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Secular Dharma Semitreat :: Day Two

We’re cursed with yet another absolutely gorgeous day. Clearly bad kamma coming to fruition. Darn you, vipāka! Darn you, previous me!

We started the day with instructions from Martine on listening meditation, simply hearing the sound without creating additional commentary around it. In this setting, the sounds are typically birds and chippies, so that was a very pleasant way to have a more expansive *awareness* practice than a narrower *concentration* session.

Stephen’s talk included a short description of the fact that secular Buddhism may not have any conflict with religious forms, which is absolutely so. He brought forth a definition of religion from his friend Don Cupitt as, “Any way in which we try to respond to our birth and death,” and faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned” (not from Cupitt). Of course those are very broad definitions, but they do lead to some interesting opportunities.

In fact, to digress for a moment on what will probably be an upcoming post, taking the word “secular” as I had in the first blog post as meaning “of this world”, the here and now, does not in any way negate someone taking this into not only a religious Buddhist practice, but opens it up to anyone. Secular practice is about an engagement with the process of living, which applies to all sentient beings to use classical terms. As I’ve tried to share in interfaith discussions, Siddhattha Gotama’s realization and engagement with the Four Noble Truths are only valid if they apply to non-Buddhists, too. That is the strength of secular practice, it is vastly more portable that traditional forms may have historically been.

Moving onto the first discourse, we chatted about the Twelve Insights of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion from the Samyutta Nikaya 56:11 (see Episode 47 of the podcast).  It does not describe a transcendant truth, but a realization of the Four Noble Truths. This *process* is the foundation of a secular Buddhism, or secular Dharma practice.

Stephen also used the Nagara Sutta: The City from the Samyutta Nikaya 12:65 throughout the entire seminar, as it is frequently only partially quoted. The interesting thing about it is that it’s not a parable about a future life or of a heavenly realm, but of the practice that’s very tangible, concrete, and in this world. He’s talking to the monks, not Brahmins or laity, lending some credence to the idea that the intent of the practice is to be understood and practiced here and now, rather than for a future birth in another realm. The structure of this sutta also matches that of the Dhammacakkappavattana sutta.

He then went into a discussion about the order of the Four Noble Truths, which seem to be effect/cause (1 and 2), and effect/cause (3 and 4). Though that has apparently always struck Stephen as odd, that does make perfect sense from a critical thinking perspective:

1) What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

2) What’s our evidence for the cause?

3) What are our options?

4) What is the most beneficial thing for us to do?

That’s very basic process analysis, which again fits quite nicely with the truths being a process to be used rather than a transcendent truth one must accept. But, hey, that’s my gig 🙂

Stephen pointed out that craving as the origin of existence is a Vedic view one finds in the Upanishads, not original to Buddhism. In the third truth, Mr. Gotama describes the relinquishment of *craving*, not of suffering. The Four Noble Truths can be seen as a way to socialize Buddhism into the existing framework of Indian soteriology, and we see that socialization or adaptation every time a concept is introduced to a culture; it adapts. I equate this quite clearly with evolution, as the new divergent species is based very much on existing forms, with slight but meaningful mutations. They will then either survive based on their success in the culture, or die out.

Rather than four assertions, then, we have four instructions for actions as listed in the ELSA model:

Embrace — Fully know dukkha

Let Go — Let go of craving

Stop — Experience cessation

Act — Cultivate a path (and this is recursive, you keep doing it)

This is in alignment with Dependent Origination, though apparently there are 6 step models from the earliest parts of the canon that lack the steps involved in rebirth. I’ll try to get that reference, I think from the Sutta Nipata, but will have to ask Stephen for the specifics. His point is that craving is a response to suffering, not the other way around. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that; I think it’s a bit more complicated and the problem is that dukkha is used for suffering and pain, it’s a spectrum. I would think the detail might be something like: pain stimulus, craving of aversion from it, suffering when that doesn’t happen. Let me know what *you* see in your daily life!

