The Goal of Practice

by Mark Knickelbine

This is another installment in a series of postings in which I discuss ideas presented by Stephen Bachelor in a series of dharma talks in late 2010. You can hear them at dharmaseed.org.

In my first post on this blog, I discussed Stephen Batchelor’s reinterpretation of the Four Noble Truths. Using Gotama’s presentation of the Four Truths in the First Sermon, Batchelor reads them as a prescription for a series of interrelated tasks, each giving rise to the next (the same way we would read many of the other series in the suttas, the various Chains of Dependent Arising being the principle example). This simple approach leads to some startling possibilities, the most significant of which is a radical change in the goal of dharma practice.

As I discussed in What is Dukkha?, the first such possibility is that Gotama was not prescribing the cessation of dukkha at all. Rather, what he suggested was that by fully knowing dukkha, we can cease our habitual reaction to the unsatisfactory nature of human experience: craving for things to be different.

This is absolutely clear from Gotama’s explication of the second and third Truth in the First Sermon:

“This is craving: it is repetitive, it wallows in attachment and greed, obsessively indulging in this and that, craving for stimulation, craving for existence, craving for non-existence.

“This is cessation: the traceless fading away of that craving, the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it.” (Mv I)

The independence and freedom we gain is not the cessation of dukkha, but the cessation of craving. What Gotama is saying here is not that practice brings an end to dukkha, but to the craving reactions that dukkha provokes in us.

“Cessation”, of course, is a synonym for nibbana, traditionally understood as the ultimate goal of practice. But if we read the Four Truths as links in a chain, we see that nibbana is not the end; there is one link left, the Eightfold Path. Indeed, if we read the Truths in this way, the clear implication is that the goal is not nibbana, but the Path itself.

This fits perfectly with Gotama’s description of the twelve aspects of the Four Truths, which, he claims, were the basis of his awakening:

“Such is dukkha. It can be fully known. It has been fully known.

“Such is craving. It can be let go of. It has been let go of

“Such is cessation. It can be experienced. It has been experienced.

“Such is the path. It can be cultivated. It has been cultivated.” (Mv I)

There is no sense here that craving leads to dukkha or that the Path leads to cessation. Gotama instead describes a step-by-step process in which fully knowing dukkha leads to letting go of craving; letting go of craving leads to the experience of cessation; and the cessation of craving leads to the cultivation of the Path.

This is at radical odds with the repetitive formulations of the Truths we find throughout the suttas. Again and again we are told that the Path leads to nibbana, the unborn and deathless state in which birth and consciousness are extinguished and from which the arahant never returns. As with everything else in the Pali canon, we do not know the provenance of these formulae. But, as Batchelor points out, the effect of reading the Path as leading to nibbana is to reconcile Buddhist thought with Vedic soteriology. Just as the Brahmin seeks through various rituals and austerities to leave the realm of birth and death by merging with the ineffable Brahman, the bhikkhu is, through the renunciant austerities of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, etc, attempting to leave the world of birth and death and rest in eternal nibbana. The traditional reading of the Truths is, therefore, a metaphysical claim, one that tends to tame the subversive nature of Gotama’s teachings and brings them back in line with the mainstream Vedantic doctrine that prevailed in the society of northern India in Gotama’s era.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the modern Western habit of translating dukkha as “suffering” tends to elide this problem. After all, we can see craving leading to suffering all around us. But if we take Gotama’s definition of dukkha in the First Sermon at face value, the basis of the First Noble Truth is much more than suffering. It is the very nature of human experience: birth, sickness, aging, death, in fact the totality of our psychophysical nature. That any practice can bring these to an end is a metaphysical belief, one that makes the goal of practice incredibly remote, the province of the rare spiritual adept, to be achieved only after many lifetimes. Moreover, the idea that one can have cut off craving “like a palm stump, done away with it so it is no longer subject to future arising” (MN 73) is scarcely compatible with our current understanding of human neurophysiology. Our many approach and avoidance conflicts are not the result of some spiritual or moral pollution, but of 200 million years of evolutionary biology, the hardwiring of which we might tame but will never escape.

Batchelor’s reading relieves the Truths of mythology; instead, the world of human experience reappears. Rather than being a static state of bliss (“Buddhist heaven,” as some think of it), nibbana is an absence — the extinguishing of the three fires, greed, hatred and delusion. Rather than the Path being a discipline to which we must subject ourselves in order to reach freedom, the release of craving is in itself the freedom that permits us to follow the Path. To me, this makes eminent sense. How, when we are in the thrall of craving, are we to know what Right View is? And without Right View, the rest of the Path is equally unfindable. Only when we are able to experience even a moment of the cessation of craving is it possible for us to respond from an untainted intention. This cessation need not be complete and final to have a powerful effect on our lives; yet the more we experience it, the more we may come to trust in its availability, and the more we may see how living mindfully and skillfully in the world leads to greater equanimity and peace for ourselves and everyone around us.

With this reading of the Truths, the goal of practice is not some perfect transcendental escape from life, but a new way to live in this world. The liberation Gotama promised us is not a distant myth, but the immediate freedom not to be governed by our habits and urges, the capacity to embrace the beauty and tragedy of the human condition we share and to respond from wisdom and compassion. And it is a freedom available to everyone willing observe an in-breath, an out-breath.

