Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part V

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Secular Buddhist groups are arising in the West, most notably in America. Overall mission statements for these groups vary with one constant; they walk the Middle Path without any religious or spiritual context. Groups like the Secular Buddhist Association and many individuals practice the dharma without any affiliation with a traditional Buddhist lineage or school. These practitioners look to the wide variety of Buddhist writings, podcasts and You Tube videos, along with in-person sessions with other avowed secular Buddhists for information and instruction. They view dogmatic beliefs, unquestioning devotion, and religious ritual as having no value, though many still find value in the facilities and training offered by traditional Buddhist groups.

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.”

We’ll continue now with the seventh theses: The community of practitioners is formed of autonomous persons who mutually support each other in the cultivation of their paths. In this network of like-minded individuals, members respect the equality of all members while honoring the specific knowledge and expertise each person brings.

The first sentence is the definition of a sangha (community), religious or secular. All members are equal and their knowledge and expertise honored while accepting the role of the teacher as mentor and monitor. A danger here is that a strictly secular view of equality may lead to everyone trying to be the teacher. In non-denominational Buddhist groups, like the Engaged Dharma (EDIG) sangha at the Buddha Center in the virtual world of Second Life (SL), the desire for some members to make truth claims about their chosen tradition arises. It is the responsibility of the individual on the teacher’s cushion to guide members away from what they think they know, to learning and accepting the value of lessons and ideals from other traditions.

The eighth theses: A practitioner is committed to an ethics of care, founded on empathy, compassion, and love for all creatures who have evolved on this earth.

This is the proper attitude whether from a religious or secular view. (Note: I guess Mr. Batchelor doesn’t believe in life on other planets 🙂 )

The ninth theses: Practitioners seek to understand and diminish the structural violence of societies and institutions as well as the roots of violence that are present in themselves.

This is proper thought and action whether from a religious or secular view.

Bathelor’s theses seven through nine are pragmatic ways of being whether a practitioner views their path as secular or religiously oriented. These views are instrumental in the forming of ethical ideals that lead to taking morally appropriate actions in a given situation.

It is theses ten where the religious and the secular find the broadest divide: A practitioner of the dharma aspires to nurture a culture of awakening that finds its inspiration in Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious and secular sources alike.

Mr. Batchelor is swiping a broad brush over “religion” based Buddhist practices. He is inferring that Buddhist practitioners who commit to a traditional path hesitate to look outside those teachings and texts to strengthen their practice. Admittedly there are instances where this is true. There are those who choose the Mahayana path and vehemently will defend that path while denigrating the path chosen by others. There does arise the statement that, ‘this Buddhism is the True Buddhism’. This statement is a direct view into the immature practice of the speaker. This is not a new development in Buddhism, it has been happening since the Buddha’s death.

The practice of Buddhism now, in the West is encountering a culture and social system new to its experience. It has found itself in a society that favors individualism in its most selfish form over awareness of societal impact, and a society that favors consumerism over altruism. What is needed to counter these aspects of Western society is a pragmatic path that accepts that the ‘walls’ between traditions will have to be pulled down. The Buddhism that will eventually arise will have components of all the Buddhist traditions, humanism, naturalism, pluralism and science. It will be a Pragmatic Buddhism.

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Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part 4

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The fifth of the Ten Theses that Stephen Batchelor offers in his book, “After Buddhism” speaks to the dynamism of the dharma, a dharma that can effectively respond to any contingency. In Batchelor’s experience when the dharma is viewed as being stifled by religious dogmatism and metaphysical expectations its value is lessened. The dharma is dynamic because, like all phenomena it is impermanent and subject to causal conditioning. This is the reality of the dharma.

Batchelor’s fifth theses is: The dharma serves the needs of people at specific times and places. Each form the dharma assumes is a transient human creation, contingent upon the historical, cultural, social, and economic conditions that generated it.

In Batchelor’s secular vision for Buddhism the dharma is a phenomena a practitioner can access in order to respond appropriately to situations in a given moment, in a given location. When one sees a homeless person with a handwritten sign saying, ‘I am hungry’, they can allow the arising of generosity with the knowledge that such acts are wholesome and beneficial to all. Generosity arose because of need. A rude driver cuts in front of a practitioner nearly causing a crash. Anger begins to arise as visions of chasing down that driver and . . .. Anger falls away as the dharma of serenity and balance arises. Serenity arose because of need. The dharma serves the practitioner.

