Introduction

A specter is haunting secular Buddhism;[1] it is the ghostly remnant of the non-naturalistic, supra-mundane dimension of traditional Buddhism. While we, as secular Buddhists, embrace the core insights of the Buddha about our human- existential condition, we need to usher this specter – the notion of nirvana – politely but firmly away from our broad, secular Buddhist tent.

“But wait – not so fast”, you may say. In his recently published book, After Buddhism, didn’t Stephen Batchelor, the foremost advocate of secular Buddhism, argue that one can be a secular Buddhist, who is committed to a naturalistic world-view, yet still believe in nirvana? In fact, he asserts that nirvana, along with the recognition of the conditionality of life, compose, the twin foundations for a secular Buddhist perspective and transformative practice.

Stephen is critical of the traditional Buddhist view of nirvana as a transcendent state that can be attained apart from the conditions of life. He contends, however, that if we reconceptualize nirvana as the “….possibility of living here and now emancipated from the inclinations of desire, hatred, and delusion,”[2] then such a notion is both consistent with the naturalistic premises of secularity and essential if we want to promote the full flourishing of human beings.

I found much of value in Stephen’s new book, which builds on his project of transforming Buddhism from a religion founded on certain ontological truths to a transformative practice based on four tasks needed to respond to human suffering. Yet, as much as I admire his work and have learned from him, I do not agree with his view of nirvana. Nirvana – the ghost haunting secular Buddhism – is and always will be a non-naturalistic phenomenon, whether it appears in the wisp of an experience or as the promised land of the unconditioned and the eternally happy.

I will argue in this blog post that any notion of nirvana is simply inconsistent with a naturalistic world-view, which is one of the essential premises of secular Buddhism. Further, meditating with the ultimate goal of achieving nirvana can actually make individual and social transformation less likely. As an alternative, I offer a way of approaching meditation practice which is thoroughly naturalistic and more conducive to cultivating skillful ways of being and interacting in the world.

Problematic Aspects of Nirvana

I don’t for a second doubt the reports that Stephen and other practitioners have offered of experiencing a release from clinging while meditating, with the accompanying qualities of freedom, calm, love, and equanimity. I, myself, have had a taste of this experience. That individuals have had this experience does not, however, mean that it is appropriate to describe what they’ve experienced as nirvana, a state of an absolute release from clinging.

If nirvana is a state – whether experienced momentarily or achieved on a permanent basis – in which we are fully “emancipated from the inclinations of desire, hatred, and delusion”, then how is it possible to achieve or experience such a state while one is a sentient being, embedded in the natural world of causes and conditions? We can have the subjective sense of a release from clinging, but this still occurs as and when we are organisms in the natural world. In my view, this sense of a release does not entail that we are in a momentary state of being absolutely free of clinging, liberated from the web of causes and conditions; it just means that the biologically-primed and socially-conditioned forces of desire and aversion have receded to the background. We’re still living and breathing human beings, with all the powerful impulses toward greed and aversion still part of us.

In questioning the notion of nirvana as a description of profound experiences of calm and “OK-ness”, as well as a goal of practice, I’m not in any way diminishing the impact and value of meditative practice. Rather, I’m asserting that the shift away from clinging and toward more wholesome states of mind is the goal of practice. We meditate to develop our capacities for mindfulness, equanimity, and compassion while reducing the role of greed, hatred, and delusion in our life.   In short, our goal should be to shift the balance between skillful and unskillful states of mind, not attempt to achieve an illusory goal – the complete emancipation from unskillful states of mind, even for a moment.

Nirvana is not only inconsistent with the naturalistic world view of secular Buddhism, but the belief in nirvana as a goal of meditation practice actually can reinforce some of the very factors which make us more ego-centered. Here, I’m speaking mostly from my own experience and discussion with other practitioners, although much has been written about the traps that meditators can fall into when they cling to the idea of achieving nirvana.