Incidentally, this reading is also thoroughly consistent with the mindfulness-based therapies that are revolutionizing integrative medicine. These therapies teach us how to calm our minds and direct them to experiencing the bodily manifestation of sensations, emotions and thoughts. That practice helps us see that our sensations are only temporary and changing, and that our emotions and thoughts need not define and overpower us. From that understanding arises equanimity, and from equanimity arises the ability to accept ourselves and others as we are, to listen and respond with compassion. Are ordinary people experiencing nibbana all around us?

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  1. earl on August 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Wonderful post Mark, very concise and clear. In this post I do get a clearer picture of why you dislike the word suffering, and I agree. Even the desires we enjoy are dissatisfaction. I also agree that in practicing acceptance by focusing awareness on our discomforts (knowing them, instead of reflexively running from them) we gain power over delusion and are better able to follow the path. It seems as though the 8 fold path is a good review of one way of breaking up the various elements of a human life in which craving and attachment are problems and in which it is helpful to be consciously mindful of the process and practice of knowing and accepting in each of those areas. In this way there is a synergy between the microskill of practicing awareness of unpleasantness and it’s acceptance in the moment, and the macroskill of being clearly aware of the strategic places, circumstances, and issues in which the practice of this microskill can be of greatest strategic advantage.

    It is also interesting to note from your review, that much of any of these scriptures has been designed to serve historical sociologic and cultural purposes, and at root we must evaluate the simple sensibleness of an idea, rather than focus on any sort of scriptural prescription or provenance as such.

  2. Ron Stillman on August 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    For those not familiar with the traditional titles for the Four Noble Truths, they are:

    There is suffering
    There is the cause of suffering
    There is the cessation of suffering
    There is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering

    One notices that, in terms of the law of conditionality, the first title is effect, the second title is cause, the third title is effect and the fourth title is cause…exactly backwards from the cause and effect described in conditionality. Moreover, these titles fit a multi-life model in that the third title is the goal of traditional Buddhism (escape from life that takes untold lifetimes), not the cessation of craving (a this-life model).

  3. Ratanadhammo on August 12, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    The modern Western habit of translating dukkha as “suffering” tends to elide this problem.

    This is a problem of modern Western thinkers far more than it is a problem of the multiple ways that dukkha is used in the Pali Canon. In other words, it’s not clear that Batchelor is solving a problem present in the Pali Canon, so much as he’s creating new problems for Westerners in an effort to solve a problem that was soley their own in the first place. Not helpful.

    Batchelor’s reading relieves the Truths of mythology; instead, the world of human experience reappears.

    I would argue that he does no such thing, but instead clouds them by making assertions that fit comfortably with the worldview of people who buy his books. His reading relieves the Truths of mythology? At best, you can argue that he misunderstood what he saw among the Tibetan Buddhists and failed to understand their goals in presenting them in a certain way. The Truths as presented in the Pali Canon do not need to be relieved of mythology.

    Rather than being a static state of bliss (“Buddhist heaven,” as some think of it), nibbana is an absence — the extinguishing of the three fires, greed, hatred and delusion.

    You’ve actually managed to get right back to exactly what the Pali Canon asserts about the Buddha’s teaching on nibbana, that is an absence, the extinguishing of the three fires, greed, hatred and delusion!

    Congratulations.

    The problem apparently has been that someone told you some bs about what the Pali Canon asserts about nibbana, which most certainly is not that it is a static state of bliss or some kind of Buddhist heaven.

    A few quotes from the Pali Canon:

    Cessation of greed, of hatred and of delusion is the Unformed, the Unconditioned.

    The mind of the arahant is steadfast, not static:

    Just as a rock of one solid mass remains unshaken by the wind, even so neither the visible forms, nor sounds, no odours, nor tastes, nor bodily impressions, neither the desired nor the undesired, can cause such a one to waver, Steadfast is their mind, gained is deliverance.

    Equanimity leading to seeing things as they really are (dukkha, anicca, anatta) leading to liberation: that is when the experience of nibbana becomes possible.

    As I’ve written to Ted, whether or not one achieves the experience of the Unconditioned isn’t the point. It’s presented as the measure by which all other experience should be investigated. To remove it is to painfully limit one’s practice.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm

      I apparently forgot to put the close quote command after the third blockquote.

      The blockquote begins and ENDS like this:

      Rather than being a static state of bliss (“Buddhist heaven,” as some think of it), nibbana is an absence — the extinguishing of the three fires, greed, hatred and delusion.

      Please add the end blockquote command so that the rest of the comment can be read more easily. thanks!

  4. mknick on August 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    @ Rat — Yes, the problem of the mistranslation of “dukkha” is a Western problem, as the sentence you quote points out. Batchelor is quite helpfully pointing out that it IS a problem, and clarifying from whence the problem springs. Perhaps I was being unclear: hopefully my original post on dukkha will clarify my point.

    Unless you are denying that the traditional view of nibbana is the extinguishing of birth and consciousness (something I thought you had previously asserted), then you are just reinforcing Batchelor’s point that the traditional view is a metaphysical one, and therefore does need to be relieved of mythology if people who expect claims to be backed up with evidence and common sense are to make use of it.

    As far as the “bs” I’ve been fed, one of the chefs is Bhikkhu Bodhi. On page 45 of his “In the Buddha’s Words” we read that the Buddha taught “the path leading to the supreme state of ultimate liberation, the perfect bliss of Nibbana . . .”

    Oh, yeah and this guy named Gotama: “Being diligent (the monk) attains perpetual emancipation. And it is impossible for this monk to fall away from that perpetual liberation.” (MN 29). And there are many similar passages in the suttas, as I’m sure you’re aware.

