by Mark Knickelbine

In The Goal of Practice and elsewhere, I have argued along with Stephen Batchelor that the goal of secular dharma practice is not a final cessation of suffering (regardless of how many thousands of times the Pali canon says otherwise). As Batchelor points out, the word commonly translated as “suffering” in English is dukkha; and as Gotama defines the term in the First Sermon, it encompasses aging, sickness, death, and our entire psychophysical makeup, things that we cannot escape as long as we are embodied beings. (That “unbinding” is principally a deliverance from rebirth as an embodied being is the metaphysical concept that runs throughout the Pali texts). Rather, a secular understanding of the Four Truths is that the goal of practice is to develop equanimity through the cultivation of mindfulness. This equanimity is the liberation from grasping and aversion, a freedom that permits us to drop our deluded habits and respond to the world with wisdom and compassion.

Several respondents to my earlier posts disagreed vociferously, to the point of suggesting that I was willfully misrepresenting Gotama’s teachings. I was pleased, therefore, to read a really wonderful article in the latest issue of Buddhadharma by Zoketsu Norman Fischer entitled “The Real Path” (you can read an excerpt here). Fischer’s Mahayana cred could not be more impeccable: he is a second-generation dharma heir of Shunryu Suzuki, and a former co-abbot and current senior dharma teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center.

He begins by remembering his lifelong friend Alan Lew, who died suddenly and unexpectedly several years ago. After recalling details of Alan’s life, he makes this rather startling statement:

We think we’re trying to get rid of suffering. I want more suffering. I want to feel more of the suffering of people who are suffering everywhere. I want to feel that suffering more, care about it more, and do something about it more. That’s my commitment to Alan and to myself.

As I read that paragraph, it connected with a thought I’ve had often before. Who would really want the final cessation of suffering? Would I want to be in so rarified a spiritual state that I would not grieve the loss of my loved ones? How would it be possible to feel true compassion toward others if one could not vicariously experience their suffering? What I want, scripture or no scripture, is to be able to face suffering without aversion. I want to feel the grief of a friend without the impulse to run from it or try to fix it. I want to face my own fears and sorrows without needing to medicate or distract myself. I want, in the words of the old 12-step prayer, to accept the things I cannot change.

Which leads directly to the subhead of Fischer’s next section: “Do We Have to Suffer?”

The most astonishing fact of human life is that most of us think it’s possible to minimize and even eliminate suffering. We actually think this, which is one reason why it’s so difficult for us when we’re suffering. We think, “This shouldn’t be this way,” or ‘I’m going to get rid of this somehow’ . . .

Even if we try to ignore it, we really don’t escape the suffering. It registers in our psyche and becomes a conditioning factor in our lives. We may find that we’re living in reaction to the suffering that we’re unwilling to see and think about. So the idea that suffering is some sort of mistake and a minor problem that we could overcome with a little bit of meditation and a positive attitude is the towering pinnacle of self-deception.

Fischer isn’t pulling his punches here. A pursuit of some final cessation of suffering not only isn’t enlightenment, he says, it’s an extreme example of delusion. Why? It should be no surprise to readers of this blog that Fischer next addresses the concept of “dukkha”:

Dukkha refers to the psychological experience — sometimes conscious, sometimes not conscious — of the profound fact that everything is impermanent, ungraspable, and not really knowable . . . The gap between the reality and the basic human approach to life is dukkha, an experience of basic anxiety and frustration. Seen in this way, dukkha could actually be another name for human consciousness. Dukkha is not a mistake. It is not a correctible situation; it is human consciousness.

This is the heart of the human predicament, and the key to Gotama’s prescribed approach to that predicament. If we live in reaction to dukkha, pretending there is some way to get away from it and spending all our energy in pursuit of that escape, we are doomed to failure, because there is no way while we live to escape the fundamental nature of our own phenomenal reality. The only freedom available to us is to develop the capacity not to react, but to be with the reality of our lives, to allow it, to embrace it.

As Fischer puts it:

The great and beautiful secret of meditation practice is this: you can experience dukkha with equanimity. Isn’t equanimity the secret of happiness? If you tried to eliminate dukkha, it would be like trying to eliminate life. But if you can receive dukkha with equanimity, then, in a way, it’s no longer dukkha. Impermanence could be the most devastating fact of life, and often it is. But impermanence could also be incredibly beautiful, if you receive it with equanimity. It could be peace itself.

So if there is an “end” to dukkha, it lies in no longer seeking the end. It lies in accepting impermanence, “seeing it as it actually arises,” as Gotama puts it. “We need to learn how to turn toward suffering, really take it in, find the meaning of it, and let it open a path for us to a new life,” Fischer writes.

I smiled when I read that. I have no idea if Fischer has ever heard Batchelor’s talks — I kind of hope he hasn’t. It’s neat to think this Zen master would independently voice Batchelor’s main point: The “real path” does not lead to the cessation of dukkha; it is the embrace of dukkha results in the freedom to walk the path. Because it would be another indication that this truth is not Fischer’s, or Batchelor’s, or even Gotama’s. It’s the dharma, manifesting itself in the glossy magazine in front of me, as it manifests everywhere we make the effort to look for it.

