The following is a transcript from a May 20th, 2012 dialogue between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt, entitled The Future of Religion: a Dialogue, chaired by Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian. Photo credit: Martin Zetter.
James Blake, co-director of London Insight Meditation, writes:
“This is a very lightly edited transcript of the dialogue between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt that took place in May 2012 in London. It aims to capture their words as accurately as possible. Inevitably, the improvised spoken word can read oddly on the page, even in the case of speakers as fluent and eloquent as Don and Stephen. Please therefore remember that this is a record of a live event rather than a prepared, written text. Unless you were at the dialogue, you are recommended to begin by reading Stephen and Don’s initial statements, which they circulated ahead of their meeting.”
The Secular Buddhist Association would like to extend our sincerest thanks to James Blake and Anthea West, co-directors of London Insight Meditation, for their dedication and efforts without which this transcription would not appear on this site.
Madeleine Bunting briefly introduces the speakers and invites each to begin by summarising his position and thinking.
Stephen Batchelor (SB): Thank you. Thank you Madeleine, and thanks also to London Insight, to those of you who have made this possible, and of course the meeting house itself. I am going to just summarise and reflect on the contents of a paper that I think has been circulated here called “A Secular Buddhist”, and I’ll just try to encapsulate what that means for me. First of all, as a secular Buddhist my concern is primarily how we respond to the world in which we live now. I am not interested in how we got here, particularly in some metaphysical sense, through rebirth or whatever, and nor am I particularly interested in what will happen after my death. I remain entirely agnostic about that – I just don’t know. But I feel that the Buddha’s message, particularly that aspect of it that is very much addressing our condition now, is one that concerns the very primary relationship we have to our own experience. And I don’t mean that in a narrowly subjective sense, but rather to the experience we have of sharing this extraordinarily mysterious reality of this world with others, and again not just with other humans but with all other forms of sentient life that have emerged over the course of millions of years of evolution.
As a secular Buddhist, I am also not interested in attaining some timeless state, if you like, called nirvana or some enlightenment or whatever, but rather I am concerned with how each moment of our existence on this earth can be lived most abundantly and most fully. And in that sense, rather than focus on what Buddhists would call the third noble truth, nirvana, I’d focus on the fourth noble truth which is that of the cultivation of the eightfold path, which is really a way of life that engages every aspect of our humanity. Certainly meditation and other spiritual disciplines are an integral part of that, but I would not seek to privilege those kinds of overt spiritual practices somehow as the be all and end all of what a Buddhist practice might be. For me, the word “practice” is one that needs to engage the way I think, the way I speak, the way I physically interact with others, the way I work, the way I earn my living as well as the way I reflect, the way I seek to be more attentive and more focussed, and more concentrated on this experience that’s happening now, and the consequences and actions of my words that will continue to reverberate in the future, including after my death. I get into a lot of trouble with more traditional Buddhists because I have jettisoned the need to have a belief in a series of lifetimes that may have gone on since beginningless time, as Buddhists often say, and one that may continue likewise into some indefinite future. I don’t reject these ideas because I have somehow realised that they are not true or that they are wrong, but rather because I don’t think they work very well any more. They do not fit very well with the kind of understanding we have of the world as we know it now, particularly through the natural sciences. So, it’s not a question of rejecting something, it’s a question of politely leaving aside a metaphysics of multiple lifetimes and all of the various mechanisms that are used to reinforce that view, and instead to concentrate entirely on the world in which we live.
Now to develop this kind of view, a thorough-going secular Buddhism, I think we have to do more than just modify or reform some of the existing Asian Buddhist traditions, although that is of course something that has been happening now for the last fifty years or so: in other words, the modification of Theravada Buddhism or early Buddhism into the vipassana and the mindfulness movements, certain ways in which Zen Buddhism has been transformed into a practice that Christians and Buddhists alike are engaged in. I think we need a rather more radical rethinking of the dharma, what the Buddha taught, and what is that all about, and can we imagine it in a way that enables the wisdom of this tradition to speak in a language that addresses our circumstances, our condition today? I think, and again I feel I am probably very close to Don here, that Buddhism needs to be rethought from the ground up. We somehow, perhaps, are in such a different situation to that in which Buddhism has traditionally worked in Asia, that we might in a way have to start all over again. That can sound very threatening to someone who is invested in certain traditional Buddhist beliefs, but personally I find it very liberating. I think it brings the imagination, creativity into the scope of our practice as Buddhists and leads us obviously into an unknown. I don’t know where these ideas will go, how they will evolve or develop – or not. I just don’t know. I am concerned therefore that the Buddhist tradition somehow engages in a dialogue with modernity, not just a dialogue with other religions, but begins to somehow get to grips with the secular world, secular culture of which we are a part. But paradoxically, perhaps, I feel the way forward here is actually to go back. That means to seek to recover as best we can, at this distance in time, what it was that the Buddha brought to his teaching, that was distinctive and perhaps original and different from what was the world view of India in the fifth century BC when he lived. We fortunately have in English translation bodies of texts known as the Pali Canon in which there is an enormous amount of material, much of which has not really been thoughtfully studied or reflected upon yet, but I do believe offers us an incredibly rich resource to somehow get into the roots of the Buddhist tradition itself. And at the same time, through modern scholarship, we are also learning a great deal more about the social, political, economic and religious and philosophical conditions that prevailed in the Buddha’s world in India at that time, which makes it more and more possible to be able to understand the context in which he gave these speeches. And that I think is very important, so that we let go of the idea that the Buddha was this sort of magnificently enlightened person who just spoke from a condition of unconditioned objective truth, straight out of enlightenment and this was the reality; but rather to recognise that he, like any person, in any historical period, is someone who has to be addressing an audience of other people with particular views and aspirations and needs and longings and sufferings.
So my recent work has been to go back to the Pali texts, to try to recover the historical person of the Buddha, and this has of course brought into focus certain methodological issues. In other words, I can’t just, as it were, go through the Pali Canon and pick and choose the bits I like and say “this is what the Buddha said”. I have to have at least some sort of hermeneutic, some form of interpretation that gives me at least a basis on which to argue my case. So, as a starting point, I try, when I read these texts, to distinguish between what is said by the Buddha, or as it were what the Buddha is said to have said; and if it is a statement that could just as well have been spoken by a Brahmin priest of his time or a Jain monk, then I politely put that to one side, as an example of how people, intelligent, wise people understood the world in that period; and then ask myself, well then, after having done that subtraction, what’s left? What is it that is attributed to the Buddha that cannot be derived from the world view of ancient India? And this I boil down to what I call four “P”s.
First of all, principle. What the Buddha emphasised, in a very unusual way at this time, was the primacy of conditionality and contingency. There is no sense in the early teachings that the Buddha is seeking to unveil or break through to some kind of abstract or absolute truth. And in fact the whole notion of truth is hardly the one the Buddha is concerned with. He was concerned with living in an impermanent, a contingent and an inevitably tragic existence; and how, as human beings, we can come to terms with that in a way that can enable ourselves and our communities to flourish.