My own thought is that it’s incidental whether Stephen or anyone else says about this being based on an earlier model from the Upanishads, for the simple reason that it’s an observable fact of existence. Another important thing to note is that this isn’t a scientific analysis of what happens in nature, this is a process for the reduction and possibly elimination of suffering, intended for use.

We also chatted briefly about the fact of Siddhattha Gotama’s needing space, in the Naga Sutta: The Bull Elephant. This shows again that our fully enlightened Buddha is still subject to stress! Oh, and can read the minds of at least one elephant, but that’s one of the things I love about the suttas — there *are* fun and fantastical story elements which contribute to our understanding, that all creatures suffer in much the same way. As does Buddha, the human being, even after his enlightenment.

Later in the evening, Martine talked about letting go not being a repression, but addressing the conditions which lead to attachment. Active, creative engagement is helpful! She also discussed Appropriate Thought as not just intention, but thinking, to turn full potential energy into action. We should notice the texture of our thoughts, and distinguish between a need and a desire. When one has a creative engagement instead of attaching, something else can happen, there are options we would otherwise miss.

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  1. star on June 25, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    You are so right that where the Buddha got his ideas, what came before, what he borrowed, and what he left behind aren’t particularly relevant to the practice. Whether he was a real person or fiction, whether one person designed the system for seeing what’s going on or a committee did, whether their motives were salvation for humanity or a power grab or motivated by aversion to ritual sacrifice — none of that has any relevance to the how effective the practice actually *is*.

    The only reason I find looking at the history important is to try to discover whether the system that was developed and is conveyed through our texts was more coherent and more useful than what we understand of it now. In order to do this, we need to understand what it was that was being said, and there the history helps a lot.

    Once we get that somewhat sorted out, we can decide what works in the light of modern understanding, and what doesn’t. For example, I know that many people interpret dependent origination as being about moment-to-moment arising of being. When I study the suttas, I do not see that that is what the Buddha was describing. He talks about -“at most seven more rebirths”- for those who are beginning to understand his dharma, and that’s not consistent with moment-to-moment arising of self as “what he meant by rebirth”. I’m pretty sure he’s saying something else, and what he says may be significant; as we study more, maybe we’ll see that what he’s describing *not* with moment-to-moment is quite profound. But that doesn’t mean we should just dismiss moment-to-moment interpretations just because that wasn’t what the Buddha meant. If we find it useful, if it moves us forward in our practice, then it’s still a good way of looking at it. The moment-to-moment interpretation is only a problem if we assume — in spite of evidence to the contrary — that that is what the Buddha was talking about, and then go on to try to interpret the rest of what he said from that angle; then we get confused.

    But it’s all just lenses and filters, different ones useful for seeing the same things in different lights.

  2. earl on June 26, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Ted, forgive me if this seems beside the Buddhist point, but the relationship of pain to suffering is something which has been the focus of an enormous amount of modern interest and research over the past fifty years or so, as there are some 40 million Americans who are disabled with chronic pain conditions. . In general pain is seen as a simple “nociceptive” event of the afferent (incoming) nervous system. So essentially like “blue”. As such a pain message does not necessarily have a given “meaning”. Generally, of course, we will withdraw from pain messages and this works at the level of the spinal cord (as a reflex) and does not require higher processing. But, over time we do condition enormously many meanings to the pains and then progressively the various other “discomforts” that our culture defines as important, during our developmental history. In the context of modern culture, which is generally very comfortable we have conditioned pain-like responses to levels of discomfort which would not be noticed as uncomfortable in more primitive circumstances. So for example most people of northern cultural extraction, living in the time of technological air conditioning, have conditioned a meaning of discomfort to the simple physiology of sweating, and will find themselves in a state of emotional suffering if their air conditioning system breaks down. Because this is a culturally conditioned suffering response, children don’t have it. Usually it has fully developed by about the age of 11 or 12, depending on the environmental factors of the home. The fact that riots and other violent responses are associated with such conditions, and from our own personal experience perhaps, we can note that this suffering is not trivial simply because it is an entirely conditioned artifact of culture. So those who treat pain professionally (especially using non-invasive techniques) would say that suffering is the addition of a negative meaning to a pain stimulus, with the intensity of suffering being determined more by the intensity of the angst associated with the meaning, rather than the intensity of the nociception as such. So, for example the same person who gets angry in response to the a/c going out, may pay a great deal of money to sit in a sauna at the Ritz. The conditioned meanings associated with sweating are different, as is then the experience, and the emotions attached. Likewise the actual painful nociception associated with hot peppers is actively sought (possibly because of conditioned endorphin releases). Likewise, pain experienced in the context of sexual arousal. Likewise the pain which athletes and others associate with the acquisition of power, skill, and triumph (e.g. mountain climbing). The essential and general meaning of pain, however, is usually the anxiety of disease, dysfunction, or impending decay and mortality. So whether it is suffering in response to sweating or in response to either a chronic or novel pain stimulus, research perspectives would tend to suggest that it is the meanings which attach that define the type and severity of suffering involved. Solutions have to do with seeing through the “meanings” as either illusory, or as acceptable (rather than unacceptable).