No Comments

  1. star on September 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    How else would one ever come to fully understand suffering other than by experiencing it? The Buddha talks constantly about direct experience, knowing the truth for oneself (dittheva dhamme) — an *escape* from suffering? I don’t think so. But I’ll say again that the reason you appear to have a disagreement with the Pali canon’s talk about an “end to dukkha” is because you are defining “dukkha” in a way the Buddha never intended it to be defined. Or even as Fisher’s “human consciousness”. Dukkha is slapping your child for being a child and not acting in the grown up way you expect them to act. Dukkha is the totally unnecessary B.S. we add to our lives, not sorrow over the death of a friend.

  2. mknick on September 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    @Linda — I am, at minimum, pleased to be as misguided as a SFZC abbot! I understand that what’s encompassed in your definition is an element of dukkha — maybe the biggest element of it. But it seems to me if it were as simple as “don’t make a bad thing worse,” awakening wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment. What seems to be the great challenge is staying with the suffering I don’t cause myself and can’t do anything about. How do you live when you know the only escape from losing everything you love is your own death? How do you put up with chronic pain? How do you face down the enormity of doing anything at all to help our sick society? Equanimity in the face of the inevitability of the totally necessary suffering humans face — that is the goal of practice, IMHO, and the key to that is understanding that dukkha is an inevitable and necessary element of human life.

  3. Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on September 18, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    It seems to me what Gotama was saying was that liberation from dukka is the experience of no longer taking personally the experience of impermanence, dependent co-arising, and no-self.

    This would be quite different from any claim that one might not get old, or sick, or die.

    It’s just that one does not have to take one’s age, sickness, or death personally.

  4. star on September 18, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Mark, you seem to define dukkha as “all suffering, of every kind, that which can be avoided and that which can’t”. And then you seem to be saying, “So when the Buddha said we can end dukkha, he was wrong.” Does that actually make sense to you?

  5. mknick on September 19, 2011 at 6:15 am

    Linda, as I have said elsewhere, I believe the standard formula for the 4 truths, with the “path leading to the cessation of dukkha,” whatever its relationship to what Gotama did or didn’t teach, is effectively an accomodation to Vedic mythology, something that could have happened easily once Gotama was dead and all those Brahmins he recruited took over the show. The Gotama of such passages DID say we can end dukkha — by ending rebirth. This is the whole point of the twelve-step chain of dependent origination, and Gotama makes it explicit in such passages as: “. . .[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]) If we reject metaphysics, we have to reject the “rebirth ends dukkha” concept. The First Sermon, with it’s comprehensive definition of dukkha and it’s linked presentation of the Truths, offers us a more useful interpretation for our practice. So tell me — doesn’t what Fischer is saying make sense to you?

  6. star on September 19, 2011 at 1:14 pm


    The expanded teaching on the Four Noble Truths makes perfect sense to me. It is a useful interpretation of the practice because it *is* what the the Buddha taught. Everywhere. All throughout the canon. He said it hundreds of different ways. His talks were all fingers pointing at the moon, and that talk was one finger. If we cling to the language (a badly made raft), we may never reach the moon, but only grasp the fingers (the badly made raft). Sometimes he speaks of the moon in brief, sometimes he points to it at length. He uses idioms *this* guy is familiar with, he uses worldviews *that* guy thinks he can’t live without. Whatever it takes to begin to get the point across, to move folks a little further toward understanding.

    Fisher said: “The great and beautiful secret of meditation practice is this: you can experience dukkha with equanimity.” You said: “…doesn’t what Fischer is saying make sense to you?”

    Only if I allow him to misdefine dukkha. If we experience suffering (not dukkha, but suffering) with equanimity, then for that moment, there is no dukkha, at least none attached to that suffering. There is suffering — the experience of grief or frustration or loss or sorrow — but there isn’t any dukkha there. Because equanimity is calm, and not clinging to the thing, and not adding extra B.S. to it. And dukkha is the opposite of all that. So no, “you can experience dukkha with equanimity” does not make sense to me, any more than “you can experience hatred with love” would.

    To do with dukkha what the Buddha suggests we do in the first sermon — understand dukkha — we first have to understand that dukkha *isn’t* “pain, suffering, grief, sorrow, despair, lamentation, nor is it old age and death.” It’s the unnecessary stuff we add to those. Misdefining dukkha is (literally) not understanding it, and so it is the opposite of what the Buddha wants us to do. We have to first understand what it is we are supposed to let go of.

    Now what I see, Mark, is that you *do* understand this. You arrive at precisely the right point in suggesting that we *can’t* avoid the grief, despair, and there’s no evidence we can get past aging or death either. Just so. You recognize that we need to be able to face these things with equanimity — which (I am saying) *is* the end of dukkha. But where you go wrong is saying, “but the canon/ says we can end dukkha=aging and death, and the canon is wrong.” Let go of the raft, man. That’s all I’m saying.

    And not for your sake, but for everyone else’s. Because if we misdefine dukkha as being, literally, old age and death, sickness and grief, then newcomers to Buddhism are not going to understand what they need to let go of. It perpetuates the misunderstanding that escape from literal old age and death is what the Buddha taught, and he didn’t. It keeps the focus on doing the things to get a good rebirth so that aeons from now we might escape the *really important* pain of old age. And death. Meanwhile we are quite a lot less focused on (what really matters, what the Buddha was actually talking about) liberation here and now from the stuff that is avoidable starting right now.

