by Mark Knickelbine
This is another in a series of posts in which I have been discussing ideas presented by Stephen Batchelor in a series of dharma talks in late 2010. I encourage you to check them out at dharmaseed.org.
While Stephen Batchelor has often written and talked about his vision of a Buddhism that does not rely on a set of dogmatic, metaphysical beliefs, his Fall 2010 dharma talks are his first attempts I’m aware of to define a specifically “secular Buddhism.” In these talks, he sets out to delineate the core tenets of a Buddhism that considers Gotama as a man whose life and teaching arose from a set of cultural conditions, and that explores how his teaching is useful for us in our time, our world, our human life. That process of definition follows a method he had established years earlier, that of taking up those ideas unique to Gotama in his cultural milieu, and of setting other ideas in the Pali canon aside, particularly those that would have been consistent with the Vedic culture of the Brahmins.
Batchelor lays out four foundational teachings drawn from the canon that he sees as a base on which a secular Buddhism can be built.
“Whoever sees conditioned arising sees the dhamma,” Sariputta is quoted as saying, “and whoever sees the dhamma sees conditioned arising” (M. 28). Gotama’s first convert in the Deer Park expresses his realization this way: “Whatever has started, can stop” (Mv. I). The insight that the universe is not made up of stable, discrete identities, but is instead a vast web of interdependent processes, constantly arising and passing away and leading to new arisings and passings, is the hallmark of all of Gotama’s teaching. The rest of the core teachings can be understood as the practical application of this perspective to the challenges of humankind’s existential condition.
Unlike the doctrines of the Brahmins (or of many other religious orthodoxies), conditioned arising suggests that change is not only possible, but unstoppable. Cultivate the proper conditions, it tells us, and the chains of your conventional identity, with its baggage of longing, hating and foolishness, can drop away. Our lives are not shackled to the past; with effort, we can change them.
“Just as the ocean has one taste, the taste of salt,” Gotama tells us, “so this Dhamma and Discipline has one taste, the taste of freedom” (Ud. 5.5). That freedom is made possible by conditioned arising, which itself pervades Gotama’s teaching. When we observe the play of conditioned arising, we can observe that clinging to and fighting against temporary, ephemeral, unfixable phenomena isn’t a successful strategy. As we internalize that observation, we become free from the urge to cling and fight, free from our reactive habits. Free to live a different kind of life.
The Four Truths
How does conditioned arising play out in the realm of human suffering? Our suffering arises dependent on certain conditions, namely the basic characteristics of a human life: we are thrown into the world, we get old, we get sick, we die. We can’t get what we want, or if we get it, it doesn’t satisfy, or if it satisfies, it doesn’t last. We must put up with what we don’t want, especially with the inevitability of our vulnerablilty and death.
With this as a condition, we seek to get and hang on to what we think is good and pleasant, and avoid or dispose of what we think is bad; in both instances, we often find out afterward that we were mistaken about our goals to begin with. We take the fundamental nature of our condition and turn it into unfulfillable longing and unsoothable anxiety. We live within the illusion of a world of fixed identities, and that illusion prevents us from perceiving our experience as it actually arises.
But an alternative is possible. If we see beyond that illusion, if we internalize the lesson of conditioned arising in every aspect of our lived experience, we can realize the futility of grasping at and fearing ephemeral things. We can cultivate the courage to look at our lives and see, not the longed for or feared identities we imagine, but what is really there.
That vision makes new choices available to us. It allows us to think about the world differently, to speak and behave non-reactively, to build a livelihood based on something other than greed and aversion. And as we live from that vision, we become less deluded and distracted, more able to respond to our lives from a place of mindfulness and concentration.
So how do we internalize that vision, not just as an intellectual concept but intuitively? Gotama’s instructions are very simple. Sit down. Be aware of your breath. Observe feelings as feelings, sounds as sounds, thoughts as thoughts, as they come and go. Try to extend that awareness of your body to every action you take, no matter how mundane. If you quiet and concentrate your mind, and direct it to the texture of your lived experience as it unfolds in each moment, the insight of conditioned arising will begin to teach you its lessons.
For Gotama, the body is not the locus of sin and unholiness, as it was for the Brahmins and for so many other religions around the world and throughout history. It is instead the ultimate teacher, instructing us on the nature of suffering and the path to freedom.
We can see, then, that the basic dharma principle of self-reliance is not just something Westerners have cherry-picked from the Kalama Sutta. There is no intermediary in experiential learning — we must each bring the path into being for ourselves. There is no set of beliefs or practices that can save us; only through our direct experience of life as it arises and passes away can we be free from clinging and aversion.
“There are not one hundred or five hundred, but many more men and women lay followers who respond to my teachings, follow my advice, have gone beyond doubt, become free of perplexity, gained intrepidity, and become independent of others in my teaching” (M. 73). “Have the dhamma for an island, the dhamma for a refuge, have no other refuge ” (D. 16). Gotama’s vision is not of a cadre of conformist followers rigidly conserving orthodox dogma and legalistic ethics, but of people who are free, as self-reliant moral agents, to respond to one another with compassion and kindness.
Batchelor’s vision of a secular Buddhism is, I think, compelling for a number of reasons. It finds its basis in the Pali canon and in the core values of all the major Buddhist schools; to that extent, it grows from the millennia-old transmission of Gotama’s teachings. It is Buddhism; but it is a Buddhism that is not confined by ancient mythologies or limited to the ideas and practices that arose in another time and place. It is thoroughly applicable to the world and time in which we live, to the humanistic and rational ethos that forms our instinctive view of things. Best of all, it expresses a coherent, consistent prescription for confronting the poignant beauty and tragedy of our fleeting existence.
Batchelor is quite concerned with not creating the “new Buddhist church”, with avoiding the ossification that occurs when ideas become institutions. Time will tell whether Secular Buddhism will become enough of an institution to have such difficulties, and if so whether it can negotiate them. Our problem now, as we discuss often in our online chats, is to define what Secular Buddhism is, and why anyone should care. Batchelor’s four foundations offer a satisfying place to begin.