by Wayne Ren-Cheng
In his book ‘After Buddhism’ Stephen Batchelor offers Ten Theses of Secular Dharma. He prefaces the list with “In 2005 I started to formulate a series of theses to define the kind of secular Buddhist space in which I found myself then and continue to find myself today – the kind of space I have been writing about in this book. I offer a revised version of them here:”
Number one is “A secular Buddhist is one who is committed to the practice of the dharma for the sake of this world alone”. A secular Buddhist doesn’t contemplate on how what they did in a previous life has affected how they are in this life. In their experience it is the thoughts and actions of this life that are the cause of what happens in this life from birth to death, with the knowledge that there are also outside causal forces that are cause and effect. Effort isn’t given to trying to view the future. Instead, it is realized that there is no value in wondering what might happen in the future so effort is spent working on what can be done in this moment to ensure a future of human flourishing.
Number two is “The practice of the dharma consists of four tasks: to embrace suffering, to let go of reactivity, to behold the ceasing of reactivity, and to cultivate an integrated way of life”.
Contemporary Buddhist scholars like Stephen Batchelor and David Kalupahana experience Siddhartha as presenting not a list of observations that if one believes their truth then that person can join the Buddhist club. Instead they experience the truths as a sequence of dependent origination or conditioned arising. The first Truth is, so the second is, the third is, the fourth is, and the fourth leads back to the first; and forms a causal loop. They are truths that reveal the reality of how things are and of what works best in the here and now.
Batchelor creatively re-describes the Four Noble Truths using what he views as a better translation; the truths become tasks . . . the four tasks. Rather than be a set of Truths to be believed they stand forth as interdependent actions. Batchelor writes, “When seeing the dharma you do not behold an abstract principle. You understand how previous choices, acts and circumstances brought you to your current situation and which present choices and acts might lead to a less restricted and more flourishing future”. In a fully realized Buddhist practice the four tasks are calls to action.
Traditionally the Four Noble Truths are: Truth of suffering (dukkha), Truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya), Truth of the End of Suffering (nirodha), Truth of the path (magga). Viewing them as tasks, and acting upon them from that perspective is what Batchelor offers as a secular way to a Buddhist practice. It is equally a spiritual way, a way to elevate the human spirit.
Batchelor presents the fourfold task in classic terms before distilling them into contemporary sound bites. Suffering is to be comprehended. The arising is to be let go of. The ceasing is to be beheld. The path is to be cultivated. As actionable instructions the fourfold tasks become: Embrace life., Let go of what arises., See its ceasing., Act!. The tasks are not separate ideals they are four facets of an interconnected and interdependent way of Being in the world.
Suffering is to be comprehended (embrace life). To comprehend suffering, discontent, anguish and unsatisfactoriness one must be an active part of their culture in order to truly discover mindfulness of personal suffering and awareness of the suffering of others.
The arising is to be let go of (Let go of what arises). Engaging life requires the practitioner to be mindful of what motivates a thought or action, of their reactivities. Greed, anger, envy, hatred or confusion may arise in reaction to situations and experiences in life. Equally love, joy or happiness may arise in reaction to situations and experiences in life. Whether positive seeming phenomena or negative, one must let go in order to set aside reaction (habitual reactivity) in favor of responding appropriately regardless of emotional phenomena, regardless of how one “feels”.
The ceasing is to be beheld (See it’s ceasing). One must be mindful of the ceasing, the falling away of habitual reactivity within their own bodymind. Comprehending the falling away of anger as a means to deal with life’s situations is also comprehending the suffering that anger can cause and choosing to set it aside. The same level of comprehension must be a factor in determining how to respond in any event. In this way one experiences the positive progress in their own practice.
The path is to be cultivated (Act!). Buddhists act as farmers sowing seeds that will enable them to grow into human beings that set aside reactivity in favor of choosing the appropriate response for each unique situation. The Eightfold Path must be cultivated. A practitioner cultivates the path of appropriate view, intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration as guides so that habitual reactivity can be recognized and the falling away of it realized.
Practice of the four tasks leads to an integrated life. The fourth component is evident in the other three tasks. In fact, each task is interconnected and interdependent on the other. To have an integrated life one must accept suffering, discontent, anguish and unsatisfactoriness as a reality. The practitioner must let go of reactivity so that they can appropriately respond to that suffering, a response cultivated by acceptance. Seeing through a clear lens the effects of acting without reactivity reveals how suffering can be lessened through engagement with the Eightfold Path.
That practice of the dharma requires one to embrace suffering, to let go of reactivity, to behold the ceasing of reactivity, and to cultivate an integrated way of life in order to follow the path of intent laid out by the Buddha. Doing this will have the effect of elevating the human spirit of the self and others whether or not is realized or accepted. Practitioners find more contentment and wisdom in their lives and everyone they come in contact with benefit in one form or another. It doesn’t matter if one views themselves as a religious or secular Buddhist. The causal Universe responds how it will dependent on thoughts and actions, not on any chosen belief system.