    In the sutta that has the simile of the raft (discussed two posts back on this blog) if we take “This is not your body. Abandon it,” literally then that’s someone else’s body you’re in and you should just get out of it NOW (which obviously makes no sense, but maybe that’s what was going on in the story of that flock of young monks who went off to kill themselves in droves — that’s what they “heard” him say). Or it means that you need to not cling to life in ways that perpetuate rebirth, so you can someday abandon that long line of bodies hosting your false self — but the “abandon it” is present tense, so that’s not a good fit if we’re trying for “literal” — but that’s how those who think in terms of literal rebirth might take it. Or it’s talking about abandoning something *else* to do with the body, the clue to that being provided by “This is not your body” — it’s not you, it’s not self — abandon the concept that it is — and do it now (present tense).

    My point here is that throughout the suttas, the Buddha is speaking in a way we are not readily familiar with — we don’t use that sort of language. Simultaneously envisioning several layers of meaning is not the norm in our society (we go for “plain speaking”***) and being asked to examine all possible variants and look for what’s *really* meant — not our style at all — but it certainly was in those days (just read the Upanishads to see what I mean). One was expected to take cryptic remarks and turn them this way and that and then the Buddha told us what the key to the answer was: you can see it for yourself, right here and now.

    And it seems to me, Mark, that you’ve done this. You’ve compared what’s taught to what you can see, and you’ve come up with the right answer, that we can’t abandon old-age-and-death but we can stop adding nonsense to it by running away, or stop making it worse by pretending death doesn’t really exist (there’s the afterlife!) and basing our assumptions on that, or whatever stuff we add (all that dukkha-stuff) — we can learn to face it, accept whatever feeling comes along and face it with the grace of equanimity. You just can’t seem to see that that’s what the Buddha wanted you to see. Fisher didn’t uncover a secret; he saw what was always being said.

    *** Of course we use this: there’s “reading between the lines” which is not something we like having to do because there’s such a good chance we’ll get it wrong, and there’s political-speak that likes to say one thing and mean another, or state only parts of facts to give different impressions, but our perception of speaking on several levels is that this is bad stuff, and should not be the norm, and it isn’t.

  7. earl on September 19, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Great post Mark, and lots of interesting comments. Tuning into the nature of positive and negative suffering seems really important. To me it seems to have to do with getting rid of suffering that is inaccurate in some fundamental way. So as Gianni, says above getting rid of the suffering that comes from taking things personally (because things aren’t the vast majority of the time, although we tend to take things personally the vast majority of the time). Likewise, the suffering of natural grieving is growth oriented and transforms me into a deeper human being, but only if the grieving is accurate. And grieving is a good example as it is quite often not accurate as there appears to be an innate element having to do with irrational guilt, that probably, like an appendix or gallbladder served a survival function in the past which is no longer operative in the post agrarian context. Or the suffering of jealousy, which is inaccurate either because there is no risk to a relationship, or because it is not a relationship that one should avoid losing. Or in the most general sense, anxiety, which is when we inaccurately fear things that are not immediately dangerous as though they were. And, if I am not seeing these sufferings as inaccurate, I will get into not only reinforcing them through ongoing repetition, but also get into lots of circuitous and pointless perambulations based on them. While with an accurate awareness of fallacy comes greater awareness over time as with practice this ability to see through these various traps of perception is improved and our circular detours reduced. So what do we lose if we consider dukkha to be inaccurate discomfort? To the extent I am in accurate awareness, then, I can end that for sure (which most of us here are doing every day).

  8. star on September 19, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    But sometimes what Fisher says does make sense to me. “We think we’re trying to get rid of suffering. I want more suffering. I want to feel more of the suffering of people who are suffering everywhere. I want to feel that suffering more, care about it more, and do something about it more. That’s my commitment to Alan and to myself.”

    “We think we’re trying to get rid of suffering” equates to “People think dukkha is the sort of suffering that is unavoidable, and that it’s that we need to get rid of, but that’s not the point.”

    As for the rest of it, if his motives are not about glory, asceticism, self-torture, trying to Do The Right Thing to Gain Merit for a good rebirth — and I don’t get the flavor of any of that from this quote — then what he is saying here fits with what the Buddha says because there’s no self involved in it. He doesn’t want to face the suffering because it will give him a certain sort of pleasure (sensuality), or get him a good rebirth (in the worlds of form), or lead him to some gnosis through which he can attain Eternal Bliss (in the formless realms). He wants to do this because he wants to be fully present for life, be right there in it without filters, seeing what is, accepting what is, and not running away from it or *using* it somehow to gain advantage.

    Dukkha isn’t EVER unavoidable pain, it’s not the experience of life, or pain, or death. It can end BECAUSE it is avoidable pain, it’s the stuff we “volunteer” to add, and so it is something we have the ability to end.

  9. mknick on September 19, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    @Linda —

    First off, thank you for engaging me on this topic. I greatly appreciate your passion for the Pali texts and your dedication to translating them with integrity. I also appreciate that your motivation is not to prove you’re right, but to advance our understanding of the dharma.

    What I think separates us at this point are our basic attitudes toward the canon. In order to preserve the integrity of all those quotations of Gotama saying that “the path leads toward the cessation of dukkha”, you have to define dukkha as something that can cease in some non-metaphysical way. On the other hand, I don’t have any problem with seeing much (most?) of the Pali canon as being late compositions by people who may not have fully shared Gotama’s radical project . I’m not looking for the key that makes all of the heteroglossia of the canon cohere. I’m looking for those bits that seem to resonate with my own experience in practice and make sense to me generally. I think Gotama’s definition of dukkha in the First Sermon is very clear and straightforward. I focus on it not because it has any scriptural authority I can prove, but because it resonates with my practice. I agree with you that much (most?) of our suffering is self-made, and that with Right View we can gradually free ourselves from it. But I also agree with Batchelor and Fischer that the Western translation of “dukkha” as “suffering” leads to a superficial understanding of the human predicament that encourages people to consider Buddhism as one more possible escape from their problems. If we can face dukkha with equanimity, then truly it is no longer “suffering.” It can even be bliss. But it’s always impermanent, unfixable, and unreliable. No amount of practice will ever change that.