The goal of achieving nirvana can become a kind of prize or special object that we long for to satisfy various needs. In our capitalistic society, with its emphasis on acquisition and/or control of objects as the path to happiness, we can approach the goal of nirvana in the same way that we long after some other special thing that is hard, perhaps almost impossible to get. For some, this is the complete and utter release from unhappiness and pain. For others, it’s gaining something that no one else has, being special as a result. Or, we may view the achievement of nirvana as a sign of one’s superiority, in much the same way that Social Darwinists in the late 19th century saw the possession of wealth as the result of the natural talents of the wealthy (a wonderfully circular argument).

In all these ways, having nirvana as a goal can foster a sense of me and mine. Sitting in a meditation hall, I wonder if I am closer to nirvana or is it the meditator sitting next to me? Who is doing better? Who has the chance to grab the “brass ring” and be the special one? Who stands out?

And then there’s the downside if the goal seems too far off or impossible to achieve. I think: I’m not any good; I’ll never be able to be enlightened. What is wrong with me that I can’t experience even a moment of complete release? Thus, as I have previously noted, “….the practitioner who accepts the view that nirvana can be experienced if one engages diligently in meditation is thus more likely to be frustrated, as well as plagued by self-doubt and self-judgments about his or her practice. Further, the pressure that we experience in a capitalist society to compete with others and ourselves is reinforced, as is the tendency to cling to a particular outcome”.[3]

I’m well aware that all traditions in Buddhism acknowledge these traps and identify ways to avoid them. For example, in the Mahayana tradition, the Bodhisattva ideal highlights the responsibility to help all beings attain nirvana; individual striving for liberation is deemphasized.

While I have great respect for those practitioners who believe that nirvana is as an essential aspect of Buddhism, in my view nirvana is inconsistent with a secular Buddhist world-view and can have negative effects on practitioners, insofar as it may reinforce some of the very tendencies meditation practice is trying to diminish.

Meditating Without Nirvana Can Be Transformative

So, no nirvana. Then, what? Are we left with meditation as merely a method for stress reduction? If we put aside nirvana, do we run the risk, as Akincano Mark Weber has cautioned secular Buddhists, of creating a “flatland” Buddhism which can’t distinguish between the personal experience of liberation, of “……connecting to something beyond my self-construct” and the supernatural beliefs and metaphysical statements of traditional Buddhism.[4]

I want to offer an approach to meditation practice which is challenging and transformative, yet thoroughly naturalistic. Such an approach is based on one of the Buddha’s own metaphors for dharma practice. As Stephen Batchelor pointed out in After Buddhism, the Buddha compared the dharma practitioner to a skilled craftsperson. Stephen notes that the Buddha “…..likened the practitioner to a farmer irrigating a field, a fletcher fashioning an arrow, a carpenter shaping a piece of wood”.[5] Using the metaphor of dharma practice as a kind of skilled craft, we can understand how meditation might lead to both individual and social transformation without needing to have nirvana as our ultimate goal.

I’ll use the example of a carpenter, perhaps because my 93 year old father did carpentry as a hobby and was quite good at it. A novice carpenter has to develop many skills and gain much knowledge before he or she can become good at their craft. The development of skills and the acquisition of knowledge typically involve some combination of working with an experienced carpenter (who functions as a mentor/teacher), on- the- job training, and learning in the more traditional sense, including becoming proficient in arithmetic, geometry, and design principles needed for the craft.

But it is not just specific skills and knowledge which make a good carpenter; there are also a set of attitudes and values which are essential. One needs to have patience and perseverance, the ability to make mistakes and face frustrating obstacles, especially when one is first starting out. One must also have a sense of openness and humility, the recognition that one needs to learn from other people who are more skilled and experienced. Finally, good carpenters have pride in their work and recognize the value of the objects which they produce. They understand that their craft is an expression of their human potential for creative labor and a concrete way of meeting certain human needs.