The second “P” I call process, and this is the way in which I understand the Buddha to have converted the principle of contingency or conditionality into a way of life. And this way of life is traditionally understood as the four noble truths, but I prefer to think of it as four noble tasks. In other words, not propositions to believe, in other words, truths – this is true, this is false – but rather these four points are really injunctions or suggestions as to how to live, as to what to do. So rather than believing that life is suffering, which is a standard Buddhist belief, to turn that into the injunction. when suffering occurs in my life, how can I embrace this in a way that I am not shying away from it, I’m not denying it, but I’m coming to terms with it – whether it be sickness or the suffering of another person – in a way that leads to a different course of action than the one that I would have habitually and reactively adopted.
The third “P” is practice, and here I mean the practice of paying mindful attention to the phenomenal world. I think what is distinctive about the Buddha’s understanding of meditation is that it is not exclusively introspective. It’s not concerned with delving into the deepest recesses of one’s soul, but rather it is about stilling the mind, opening the mind, and learning to live more in the present, more attentively to what is actually happening moment to moment.
And fourthly, the fourth “P” is power, and I feel for the Buddha, in contrast to the Indian traditions which so heavily rely on the authority of gurus and other spiritual teachers, the Buddha was concerned that his followers become autonomous: they become responsible for their own choices and their own actions and they become what you call aparapaccaya, which means “independent of others in their practice“. It’s very much a practice of learning to stand on your own feet, learning to throw yourself, as it were, into the world, to take risks. Now, curiously, once you focus on these points, which stand out for me as what is original and distinctive about the Buddha’s teaching, we also can notice that these four points concern this world. They are, as it were, the secular dimension of his teaching, that are not concerned with past or future lifetimes or absolute truths, but rather with living more fully and totally and abundantly in this world today. Now this, of course, then gives rise to questions as to what on earth then is Buddhism? Is it a religion? Is it a civilisation? Is it a culture? Is it an ethical system? I think this question really has to be asked afresh, I don’t have a clear-cut answer to that. Traditionally, of course, Buddhism is a religion and it would be foolish to deny that, and I also would not wish in this secular view to abandon the notion of religion.
I feel myself to be a religious person, but I feel that to be more the case in terms of the sorts of questions that most deeply motivate me. What is this life, what is death? Rather than religious in the sense of adhering to a particular set of dogmas or doctrines or beliefs. In some ways this is a sense of religion that is quite close to the old Greek understanding of philosophia, of the love of wisdom, of philosophy. And at the same time we have to ask ourselves afresh: well what do we mean by this central term in Buddhist tradition, usually translated as “enlightenment”? Although I prefer to use the word “awakening”, which is more literally correct. And I would seek to understand this not as the gaining of a privileged, mystical intuition, some sort of special state of consciousness that we might arrive at at one point or another. But rather to think of awakening, which conveniently in the English gerundive form can also suggest a process, that awakening is about living one’s life in all aspects in a more wakeful, in a more alert and even a more enlightened way perhaps. So to think of the goal of Buddhist practice as not about a state of enlightenment, but rather as an ongoing enactment and embodiment of certain values and ideals that we seek to bring into our experience of the world we share with one another. Thank you.
Don Cupitt (DC): Thank you very much Stephen. And I, by contrast, or not by contrast, am a secular Christian, that’s to say I am a person for whom our language gives us only one world and it is this world, and only one life and it is this life. Our language was developed by us, language was not taught to men by the gods originally. We developed our language amongst ourselves for certain purposes of our life in this world and we cannot usefully pretend to be able to jump right out of this world and talk sense about the supposed invisible, supernatural world above.
Since the rise of the novel to be our most popular literary form, we seem to have taken secular humanism for granted. Since the rise of the novel – when did that begin: about 1720? With Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe beginning things, the novel approaches maturity in Samuel Richardson and perfection in Jane Austen. So notice that in Mansfield Park, a novel which is also expressly about ordination, Mr Rushworth in the second book, about chapter seven, takes a party, the Crawfords, and the Bertrams and Fanny Price, round his old house at Sotherton Court. They come to the chapel and discover that it is now disused, and a debate about the decline of religion ensues. Jane Austen lives in a world that is already secular humanist, because it is the world of the novel, but it is also profoundly Anglican because half her heroines marry clergymen, who are thought of as perfectly eligible husbands.
And yet Jane Austen is aware of the decline of religion. You could say that for her Christianity and culture still simply coincide. People are Christian in attitude and they are often strongly Christian in ethics. Think how Fanny has the courage to raise the question of the abolition of slavery at the dinner table. And her remark, her silly question, is followed by the most dreadful silence, because Thomas Bertram’s fortune and his great house and way of life depend entirely on large plantations in the West Indies. So shocking is the question that it’s not described directly in the novel but it is simply recalled afterwards in conversation. So people are still strongly Christian in ethics and in their attitude to life in Jane Austen, but already the culture is wholly secular, but a culture shaped by Christian ethics. You could say that it is already a bit of a post-Christian culture. Perhaps the culture began to go secular very soon after science replaced religion as the main provider of the dominant cosmology of society. People moved from Genesis to Sir Isaac Newton. Now this acceptance of the secular humanism of the novel was also very marked in Iris Murdoch, whom I met once or twice. She says somewhere “life has no outside”. She said to me in conversation “the novel is our best totalising medium”, which means that the novel is expressly directed at exploring human life in purely human words, purely human language. And in the novel you can say virtually everything that needs to be said. So Iris Murdoch said that, even though she was herself so strongly Platonist, which is surprising. I didn’t manage, in one conversation I had with her, to get whether she held any realistic belief in transcendent moral values or ethical standards or aesthetic standards. My own arguments about the way our language only gives us one world, this world, the human world, that’s an argument in Wittgenstein, which argument you can already find foreshadowed in Plato himself, 2,000 years before.
Now when did the dissatisfaction of Stephen and myself with organised religion begin? If you recall, at the end of the war, Europe lay in ruins and everybody’s first impulse was to try to rebuild the old Europe. As you see in northern France or in Berlin, there was a good deal of reconstruction of pretty much the old place as it had looked before, or as near as we could afford at a time when we were very poor. So, similarly, the old ideologies of Europe were also reconstructed, even though many of the young felt deeply dissatisfied. They felt that these ideologies had failed, had led to conflict. Europe was faltering, in need of a fresh start, but the breakthrough didn’t actually occur until the early sixties. Until then, as we know, the main debate was between Roman Catholicism and communism. In the novels of someone like Graham Greene, for example. These two ideologies were very similar. They were disciplinarian ideologies that subjected you to the power of a great institution that governed you rather strictly now, and made you defer all sorts of satisfactions for the sake of a better time that you were promised hereafter. So the dictatorship of the proletariat was rather like the rule of the Code of Canon Law, as a Catholic priest once said in a sermon I heard. He himself must have felt the force of the analogy: that so many of the great supernaturalist ideologies put you under an authoritarian discipline now and promise you a better world hereafter. If their promise isn’t true you’ve wasted the only life you’ve got preparing yourself for another life you’re not going to have!
This strikes me somewhat in the case of the poetry of Christina Rossetti. There must be people here who know her. One of the best Victorian woman poets and a very interesting Christian poet, but a lot of her poetry shows a preoccupation with death and a fear of waste and futility. So, dissatisfaction with the great historic ideologies with which human life is surrounded, which had schooled us for centuries, became stronger during the fifties and broke out in the sixties. It was in the sixties that we began to get a shift away from institutional religion towards spirituality. A shift away from ecclesiastical theology towards what I call kingdom religion, a shift away from the supernatural Nicene Creed to the original historical Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. And notice how the leading figures of the sixties came to look like Jesus, noticeably John Lennon, Che Guevara and so on.
