Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part Three

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In his new book, “After Buddhism”, Stephen 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 as interconnected and 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 secular Buddhist practice the four tasks are calls to action.

His third in the Ten Theses of Secular Buddhism is Batchelor offering the ideal that anyone can practice the four tasks, that everyone has Buddha element to be discovered.

All human beings, irrespective of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, nationality, and religion, can practice these four tasks. Each person, in each moment, has the potential to be more awake, responsive, and free.

The Ten Theses are directed toward Buddhism so the use of the word religion here is likely directed toward those Buddhist traditions that he views as having a religious practice, as well as other non-Buddhist belief systems. It is fact that some Buddhist traditions believe that only those on the mendicant (monastic) path are capable of becoming awake, responsive and free, to use Batchelor’s terms, what those traditions would view as achieving Nirvana. Their view is that adherents (laypeople) are unable to think and act with the depth of compassion and wisdom necessary to fully let their habitual reactivity fall away. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes, In principle, the practice of the path in all three stages is feasible for people in any walk of life. The Buddha taught it to laypeople as well as to monks, and many of his lay followers reached high stages of attainment. However, application to the development of the path becomes most fruitful for those who have relinquished all other concerns in order to devote themselves wholeheartedly to spiritual training, to living the “holy life” (brahmacariya).”

It doesn’t matter what form a human being takes, gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, nationality, and religion; in any form a human being can engage in the four tasks: 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. None of these labels preclude one’s ability to recognize the tasks and with effort and commitment come to realize them as part of how they are.

Thousands of years of experience has shown that someone who relinquishes all other concerns in order to fully devote themselves to a Buddhist practice, a mendicant, engages the four tasks in a manner different than one who has a lay practice, an adherent. Different does not mean less valuable or effective. Think of the differences between a full-time farmer and a weekend gardener. Time and skill One will get a lot more tomatoes than the other yet, the quality of the individual tomatoes may be the same.

In each of us irrespective of the path that might be chosen, there is Buddha element (Buddha nature), the potential to awaken, to be free of habitual reactivity.

The fourth theses is: The practice of the dharma is as much concerned with how one speaks, acts, and works in the public realm as with how one performs spiritual exercises in private.

Mr. Batchelor reveals his bias concerning the spiritual in this theses by labeling ritual as spiritual exercise. They are spiritual exercises from the view that they are meant to elevate the human spirit. Is there a “religious” dharma teacher that would disagree with this statement? I would be surprised if one did. Any exercise, thought of as spiritual or not, done in private will alter the thinking and acting of the one performing it whether they view themselves as religious or secular.

The Sigalovada Sutra, when the Buddha speaks to the young householder Sigala is a text revered and studied in the Theravada tradition. It comes through a religious Buddhist tradition but is a secular teaching, one meant to elevate the human spirit of the practitioner and their family and friends. The Buddha encounters Sigala performing a private “spiritual exercise” in honor of his dead parents. Sigala, as is related in the sutra is not a follower of the Awakened One even though his parents had been. Sigala is a secular minded Hindu. The Buddha doesn’t offer Sigala private practices he should do. He teaches Sigala a more effective way of being interconnected and interdependent on the people in his life, a way of Being that will honor his parents. The Buddha guided the householder to ways more effective in elevating human spirit of himself and those around him through how he spoke to and acted with the people in his life and himself. It is a “spiritual teaching” with a secular focus. The Buddha was teaching Sigala a Middle Path between the religious and the secular.

These two theses show that in some instances what might be viewed as a secular way to practice is equally a “spiritual” way. There is no duality between how a religious or secular oriented Buddhist adherent should practice. All human beings have the potential to awaken and be free of habitual reactivity. Religious or secular . . . doesn’t matter. The goal of anyone on the Noble Path must be to first develop their personal realization of the dharma. With that realization comes a wholesome transformation in how one responds to situations in the public realm. Religious or secular . . . doesn’t matter.

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