Now, carpentry products vary with respect to how well they meet human needs. A very skilled carpenter makes products –chair, desks, and bookshelves – which satisfy human needs well. The products do the job they were intended to do: they are sturdy, last a long time, and function well for their intended purpose. On the other hand, the products of a less skilled carpenter are shoddy and less useful.

At the most skilled and creative level of the craft, carpentry products don’t just have functional or use value, but are imbued with aesthetic qualities, whether in the particular design of the piece or the delicate shaping of the wood. In the best products, form and function are creatively integrated; we can appreciate them in the way that we experience a painting or a musical composition. But – and this is key for our discussion – even the most beautiful and functional work of carpentry is still bound by the causes and conditions of the natural world and the limits of human skill. No perfect piece of carpentry exists. The products of carpentry are more or less useful, more or less beautiful.

The process and fruits of meditation practice are quite similar. Like the novice carpenter, when we first start to meditate, we have to acquire skills and knowledge if we want to make progress. For meditation, this involves learning and practicing various techniques, understanding the beneficial purposes to which the practice is aimed, and experiencing how various causes and conditions affect our meditation practice. We make progress with the help of dharma teachers, the books and articles which we read, and the daily grind of practice, where we come up again and again against the tenacious hold of multifarious forms of our reactivity and our tendency to reify our self.

To sustain our practice and to move forward, we need to have many of the same attitudes and values which are possessed by a skilled craftsperson. Like a good carpenter, we must have patience and perseverance as we encounter the many frustrations of a meditation practice, particularly in the beginning of the practice. We need a sense of openness and humility, a willingness to learn from those more experienced and wise, while recognizing that there are many causes and conditions over which we have little or no control that affect our meditation practice. Finally, we must have a clear understanding of why meditation practice is valuable and beneficial not just for ourselves but for others, too.

Like carpentry, once we have become more proficient at meditation practice, we usually experience beneficial results, what we might call the functional value of meditation. We have a greater capacity to relax; we become less stressed and more resilient in the face of life’s challenges. But just as a very skilled carpenter can produce products which are not only functional but beautiful, so, too, can meditation go beyond stress reduction. Through meditation we can develop insight into the forces of reactivity and clinging, as well as the ways in which we are deeply connected to other beings in the ever-changing web of causes and conditions. And as we do this, we are increasingly able to shift the balance in our mind-body away from unskillful to skillful modes of thinking and being in the world, to the benefit of ourselves and all other beings.

This is truly a transformative process, essential to both our individual flourishing and a vital part of social change. , But it is not a process which produces a perfect product (or moment), free of all causes and conditions. However good a skilled craftsperson of spiritual practice we become, we remain human beings enmeshed in the natural world. There is no nirvana to reach, but in the process of shifting toward more skillful ways of being, we are fundamentally changed.

Setting an Intention for a Secular, Socially Engaged Buddhist Meditation

To conclude, I’d like to offer to secular Buddhists the following as a way of reflecting on our intentions and goals when we meditate, without nirvana. So, take a comfortable sitting position…….

====================================================================

As I begin this meditation, I reaffirm that my purpose is not just to become calmer and less stressed, but to become a wiser, kinder, and more compassionate person, both for my own good and for the good of all beings.

Through bringing my attention to the sensation of breathing in and out at my nostrils (or whatever meditative object or process you use), may my mind become more still and more settled.

When my mind wanders from the focus on breathing, whether to think of the past or present, or to plan, or my mind is caught in a flood of feelings, may I recognize that my mind has wandered; and may the moment of that recognition be infused with kindness and compassion.

As my mind becomes more still and settled, may I gain more insight into the mind’s reactivity, of the ways in which the mind’s biologically-primed and socially-conditioned need to cling causes unnecessary suffering.

As my mind becomes more still and settled, may I also gain a better understanding of the ways in which I am inextricably linked to all other beings and natural processes, as part of the constantly changing web of causes and conditions. In particular, may I recognize how I am so closely connected with and depend upon other human beings in order to survive, much less flourish.