The important thing: people were giving up two-world dualism and accepting that this life is all there is, and you’d better start living the last kind of life in the last world now. Because this is the last life you’ll ever have. You’re already living in the last world. For at least fifteen hundred years beforehand, probably two thousand, most people had been persuaded that this world we live in is the penultimate world, it’s a preparatory world. In it we accept discipline. We’re school children, to use the New Testament metaphor – a common one in Greek philosophy too. We’re school children under discipline, preparing ourselves for a better world to come. The better world may be located up there or it may be located in the far future and we’ll come to it one day. But at any rate it had been believed for a long time that this world, this life, are preparatory only. Whereas in the sixties you began to believe that you really were living in the last world.
And here I was influenced for over twenty years by reading of the extraordinary horror of death in so many men of my own generation. Think of the works of Philip Larkin above all. Philip Larkin’s last great poem, about 1970: it’s an absolutely terrifying poem about his horror of death. It keeps him awake all night. He drinks in the evening and thinks about death creeping towards him and about the emptiness and futility of death. He’ll do anything to stave it off because the old consolations don’t work anymore. That kind of dread of death is intensely strong also in Martin Amis and in Julian Barnes and in many a novelist. John Betjeman of course has it all the time, even though he clings half to Roman Catholicism – sorry, Anglo-Catholicism. Perhaps a bit like Christina Rossetti; the other half of him knows that that old ideology doesn’t work anymore.
I think it was because of that – that there was a kind of upsurge of hope for the Kingdom of God, hope for paradise now, hope for the possibility of eternal happiness, in this life, in the sixties – that the period was so important. It produced a lot of radical theology at the time, but none of the radical theology, as it now seems, was radical enough. And so in my own most recent work, which is still being published, I have tried to go a lot further than the theologians of the sixties in rebuilding Christianity around the original teachings of the original Jesus.
Now here we’ve changed a lot, and we don’t even have to think about the revolution. In 1906, Albert Schweitzer published The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a survey of the great nineteenth-century attempts to find out who Jesus was, using the methods of Christian history and the imagination of a novelist. What would he be like? But Schweitzer argued that the quest failed. The hope was that when the original Jesus had been discovered, he would become the basis for a reform of Christianity. And what we in fact found, by the end of the nineteenth century, was that Jesus expected a violent supernatural eruption of the Kingdom of God into this world, a world catastrophe. And he was disappointed, he died disappointed. He died calling on Elijah to come, because Elijah was around at the end of the world in Jewish belief. He died in vain. And Schweitzer gave almost all Christian theology since then the idea that the historical Jesus was not relevant to Christianity. And then people began to realise that, in the creed, the life and teaching of the historical Jesus has disappeared into the comma between ”born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”. His whole life had been cut out.
It was perhaps for that reason that Bultmann, who followed Schweitzer, felt able to say that the life of Jesus himself happened entirely within Judaism, and Christianity began with the apostolic teaching. What seems to have happened is that Jesus’s own ethic and way of life and spirituality were terribly challenged by his violent death. And the question was whether the little community could survive, to build on his legacy. They struggled to conserve his legacy, and they built upon a tradition, perhaps, that Mary of Magdala, a village only a few miles away from Jesus’s own home at Capernaum, had had visions of him after his death. Now such hallucinations of a dead person are very common even in modern England. Surveys show that they are very common indeed. If somebody undergoes a violent death, something deeply shocking, we may have a hallucination that they are still alive. There is a Wordsworth sonnet where he turns to speak to his dead child, “Surprised by Joy”.
But out of this the apostles – I personally believe it happened in the late forties – built the belief that the dead Jesus had been exalted to heaven and the old world order had been granted a period of extra time during which the church would, under the leadership of the apostles, gather together a larger crowd of people to await the return of Jesus at the end of time. Which would not be far away. So originally church theology arose as a supernatural doctrine and system of government or community that would fill the gap in the interim period between Jesus’s crucifixion and death and his awaited return. But what happened was that, precisely in the Catholicising development of Christianity, the church, which had originally been a short-term holding operation, a kind of night watchman, became permanent. Notice how in Catholicism, the Pope’s power eventually extends even beyond this life. The church on earth becomes a church triumphant in heaven, so the church is never going to give way to a kingdom.
That’s why in Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, when Jesus does return, the authorities turn him away. He’s not required, people don’t want him anymore. The ecclesiastical system, originally designed as a holding operation, had become permanent. People suppose that the apparatus of mediated religion is Christianity itself. But rather, I take it now that the historic ecclesiastical structure of Christianity eventually blocked out Jesus himself and his message.
Since the sixties there has been a revival of the historical quest for Jesus, perhaps partly stimulated by the revival of hopes for something like the Kingdom of God, in which “all you need is love”, in the 1960s. Flower power, hippies, “all you need is love”, that implied a return of hope for the sort of world that Jesus had envisaged. That led to a gradual, fresh attempt to find the historical Jesus. The most thorough-going and large-scale attempt was made by Robert Funk and his associates at an organisation called the Westar Institute in California. The medium was something called the Jesus Seminar, which is a series of conferences rather like this, held over a ten-year period, twice a year at least, building a large assembly of New Testament scholars gathered to debate all the surviving traditions about Jesus. Now these were people fully technically equipped. They isolated 1,330 sayings of Jesus and they classified them, after debate, into groups. Firstly, those sayings that most clearly reflect Jesus himself: some sayings are more distinctive and surprising than others, and some less so. So of the 1330, they put 29 sayings in the top category. That is less than 2% of the whole, obviously. Then there are sayings coloured by the reinterpretations of Jesus’s immediate followers, and imported sayings that had no connection with the Jesus tradition at all.
But Robert Funk and his associates did print a version of the New Testament, with the different kinds of sayings shown in different colours, and you can read from it, extract from it, the picture the Jesus Seminar came up with. Now I don’t quite agree with all their work, but no less than 400 highly qualified New Testament scholars took part in the debates. Eighty leading New Testament scholars signed the final document, and it is more interesting than you might think. Having gone over it in my own attempt at a philosophical critique of the Jesus tradition, I do differ from them on some points. There is a summary which will be published very shortly, a very brief summary of what I think the Jesus tradition was about.
What happened, you see, was that the original Jesus taught what I usually call kingdom religion or solar living. It is a secular religion of active self-outing. A human being is not an immortal soul but only a one-way process. I am my own life. I am burning, and burned out with love for life and for the fellow human. Living all-out, extroverted solar living is what some New Testament writers think of as eternal life, now and in the present moment. When you live like that you’re not on the way to any other world, you’re already in the last world, and you have left mediated religion behind. You don’t now know of any objective order or any separate, objective God, nor any separate supernatural order. You have reached the realm where the secular/sacred distinction is no longer required, and it disappears. Which is why, of course, Jesus criticises the secular/sacred distinction so sharply. He fiercely attacks tradition, he fiercely attacks ordinary human ideas of justice as based on envy or dissatisfaction, and he fiercely attacks religious professionals and institutions. He is simply indifferent to the law and to the temples and even the synagogues. He can’t imagine entering any of those places without causing trouble. And in fact, in the New Testament gospels, there’s only one occasion where Jesus goes to a synagogue or temple without causing trouble. He goes to the temple and there is nobody there. He can’t cause any trouble. He goes away disappointed and comes back the next day. His attitude is entirely extroverted. You should come out, you should live all out, you are your own life.