    I offer a proper Zen prostration that ends with your feet elevated over my head.

  10. poep sa frank jude on September 24, 2011 at 12:59 am

    David Brazier writes: “When the Buddha says that affliction (duhkha) is a truth, I do not think that he is saying that it is something which can be escaped. Quite the contrary. He is pointing out that it cannot be escaped. Duhkha is inescapable. To suffer affliction is authentic. It is real and it makes life real.”

    Contemporary (Western) Buddhism has reduced the Buddha’s definition of duhkha to the psychological, mental and emotional anguish we respond to life’s situations that the Buddha seems to have enumerated AS duhkha. He didn’t say, “duhkha is your mental reaction to aging; your emotional reactivity to being associated with what you do not like… etc.” AND, in contradiction to those who define duhkha as “suffering” and then say “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” it should be remembered that PAIN too is included in the Buddha’s definition!

    The suffering that is psychological is more in line with the second dart:

    “Bhikkhus, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings — a bodily one and a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a man with a dart, and then they would strike him immediately afterwards with a second dart, so that the man would feel a feeling caused by two darts. So too, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling… he feels two feelings — a bodily one and a mental one.
    “Being contacted by that same painful feeling, he harbours aversion towards it. When he harbours aversion towards painful feeling, the underlying tendency to aversion towards painful feeling lies behind this.…
    “Bhikkhus, when the instructed noble disciple is contacted by a painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament; he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. He feels one feeling – a bodily one, not a mental one.”(SN 36.6, Bodhi, 2000: 1264)

    So, while all suffering is duhkha, not all duhkha is suffering. According to the Buddha’s definition, getting a parking ticket IS duhkha AND my anger is also duhkha. Practice can help me to attenuate my habitual reactivity of anger, but I will still have a ticket to deal with! And while we can do much to lessen and perhaps even eliminate some (all?) suffering, there is no way to end duhkha as it simply permeates life.

    There is an old story about a farmer who travels many miles to consult with the Buddha. Upon sitting at the Buddha’s feet, he tells the Buddha that he has 83 problems. The Buddha asks him about his problems. The farmer begins, “Well, I’m a farmer, and I love to farm. But last year we had a drought and we almost starved to death because of the meager harvest. This year, there was too much rain, and many of the crops were destroyed.”
    The Buddha sat and sympathetically nodded his head. “Yes, go on.”
    “Well, I love my wife very dearly, but I find myself growing bored and looking after other women.”
    The Buddha continued to nod his head and encouraged the farmer to share his troubles.
    “I have a son and a daughter. They’ve made me very proud. But they’re stubborn, and don’t take my advice,” the farmer continued.
    After delivering his long litany of problems to the Buddha, he asked, “So can you help me? I hear you are a great teacher.”
    The Buddha responds, “Well, it’s true you have 83 problems, and you haven’t even mentioned others like the fact that you are growing old and that you will die, and that everyone you know and love will also grow old and die.”
    The farmer was aghast. Why wasn’t the Buddha helping him? Why was he loading on even more problems?
    Then the Buddha said, “I cannot help you with any of those problems. But perhaps I can help you with the 84th problem.”
    Exasperated, the farmer asks, “What is the 84th problem?”
    “You want a life with no problems,” replied the Buddha.

    We would like a life with no problems. Ideally, we would not grow old, infirm and die. We would not have to deal with such unpleasantness as losing our teeth, our eyesight growing dim, bad breath, wrinkles, graying and balding hair, let alone tumors, miscarriages, and the fact that the number of ways to die is infinite.

    The traditional Buddhist teachings tell us we can avoid all these problems by never being born again. Other spiritual traditions offer visions of heavens where we’d always be surrounded by the pleasant and beautiful. And because it’s not how our life actually is, we are often led to feel shame. And because of this conditioned shame, huge amounts of money, time and energy are expended trying to deny the fact that we are not “perfect,” distracting ourselves in myriad ways. Whole industries, anti-aging products, and body enhancing surgery, are devoted to this vain pursuit. The Buddha tells us that “imperfection” is real and we do not need to feel ashamed. It is “perfection” that is purely conceptual and unreal. And because we’ve fallen for this deluded conceptualization of “perfection,” we then conceptualize the real world we live in as “imperfect!” In fact, facing dukkha is noble and ennobling. Not turning away, and not exacerbating it, is the noble response taught by the Buddha. This noble response to existential reality is enlightenment itself. It is transcending the conceptual duality of “perfection” and “imperfection” and embracing just this, life as it is, perfectly imperfect!