    Finally, while I appreciate your concern about my practice, I experience it as a transformative treasure, not painfully limited in any way. I am very grateful that I had a way into practice that did not require me to pretend to believe the unbelievable, or I might never have discovered this treasure.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm

      mknick writes:

      Unless you are denying that the traditional view of nibbana is the extinguishing of birth and consciousness (something I thought you had previously asserted), then you are just reinforcing Batchelor’s point that the traditional view is a metaphysical one

      I am denying that the extinguishing of birth and consciousness is the traditional view of nibbana.

      As my quote makes clear, the traditional view of nibbana is the cessation of greed, of hatred and of delusion. This cessation, the Pali Canon asserts, is what makes possible the experience of the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the Undisintegrating, the Undiversified, the Exhaustion of Craving, the Supreme Goal.

      The Buddha’s birth wasn’t extinguished when he awakened, nor was his consciousness extinguished. His awakening did not end conditioned phenomena or fix samsara.

      You seem to have defined nibbana according to your own conceptual categories and to be attributing your definition to others.

      Honestly, that’s what I see when you point out the quote from Bhikkhu Bodhi, for example. You’re reading more into the following quote than what is there:

      the path leading to the supreme state of ultimate liberation, the perfect bliss of Nibbana

      Liberation from the cancers and the bliss that comes with experiencing the Unconditioned do not amount to any metaphysical view.

      I say that it is painfully limited because it’s stuck in the bases of conditioned phenomena, attachment to which is all about dukkha.

      Just keep making it clear that what you’re presenting draws from the Buddha’s teaching, but is not what the Buddha’s taught as we have it in the most reliable source, the way you’re doing when you write things like this:

      Oh, yeah and this guy named Gotama: “Being diligent (the monk) attains perpetual emancipation. And it is impossible for this monk to fall away from that perpetual liberation.” (MN 29). And there are many similar passages in the suttas, as I’m sure you’re aware.

      That guy named Gotama taught that it is important to make the Unconditioned the measure of one’s practice. What’s presented in the Pali Canon is just far deeper and profound than what you’re acknowledging. I’ve explained as best I can why your reverence for the finds of neuroscience just amounts to circular thinking about conditioned phenomena and is ultimately limited as a result. By the way, on consciousness, you should check out the work by Carl Jung and Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). These are older investigations, but well worth your time!

      If only Batchelor were clearer in asserting that his teaching merely borrows from the Pali Canon, reducing what’s there that he doesn’t think is worth trying to understand, and tacks on Englightenment values to make his teaching appealing to Westerners, rather than confusing people by asserting that what he’s teaching is what the Buddha would have really taught if he were alive today (it just isn’t), then Batchelor really wouldn’t be all that controversial at all.

      You will say that Batchelor is clear about his teaching being a derivation of the Pali Canon and that he doesn’t assert that his interpretation is a more accurate view of the Buddha’s teaching, but that’s clearly not true. He sets up a straw man, says it’s the traditional view, and knocks it down, leaving his followers to believe that he’s knocked down a flawed interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching, even as he cuts up the Pali Canon.

      • Ratanadhammo on August 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm

        I seem to be having problems with the close blockquote commands. Sorry! Please feel free to use your edit powers to fix it if you think it’s unclear for others.

  5. Ratanadhammo on August 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    mknick writes:

    But, as Batchelor points out, the effect of reading the Path as leading to nibbana is to reconcile Buddhist thought with Vedic soteriology.

    No, it is not. Batchelor can assert this all he likes, but it doesn’t make it so. Nor does your repeating it as fact make it so.

    Vedic soteriology had to do the atman (self) and its relationship with Brahman (Universal Self). What’s in the Pali Canon is a clear rejection of both the atman and Brahman. If anything, I would say that the teaching in the Pali Canon is an anti-soteriology!

  6. Andrew on August 12, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    MARK,

    I thought the article was well written and helpful, just up my alley, but understand what Ratanadhammo is alluding to as a mis-interpretation. It would be good to sort out the meaning of nibbana that the Pali canon presents, if there is any consensus. If however, as I suspect, it is wide open to interpretation, then we have a problem that will never go away. You guys that have more experience in this area – please get your heads together and work this out. It seems like an important starting point to clarify before we get into the rest of our dickering.

    I feel like I’m on a merry-go-round with some of these posts and their resulting comments. Will this always be the case? If so, I’m just going to ignore all the original material as perenially open to whatever we want it to say, and pick the version I resonate with and stick to it. Jeeshh…

    • Ratanadhammo on August 12, 2011 at 5:56 pm

      Andrew,

      You’re making my point about how presenting misinterpretations that are easily knocked down leads to confusion and turns people off to investigating the profound teaching that is presented in the Pali Canon.

      mknick would have you think that there is a traditonal Buddhist interpretation that comes out of the Pali Canon, which he thinks alludes to something soteriological and metaphysical. Well, it really doesn’t.

      What the Buddha taught as presented in the most reliable source we have for it is not a path to mystical union with anything, nor is it a path to any redemption or any salvation. It’s not a path to anything metaphysical at all.

      Instead, to borrow from Buddhaghosa, it’s a path of purification.

      There is a way to experience the Unconditioned and so to exist within samsara without attachment to its conditioned phenomena. To deny it is to reject the Third Ennobling Truth and to completely miss the point of the path that is the Fourth Ennobling Truth.

  7. Andrew on August 12, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Perhaps I should wait until Mark weighs in, but if what you say is true, then there is a strong foundation for agreeing on the interpretation of the Four Noble Truths as he laid it out. Would you agree?