I try to teach these points to students by quoting Nietzsche’s comment on the phrase “Lightning strikes”. Grammatically, you might be led to think: first there’s something called lightning, and then there’s something called striking that it does. But there’s not, says Nietzsche. There’s only one thing, the strike. We are not an immortal substance that happens for a little while to be thrown into time, like a stone into a river, and all you have to do is not get dirty. I am my own living of my own life, and when I can fully live out life co-incident with my own temporality and contingency, then I live in a kind of standing now. The first time this thought struck me was in the eighties, when I was feeling gloomy about the thought that I was passing away very fast. And then I thought, well, actually I am passing away at exactly the same speed as everything else. And that was the first thing that gave me the idea that it might be possible for humans to live in a nunc stans like God. A standing now in which you fully accept your own temporality, which exactly coincides with time. You get rid of that old Western idea of wanting to retreat into inwardness, trying to find some way of taking a step out of this world and out of time. Well, in the world as I want to describe it, God is dispersed into the general brightness of the world. So you try to live for the moment. In the old days, if you were a very scrupulous Catholic, you worried about whether it was right even to enjoy an ice cream! You were worried because every act was valued in terms of whether it assisted your eternal salvation at the end of time. And you went to your confessor if you’d ever enjoyed anything purely for its own pleasure in the here and now. It’s that kind of spirituality that I completely reject.
Instead, then, we try to become completely satisfied with our own outpouring transience. We live by self-outing and self-giving. We live a dying life, burning like a candle until we burn out. We live all-out, completely identified with and even affirming our own transience. It’s to live in an eternal now, as God was said to do. In effect, God has become fully internalised. That’s a very brief indication of the teaching which I now attribute to the original Jesus, and the position and philosophy of life to which I have moved in the last fifteen years. Notice that the recent view of what Jesus taught – you have to look at the Sermon on the Mount and I have tried to give an indication of how you should mark up the various passages so you can sort it out – but notice that long passage: Jesus has a very long passage in which he says that the traditional religious works of the Jews, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, have all got to be done secretly so that your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing. There’s tremendous emphasis on secrecy, but at the same time there are other passages where Jesus says the opposite. He says “let it all hang out”, you are a light, you are a city on a hill, you should make yourself seen, you should not worry about tomorrow, you shouldn’t think long-term at all. You should live and learn now. And when you’ve remarked the contradictions in the Sermon on the Mount for the first time in your life, you’ll be amazed that nobody’s noticed it before. The tradition of the original Jesus was gradually transformed to create the ecclesiastical Jesus and two-world dualism. You’ve got to get the knack of reading the Gospels, and seeing the revision of Jesus that is going on. The original, extraordinarily strong, this-worldly here and now urgency; and the long-termist Catholic Jesus preaching “keeping your real self hidden”, being a kind of amphibian living in two worlds at once. Jesus believed in only one world, which is why he is actually more relevant to us today. Actually, today I think the original Jesus is much more interesting than the ecclesiastical Jesus created in the apostolic faith. I must shut up!
MB: Right, time for a few thoughts. I wondered if you wanted to comment, Stephen?
SB: Well, I think it probably is fairly self-evident that Don and I are thinking along very similar lines. And I am sure, as he was speaking, you could hear echoes of the same terminology like transience, which is a very central Buddhist idea. And likewise, I have to admit that my Buddhism is in some ways a Christian Buddhism. And to acknowledge that one cannot, if one has grown up in this culture, even though as in my case I never went to church – I did not grow up in a religious family, I was excluded from religious education in school – but simply to grow up in, let’s say, Britain, is to be exposed to a culture, as Don said, that is profoundly informed by the Christian ethos. And much in the same way that when Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha, went to China, for example, it was picked up by Taoists, Confucianists, and inevitably the sort of Buddhism that emerged in China was a Taoist or a Confucianist Buddhism. Take Zen Buddhism, for example, you could just as well call it Buddhist Taoism. There is a synthesis of traditions. And I think what I inevitably, as a westerner who was converted to Buddhism, have to acknowledge, is that my reading and my sensibility of Buddhist texts are informed by my western, i.e, Judeo-Christian mindset. So, in a similar way, in my writing, since my first book was published in 1983, there have been continual influences and resonances and quite explicit borrowings from the work of radical Christian theologians. Initially of Paul Tillich, who was very important for me, and more latterly the work of Don himself and people like Lloyd Geering and others. And I suppose therefore my arguments for a secular Buddhism are to some extent arising out of the same kinds of concerns that Don has articulated.
But I do not call myself a Christian. My primary sense of religious identity, let’s say, is rooted in the Buddhist tradition, going increasingly further back to the primary sources. And I am also – and again I am not alone in this – getting to the point of discovering that what the Buddha probably did say is not necessarily what Buddhism says. And you can see a very similar development after the Buddha’s death as one does in the history of Christianity: the adoption of the Buddha’s ideas and teachings and concepts, and yet the progress of a kind of ecclesiastical organisation of those ideas. Both in terms of your rather scholarly theology, and also in terms of a rather more hierarchical, institutional structure, neither of which are evident in the early texts of the Buddha himself. So I follow, in a way, a similar progression, not going back as the Jesus Seminar does to a new reading of the Gospels and the life of Jesus, but applying in a very similar way reflection and hopefully critical analysis of these early texts. Which enabled me likewise to be surprised at what the Buddha said, when you strip away or suspend the doctrines of Buddhism. And it’s odd, because strangely it is not as though this is hidden. It’s just that it is very difficult to read these texts without the legacy of Buddhist orthodoxy of one school or another. So you could read a passage and somehow you have to learn how to suspend the conditioning, the filtering of what you are seeing that text through the lens of, in order to be surprised by the immediacy, by the directness, of what is actually going on, on the page.
MB: That’s interesting, because I have listened to what you say and there are questions that come to my mind about how then you understand tradition. Because at some points it sounds like you are both quite iconoclastic, that you want to throw tradition out. And there’s still enough of a traditional believer in me that thinks, “Whoa, not so fast”. Because, after all, we wouldn’t be here discussing either the ideas of the Buddha or the ideas of Christ without a thousand years of very, very human tradition. And there was one thing which struck me very forcibly, actually, when I read your book, Stephen, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. The life of the Buddha, in many more ways that I have ever realised, is parallel with that of Jesus, which was a life of terrible suffering and persecution and marginalisation. So in both cases these were really rebellious, radical prophetic figures who could very easily have got completely forgotten. And yet it’s the tradition, for all its many, many faults – I completely can see your point that they are deeply human structures of belief and thought and institution etc. – but they have actually ensured the survival of very, very challenging ideas.
DC:: I think it is quite right that I remain within the Christian tradition myself and write mainly for other people brought up in that tradition, and Stephen stays within the Buddhist tradition. I think myself that in the long run we’re going to need a global religious language, as we’ve already got the beginnings of a global moral language in the universal declaration of human rights. Talk of individual human rights and the rule of law and justice begins to give us a universal moral vocabulary. But we haven’t got that in the case of religion because our three great universal religions, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, are so widely divergent in theology, and historically have tended rather to exclude each other. So I think for the moment it is right that Stephen and I should try to modernise our own traditions. And in the discussions of the future attempt a synthesis in which we respect the past and continue to frequently revisit it, while we are trying to create a common vision for the globalised world in which we’ve already got fully globalised means of communication we use every day, the English language and the internet.