    This means we do not have to wait for some “ideal conditions” in order to practice enlightenment. The Japanese Zen Master Dogen (1200 – 1252) repeatedly teaches the identity of practice and enlightenment. We do not practice in order to reach awakening: practice is awakening and awakening is practice. His text, Shushogi, signifying “the meaning of enlightened practice” begins with the following words:

    “The most important question for all Buddhists is how to understand, with a completely clear appreciation, birth and death completely. Buddha (enlightenment) exists within birth and death. Then birth and death vanish (as a problem). Birth and death (as reality) are nirvana. All you have to do is realize that birth and death, as such, should not be avoided and they will cease to exist for then, if you can understand that birth and death are nirvana itself, you will not seek nirvana by trying to avoid birth and death. This understanding breaks the chains that bind one to birth and death. This is the way to be free from birth and death. This is the most important point in all Buddhism.” (Yokoi, 1976: 58 / Brazier, 1998: 55)

    If we understand “birth and death” as dukkha, then the above passage is telling us that Buddha (awakening) exists within dukkha. Seeing this clearly, dukkha stops to exist as a problem. Birth and death, as reality, are nirvāṇa. Problems exist only in relationship to our agendas. The noble life, the awakened life, is living one’s life just as it really is. It is in this sense that, the Buddha is reported to have said upon his awakening, according to the Zen tradition, “How marvelous, each and every being, just as they are perfect and whole, lacking nothing!”

    We want birth, health, youth, pleasure, success, clarity. But life is what it is: birth and death, health and illness, youth and ageing, pleasure and pain, success and failure, clarity and confusion. An authentic life cannot be one in which we are desperately trying to have one half of the totality and not the other half. Dukkha is not a problem keeping us from happiness. The idea that Buddhism leads to happiness is correct. That it does so by eliminating dukkha is questionable. The Buddha taught the truth of drishta dharma sukha viharin: “dwelling happily in things as they are.”

  11. Mark Knickelbine on September 24, 2011 at 6:55 am

    Frank, thanks for your comments! The main reason I keep returning to this topic is that translating dukkha as “suffering” leads to a fundamental misapprehension of what Gotama is talking about. One hears Western teachers use the parable of the two darts all the time; what they seldom mention is that the only way to avoid the second dart is to fully embrace the first one.

  12. Erick on September 24, 2011 at 7:22 pm


    You may find it interesting that a scholar of Asian Buddhism has recently reflected on the modernist Buddhist distinction between pain and suffering and found it to have no grounding in the canonical texts of the tradition. It is simply Westerners finding within Buddhism teachings that are comfortable to them given their historical, cultural and philosophical backgrounds.

    See here:

    And frankly it is quite clear and explicit in Pali or all other Buddhist scriptures that the Buddha is presented as teaching that freedom from the 3 poisons and liberation from dukkha can be achieved in this lifetime, prior to liberation from samsara via the end of rebirth. To state otherwise seems to me willfully distorting or misleading. You might like to ignore this teaching, but you need much more clever interpretive explanations to argue that the Buddha never taught this (according to the scriptures). Do you somehow know which scriptural attributions are authentic and not, in accordance with his actual words and not? And if so, according to what evidence?

  13. Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on September 25, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    I apologize, Erick and Mark, for butting into your colloquy but I feel compelled to add to it that scholarly illuminations of ancient “historical, cultural and philosophical backgrounds”, should have no more bearing on the current practice of mind than Ptolemy’s geocentric model of celestial phenomena.

    Just as what we now know as the “solar system” hasn’t appreciably changed in 25 centuries of scholarly fantasy, so too has the mind not so much changed from what the buddha’s brain produced. Can anyone disagree that it would be laughable to assert that heliocentrism is untruthful given the appearance of ancient texts?

    If I were to take your drift seriously, Erick, I would have to say that I would also have to be convinced that the earth was the center of the universe and that hundred foot stupas floated in midair – just because of the scriptural references.

    If what appears to be your dismissal or diminution of people who practice out of what is the current “historical, cultural and philosophical background” has any merit at all, then the buddha’s buddhism is defunct – except perhaps as a scholarly amusement or infatuation.

    • Erick on October 2, 2011 at 7:41 am


      You miss my drift, actually. What you describe is a revolution in paradigm and understanding. And as a result, we now live in a post-Ptolemic universe. We have left it behind. And thus we don’t call ourselves neo-Ptolemics, or secular Ptolemics.

      So my question is: why call yourself a secular Buddhist if your teaching and practice are so radically divorced from the teachings, principles and practices of the time of Gotama Buddha, or of the numerous other historical traditions of understanding, practice and scripture in Asia that envision themselves as continuing his teaching?

  14. Mark Knickelbine on September 26, 2011 at 6:23 am

    “Do you somehow know which scriptural attributions are authentic and not, in accordance with his actual words and not? And if so, according to what evidence?”

    No, Erick, I do not. And neither do you, nor does anyone else. What we have in the Pali texts is material composed over a considerable period of time by multiple authors with a variety of agendas. Some is quite naturalistic; some is pure mythmaking. Some attempts to critique and contrast with Vedantic ideas; some appears to have been directly borrowed from Vedantic sources. Some is lyrically alive and beautiful; some is the rote repetition of approved formulas. Unlike others, I am not a sutta-thumper. What I’m interested in is the ideas in the canon that make sense and support my practice. I am not interested in adopting the worldview of ancient India (if that were even possible). A secular interpretation of Gotama’s teaching is not only consistent with much of the texts but it is also consistent with what we know of the world and of my own experience in practice. Your view is also frequently represented in the canon as well; it is part of a metaphysical construct which is inconsistent with the concept of dependent arising. It is one interpretation, certainly the traditional one. It is not the only valid or useful one. And no interpretation can claim “authority” on the basis of such a heteroglossic group of texts.