    There are other scriptural sources that have a different view of nibbana/nirvana, I assume.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 12, 2011 at 7:50 pm

      Agreed. And, yes, the Four Ennobling Truths as Mark quotes them are fine:

      “Such is dukkha. It can be fully known. It has been fully known.

      “Such is craving. It can be let go of. It has been let go of

      “Such is cessation. It can be experienced. It has been experienced.

      “Such is the path. It can be cultivated. It has been cultivated.” (Mv I)

      It’s Mark’s conclusion, starting with the following, that I don’t agree with:

      There is no sense here that craving leads to dukkha or that the Path leads to cessation.

  8. Andrew on August 12, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    I feel like I’m wading into a thicket, or is it quicksand, but here goes:

    First off, a disagreement seems to be whether the path leads to cessation. Mark’s (mine also for the time being) view is that there is no cessation possible, because dukkha is pervasive. Dukkha can’t be eliminated, because it is an inherent part of existence, even for Buddhas. It’s just their unhelpful reaction to it that is contained or eliminated. That accomplishment is nibbana. I suspect you think that dukkha can be gotten rid of for those folks who work hard enough at it. Total elimination – a complete blowing out. Correct?

    Secondly, I sense you believe craving leads to dukkha, and therefore dukkha isn’t an inherent condition. It’s only our unskillful reactions to the vicissitudes of life that cause dukkha to arise.
    It almost seems like a chicken and egg story. Which arose first, dukkha or the craving? Does it matter? Is this the substance of the disagreement?

    Or is it way more complex and it is all about the blowing out as the sign of accomplishment, so that the resulting reward is the issue? Is this about what we can expect out of nibbana?

    I’m trying to bite off one morsel at a time. Maybe I took two bites. Help make this simple.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 12, 2011 at 11:40 pm

      Andrew,

      Dukkha is an inherent quality of all conditioned phenonema, just as anicca and anatta are also inherent qualities of all conditioned phenomena. These are the three characteristics of existence. Dukkha is unsatisfactoriness. Anicca is impermanence. And anatta is compactlessness or insubstantiality of all phenomena, conditioned and unconditioned, which the arahant experiences as not-self. The mind (a conditioned phenomenon) reaches out to conditioned phenomena for satisfaction, but neither the mind nor the objects can be satisfied or satisfy.

      Thus, I most certainly think that dukkha is an inherent condition!

      The difference in the view presented by Mark and the view presented by the Pali Canon is whether there is not (Mark’s view) or there is (the view presented by the Pali Canon) the existence of something other than conditioned phenomena, i.e. the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the Undisintegrating, the Undiversified. My view is that A) there is (in full agreement with the Pali Canon), and B) that it’s an important part of practice as a measure by which we can see and know all conditioned phenomena, including the aggregates of self, for what they are.

  9. Andrew on August 13, 2011 at 2:03 am

    Ratanadhammo,

    So it comes down to whether you believe there is an Unformed, Unconditioned, Undisintegrating, Undiversfied no-thing, per the testimony of the Pali Canon? I can understand that fault line – not everybody wants to take that on faith.

    To then say it is an important part of one’s practice to view things through this Un-world perspective so that “we can see and know all conditioned phenomena”, seems to conclude that you’ve got to be one of the people who knows what it’s all about – an Un-knower that can see “the aggregates of self for what they are.”

    That feels like an excusive club, and a logic that gets established only by the ones in the know, the Un-knowers (to be tongue-in-cheek). There seems a lot of setting the stage for this whole affair, and a lot of assumptions about what this Un-ness is, and how to come out of this knowing.

    My difficulty is taking these kinds of things on faith, despite being in the revered Pali Canon. It feels like many other beliefs such as heaven and hell in the Catholic church that are wholly backed by scripture. Just saying that yes, there is this absolute Un-ness, and if you don’t accept this on faith, your Buddhism is incorrect, feels kind of sad. I don’t think the Buddha said that you had to take this on faith. I thought his whole presentation was not to make people accept this grand kind of metaphysic, or absolutist belief? What’s going on here?

    • Ratanadhammo on August 13, 2011 at 8:17 am

      You wound up associating the notion of there being unconditioned reality with a Christian belief in heaven and hell after making it into something that it really isn’t at all: esoteric.

      I very much get your tongue-in-check “Unknowers” reference, but that just makes what they, well, “unknow” sound like something metaphysical.

      The key insight is:

      All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.

      • Andrew on August 13, 2011 at 1:04 pm

        The heaven and hell bit was just one of any number of examples of absolutist beliefs that exist without our being able to confirm its reality, other than to point to scripture.

        I get the “all things that arise are subject to cessation”, but don’t get the buck stops here connotation.

        I suppose we could quibble whether the “Unknow” is a metaphysical construct, but that seems besides the point. I guess it all comes down to belief and placing one’s faith in scripture as a path of choice. Those of us with a secular bent will always want to poke holes in words and thoughts that don’t seem to be based on direct observation (by us unenlightened mortals).

        Thanks for the discussion, Ratanadhammo/Brian

  10. earl on August 13, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Andrew, thanks for your very calm, compassionate and concise reframing of these distinctions, and i very much appreciate your clear eye to getting at the important concepts involved, rather than labyrinthine discussions of ancient texts, cultures, and perspectives.

    It seems that where traditional “religious psychology” gets woven into the fabric, is when we use extraordinarily complex and arcane formulations for things that are really pretty simple, if there is an underlying desire for clarity and understanding this tends to shine through.