May these understandings – realized in both cognitive and affective/experiential ways – loosen or weaken the sense of myself as an isolated ego who sees himself or herself as the center of the world, possessing the power to control experience.

May I recognize my limits and my lack of control, while understanding that I have a responsibility – within these limits – to contribute as much as I can to the full flourishing of all human beings.

Through meditation, may I become more compassionate and kind, less reactive and more equanimous. May I live with more ease.

May I commit myself to a life-long project of fostering skillful qualities of mind and heart; may this project be for the benefit of myself and all other beings.

 

[1] It’s always good to steal a memorable phrase as long as it’s used for a worthwhile purpose and one doesn’t neglect to provide attribution. See Marx, Karl. 1848. “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in Robert Tucker ed. (1972), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W.W. Norton, p. 335.

[2] Batchelor, Stephen. 2015. After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 145.

[3] In “Secular, Radically Engaged Buddhism: At the Crossroads of Individual and Social Transformation”, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2015.1021567

[4] Weber, Akincano. 2013. “Secular Buddhism: New Vision or Yet Another of the Myths It Claims to Cure,” Full Moon Journal, August 20. Accessed at http://www.bcbsdharma.org/2013-8-20-insight-journal/

[5] Batchelor,  After Buddhism, p. 72.

No Comments

  1. Caroline_Jones on October 30, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    Except for a few superfluous commas, this is an extremely well-written article. This will have a transformative impact on my meditation. Thank you.

    • Michael Slott on October 31, 2015 at 5:20 am

      Thank you for the comment. I had two objectives in writing the blog post: 1) to encourage secular Buddhists to question the assumption that nirvana should be a goal of practice and 2) to offer an alternative way of understanding what we’re doing when we meditate. It’s wonderful to know that my words didn’t just disappear into blogosphere, but have had a real impact on you.

  2. Mark Knickelbine on October 30, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    Michael, welcome to the blog! A couple observations:

    If we get hung up by defining our practice in terms of what the Pali texts say, we will spend long hours in disputation that will do little to enhance our practice. However, according to Batchelor’s take on the Fourfold Task, what we achieve is not cessation of the vicissitudes of living in a human body, or even of craving. It’s freedom from craving — and that we can achieve. Craving arises, but it no longer governs our perceptions and enslaves us to reactive thoughts and emotions. That is the goal of practice, it is abundantly possible, and quite worthy of being called nirvana. Although you can call it or not call it anything you like.

    • Michael Slott on October 31, 2015 at 5:33 am

      Mark – Like you, I have no interest in debating over the meanings of terms unless the discussion has an impact on the way we live our lives. I just don’t think it’s helpful to our practice to continue to believe in nirvana as something we should aim for. Do you think that the concerns I raised about how, in my view, nirvana negatively affects meditators has some validity? Do you think it’s more helpful to understand meditation as a “skilled craft”? Those are the issues which I think need to be more fully discussed.

  3. mufi on October 30, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Michael, although I’ve also argued the case for a supernatural understanding of “nirvana” in this site’s discussion forum, I’ve also wondered during later moments if perhaps I’ve been a tad bit persnickety. After all, the term may not even be original to Buddhism and its literal meaning of “blowing out” or “extinguishing” has clearly been metaphorically repurposed by Buddhists. Why not allow secular Buddhists the same interpretive freedom as the early Buddhists (if not Gotama himself)? I’m sure that I can think up some historical or sociological objections, but I doubt that they would be any more compelling than traditionalist arguments in favor of their definition of what qualifies as “authentic Buddhism” (e.g. one in which literal belief in karma and rebirth are crucial).

