Secular Dharma Semitreat :: Day One

by Ted Meissner

First full day of the retreat, and traditional retreat habits of all kinds have taken up right where they left off. This includes the penchant for what I rationally know to be unpalatable Folgers instant coffee in the morning, and the same brand in decaf before bed. The food is proving to be as ridiculously delicious as I’ve come to know Steve’s cooking to be. I wouldn’t know a Hollyhock if it fell on me, but it certainly makes for an addictive salad dressing. I hope Hollyhocks aren’t on the endangered species list, because I plan to consume a lot of them…

The first thing that struck me about Stephen Batchelor, even as he simply entered the room, is that he is in total contrast to the way I’ve seen traditional-minded Buddhists portray him. Despite B. Alan Wallace’s patently transparent association of Stephen with Hitler, he did not come goose-stepping into the meditation hall in Basil Fawlty-like fashion, promoting the violent overthrow of all that’s holy and beautiful. He entered with quiet dignity and respect, mindful in his actions and words, bowing before sitting. And when asked during the questions portion of the talk about whether secular Buddhism is becoming institutionalized, was very clear he did not wish to recreate the problems that seem to have arisen with the institutionalizing of the earliest teaching and practice.

It’s important to understand that there’s a very big difference between institutionalizing, and community building. Traditionalists have places to go, and have 2,500 years of development time. Is a new way of practicing so threatening that any growth of the sangha in this way is rejected with such vehemence? Perhaps this is what the first Mahayana practitioners went through. In any event, Stephen is quite passionate about the dhamma, and deeply concerned with its continued integration into this new and unprecedented cultural setting in which it finds itself. Secular Buddhism appears to be one primary branch of that new evolutionary tree; it doesn’t mean it’s poison ivy.

There is a new book (I’ll try to find the reference), and in the introduction it makes the point that the term “Buddha” is not so much what we see in the canon, as “Bo Gotama”, literally “Mr. Gotama.” What a wonderful thing, to clearly show him as a human being, rather than cast in his God Man role! “Bagava” may also have a meaning of “honored teacher”, as we see it used in the Jain tradition, rather than as we’ve seen it translated as “Blessed One”, which is a religiously-skewed view. “Tathagata” may have been added at a later date, perhaps to avoid using the somewhat problematic reference “I” when one is deconstructing the self. Stephen also brought up the metaphor for mindfulness of the plow, in which the plowman needs:

  • Clear direction (clear sight)
  • Appropriate pressure (not digging too hard, not too light)
  • Reveal things hidden

Again, very much a secular proposition. Stephen introduced that he is actively interested in finding the voice of Mr. Gotama (though I sometimes call him Sid, Bud, or Tom) and his teaching itself, rather than the layers of time and culture that have perhaps made those teachings less clear. In this investigation, Stephen’s found four different aspects to that voice, which are explicit departures from Mr. Gotama’s day:

  1. Conditionality — based on volitional actions, not on rites and rituals
  2. Four Noble Truths
  3. Meditation as mindful attention to the phenomenal world
  4. Self reliance

Secular Buddhism, then, may be seen as an ongoing exploration of our engagement with contemporary culture. And, like scientific investigation, is tentative and growing.

Martine, ah! What a delight! Her meditation talks and instructions are clear as day, practical, and effective. She understands that we all have similar experiences, inclinations, aversions, distractions, and habits, and her descriptions of how to deal with them is enhanced by her charm and humor. Martine’s stories are an invaluable part of her teaching, not only because the listener can more easily intuit the meaning she is conveying, but it demonstrates how she is also a human being, instead of a superior being on a pedastal.

Her guidance included the ideas that concentration and insight are inseparable and complimentary, and concentration does not have to be a narrowing of focus, but can be quite expansive in the development of awareness. Ethical Discernment and Wholesome Stability are two parts of appropriate mindfulness (rather than “right concentration”, which brings with it the concepts of right/wrong, and tightening). There is an exploratory quality to insight, it is not just labeling or staring at what is. Thus, we are “cultivating creative awareness”, and that simple alterative of perspective can lighten our meditation tremendously as we “move from expectation to aspiration.”

Eager for tomorrow — and more Hollyhock.