A specter is haunting secular Buddhism; 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,” 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”.
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.
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”. 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.
 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.
 Batchelor, Stephen. 2015. After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 145.
 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/
 Batchelor, After Buddhism, p. 72.