    • Andrew on August 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks for your feedback, Earl. I agree it’s a tough road to follow some of these Dharma convesational threads. Mostly, I don’t bother once they get strung out in too much complexity. Somebody once characterized it as a discussion on how many Buddhas can dance on the head of a pin. Maybe that was Ted in his review of Sujato’s blog topic about secular Buddhism.

      I also believe that it is possible to keep things relatively simple, as long as we come out of our personal observations and experiences. It’s not a gaurantee, but oftentimes the conversation stays clearer when scripture takes a back seat. When we argue things based on third hand, (yet respected information) I feel like the conversation often has an energy drop. It’s like we just dropped into a rut, and everybody has to agree not to take the conversation in a certain direction. I suppose it’s helpful in not having to reinvent the wheel, but hey, these days we are needing to reinvent everything, or at least re-visit everything. Humans are fallible, and scripture that was written hundreds of years later after the original quotes were made, is subject to twists and turns that distort the original message.

      I guess there’s different strokes for different folks. Some like the authority of a system to subscribe to, to bolster their understanding of the world, and some crazy people like me don’t want to take anything on blind faith, and keep on asking questions for which there are no answers.

  11. Andrew on August 13, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    I am carrying on a conversation, or is it a wolf cry in the web wilderness, on my blog at:

    http://www.dharmasanctuary.org/my-blog/

    I’m also promoting the building of stupas through my web site, modeled on my projects in Kauai and in southern France. Stop by and have a visit some day.

    Aloha, Andrew

  12. mknick on August 13, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Rat —

    You wrote “I am denying that the extinguishing of birth and consciousness is the traditional view of nibbana.”

    You don’t know how delighted I am to hear it! It means that, like Secular Buddhists, you do not accept all the teachings presented in the Pali texts, passages like these:

    “But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness . . .Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering” (SN 12 I. 2)

    “They understand consciousness, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation” (SN 12 I. 14 [4] in which Gotama is once again describing how nibbana leads to the cessation of all formations).

    “. . .[W]ith the cessation of existance [comes] the cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging and death, sorrow, lamendation, pain, displeasure and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering (SN 12 I. 12 [2])

    “So too, bhikkus, when one dwells contemplating danger in things that can fetter, there is no descent of consciousness. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering” (SN 12 I. 59 [9])

    There are dozens of such statements just in this one chapter of the Samyutta Nikaya, which is easy to search on my Kindle. Then of course there’s the famous formula exclaimed by people when they are awakened, which begins “Birth is destroyed,” and ends, “there is nothing more for this existance.”

    Neither I nor Stephen Batchelor made these up, by the way. I suppose one could reinterpret them to make it appear that they don’t mean what they say, and that is what religious apologists spend much of their time doing, but that wouldn’t change what they say. Just as in Vedic soteriology, traditional Buddhism came up with a way for the adept to leave the realm of birth and death and remain in a blissful state — that such a soteriology creates contradictions with other teachings Gotama is purported to have given is more evidence of the heteroglossic nature of the Pali texts.

    Finally Rat, the next time you make the claim that Batchelor says his interpretation is “what the Buddha would be teaching if he were alive today,” please be good enough to include a specific citation. You’ve obviously happened on some writing of his that I’ve never seen, and I thought I’d read nearly all of them. What you say seems to directly contradict what I have read, for instance this passage from pg 181 of “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”: “I am fully aware that the passages to which I am drawn in the Canon are those that best fit my own views and biases as a secular Westerner . . .I confess that what I am doing is not an objective study of Buddhism, but what I can only call theology — albiety theology without theos.”

    • Ratanadhammo on August 13, 2011 at 4:27 pm

      I’ll just politely say that I don’t think you’re even trying to interpret correctly the meaning of the passages of the Pali Canon that you’ve quoted. The extinguishing in those quotes refers to the Parinibbana, not Nibbana.

      Batchelor’s assertions on what he’s doing to the Pali Canon are, frankly, all over the place. In one moment, he claims to be giving a more valid interpretation of what the Buddha taught, or would have taught. In the next moment, he admits that he’s just cutting up the Pali Canon to fit his own biases.

      We can argue in circles endlessly about whether there’s a soteriology or not in the teaching as it is presented in the Pali Canon. I suppose I have enough imagination to accept that there is neither existence nor non-existence, neither time nor eternity, etc, which is what the Buddha presents in the Pali Canon.

      In other words, from the unawakened point of view, everything in samsaric existence is on fire, as the Buddha put it. Indeed, setting aside his greater concern for our part in all the heat, everything we know about the relationship between matter, energy and heat among the conditioned phenomena suggests that he was right on. You’re assertions regarding birth and consciousness are much ado about conditioned phenomena, and totally miss the point of what the Buddha taught to be the right way to relate to conditioned phenomena in order to end suffering.

  13. mknick on August 14, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Rat —

    I notice you still can’t find a Batchelor citation.

    The meaning of the passages I quoted is quite clear: nibbana leads to the end of rebirth. This is the only reading of the many passages based on the 12-link chain of dependent arising that makes any sense. It is also the basis of the claim that nibbana is the end of dukkha — because it is the end of birth. It is a metaphysical claim.

    You’ve once again stated your religious interpretation of the suttas quite admirably. I am not interested in metaphysical beliefs, however. Quoting scripture is not evidence. Until you can produce some evidence of how it is possible for any part of a human mind to exist outside of a living human body, or suggest some observable mechanism whereby craving leads to existance, your statements of religious dogma are no more than that, and no more valid than any other religious dogma. You may state them again, if you like, but this is my last response to you on this post.

