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.