    On a slight tangent, I read Chris Beckwith’s Greek Buddha over the summer, and although he never mentions secular Buddhism by name, he argues that the most reliable sources on the earliest Buddhists (i.e. several centuries before the Pali Canon and Agamas) indicate a philosophy that seems more akin to modern skepticism (of the Pyrrhonist/Humean variety) than to the Buddhist religions that formed later on (although he finds their roots in the same period, as well).

    Be that as it may, and given the Greco-Buddhist connection in Beckwith’s account, perhaps Buddhist “nirvana” and Greek “eudaimonia” have more in common than many of us knew!

    • Michael Slott on October 31, 2015 at 5:58 am

      Mufi – I appreciate your point that nirvana can be interpreted or redefined in a way that makes it consistent with the naturalistic beliefs of secular Buddhists. And look, I’m not trying to demand linguistic purity among secular Buddhists. If Stephen Batchelor or other secular Buddhists believe that a re-interpreted notion of nirvana is essential to their practice, that’s their view and I respect it. What’s more important is how someone lives their life than how a person defines nirvana.

      That said, I have a a more critical perspective on nirvana. To me, the term has so much supernatural baggage associated with it (the unconditioned, complete and absolute freedom, etc.) that it serves no purpose to try to reinterpret it for secular Buddhist practice. In addition, as I argued in the blog post, having nirvana as a goal of meditation practice has negative effects. As a result, I think we should try to develop alternatives way of thinking about the goal of our practice. I offered one way of doing that in my use of the Buddha’s metaphor of dharma practice as a skilled craft. I’m sure that there are other fruitful ways of thinking about how to meditate without nirvana.

      • mufi on October 31, 2015 at 8:20 am

        Michael, I have a confession: I think Buddhism has too much supernatural baggage and nirvana is the least of it. This outcome may not have been Gotama’s original intent, but I feel like it’s the situation I walk into whenever I encounter Buddhists face-to-face. If I did not do the mental work of secularizing this “actual Buddhism on the ground”, I probably would have no interest in Buddhism beyond whatever curiosity I generally bring to religions (not much). That said, I have no trouble at this point reading something akin to “eudaimonia” (flourishing, lit. “a good demon”) into “nirvana”, adjusted for the virtues and vices discussed in the Buddhist (as opposed to the Western) canon.

        So is it bad for practice to bear an end goal in mind, like nirvana or eudaimonia? I imagine that these goals can be abused, but that they are not necessarily so and that they can actually provide a net-positive benefit in terms of motivating us to practice. I see this situation as analogous to choosing a role model – like Gotama or Socrates – for guidance. Christians do this when they ask themselves “what would Jesus do?” More to the point, what virtues do these role models posses? and what do I do to acquire them? I may never actually live up to them or to the abstract concept (e.g. nirvana) that describes their achievements, but bearing these ideas in mind nonetheless helps to move me closer to them, relative to the scenario where I simply follow the prevailing social mores, which in my experience too often default to some crass version of hedonism (e.g. sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll).

        Mind you that none of this account is at odds with “dharma practice as a skill craft”, particularly if the role model is an image of Gotama qua skilled craftsman par excellence.

        • Michael Slott on October 31, 2015 at 11:24 am

          Mufi – I agree that, for some people, having nirvana as the end goal of meditation can have a positive effect. As you say, the Buddha’s path to nirvana (assuming one believes that he attained full enlightenment) can provide a role model for practitioners and a strong motivation to develop one’s practice. In the blog post, I didn’t mention that aspect of the role of nirvana, but should have.

          Still, I think that the negative effects of having nirvana as the goal of meditation need to be highlighted and are quite serious, particularly in the context of our society and cultural norms.

          The other point is that, in replacing nirvana with the model of the process of skilled craft work, one still has a goal to strive for. For each person, it is to develop to the maximum (giver the causes and conditions of their life) their potential in the practice and to create the most beneficial impact on oneself and others. But this is not a path in which one strives for an “absolute” goal; instead, we’re trying to progress from a less skilled to a more skilled way of functioning in the world.