The world is so globalised that unless we develop some sort of global religious vocabulary, very little religion is going to survive, I fear. Because at the moment the tendency is for extremely rapid decline. In England, for example, the annual rate of decline of the Church of England and other institutional churches was around half a per cent a year in the nineteenth century, around one per cent a year around 1900 to1960. Since 1960 around two per cent a year. It’s a slowly, slowly accelerating decline of the institutional kind of religion. Did you know that the Church of England a hundred years ago had 23,000 priests and today has only 8,000? That shows how rapidly it is all melting away, and I find myself thinking Christianity, as a religion, is largely forgotten. But the people who say they are most Christian know least about the Bible. The logic of religious thought itself is largely lost already, so I think we have to keep our own traditions going a little. And then we can learn from them and argue within them in the hope of rescuing something for the future.
So, in the long run I want a global vocabulary, but not by breaking completely with our inherited traditions. That’s how I respond to Alain de Botton’s suggestion that in the future we might have atheist cathedrals. I don’t agree. I think we should continue visiting the holy places of the past, whether it’s Stonehenge or the cathedral at Wells. We should continue to visit such places and learn from them and commune with them. We look through the eyes of other people who lived before us. They are still part of us, they contribute to what we are.
SB: Yes I also feel that we need to honour the traditions. I am acutely aware that I would not be doing what I do, writing what I write, had Buddhist institutions not managed to survive for hundreds of years in Asia. Institutions that I might criticise now as being rather rigid and conservative and so forth, but without which the richness of the insights and the practices would be lost. And I am enormously indebted to particularly my Tibetan teachers, who literally from one day to the next, when the howitzers started going off in Lhasa, fled across the Himalayas to an unknown land with nothing other than what they carried on their backs. And these are the men from whom I learnt and had my education as a Buddhist monk. So clearly, to me, tradition is of vital importance and I am very concerned in fact that by over-interpreting and maybe over-secularising we might lose, or risk losing, something very important.
At the same time I think that we have to distinguish between a living tradition and a dying tradition. A living tradition surely is one that is in constant ongoing conversation with its own past, which is a phrase I picked up in the writing of the American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who also says that traditions are “continuities of conflict”. I feel it is only when there is conflict that in a way the religious and spiritual life really comes alive. The danger that we can also see, particularly with certain more fundamentalist forms of religion, is that dialogue, conversation, conflict, interpretation, tend to be suppressed. And there I think a deadening begins to set in. So I feel that although I may be criticised for taking too great a liberty with certain Buddhist texts and traditions, I feel that, in the bigger picture, I am trying to keep alive an animated discussion, a discourse and language that will allow the tradition to breathe afresh. And at the same time I also am very sympathetic to the idea that we begin to evolve religious language not so tightly locked into a particular creed, but that is able somehow to become more universal, and may even stop sounding like religious language. It may simply be the way that we articulate our deepest and our most passionate concerns about our life on this earth. But again I feel that could be somewhat idealistic.
MB: I am going to take a few questions and comments.
Question from the audience about the meaning of “secularism”
DC: Historically, a saeculum, in Latin, is an age or epoch of world history. And in Christian use, particularly Latin, Roman Catholic, the Latin tradition, the contrast was between religious and secular realms. The religious included the church, the clergy, the religious houses, that whole realm governed by religious law and controlled by religion. And the secular world, there’s a whole civil life, public life in politics and so on. So secularisation in European history, from the eighteenth century onwards, is a process by which institutions and practices were taken out of church control and handed over to the civil powers of the state. So the secularisation of education, for example, happened when church schools began to be replaced by state schools in England, after 1870. But in modern use by philosophers, secularism is fairly close to naturalism. And that means we desire to see everything on one level and to avoid explanation by jumping to an entirely different order of being, for example to a supernatural world. So secular explanations are scientific, couched in terms of this world or this life. It’s true the words are slightly confusing in English, secular and worldly and so on. So I agree there is a large vocabulary here and it’s a bit confusing. I don’t think the terms in which Stephen and I use the words are particularly difficult.
SB: Well, I think the definition you [meaning the questioner] offered of secularism was somewhat arbitrary, but on the other hand I do think that the points that you raise are significant ones. I would tend to see the approach which I have vis-à-vis Buddhism as certainly one that needs to be extremely alert to simply succumbing to a popular sort of ideology, of which it might be so much part of our culture that we barely notice it. So I do think that kind of constant critical reflection on how we speak and how we communicate is of considerable importance. But whether that constitutes the meaning of secularity or not, I’m not so sure. I’ll leave it at that.
MB: Any other comments or questions?
Question from audience about the place and meaning of humanitarianism in secular Christianity
DC: For an immediate comment on that, I do think the rise of humanitarian ethics in the modern period is a very good example of the way in which as doctrine declines, ethics gets stronger. “Humanitarianism” entered the English language about 1800 or 1810, and it was a doctrine held by those who affirmed only the humanity of Christ. In the preaching of F. W. Robertson in the 1830s and 40s, humanitarianism begins to be used in an ethical sense, which in the manner of many Victorians compared the sufferings of Christ to the sufferings of the poor in the back streets of your own city. After that, for a long time, humanitarians were ridiculed. The word was a dirty word like “do-gooder” or “bleeding heart”. I think everybody here will have noticed that the word humanitarian has come into very frequent use since the 60s, and nowadays it’s in your newspaper every day. I think we have a good idea of what it means. To my mind it’s good evidence that Western culture is still ethically profoundly influenced by Christianity.
So yes, broadly speaking, if you want to know what sort of ethics my solar living supports, I am broadly a humanitarian. And I very strongly support the great advance in the use of that word that’s taken place. Take for example the English response to the Irish potato famine of 1848. It was terrible. Nobody gave a damn. The English gentry in Ireland simply locked their park gates while the people starved, and nothing was done. That couldn’t happen now. Nowadays if something doesn’t work, we know we ought to do something, and surprising efforts are made still. Although the problems of world poverty and worse, as we know, still exist. But there are great international humanitarian organisations and that’s a very good thing. Or let me give you another example. In Indochina, because of the big American influence, there are now big drug problems and so on, and interestingly Buddhist monks have taken on something of the Franciscan role of organising a mission to the poor in some of the most devastated regions, in places like Cambodia. That is a very interesting example of how Christian ethics are a lot more interesting and longer-lasting than Christian doctrine.
MB: There were two more questions.