    As related to the Buddhist formulations, it would seem that the craving we have for release from suffering, which has become an amalgamated (and illusionary) entity might be important. This would lead to suffering as we repetitively attempt to escape from the psychic amalgam which has been conditioned and which we carry with us. Awareness of the underlying processes, or their deconstruction (through meditation) leads to release from suffering as we consciously practice acceptance of that which cannot be dispensed with and see through the negative meanings and beliefs which have been culturally attached. I would suggest that when an accurate meaning attaches to pain, emotional suffering does not arise. So in the pains of actual death for example, an accurate acceptance of both death and the pain associated would tend to protect us from psychic suffering.

    How this relates to the relative causality of suffering, craving and dukkha in the Buddhist formulations is unclear to me. Certainly pain and pleasure are the neurological substrates for adaptive conditioning for all creatures with a central nervous system, and so are an essential part of our evolutionary path. That our cultures will instill in us (through conditioning the craving for certain sorts of pleasure and release from certain sorts of pain) a particular cultural meaning/evolutionary strategy, also seems to be a given (though different from culture to culture). Perhaps the Buddhist heuristic and method is a process of deconstruction in which we as individuals can, to some degree, free ourselves from the imperatives which our individual cultures must explicitly condition in its children to “suffer” in prescribed ways. Especially as these are demonstrably inaccurate with a clear meditative (non anxious) view.

  3. frank jude on July 5, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Earl,

    Thank you for your detailed post! I think that rather than being ‘beside the point,’ it actually touches on the relevance of a secular understanding of dharma practice.

    When contemporary practitioners translate “dukkha” as “suffering,” they often make the point (as does Phillip Moffit in his “Dancing With Life,” that suffering is mental anguish; our conditioned reactivity to pain, discomfort etc. Thus, many such practitioners offer the maxim: “Pain is unavoidable; suffering is optional,” and understand Dharma Practice as the cessation of the mental anguish (reactivity) we literally ‘suffer’ when we react to pain.

    This is fine as far as it goes, but the Buddha actually included “pain” in his definition of what “dukkha” is. AND, traditionally, this has been used to bolster the idea that the Buddha is saying we can end dukkha (dukkha nirodha; the Third Noble Truth), and the way to do it is to stop the cycle of rebirth. Thus the only way it can make sense that the pain I feel when I stub my toe is the result of my ‘craving’ is to postulate that I craved life at the time of my previous death!

    My secularist/naturalist view is that dukkha is simply a fact of life; shit happens! This results in a reaction where I crave things to be other than they are. Dukkha-nirodha now becomes my practice of ‘containing’ my reactivity, so I neither vent nor suppress, but allow myself to actually feel the pain and dissatisfaction. THEN, my actions are more wholesome responses to the the situation. So, I argue, practice does indeed lead to greater ease and happiness, but not by eliminating dukkha, but my changing our relationship to our experience.

    SO, again, thanks for your post. I believe what you say about the research bolsters my understanding of how we can practice a secular approach to Dharma!

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