          • mufi on October 31, 2015 at 1:38 pm

            Michael: I suspect that the argument you’re making derives most of its strength from Buddhism’s history of absolutism. I don’t deny that history, but I do think there’s a counter-argument to be made here that the Buddhist religion (or what Beckwith misleadingly calls “Normative Buddhism”) has corrupted Gotama’s message, which in fact was against absolutism. Since this argument attracts controversy (particularly from traditionalists and from scholars who have largely accepted their account uncritically), I don’t wish to oversell it, but it is worth mentioning insofar as it raises the plausibility that Batchelor’s project is not so much revisionist as it is restorationist.

            That aside, I’m just not seeing “the negative effects of having nirvana as the goal of meditation”, but then I’ve been somewhat of a loner in my practice, largely detached from dharma centers and meditation retreats. What’s more, since lately I’ve also been trying out Stoic practice (which inspired modern cognitive-behavioral therapy, much as Buddhist practice inspired modern mindfulness interventions), I can’t help but to stress the analogy that, while the Stoic model of eudamonia may sound more realistic than nirvana, that does not mean that it is actually attainable.

            After all, the ancient Stoics even drew upon mythological characters (like Hercules) for inspiration, knowing full well that they never actually lived. Indeed, modern Stoics suggest that we follow their example using fictional characters, based on the premise that, if the story is compelling (in Stoic terms), then that’s enough to move us in the right direction. Since a Stoic is also instructed to learn what she can and cannot control, so as to free up her resources for working on what she can control (which boils down to her values, opinions, and efforts), knowledge of how the world works is crucial, such that the practice of using unattainable goals and fictional role models only bears risks if the practitioner somehow fails in this key intellectual task and somehow loses touch with reality.

            Back to dharma practice, I see no problem with nirvana, so long as we practice critical thinking, along with other skills (e.g. mindfulness), that (on a Buddhist account) are worth wanting.



    • Carl H on October 31, 2015 at 8:19 am

      Hi mufi. Excuse me for being off topic, but regarding the Beckwith book, I have a detailed and most interesting review of it from Stephen Batchelor. It hasn’t been published yet but I have permission to share it with the understanding it is not for distribution. If you’re interested, email me at hokyoji@hokyoji.org and I’ll contact you personally.

  4. Carl H on October 31, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. If I agreed with your concept of nirvana as being a “state,” I might agree with you that “any notion of nirvana is simply inconsistent with a naturalistic world-view.” However, it is the absolutization of the term that deserves to be abandoned, not the term itself. I have been taught that, contrary to popular, or traditional, understanding, the term nirvana, or nibbana, is a verb and not a noun. That the concept was transformed from a process to a state is a problem with the tradition and not the teaching. The English language problematically privileges nouns. Regardless, nirvana is a process and not a state, and therefore incremental in nature, not absolute. Consequently, thinking in terms of nirvana-ing, like John Peacock, can be a very helpful frame for one’s practice of working to free oneself from the influences of reactive greed, anger, and delusion. The Pali term has a dual meaning. The first is blowing out, blowing out the three fires of greed, anger, and delusion. It’s second meaning is unbinding, undoing the binds created by being under the influences of said greed, anger, and delusion. Unbinding is an incremental process and not an absolute state. As for the idea of the “….possibility of living here and now emancipated from the inclinations of desire, hatred, and delusion,” I believe most all of us have experienced times when we have responded to the world in ways not influenced by the three fires of reactivity. My practice is to work at increasing those times. That all being said, I quite like the approach to meditation that you offered. It is thoughtful, practical, and potentially transformative and I believe it is compatible with an incremental approach to the process of nirvana.

