I had an email exchange recently with a gentleman who asked some very good questions, and thought it might prompt some helpful discussion here on the site. Names and identity details were removed.
I just got through listening to your interview on Books and Ideas podscast.
I … attended the local damma center for 2 years until, I believe, my neurobiology informed my behaviour that “been there, done that.” (My bias is that the brain has evolved to categorize stuff and move on.)
Anyway, my question to you is why do you keep studying the teachings of the Buddha after you have assimilated the basic concepts of lose attachment and “monkey mind”.
Are there deeper truths that I am missing?
From: The Secular Buddhist
Hi, thanks for reaching out. You’re asking a very good question, one that even devout religious Buddhists ask of themselves, let alone us skeptic / atheist / scientific materialists.
Yes, I agree, we do put ideas into boxes once we’ve gotten enough of the framework to have a working understanding of it. And just looking at the academic aspect of this thing we call Buddhism, what I’ve found is that not only are the concepts vastly more complicated than they seem, but there is also a volume of concepts that is many times more in size than in, say, Christianity with one book as the source of information. So not only do I continually learn some new aspect or nuance of a basic concept upon re-reading what I’ve seen many times before, not only do I learn from others about how they perceive the ideas, but there are a ton of materials in the Pali canon — let along contemporary visions of that body of work, which provide greater insight to me in contemporary Western society.
The other aspect which keeps me involved quite actively with this, however, is the much more pragmatic manifestation of that understanding — practice. And I do *not* mean just meditation, though that in itself is something that continually grows in depth. This fundamental idea about how cause and effect is not only blatantly observable (not a new thing to you and I or many scientifically minded people), but contributes to presenting a body of things to do during our daily activities to capitalize on it. We can, in short, make better choices moment by moment. But practice, in meditation and in our pro-social behaviors, is very helpful.
I find that most of us if not all are less than perfect. And perfection is simply nonsensical as a realistic goal. But, I can do better than I have in the past. That does take some effort, and secular Buddhism (the stuff we do, not the religious constructs about that stuff) helps me develop greater facility with these behaviors.
Hope that helps? Let me know what you think, and thanks for asking.
Your reply is very much appreciated. I’m afraid I left the wrong impression in my second sentence. It was not actually the “damma speak” I became accommodated to, in fact, I still get immediately calm and mindful when I hear you or Gil Fronsdal start talking about practice. (It’s weird how instantly and reflexively this occurs.) No, it is the actual felt need to meditate that has fallen away.
Anyway as to your point, “..just looking at the academic aspect of this thing we call Buddhism, what I’ve found is that not only are the concepts vastly more complicated than they seem… but there are a ton of materials in the Pali canon… which provide greater insight to me in contemporary Western society.”
Mindfulness and non-attachment don’t seem very complicated. Nor does following a path of moderation/structure which I think is what the 8 fold path essentially is.
Maybe a couple of examples of what you mean by “complicated ” and “insight ” may help.
It sounds like there are two topics here. One is the need to meditate, the other is depth of concepts, so let’s look at each.
Meditation is an ongoing practice to develop competency, like any other skill. In the same way, for example, a musician experiences incremental gains, of course diminishing returns plays a part: we may not see the same big progress in our later years as we did in the beginning. I’ve found in my own practice, however, that there do continue to be improvements which are noticeable and beneficial, even after twenty years. And there is lots of room for growth; I’ve not attained the latter jhanas, for example, and don’t consistently find myself even in the first. So my practice helps with that ongoing development, which really does make an impact in my off-the-cushion time with others. Specifically, my attitude plays a big part in how I respond in stressful situations. Until that is unshakingly suffused with equanimity, I do need to keep working on it, because I’ve found that those times are the most demonstrably beneficial.
Conceptually, we learned a great deal about this idea of emptiness just over the past few days where Gil was also a fellow participant. We related it to ‘not self’, which of course as a lifelong atheist was nothing new, but it does also inform how we reify concepts — give them a self, not just ‘us’. So emptiness became not just an idea of how phenomena are devoid of dualistic meaning (i.e., it’s all just process, not a thing with an external value), but also opened up creative exploration of process. So for me, this very pragmatically encourages a refreshing of engagement with the moment, to more intentionally set aside my pre-conceived and constrictive perceptions of what’s happening around me, and make better choices. And that was just one concept that was briefly discussed as a side note to a particular conversation.
Does that help a bit?