health outcomes in order for it to be accepted by the medical community. But MBSR has never been about stress reduction, or striving after any particular outcome. It has always been about learning to observe and accept one’s experience as it is so that one can release one’s grasping for life to be perfect and the suffering that goes with it. This is also what I understand to be the point of mindfulness as Gotama taught it — not surprising, since that’s what JKZ was going for — which is why I have said that MBSR is secular Buddhism.

    • Michael Slott says:

      Mark,

      Just to be clear, I didn’t make the broad generalization that secular mindfulness is only about stress reduction. I did say that “some versions of mindfulness practice are limited in that they focus on the relief of stress and helping individuals function with more ease in our current society.” I agree with you that the purpose of one type of mindfulness program – MBSR – goes beyond stress reduction to include a different way of relating to our experience.

      Regarding the connection between MBSR and secular Buddhism, wouldn’t it make more sense to say that MBSR is one of the forms in which secular Buddhism has developed rather than assert, as you do, that “MBSR is secular Buddhism?”

      Mike

  6. TBumble says:

    It is apparent most practitioners are trying to get something out of meditation.
    There is no thing to get.
    “To get” is the antithesis of letting go.
    Our lives are conditioned with the relative understanding progression.
    Letting go is the antithesis of becoming.
    What is the relationship between, not-self and becoming?
    What is the relationship between the effortless effort and becoming?
    Is there a “something” to get?
    Or is that the drama of a mental formation?

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