    • Michael Slott on October 31, 2015 at 12:09 pm

      Carl – You’re right that viewing nirvana as an active process rather than a state is more conducive to focusing on how we can become less reactive in this world. Yet, I still think that nirvana is inconsistent with a naturalistic perspective. Nirvana qua process still presupposes an end-point. Whether we’re “blowing out the fires” of greed, hatred, and delusion or “unbinding” ourselves from them, the assumption is that we’re moving incrementally in relation to an absolute goal: total extinction/complete unbinding. However, since that goal cannot be achieved in the natural world, why should our practice be based on it? Why should we understand the path as leading to something that cannot be achieved? That is why I’m encouraging secular Buddhists to view the goal of dharma practice as a movement from less skilled to more skilled functioning, period.

      • Carl H on October 31, 2015 at 5:38 pm

        Thanks for the reply Michael. I agree with your encouragement to “view the goal of dharma practice as a movement from less skilled to more skilled functioning, period.” However, I still disagree with your conceiving of nirvana as an absolute goal. It’s incremental all the way down (or up), just like the turtles. I see no absolutes. An interesting piece on “incrementality” is here: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/glossary/incrementality/

      • Mark Knickelbine on November 2, 2015 at 9:53 am

        I’m not sure why an “active process” presupposes an endpoint. Even in the Pali tales, we’re told that even Gotama had to confront Mara on many occasions after his awakening, and engaged in meditation practice right up to the last day of his life. Our experiences of freedom from craving (including those of joy, compassion and equanimity)are the fruits that keep us on the path, not ends in themselves.

        The other question I have is, what is skilled functioning? How do we know what is skillful and what is not? This is why the 8fld Path starts with View. Unless we have the ability to distance ourselves from craving reactivity, we can’t begin to know what skillful action means. We recognize it because skillful action leads away from craving reactivity and toward joy, compassion and equanimity –toward nirvana, in other words. If you do away with this nominalized adjective, you will have to find another to replace it with.

        Finally, I agree that, if we can’t put up with supernatural baggage, we will have to chuck most Buddhist doctrinal terms, and most of the practices, for that matter. At some point, we have to come to terms with how these phenomena, which certainly have functioned in religious contexts, can make sense to us from our unavoidably secular perspective. My own emphasis of late is to try to understand how religion has carried deeply human meanings, and how it has served to objectify elements of our inner experience in order that we might resonate more fully with them.

        • Michael Slott on November 2, 2015 at 7:11 pm

          Mark – I wasn’t saying that every active process presupposes an end-point. You can throw a ball around with a friend – that’s an active process – but no particular end-point or goal is assumed. The notion of nirvana is a different story. If you interpret nirvana as an active process – in Carl’s terms, “nirvana-ing” – then I believe that an end-point is still presupposed. The process of nirvana-ing was defined in the Pali Canon either as the “blowing out” of or “ceasing” to be reactive to greed, anger, and delusion. With either definition, an end-point is entailed in very meaning of the words. You can’t halfway blow out the flame of a candle; you either blow it out or you don’t. Similarly, for some process to cease – in this case, reactivity – it can no longer exist as a process, whether for a moment, for a considerable period of time, or for eternity. If it still exists, it hasn’t ceased.

          You raise a really good question about whether we can define what is skillful if we don’t have the notion of nirvana. You say that “Unless we have the ability to distance ourselves from craving reactivity, we can’t begin to know what skillful action means. We recognize it because skillful action leads away from craving reactivity and toward joy, compassion and equanimity –toward nirvana, in other words.”

          I’m totally with you up to the words – “toward nirvana….”. I would encourage secular Buddhists to see the path to more skillful action as one in which we develop, to our fullest potential and with the greatest benefit to ourselves and other beings, just those qualities you listed. However, no endpoint of complete blowing out or of complete ceasing is needed – either as a goal or a reality – in this process.

          I find something that Albert Camus once said in his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, to be relevant here. A humanist and atheist who rejected a Christian God, Camus concluded his reflections on the meaning of life in a God-less world by saying that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s [sic] heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In the context of secular Buddhism, we could say that the struggle to become more skillful in our actions, to develop the qualities of joy, compassion, and equanimity among others, is itself both the means and the end toward which we direct our efforts. In short, there is nothing beyond that effort or struggle.