    • Ratanadhammo on August 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm

      mknick,

      You’re just making the same incorrect assertions about Nibbana as before, most likely because you’re refusing to acknowlegde that you’re confusing Parinibbana with Nibbana.

      There’s just nothing religious about my interpretation or metaphysical in what I’m saying at all. There are those who will accept your assertion that there is because you’ve asserted that there is, but that doesn’t make your assertion valid at all.

      Awakening to the unconditioned is nothing more than recognizing the aggregates of self and the nature of all conditioned phenomena for what they all are and so cutting off all the fuel that leads to suffering, no longer seeing conceptually in terms of “I” or “me” or “mine” or attaching to impermanent phenomena of any kind.

      There’s just nothing metaphysical about it.

      The bottom line is that you’re rejecting key things in the Pali Canon out of ignorance. The result, imo, is the limitation of your practice that aims at little to nothing more than is offered by current therapies. As you proudly point out near the end of the post above:

      Incidentally, this reading is also thoroughly consistent with the mindfulness-based therapies that are revolutionizing integrative medicine.

      That’s true, but so what? You’re doing what they’re doing: taking awakening out of Buddhism, which is about, well, the teachings of Awakened One, which is what the term “Buddha” means.

      Anyway, what you’re advocating in your writings amounts to a Buddhism-inspired humanism at most.

      Regarding Batchelor, what I’m saying is such common knowledge that it need not be cited. I first caught Batchelor making huge and wildly inappropriate claims about the superiority of his interpretations of the Pali Canon in Buddhism Without Beliefs. Every Batchelor disciple can be caught doing this very same thing.

  14. Andrew on August 14, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Well, it’s clear that you guys aren’t going to find agreement, or even a basis of an agreement to build on in order to clarify your differences. Mush is what it is. Give it up. Religion, scripture, opinion, belief – it’s all about division and defense. There are other ways….

    • Ratanadhammo on August 14, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Andrew,

      What an odd conclusion to reach from this discussion!

      You acknowledge that there are two views here. Evaluate what’s being said for yourself. There’s something more in what’s being said than divisiveness and defense of religion, scripture, opinion, belief.

      What Mark seems to be missing is that Batchelor lumps all Buddhist thought together and dismisses it as blind faith and/or metaphysical assertions. Mark seems to be so invested in this idea that he won’t give it up.

      Before turning to asserting the superior validity of his cutting up what he found in the Pali Canon, Batchelor was a Tibetan Buddhist and a Zen monk. For example, there are Mahayana beliefs in the inherent Buddha-nature of all beings and the Trikaya doctrine about an unlimited Dharmakaya (Truth body) of all Buddhas that can be easily interpreted – or misinterpreted – by Batchelor as being religious in nature or metaphysical.

      Whatever these views may be, they’re later developments that do not justify at all Batchelor’s dismissal of the teaching in the Pali Canon, which he clearly isn’t making much of an effort to help anyone understand before he gets people to dismiss it.

      As far as I can tell, Batchelor is lazily lumping together many different views under the umbrella term “traditional” Buddhism so he can easily knock down this “straw man” while bs’ing others about the teaching as it is presented in the Pali Canon.

  15. Andrew on August 15, 2011 at 12:21 am

    Ratanadhammo,

    I get what you say. I understand you think the Pail Canon hasn’t been given a fair shake by Batchelor. I’m not a scholar, nor have I read the canon, so I can’t asess the validity of that. I’ve read a variety of translations of parts of the canon (second hand information) and found there to be conflicting statements. All scripture seems to be littered with this type of curiosity. The Christian Bible comes to mind. Whether such conflict gives enough credence to dispute key parts of the canon, I can not say. I sense this is where the conversation can get bogged down. I can also see that offering a theory that the Buddha meant something different from how the Pali was written down, also causes a ruckus.

    I understand your straw man theory, attempting to conflate lots of Buddhisms into one called “traditional”, so that one can rail against it. Perhaps Batchelor is being imprecise, generalizing too much. I don’t have a problem with that, as long as he spends some time articulating his definition of traditional. Maybe he has not done that well, maybe he has – I’m not sure…

    I don’t think Batchelor or Mark is going to carry the day with some mis-informed Buddhism and create a monster. It’s all going to come out in the wash – and you’ll be there to see that it does!

    I read your tete a tete with Mark and marvel at the different parallel universes. It’s not easy to sort out for an outsider. It gets a bit mushy, that’s all…

    Andrew

  16. The Secret of Happiness | The Secular Buddhist on September 18, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    […] The Goal of Practice and elsewhere, I have argued along with Stephen Batchelor that the goal of secular dharma practice […]

  17. Secular Buddhist Association on November 5, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    […] The Goal of Practice and elsewhere, I have argued along with Stephen Batchelor that the goal of secular dharma practice […]

  18. Andrew on May 12, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    I haven’t read all the comments but I’d like to propose that dukkha arises not from physical pain, but the reaction to it, from the craving to be free of physical pain. And as for emotional dukkha, it truly can be eradicated according to the suttas.

    “An untaught worldling, O monks, experiences pleasant feelings, he experiences painful feelings and he experiences neutral feelings. A well-taught noble disciple likewise experiences pleasant, painful and neutral feelings. Now what is the distinction, the diversity, the difference that exists herein between a well-taught noble disciple and an untaught worldling?