Question from audience about the foundation of ethics in secular Buddhism and Christianity
Question from audience about whether there is a place in secular Buddhism or Christianity for a mythical dimension
SB: So let me just try to give a response to all three questions. To the first one, the importance of action: in other words, how, if one holds such an understanding of the Christian or the Buddhist teachings, do you then translate those moral values into forms of action that impact with the sufferings of the world as we know them. And there is a movement now, quite a strong movement in the teaching of Buddhism in the west, which calls itself engaged Buddhism. Some of the great proponents of that would, obviously, be the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh all of whom use this language of engagement. And they do so, I think, because they are rebelling against a kind of history of disengagement. I think it’s true to say that in many of the traditional Asian countries, particularly in the last two or three hundred years, Buddhism has been very inward-looking and very conservative, and has not actually been a vital force in the actual social and political life of those countries. But I think the danger of adopting a term like engaged Buddhism is that it can sometimes just be a kind of knee-jerk reaction to criticism such as, “Buddhists only watch their navels and meditate, we must get up and do something”. And there I go back to the previous question. We can often just uncritically take on board certain contemporary emphases and just try to meld them onto Buddhism. I feel that once again this requires us to go back into the deeper sources of the Buddhist tradition. And to recognise that, at the outset, from what we can understand, the Buddha’s idea of practice and how to live the dharma was not reducible just to becoming, as it were, the good meditator, or becoming somehow spiritually proficient at certain exercises and attaining exalted states of consciousness. But was in fact the putting into embodied action of a whole way of life which includes the way we see things, think about them, the way we speak, the way we act, the way we make use of resources. All of this I feel has to be recovered today, and that means we no longer need to utilise terminology like engaged Buddhism. I think Buddhism, if we understand it, at root is unavoidably about an engagement. If it’s lost that, we need, I fear, to recover the deeper source of that original vision.
The question that followed had to do with the relinquishing of traditional metaphysical beliefs like that of God, or karma or rebirth, which have been seen to be somehow necessary as a foundation for making ethical and moral decisions and choices. Once again I feel that if we go back to the early Buddhist sources, we do indeed find the Buddha speaking that language. It would be foolish to say otherwise. We also, following my particular way of discovering what is original to the Buddha’s teaching, find many ethical statements that do not require a belief in the doctrine of karmic cause and effect. And a very good one I have an example of here: this is from the Sutta Nipata, which is one of the earliest passages in the Pali Canon. And this is what the Buddha says: “Just as I am, so are they; as they are, so am I; comparing oneself with others, he should not kill or cause to kill”. This to me is an entirely adequate basis for moral and ethical action, without requiring any kind of metaphysics. And it is also of course strikingly similar to the Christian idea of doing unto others as you would have them do unto yourself. Although this is a fairly obscure passage: Buddhist ethics and morality has been spoken of largely in terms of karma and rebirth and so on. We have to remember that that is just the way Indian religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, commonly frame the justification for doing good. I think we can go back to earlier sources in which that metaphysic is no longer necessary, and not on humanist grounds but on grounds that go back to the Buddha himself. I think we have a perfectly adequate foundation for ethics.
Thirdly, the question about myth. I feel that the problem with mythological language in Buddhism is that it has often been mistaken for being factual or historical. So, for example, the story of the Buddha growing up in a palace, and then leaving the palace and seeing a sick person, an old person, and so on. This is traditionally treated as a historical account. And, curiously, that story doesn’t occur in the early texts. But the danger is then to say, “we don’t need that story”. I do think we need that story, because it may not have historical power or truth, but it has profound mythical truth. In other words that legend, let’s call it, is able to speak to our humanity in a way that we can all resonate with. It’s probably one of the few bits of Buddhism that is widely known outside of Buddhism itself, that story which is a myth. And it’s a myth that encapsulates in a very simple and clear way the question of “how do I live in this world now?” And so it would be a grave mistake to throw out the myth with the bathwater, as it were. I think we need to differentiate between mythic language, which has its own rules, its own use, its own power, and just not confuse it with quasi-historical or other kinds of discourse. And I feel we would lose a great deal in our imaginative, creative life if we somehow tried to reduce everything to dry cold statements.
DC: On ethics, another historical curiosity, the most influential book on Christian spirituality ever written is The Rule of St Benedict of the sixth century. On the basis of which the monastic order has flourished to this day. In that rule, there is a rule saying not to hang about the monastery gates talking to outsiders. The monk is supposed to concentrate on turning away from other human beings and towards God. He’s supposed to think first and foremost of the salvation of his own soul. It was because of that extreme spiritual individualism that early Christianity was so unsatisfactory in the ethical sphere. The first book with the title Christian Ethics was from the late seventeenth century. It only became common in English in the nineteenth century, the great age of humanitarian social reform and so on. So it’s only quite recently that something more like a satisfactory Christian view of ethics has developed.
On Christian ethics, yes, Nietzsche somewhere makes a very good point, he says “why did human beings ever evolve self-consciousness?” And he gives an extremely intelligent answer: so that we can imagine what other people are feeling. And that’s why in ethics, compassion, “feeling with”, or in Greek sympathy, or in Pali metta, fellow-feeling, is so fundamental to ethics. Ethics doesn’t mean divine law, it means consciousness and fellow feeling and that is a good starting point. In my own writings I think I make a sharp distinction between the negative and the positive emotions. The negative ones or reactive ones are ones where we react against other people, and the appropriate ones where we go out to them in sympathy or whatever. The negative emotions: I saw about 70 listed in a recent book and I suddenly realised they could go on forever. We have an extraordinary innate tendency, almost, to react to other people with suspicion or wariness or hostility or envy or blind hatred or prejudice or whatever. Learning simply to be open to others, learning to live freely with others, takes time. I don’t think religious laws such as the ten commandments are a good basis for ethics at all. I think the best basis is simply self-awareness and sympathy. I think the Buddhists might agree on that.
SB: Absolutely. And the myth?
DC: On myth, we all need to tell stories. One of the ones we need to tell is the story of the religious meaning of our own lives. When people join the Sea of Faith, one of the first things they want to tell is how they got here. Everyone, I think, nowadays has a personal myth, a personal view about the path their own journey has taken. In the old days a philosophy was spoken of as a path in life through which one hoped to achieve happiness. I think that’s true for a lot of people still. People need to work out their own view of life. They need to understand the story of their own lives. One of the reasons why we set up the Sea of Faith was because there are so many people who had been to church for thirty years and no-one ever asked what they thought about anything important.
Part two of dialogue
Question from audience about the spiritual life as a journey, and whether it has a destination
DC: I was first ordained in June 1959, a good while ago, but my intellectual pilgrimage goes back even before that. I came to something very close to my present view in the mid-nineties.
Historically the Church greatly valued stability, but of course in the modern period, the pace of cultural change is so great that we are bound to change our faith, our view of life, considerably over the decades. All men of my time, my age, have had to be massively reconstructed, for example.
As a small boy I stuck pins into butterflies – I wouldn’t dream of doing that now. So the old metaphor, life is a journey, I think today is relevant to everybody. Because the Buddhist monk was peripatetic anyway.
Question from audience about abortion, the place of the body in spirituality, and spiritual community
Question from audience about how Stephen and Don would feel if scholarship demonstrated that the Buddha and Jesus “believed all kinds of stuff that you didn’t like”
Question from audience about the future of community in an age of technological change
Question from audience as to whether Quaker meetings might be a model for a future secular religion
DC: I will answer that by mentioning the Quakers themselves, who are consciously post-ecclesiastical. The church is always very hierarchical, it’s always creedal, has always oriented towards a very strong conception of the supernatural world; whereas Quakerism, from the first, was modelled on the idea of the Kingdom of God. It is egalitarian, it has no hierarchy, it still has no compulsory creed.