    • Erick on October 2, 2011 at 7:59 am


      Okay. So you claim that your intepretation of Gotama’s teachings are consistent with much of the texts. Please explain to me which texts support your claim that the goal of practice is not the final cessation of the 3 poisons and liberation from samsara? Also, and this is equally important, please explain to me which teachers, commentators or scholastics of Buddhism support your claim who are NOT Western Buddhists.

      My view on this point is not just one interpretation present within the scriptures and amongst the many generations of practitioners and scholars who have followed and sought to preserve and extend the teachings of the Buddha. It is, quite arguably, the dominant and majority viewpoint across all of the various historical traditions of Asian Buddhism. Yours is the novel, minority and heterodox position, historically speaking. You can’t hide that fact with your ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ rhetoric. That is all I’m saying. And I think it is not a small point to take into consideration when evaluating the merits and plausibility of your assertion.

      Authority within Buddhism is not simply based on scripture. This is a classic misunderstanding of Western Buddhists. It is also based on long, complicated traditions of scholarship, practice and scriptural interpretation (with all the diversity, disagreement and contention that includes). Western Buddhist love to ignore those lineages of hundreds of years of scholarship and practice, and jump back to the ‘primary’ scriptures to make their claims. And THEN they love to pick and choose among those scriptures as they prefer and employ relatively uninformed acts of popular translation to nudge ideas in directions they prefer. And THEN they love to dismiss the work of Western scholars who actually spend years learning languages (so that they can read these scriptures and study these traditions of scholasticism and practice) in order to understand, as best and as flawed as they can, how actually living Asian Buddhist traditions understand and practice Buddhism.

  15. earl on September 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Yes, again I find myself in agreement with Gianni. There is so much scholarly debate about ancient texts, but I wonder if there is really so much disagreement about what is real and apparent in our lives today. So, in terms of what is important in life today, what is the issue that this thread is getting at, I wonder. If it is just that some of us believe in some sort of afterlife, reincarnation, etc., and some of us don’t, that’s not too interesting (and not likely to change on the basis of scholarly analysis as far that goes). But maybe there is something more along the lines of what is the actual nature of tranquility and equanimity which we are seeking. I don’t imagine even that issue could be quite as complex as nailing down what we mean by Dukkha though, when this is to be resolved with any and all scriptures. After all, should we not be able to justify the nature of tranquility and equanimity which we feel is salutary without reference to any authority?

  16. Gianni Grassi / Yasei Kaige on September 26, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Here’s an article I wrote back in January that more or less develops my point of view on this topic.

    Hope my posting this here does not offend the proprietors of Secular Buddhism.

  17. Mark Knickelbine on September 26, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Earl —

    What’s at issue, I think, is an interpretation of key Pali texts that underlines an approach to practice that’s especially relevant to our understanding and predicament in the early 21st century. As you suggest, anything that isn’t supportive of our practice in the here and now is irrelevant, whatever its scriptural provinance. The reason I spend time on this is because I find both the traditional and contemporary Western concepts of dukkha unacceptable, the one dependent on metaphysical notions, the other leading to a superficial understanding of human experience which promotes an unrealistic and escapist approach to practice. These two concepts dominate Western Buddhist practice today, which is a problem I think Secular Buddhism could address.

  18. earl on September 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks Mark, that is really clear. What is the current approach to practice that promotes unrealistic escapism that you are referring to?

    I appreciate your philosophically rigorous approach to this, even though it is not a method which I personally subscribe to.


  19. star on September 28, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Mark, you said: “What we have in the Pali texts is material composed over a considerable period of time by multiple authors with a variety of agendas.” If we take “compose” to mean using already existing, pre-built structures to build something (presumably) useful, then I might agree with you.

    But I don’t take “compose” that way. I think of Mozart as a composer. While the elements he used to compose his music were notes (existing outside of his time and not solely of human construction except in their definitions as notes) and he was influenced by music he had heard in the past (etc), despite those “parts” used to make his music, I think of what he did as composing — original compositions.

    Using that understanding of “compose” I think, Mark, that what you said above was (more or less) that the Pali texts had their original composition spread over a considerable period of time by multiple authors with a variety of agendas. That would square with my sense that you are saying that a huge bulk of the Pali suttas is likely an inaccurate representation of what the Buddha was teaching*, but is rather heavily influenced — maybe even the word “corrupted” would fit here — by later authors who — rather than using bits and pieces of what the Buddha actually said — inserted concepts into the texts that were theirs, not his.

    I guess what I am asking is if you can help me understand whether you are saying: “The Buddha did not teach that we can escape from dukkha, he taught that we need to accept dukkha and learn how to deal with it” — which seems to be what you are arguing when you talk about the First Sermon — or if you are saying, “The Buddha taught that we can escape from dukkha once and for all only through ending the rounds of literal rebirth, but this isn’t useful to a secular practice so we need learn to accept the inevitability of dukkha and learn how to deal with it with equanimity.” Or some other variant I haven’t worked out…?

    * For example when you said in the above post that the goal of secular practice “is not a final cessation of suffering (regardless of how many thousands of times the Pali canon says otherwise)”. With that sentence are you saying that regardless of how many times the canon says dukkha can be ended (1) the Buddha didn’t mean it that way and it’s corrupted or (2) the Buddha did mean it that way but it’s not useful to secular practice?