    “When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. So that person will experience feelings caused by two darts. It is similar with an untaught worldling: when touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. So he experiences two kinds of feeling: a bodily and a mental feeling.

    “Having been touched by that painful feeling, he resists (and resents) it. Then in him who so resists (and resents) that painful feeling, an underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind). Under the impact of that painful feeling he then proceeds to enjoy sensual happiness. And why does he do so? An untaught worldling, O monks, does not know of any other escape from painful feelings except the enjoyment of sensual happiness. Then in him who enjoys sensual happiness, an underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feelings comes to underlie (his mind). He does not know, according to facts, the arising and ending of these feelings, nor the gratification, the danger and the escape, connected with these feelings. In him who lacks that knowledge, an underlying tendency to ignorance as to neutral feelings comes to underlie (his mind). When he experiences a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling or a neutral feeling, he feels it as one fettered by it. Such a one, O monks, is called an untaught worldling who is fettered by birth, by old age, by death, by sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. He is fettered by suffering, this I declare.

    “But in the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So this person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only. It is similar with a well-taught noble disciple: when touched by a painful feeling, he will no worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. He experiences one single feeling, a bodily one.

    “Having been touched by that painful feeling, he does not resist (and resent) it. Hence, in him no underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind). Under the impact of that painful feeling he does not proceed to enjoy sensual happiness. And why not? As a well-taught noble disciple he knows of an escape from painful feelings other than by enjoying sensual happiness. Then in him who does not proceed to enjoy sensual happiness, no underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feelings comes to underlie (his mind). He knows, according to facts, the arising and ending of those feelings, and the gratification, the danger and the escape connected with these feelings. In him who knows thus, no underlying tendency to ignorance as to neutral feelings comes to underlie (his mind). When he experiences a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling or a neutral feeling, he feels it as one who is not fettered by it. Such a one, O monks, is called a well-taught noble disciple who is not fettered by birth, by old age, by death, by sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. He is not fettered to suffering, this I declare.

    “This, O monks, is the distinction, the diversity, the difference that exists between a well-taught noble disciple and an untaught worldling.”

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn36/sn36.006.nypo.html

    so there you have it.

  19. Andrew on May 12, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    Also, to my fellow Andrew.

    the

    “So it comes down to whether you believe there is an Unformed, Unconditioned, Undisintegrating, Undiversfied no-thing, per the testimony of the Pali Canon? I can understand that fault line – not everybody wants to take that on faith.”

    is commonly assumed to be some metaphysical what have you, well it isn’t. Nibbana is an intransitive verb meaning gone out and it refers to the destruction of the three fires of infatuation, aversion and confusion that are conditioned by our own minds and the way they’re hardwired. The unconditioned, the unborn, the deathless is simply being free from those fires that cause us so much trouble. Awakening is not mystical BS it is simply learning how to truly “keep it real” and become unbound from attachment to the uninstructed and confused version/perspective of the world. Whether you think such a thing is possible or not I don’t really care but I thought I should clear up that nibbana is not heaven or weird mystical what have you, it’s actually a kind of equanimity gained through cultivating certain mental qualities.

  20. Mark Knickelbine on May 14, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Andrew, thanks for your comments! Your view is the one Linda Blanchard favors, so you might want to pick out her comments in the string here. Not to repeat myself, but our confusion about the term dukkha derives from contradictions in the Pali texts themselves, specifically what is meant by the end of dukkha. If we take Gotama at his word when he says “all conditioned phenomena are dukkha” and “the aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha,” then he has to be talking about something beyond what he’s referring to in the sutta you quote. I think my interpretation (and Batchelor’s) makes it clear that dukkha isn’t simply about whether we approach suffering mindfully or not, but is instead hardwired into the nature of our existence. As long as we’re alive, life will be painful and unsatisfying; we can end craving and aversion (as your sutta states) but dukkha we will have always. In short, dukkha is not “our fault”, since nothing we can do will bring it to an end. You might want to look another of my articles, “The Secret of Happiness”, for more on this topic: https://secularbuddhism.org/2011/09/18/the-secret-of-happiness

  21. Candol on May 15, 2012 at 8:12 am

    I’m skipping through most of the debate just to make the point that a lot of confusion can be avoided by keeping your reading mainly to the suttas and not getting overly bogged down in this sort of situation. I mean when you start out with buddhism, it helps to read some books and how others say so much more concisely what hte buddha teaches. After you’ve got a sense of that, its good to read the suttas starting off with some key ones if you can find someone to point you in the right direction.

    After that, its easy enough to see for yourself what is going on and then we don’t need to stuck in commentary upon commentary which i have to say is too often just confusing the issues. As i say Mark i have found what you’ve writen a little confusing whereas i haven’t found that to be the case with what stephen has written or said.

    To me it certainly makes not sense to purport anything other than that following the path is starting point of this whole trip to cessation or nirvana. If you don’t follow the path you wont find any cessation of greed, aversion and delusion, you wont find any cessation of dukkha and you wont reach nirvana be that the cessation, a permanent bliss or an end to rebirth. Whatever you want to say about the first three, if you don’t follow the 8fold path, nothing’s gonna happen for you.

  22. Candol on May 15, 2012 at 8:20 am

    I really need an edit option on my postings as when i read back i see all the words i left out and wonder how that could have happened. My errors make me look like an illiterate but i am not.

  23. Mark Knickelbine on May 15, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Candol, sorry to confuse you, and thank you for your comment. Batchelor hasn’t written about this concept yet that I’m aware of — he has been talking about it in retreats, however, which I why I wanted to write this series of articles to make members of our community aware of these ideas.