On some of the other issues about morality and community that people have raised, I think some of these issues we won’t quickly settle. Inseparable as they are from the nature of language and the nature of modern culture, new ethical difficulties are arising all the time. For example, if a Neanderthal man were to walk into this room today, would we treat him as a member of the moral community or not? That issue arose in the past when people debated whether the orang-utan should be baptised or not. But nowadays we know that there were several species of Homo, but we haven’t yet thought how many were baptisable! This is an area on which traditional authorities cannot possibly give you any guidance.
On questions such as abortion, I understand why some people put forward the question of the mother’s control over her own reproductive system and so on as the mother’s choice, but others would say, pregnancy is a perfectly healthy condition, society ought to support the mother and avoid abortion as long as possible. And debates between the different views on that have continued for generations and will continue for quite a while yet. I think we have to accept there is no one great system of moral truth. Our evaluations, our ethics are under constant review, renegotiation, and have to be.
MB: What about the difficult evidence about Jesus, if it turned up?
DC: It is very interesting. In my own case, I actually put forward my ethics, my solar ethics, independently of the authority of Jesus in 1995. I only applied it to Jesus two or three years ago, and nowadays I don’t make Jesus a dogmatic authority. I simply say he was the first one to get it about right.
I am constantly prepared to rethink and so on. There’s a famous Japanese saying, “if you meet the Buddha on the road kill him”. Which being translated means simply don’t fetishise your religious objects and ideas, and we should never do that. Of course there are things in the existing gospel tradition which are hard to reconcile with Christian ethics, for example where he says you can’t be his disciple unless you hate your father and mother.
I talk about the Quakers as a kingdom kind of Christianity. I think myself I don’t really want a hierarchical regime of truth to exist in Christianity at all in the future. I don’t want there to be a policing of truth by any institution which claims to own the franchise. No, I prefer outfits like the Sea of Faith, the Quakers, meetings like this, and on occasions like this I am at ease. I am not at ease with authority. That’s why I got myself removed from the list of those permitted by the Bishop of Ely to officiate in his diocese. I am very libertarian, if I were to be a member of any religious community, it would be exploratory, it might be like Sea of Faith, it might be like this.
MB: Stephen, before you answer all those questions, can I ask you a question which the gentleman in the second row asked? If we don’t have a God or don’t have a concept of karma, where does our morality come from? And it seems to me that the way Buddhism is dealing with that in the West now, is that it is saying: if you want to be happy you have to become a Buddhist of some kind, in the sense “don’t inflict suffering, pursue an ethical life”. But it becomes a goal dangled in front of you, this is the way to be happy. Is a lot of Buddhism’s teaching about happiness a way of trying to promote itself in the West? I just wondered if you could comment on that.
SB: Well, I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly. I think a great parallel with how Buddhism is presented as being about happiness is that its very first teaching is to embrace suffering and dukkha – the first truth. And the parallel with this is that if one really wishes to live a life fully and abundantly, that requires us to be entirely honest and forthright with the reality of the world as it is, rather than in some imagined perfected future. So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life. And that to me, in other words the question of meaning and fulfilment, is more important than whether I feel happy or not. One could argue it’s better to live a happy life with the accent on fulfilment and meaning rather than on the feeling of happiness.
DC: I agree with that. There’s no sense in making happiness your chief aim in life because anybody at any time can be overtaken by disaster of one kind or another. I like the tradition of the Christian theme of joy in affliction. Religion can bring you to a point where you can survive, you get through even the worst things.
SB: So shall I carry on with the questions? Almost all of which centre around the issue of community. So let me just make a few reflections on that. I think one of the great conflicts, tensions, in contemporary religion, spirituality, is that, in our culture, we give great importance to individual self-realisation. And that often is conceived of as more important than, as it were, being part of a living community where we often have to subordinate our own interests to those of others. So there is I think a primary conflict between individualism and the sorts of values that even in the Buddhist sangha or in the Christian church – and again church in a real sense of the word is the body of Christ – do run into very sharp conflict.
So, to me one of the very great challenges, and I’ll speak just in terms of Buddhism now, is how can we somehow maintain and cultivate community without, as it were, losing our individuality? And how can we flourish as individuals without alienating ourselves from others? And for me a living community is one that is comprised of a set of relationships between people with more or less common values, in which each person seeks to support the personal flourishing of each other. And this is an idea, actually, I picked up from Martin Buber, who in a book he wrote, I can’t remember which one, many years ago made a distinction between a community and a collective. A collective is a group of people who somehow are bound together by a set of common beliefs or practices. And your participational belonging to that collective entails your toeing the party line. And if you step out of line, you are ejected from the community, and we can see that in politics, we can see it in Buddhism and we can see it in Christianity – in all faiths. That for us today, I think, is too narrow a concept of what community could be. So, I feel all of us are in a way working to try to imagine and live a kind of community life in which we are deeply related to others, but at the same time we are able to optimise our own fulfilment as individual persons.
I don’t need to add much on the question of abortion, I very much agree with Don, and again I feel that in Buddhism, although it does have some moral precepts such as “’thou shalt not kill”, I feel that the deeper moral injunction is not to somehow try to get things right according to some rule book that the Buddha laid down. But the moral life is one in which we seek to respond to moral dilemmas and crises in the most wise and compassionate way that we can.
So the question of abortion for example: I don’t think, as many of my fellow Buddhists would say, is by definition just wrong: it cannot be done, it’s killing therefore “no”. But rather we have to take a specific occasion of a woman who is pregnant and look at that situation in its specificity, and seek to respond in the most appropriate way. And in other words to acknowledge the inevitably of risk in moral and ethical choice. Not to think “because this book says therefore if I do this then I’ll get rewarded”, no. That I think is a form of morality that can turn into cruelty.
As for Buddhist scholarship or other scholarship turning up things attributed to the Buddha that I don’t like: again there are passages in the Pali Canon where I don’t feel particularly sympathetic to what is put in the mouth of the Buddha. But again I wouldn’t take that to be my primary criterion for, as it were, basing my own life on. I have to recognise that the Buddha was likewise a person who was of his time and of his place, and he will make statements or commit actions that in my own world today I might find very difficult to agree with. I don’t really feel that that is too big a problem.
As for new technologies, are we moving into a period through the rapid acceleration of information technology where we might envisage, at least, a world in which we would have all of our communications with others through the screen of a computer? And this, I think, is a looming reality. It is becoming the case. Personally I feel that there is something essential about human community and participation that cannot be replicated by any technology. And I think, to some extent, this has to do with the fact that any communication is not just a two-dimensional relationship via a screen, but it is a three-dimensional embodied, enacted relationship with others, that I feel is beyond the reach of any replication through artificial means. But I do recognise that, particularly with younger people brought up in a world where so much of what they learn is mediated through the internet or through computers, there is, I think, a danger, that there will be a kind of a tearing of the very fabric of our social and communal cohesion. So we do need to be extremely aware of that. I like to think, though of course I might be wrong, that human beings at some point will rebel against that kind of reductive relationship for the very simple reason it doesn’t satisfy. It doesn’t fulfil our needs in the way that a living, embodied, eye-to-eye, body-to-body, relationship can.