          • Mark Knickelbine on November 3, 2015 at 3:40 pm

            Ah! I’d encourage you to read Eugene Gendlin. There is very much the case of a “stopped process” which still exists as the implication of that process as if it carried forward. The process can become unstopped and resume, or it can carry forward around the stoppages. Practically speaking however, it is in fact possible to take a break from reactivity. Peacefully, blissfully, for hours at a time at least. And when we get there, we see it is possible for that to become the default mode, with cravings and distractions flittering in and out of an open, silent, effortless awareness. I agree that the practice is the end (although it’s more like relinquishing struggle), but joy, compassion and equanimity are not going to occur in a mind imbued with reactivity. There has to be a substantial freedom from reactivity for these modes of awareness to become our default process.



  5. JimChampion on November 5, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    Hi – I’ve recently been listening to the talks of Martine Batchelor that are available on the dharma seed website. For example, this one from earlier this year:

    http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/119/talk/27431/

    In this talk, without actually using the “n” word, Martine broadly agrees with what you’ve written in this article. She (gently) mocks the idea that meditation will take you to a state where you are floating on your cushion, or going through life untouched by conditions. Instead she talks about it being a way to change the balance of your inner life so that it is more ‘wholesome’ and less harmful.

    Much as I’ve found Martin Batchelor’s output helpful and interesting in terms of the more cerebral side of whatever ‘secular buddhism’ is, I’ve found Martine’s teaching to be much more pragmatic – and recommend it to you, if you’ve not already engaged with it.

    • JimChampion on November 5, 2015 at 11:03 pm

      Sorry! I just called Stephen Batchelor “Martin Batchelor”… perhaps I shouldn’t be typing stuff so soon after waking up…

      • Michael Slott on November 6, 2015 at 9:51 am

        Thanks, Jim, for the link to one of Martine’s dharma talks. Five years ago, I was on a retreat that she and Stephen did on secular Buddhism and I liked her approach to meditation. At that retreat, she didn’t discuss meditation in relation to common views about nirvana, so I am looking forward to listening to the talk.

        • JimChampion on November 6, 2015 at 2:01 pm

          Now that I’ve had a chance to read your article fully, I can say thanks for posting it. The carpentry analogy was very helpful – and has reminded me of the woodwork passages in the (non-fiction) book ‘Wildwood: a journey through trees’ by Roger Deakin. I very strongly recommend the book (and his other work ‘Waterlog’) – the author, Roger Deakin, was not (as far as I know) influenced by buddhism in any direct way, but his way of living and expressing himself was deliberate, careful, very mindful as well as being very creative and compassionate.

  6. Michael Finley on November 21, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    I enjoyed this. I intended to comment earlier, but was too distracted by the recent election up here in Canada. Anyway, I just commented on Doug Smith’s “At Catuma,” which is sort of a companion piece to yours. My comment has as much to do with your article as Doug’s, and was motivated by both.

    • Michael Slott on November 22, 2015 at 8:58 am

      Michael – I read your comment on Doug’s article and I share your concern about the notion of human perfectibility, whether applied to meditation or politics. In my blog post, I focused on the problematic effects of the belief in nirvana on meditation practice, but you raise a much broader concern about how the notion of perfectibility can, in conjunction with other factors, lead to a fanaticism which justifies harming others.

      Like you, I think one can be fully engaged in both individual and social forms of transformation without any notion of a perfect or absolute end-point. As a labor activist my whole adult life, I believe that transformative change to create a radically egalitarian and democratic society is possible and desirable, but that doesn’t entail belief in a Utopia where all contradictions, conflicts, and problems have been eradicated. Similarly, the rejection of an absolute release from clinging does not mean that we can’t make significant and meaningful progress toward becoming more mindful, compassionate, and wise, only that Nirvana is not possible.

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