  20. star on September 28, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    @Gianni who responded to Erick. If a brilliant thinker had a keen insight into human nature 2,500 years ago, and human nature has not changed much, then the value of that insight has not changed much, and it is worth the effort to try to understand what that brilliant thinker was trying to convey, especially given the way it has been handed on having added layers of obscuring dust.

    Erick is arguing that what that man said 2,500 years ago has value, and is hoping to share what he understands of it. This in no way dismisses later thoughts of great thinkers, or improvements in science and technology. As far as I can see it only addresses the value of understanding that original insight.

    • Erick on October 2, 2011 at 8:08 am

      I am arguing that one has to try to understand, regardless of how flawed our understanding and appreciation may be, what Gotama Buddha was saying on his own terms BEFORE one starts making claims about its relevance to our condition, our situation. Otherwise, why keep the terminology of “Buddhism” associated with one’s claims. But I am also arguing, one has to take seriously the centuries of reflection, scholarship and tradition that has developed within various Asian cultures, sectarian orders and whatnot since the time of Gotama as well. Westerners often and far too stereotypically dismiss all of that intervening history and learning as irrelevant, confused, prejudiced and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. This is a serious mistake, if only because our access to the teachings of the Buddha are inevitably dependent upon the scriptures that were compiled by those lineages of practice, thought and scholarship. Which is to say, we ONLY have access to the teachings of Gotama through those very centuries of reflection, scholarship and tradition which Western Buddhists like to dismiss as irrelevant.

  21. star on September 28, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    @Erick: I think you are arguing that the scholar whose post you linked to is authoritative and correct? Or at least that you agree with his conclusions? I note that he said:

    “…it has seemed to me that dukkha/duḥkha has only a single referent, that is, the distinction between pain and suffering as employed in modernist rhetoric is not grounded in any canonic textual sources.”

    A single referent? You have to be kidding me! Dukkha is referred to as birth, death, aging, decay, separation from what you love, contact with what you dislike. Dukkha is equated with ignorance, behavior, consciousness, feeling, clinging, craving…

    Okay, I do actually understand that when he said “a single referent” he was saying “pain and suffering”? or just “suffering?” It’s a single referent: just “suffering”. Of course, this doesn’t specify whether “suffering” includes “pain” or excludes it, but I take it he is saying that “pain” is included in “suffering” which works to support his conclusion that Westerner’s views about dukkha blame the victim — a conclusion I see as circular but perhaps I am misunderstanding his point. (He seems to be saying that since pain is included in suffering, and Westerners insist that the Buddha said we can end dukkha by our own efforts, Westerners are saying that if you still experience pain it’s your own fault — but since the Western definition of dukkha that says you can free yourself separates pain from dukkha, it’s quite clear that is not what they are saying. When dukkha is defined as limited to the extra stuff we add onto events, yes, it is all within our control — but no one says fixing it is easy, and there is no “blame” involved at all.)

    But my real question is about what you said, Erick:

    “And frankly it is quite clear and explicit in Pali or all other Buddhist scriptures that the Buddha is presented as teaching that freedom from the 3 poisons and liberation from dukkha can be achieved in this lifetime, prior to liberation from samsara via the end of rebirth…”

    How are you defining dukkha there?

    • Erick on October 2, 2011 at 8:22 am

      I actually like Glenn Wallis’s definition of dukkha as “unease”. If you look at p. 120-121 of his book “The Basic Teachings of the Buddha” he has a great list of English terminology translations that moves across the scale of increasing intensity starting with ‘unsettledness’ and ending with ‘anguish’. Interestingly, Wallis also is doubtful about rebirth, but that doesn’t mean he dismisses the idea of the goal of Buddhist practice (and meditation) as being primarily concerned with final liberation from ‘unease’.

      Actually, I wasn’t saying this scholar’s (Payne) viewpoint, who I linked to, was authoritative and correct. I was simply pointing out an interesting convergence of topical discussions between the scholarly and non-scholarly worlds. And of course scholars are trained in debate and critique, so to presume his position is authoritative and correct would be silly. In fact, if you visits the H-Buddhism listserve I linked to, one will find an explosion of discussion by scholars about this topic of dukkha, pain and suffering, with much additional commentary since that one bit I referenced a week ago. But all of that commentary is grounded in citations to scripture or other scholarship. Their debates, quite rightly, take very seriously the variety of scriptural sources and the variety of scholarly and scholastic reflections upon those scriptures.

  22. Mark Knickelbine on September 29, 2011 at 10:27 am

    @ Star: As far as composition, I mean the process of stringing the words together in the form in which they were eventually canonized. In many suttas, as you know, that is a process of putting together pericopes in various ways; in others (like the Dhammapada) it consists of collecting verses (some of which apparently predate Gotama). Somebody somewhere had to make those decisions at some point, and whether it was original or borrowed material they were the “composers” of the suttas. I would not use words like “inaccurate” or “corruption” because we have no way of knowing with any certainty how any of this material relates to what came out of Gotama’s mouth 2500 years ago. What we know is there are various voices going on here, some contradictory and some clearly antedating Gotama. Even if the Pali texts weren’t heteroglossic, understanding what they meant to northern Indians two millenia ago would be a profound challenge. That being the case, any coherent read on “the teachings of the Buddha” is necessarily an interpretation. One can use different interpretive techniques (as you do so well) to improve the integrity of your interpretation but I would argue that the search for the “true teachings” is ultimately futile and not really the point. The point I think is to glean those ideas that can help us with our practice in the lives we live and the world we live them in.