And I have always thought that Quakerism would be an excellent model for a contemporary Buddhist community. That’s something I’ve felt for a long time. I am very honoured, in a way, that this discussion is taking place here. I think the Quakers are a wonderful example of an alternative kind of religious life that has proven to be sustainable ever since the time of George Fox. And also I think what is very admirable in Quakerism is the extent to which it is engaged in social reform and other such issues, which is quite disproportionate to the actual membership of the Quaker movement. So that and other models I think are well worth exploring and seeking to learn from, as we move towards a kind of contemporary Buddhist sangha or community.
DC: May I also just mention the current upheaval in the priesthood in Ireland? At a recent meeting, no less than 800 priests formed into a society to demand reform and change: have demanded the marriage of the clergy, the ordination of women to the priesthood and the election of bishops. Clearly the horrible scandals and the historical dismal repressiveness in the history of Catholicism are now creating demand for drastic reform and modernisation. Traditional community or communion was so often based on submission to authority. People don’t want that. We need to explore different forms of community. By the way, another point about institutions: in the year 529 the emperor Justinian struck down the Platonic Academy. That institution was the embodiment of Plato’s philosophy, the original academy, but the influence of Platonism on our culture survives to this day. So a great tradition doesn’t necessarily have to have institutional embodiment in order to survive.
Question from audience as to whether Don still celebrates or receives the Eucharist
Question from audience as to whether in a secular or naturalised religion we have fewer, or different, hopes than the ones offered by conventional religion
Question from audience about the desirability of readings from recent and contemporary sources in churches, especially for women
Question from audience about possibility of moving towards natural, humanistic, immanent spirituality rather than transcendental, patriarchal, organised religion
SB: This question of hope: it is true that most traditional religions do provide a framework within which we can aspire towards a future, perhaps after death, which could lead to the fulfilment of our hopes. And by naturalising our religion are we not thereby somehow limiting our aspirational capacity as human beings? Personally, even when I was a fairly traditional Tibetan Buddhist, I struggled with this, I struggled with the idea that in a way what was to occur after my death, in a hypothetical future, somehow mattered more than the hopes I might entertain for my life here on this earth. Don has said similar things. I feel in the naturalising of religion to be a naturalising of hope. And that doesn’t mean, however, that we restrict ourselves solely to our lifetime on this earth. But rather we become more acutely conscious – and I feel we’re moving into an era now where this kind of consciousness is increasingly inescapable – and that is the consciousness of the future of this planet after our deaths, in what appears in the next century or so to be one in which there could be devastating environmental and other catastrophes unfolding. So I feel nowadays the way we understand history, the way we are rooted in history, and the way we see the future of our own planet, has come to replace a belief in either past lives or future lives. And it is in a sense secularised hope, and I feel that for many of us we deeply hope that life will continue to thrive on this earth. And therefore are required, and this is deeply challenging, to question what we are doing in our lives now through consumption, through pollution, through whatever else, that might actually be colluding and participating in the loss of the possibility for fulfilled lives in the world that we leave behind us.
The lady of the URC, which I’ve just learned is the United Reformed Church: I do feel there needs to be a healthy balance between the canonical texts, the Bible, or in the Buddhist tradition, let’s say the Pali Canon, and the literature that has arisen out of that through subsequent generations. In my own case, I was trained as a Buddhist monk very much in terms of the writings and the teachings of the founders of particular Buddhist schools, most of which did not go back much beyond the thirteenth century. And in fact I think it is a rather strange fact that probably the vast majority of Buddhists do not even read the words of the Buddha. I trained for years as a Buddhist monk, and never had to know a Buddhist sutra. It was commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries. So in my own case I think it biased me towards re-valuing the original source texts, and I think sometimes I give more priority to those than to, let’s say, the great works of the Indian, Tibetan, Chinese traditions. We clearly need some sort of balance.
But concerning your question of, let’s say, the patriarchal powers within the Church and within Buddhism and so on: unfortunately a lot of the medieval works, at least, will not give us much support in having a less patriarchal view of our traditions. I think the great urgency is for us to give rise, ourselves, to what W. B. Yeats called a literature of spiritual conviction. And likewise in the individuation of religion, I feel that each of us, in a way, has a responsibility to articulate our own lives, to share our own journeys, as the lady spoke of before, in such ways that, as they say in Christianity, we bear witness to our own faith.
And the final question has to do with post-religious times. Again it could be that we are in a period in which traditional religion may be on the way out, and what may be following it is something that is not yet perhaps even imaginable. I am not so sure. I have a strong feeling that religions are very robust creatures. And if you look historically you can see the incredible ways in which they’ve survived enormous repressions like, for example, the Soviet Union and so on, and Tibet is a very good example too. And yet if you repress it, it often makes it stronger. And so I suspect that we’ll be here with our traditional religions for an awfully long time to come. And I would like to think that the sort of work that I am doing is not seeking to replace or supplant them; but rather to, in a way, engage in an ongoing dialogue with the more traditional forms. Because that I think is what feeds and vitalises the traditions in the biggest sense.
Finally, because we are running out of time, it’s important to remember that when Nietzsche said that God is dead he was basically making an announcement. He wasn’t saying God does not exist. I think what he was saying was basically: that way of thinking about either God, or about some kind of guiding principle that runs the world, is not a way of thinking that works for us very well anymore: that we need to find another way of thinking. And that, I think, has been a great challenge since then for people who have tried to find a religious voice: actually to find a post-theistic rather than atheistic language to articulate our deepest concerns, and allow us to find ways of living together that are no longer premised on language or beliefs that are increasingly difficult for us to accept.
DC: Very briefly, I felt I had to stop celebrating the Eucharist in ‘92 and had to stop going to church in, I think, 2009, simply as a matter of public witness and because of my books. I felt I had to do this. A lot of my contemporaries who think the same as I do don’t come out. It has just been my calling in life to come out.
A lot of people constitutionally have a sort of theistic psychology. They tend to see life as a dialogue with Another and so if they lose their faith in God they feel orphaned. A lot of people are like that and I am, to some extent, a little like that myself.
In the Bible I point out the difference between occasions when the divine is highly focussed on a particular point and occasions when the divine is scattered everywhere as a kind of brightness that irradiates everything. For example, in Genesis I, God walks in the garden in the cool of the day and talks to Adam just as if God were like a human being. Whereas in Revelation 20 and 21 there is no Temple because the divine is not focussed there at all. It is scattered everywhere as a brightness that irradiates everything and makes everything lucid and intelligible. So the divine appears in different ways. Take a poet like Wordsworth who lived right on the cusp between liberal Anglicanism and emergent non-theism. He reflects the emergence of a new post-theistic, but not atheistic, view of nature.
I agree with Stephen that containing human numbers in the future will be extremely painful. I would hate to be told by the government that I can’t have children or I can have only one child. Which I know China has had to do, and they may have to make it even stricter still in a few years’ time. It is extremely painful to try to control human reproduction nowadays. It is also extremely painful to try to limit human consumption and resources and get people to move from belief in a perpetual progress of power, wealth and standard of living, and going over to stability. Because Christianity has been so organised towards the idea of a better world in the future, we all want to believe in growth, even in the midst of a disastrous economic crisis in Europe. As if growth would solve everything. Well it won’t. It will bring other, even bigger problems along with it. We’ve got to start thinking about how we humans can live together with limited numbers and in a way that is sustainable relative to the environment. That’s going to be tough. Our best hope is to trust in free discussion.
MB: Well, that’s a good way to end!