    Here is the point — what you say would be true if the Eightfold Path were a straightforward series of dos and don’ts like the Ten Commandments. But they’re not. Gotama says that we must bring the path into being ourselves, which I have always taken to mean that we must explore for ourselves what the meaning of each of the path factors is in our own lives. I notice that the first factor mentioned is Right View; but how can we have right view if we are still caught up in grasping, aversion and confusion? And if we lack right view, how are we to know what right speech and action, etc, would be? On the other hand, if I have stilled my grasping, I’m now able to see what things are like outside my own reactive self-centeredness. I’m capable of knowing what an appropriate response would be. Of course this is a circular thing — the last factor is Right Mindfulness, which brings us back to Right View. The practical effect of all this is that we must develop concentration and mindfulness before we can begin the ethical investigation of the Eightfold Path, and that the path itself — a freedom to respond appropriately to ourselves and others — is the goal of practice, not some mystical state.

    • Towers on April 2, 2013 at 10:25 pm

      But if the Eightfold Path is not straightforward as you say, why the rigid reading of Right View and its dependence on Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration? Couldn’t it be the case, for instance, that all the factors tend to enhance each other and that it’s important to attend to all eight when practicing buddhism even though our initial grasp on them is not that perfect? Would Gotama really mean that we cannot seriously begin an ethical investigation into something that he actually described, without some other aspect of ourselves perfected first? A reading in which the Eightfold Path is somehow now a final goal and nibbana, the quenching of a fire, is seen as an enduring aspect of an unnamed winding path, does seem pretty strained, at least to me, but perhaps it serves some use.

  24. Mark Knickelbine on April 3, 2013 at 7:30 am

    Towers, thanks for reviving this post! I believe what you say is true, and I hope my response didn’t imply rigidity. All of the path factors are interrelated, because they are all an expression of the freedom of awakening. We start from the ignorance of being trapped in the constructions of self. As soon as we can even get a little awareness of the self as a construction, we start to realize that an alternative way of knowing is possible. As we get more accustomed to that way of knowing, we can trust it more and apply it to more of our lives, and that process in turn reinforces our mindfulness. This is the path. The value of understanding the Four in this way is, to begin with, to see that nibbana is not some special final state we arrive at after purifying ourselves for a long time, but rather is something that everyone can experience for themselves with a little practice. Second, to understand that we cultivate the path through our intention to live more mindfully, which itself requires that we have had at least a little glimpse of nibbana ourselves. Finally, to see that the goal of practice is a deep, joyful engagement with the world, not some inward state of spiritual perfection.

  25. Towers on April 14, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    What I notice in the several translations of SN 56.11 on AtoI is that they all seem have the buddha saying directly that the path is for the cessation of suffering/pain/stress/dukkha. Looking at Batchelor’s version of the sutta posted on this site, he seems to have skipped that part. The text in general is sparser, and makes me wonder how much interpretation he’s putting into that translation task, in comparison to the monks.

    Secondly, speaking of context: the 12 permutations given in that sutta aren’t likely to be seen as a direct prescription for the practice when viewed from a Theravadin perspective. I also doubt that they should have that kind of place in a secularized practice based on a rationally bounded reading of the PC. The main reason is that Gotama is describing his own realization under the bodhi tree, which is a very singular and non-gradual event, the report of which is likely to be loaded with the effort to mythologise in order to make the buddha into an authority figure, a metaphysical ideal. Compare with other mystical formulas, such as the account of Gotama going forward and backward through the jhanas in rapid succession at the moment of his death.

    Part of what makes me uncomfortable with this interchange between the path and the goal, is that if we are using it to try to get a pragmatist reading of the PC, it seems like a contrived way to do it; that is, it seems like there are better alternatives. We have no need really to have the PC authorize our views, so the main goal of diving in to the canon should be to try to mine out some sort of practical aid. The interchange seems a little bit risky if we are to take it as a core tenet that will shape our interpretation of the rest of the text, in the sense that it can misconstrue the goals of the early buddhist practitioners and the authors of the PC. If they didn’t expect joy and engagement to result from the practice that they try to describe in the canon, then that’s certainly something to have in mind. Having already disagreed with other aspects of the text, what should stop us from simply recognizing a difference between the text’s ideals for practice and our own?

  26. Mark Knickelbine on April 15, 2013 at 8:07 am

    Towers, thanks for your comments. I don’t feel this is contrived; in fact, what attracted me to it in the first place was that I recognized this as being what I had experienced in my own practice. And as for your last question, I suppose we could extend it and ask why read the Pali texts at all, when much of them are obviously mythological and others are so difficult for us to get any meaning from at all? Anyone reading the PC without bias will have to admit that it is so inconsistent in style, emphasis and substance that it is unlikely that it was composed by people with the same understanding of the dharma. The version we have was compiled by people whose idea of spiritual practice was that of Brahmanic and Jain renunciants and whose livelihood was based on the exclusivity of awakening to monks (which is why lay people should give to them). There are many texts in the PC that directly contradict this ethos. We can either try to cobble the contradictions together, as Buddhagosa did, or we can take the ideas that are useful to us and let the contradictions be.

  27. Stephen on August 2, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    whew! that was a long string to read…

    Personally I enjoy David Brazier’s take on the 4 Truths in The Feeling Buddha…and the results of actually practicing mindfulness and metta…

    Love this site and all the different input, all good mind weeds as Suzuki Roshi would say…

    Stephen

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