  23. earl on September 29, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Another way of attempting to understand the challenge that I have with this sort of discourse (the sort that Linda and Mark are having above), is that I am not getting any sort of intuition that suggests that Linda and Mark would disagree about any concrete example or even examples that were drawn using typically understood psychological language, concerning what constitutes healthy vs. unhealthy, or accurate vs. inaccurate thought and feeling of a human being. And yet there is so much to apparently disagree about when it comes to the definitions of words and the derivation of texts. Maybe the latter doesn’t really have that much to do with the former, but I don’t think either of you would agree with that for a moment? But then maybe all of us can only really have a deeply intuitive emotional attachment to the words that we use, that has to be clarified in the grinding of the symbols in the mill of discourse. Probably I am just not sharing the lexicon enough to be able to get emotionally involved in this particular grinding process, so am missing the subtle intuitions which are being genuinely worked through. But maybe there is a concise and simple way of saying what Mark and Linda are disagreeing about concerning the unpleasantness involved in being a sentient creature?

  24. Mark Knickelbine on September 30, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Earl, I think you are right that Linda and I probably wouldn’t disagree much about the practical aspects of practice. To the extent that these discussions devolve into demonstrating who’s right about scripture, I agree that they would not be helpful. I think the reason we go on about such topics however is that we care about Gotama’s teachings, and that they come to us in such a problematic package. We live in a culture that values scriptural authority, and so we tend to relate to the Pali canon the way the Three Great World Religions relate to their holy books — as if they are authoratative in some supernormal way. An intellectually honest approach to these texts rules that out, and certainly if we are to winnow what’s valuable from the Pali texts we have to find some interpretive approach to enable us to do so. As Linda has pointed out, mistranslation has been midwife to some fundamental misunderstandings about the message of the canonical Gotama. As we continue to look to the suttas for understanding and inspiration, we’re going to continue to have to face these issues.

  25. Erick on October 2, 2011 at 8:44 am

    I’d like to restate my general point from another angle. It is frequently asserted that the transmission of Buddhism to the West has its clearest historical analogy in the transmission of Buddhism to China. In both cases, Buddhism – in all its diversity, disagreements and sectarian rivalries – is encountering a mature, rich, self-confident civilization. That civilization will not simply accept Buddhism in toto or as the definitive register for evaluating the world. Instead, what follows is a long, complicated process of determining what exactly Buddhism is and isn’t saying, of translating those ideas and practices and teachings into culturally appropriate terminologies, and of finding a place for Buddhism within its existing intellectual, institutional and social world.

    This process in China took centuries. It is often claimed that it wasn’t until six or so centuries after the arrival of Buddhism in China that an authentically Chinese version of Buddhism emerged – Chan and Pure Land. Prior to those efforts to create a mature, indigenous understanding of Buddhism, there were many efforts to translate and transmit various Indian lineages of practice, teaching and sectarian schools of scholarship onto Chinese soil. These efforts succeeded and failed in varying degrees. All of these efforts were deeply concerned with authentic transmission and accurate translation. The earliest efforts were typically crude, with Indian Buddhist ideas, concepts and practices forcefully and not very elegantly squeezed into the container of pre-existing Chinese terms, concepts and practices. Over time the Chinese gained a more precise and accurate understanding of Indian Buddhism on its own terms. Eventually, they formulated their own indigenous understanding of Buddhism which quite clearly differentiates itself from Indian Buddhism in many significant ways. It was, ideally, transmission with transformation.

    What I am struck by is how after only a century and half of exposure to Buddhism, many Western Buddhists they they are ready to advance their own transmission with transformation. This effort strikes me as far too hasty and far too much of a reflection of the hubris not surprisingly shown by a civilizational order that literally ruled the world for a good stretch of time and therefore thought it had little to learn from those other cultures and civilizations it militarily, economically and politically dominated.

    It is striking that every other Buddhist tradition in the world, except for Western Buddhism, places great importance on lineage, on having an authentic, continuous lineage of teachings and teachers that stretches back to the source. Western Buddhists think they only need the source. That the lineage of transmission is irrelevant and unnecessary, more likely to be a source of confusion, misdirection and corruption. Is this how we approach studying medicine, engineering, astrophysics, astronomy, etc? I don’t think so. So why do we think we can study and approach Buddhism the same way?

  26. Erick on October 2, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Whoops, the last line of the above comment should obviously be: “So why do we think we don’t have to study and approach Buddhism the same way?”

  27. Mark Knickelbine on October 2, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Erick —

    First off, to say that because it took centuries for a fully Chinese Buddhism to develop that it will or ought to take that long in the 21st century West is more of a value judgement than a historical axiom. Second, we certainly don’t approach engineering or medicine by claiming that every idea has to find its authority in its unbroken transmission from some historical forebearer. When relativity was established, we accepted that the universe was different than Newton thought it was, and we changed our views. While it is true that traditional Buddhism spawned many forms and flavors as it migrated through time and space, nearly ALL of them thought they were the one true transmission of the Buddha’s truth. All but one were wrong, and we will never know with any specificity what that one was. The contemporary West has a radically different way of testing truth claims than ancient and medieval Asia — we can either pretend that we dont, or we can make some radical critique of it even while we live and work in its context. Or we can use it on the suttas and on Buddhist thought the same way we use it in every other aspect of our lives. I would argue that this is the only intellectually honest approach.

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