In 2600 years of Buddhism the dharma has assumed many forms. At the start it was a fresh paradigm built upon a foundation of Hinduism and the knowledge and wisdom developed by Siddhartha as he traveled and studied throughout the Indian continent. After the Buddha’s death four different councils were held to write down the words of the Buddha and to make changes those that then guided the sangha thought necessary. From them came the schism that brought about the Mahayana and Theravada schools, changes to the Vinaya Pitaka (Monastic Rules), and the Buddhist canon. From there and then the form of the dharma underwent transformation when King Ashoka sent his son and daughter to Sri Lanka to teach the dharma. Early Buddhist mendicants traveled the Silk Road to China bringing the dharma to the Chinese people, people whose religion was centered on the Tao and Confucious. When Buddhism found its way to Tibet it was conditioned by animistic Bon practices as well as the unique environment, both physical and sociological there. In Japan the Shinto rituals meant to connect the present with Japan’s past had their effect on the dharma. Now, in the West the dharma will take another form, or multiple forms.

Each form the dharma assumes is a transient human creation, contingent upon the historical, cultural, social, and economic conditions that generated it. Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana, Abhidharma, Pure Land, Nichiren, and all other forms have arisen as a result of those contingencies.

What forms the dharma takes in the West will be causally conditioned by factors unique to this time and place. Note that I say forms. In the West there isn’t only one dominant religion or belief system to be encountered, there are many that will have their effect on the dharma. The dharma will also be causally conditioned by such influences as the cultural differences between East and West, the history of other influences such as Mormonism and Mindfulness Meditation practices, economic and education disparities, and a broad range of social groups and ideals. These known factors and many as of yet unknown factors will have their cause and effect on practice of the dharma in the West.

There is a tendency with some Western Buddhists to believe that if Buddhism isn’t practiced in the same way it was in Tibet, China, Japan or where ever it is not true Buddhism. This shows a fundamental lack of information about the journey and transformations that have already had contingent effects on this 2600 year old philosophy.

The sixth theses is: The practitioner honors the dharma teachings that have been passed down through different traditions while seeking to enact them creatively in ways appropriate to the world as it is now. This is an acceptance of the dharmas of pluralism and pragmatism.

A mature practitioner does not disparage the rituals and dharma teachings of other traditions, Buddhist or otherwise as long as they are on a path devoted to the elevation of the human spirit, human flourishing. Batchelor offers that a secular practitioner is one that not only honors other traditions; they also actively engage particular practices in order to determine their value in a Buddhist practice in the West, in this era. This is both pluralistic and pragmatic.

The dharma I experience is causally conditioned by the Mahayana based lessons of my teacher and his teacher, and the open-mindedness and open-heartedness they expected from anyone on the Pragmatic Buddhist path. It is equally contingent on the Sigalovada Sutra, a Theravada text. In the Sigalovada Sutra I found practices that have improved my relationships with others, practices not found in any Mahayana texts. I experientially verified that teachings from “outside” my tradition have positive transformative effects equal to many of the practices learned from my teacher.

This theses teases about what Western Buddhism may grown to be. It may take the best, or at least the practices proven most individually and socially effective for this time and culture. From that a unique form of Western Buddhism may arise.

Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part One

Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part One

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Secular Buddhist groups are arising in the West, most notably in America. Overall mission statements for these groups vary with one constant; they walk the Middle Path without any religious or spiritual context. Groups like the Secular Buddhist Association and many individuals practice the dharma without any affiliation with a traditional Buddhist lineage or school. These practitioners look to the wide variety of Buddhist writings, podcasts and You Tube videos, along with in-person sessions with other avowed secular Buddhists for information and instruction. They view dogmatic beliefs, unquestioning devotion, and religious ritual as having no value, though many still find value in the facilities and training offered by traditional Buddhist groups.

Buddhism as a religious practice arose when the Buddha’s disciples began actively worshipping him, and guiding others to do the same after Siddhartha’s death. It flourished with more than 2500 years of Buddhism becoming interconnected and interdependent on the ethnic religions of other Asian cultures. For example, in sTibet it is Bon, China it is Tao and Confucianism, and Japan it is the Shinto religion that Buddhism merged with. Religious observances and worship of the Buddha(s) naturally arose as a causal consequence of the intersection of belief systems. At this moment in its history Buddhism is encountering a secular belief system for the first time. Secular is defined as any attitudes, activities or other phenomena in which religion or spirituality plays no role. Siddhartha’s own attitude had a touch of the secular. In the Parinibbana Sutra Siddhartha clearly stated that it wasn’t him as human being or teacher his disciples should honor upon his death; they must honor the dharma, the teachings. Combined with what the Buddha offered in other sutras he did not expect to be worshipped or thought of as anything but a human being.

My own experience is that Buddhism can be effectively practiced without religious dogma, worship and prostrations, and that no matter how one engages Buddhism in their moment-to-moment life there will be an elevation of human spirit. I base this ideal on the realization that the soul and human spirit are synonymous. The soul is what goes to heaven in the Judeo/Christian system. Human spirit can be experienced by anyone open to the wonder and mystery of the world we live in. Spirituality is the ideal . . . dharma is the real. No matter how one engages the intentional practices of Buddhism their thoughts and actions will relate to and affect in deep ways the human spirit of the practitioner and of their society. Elevation of human spirit is certain when equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, generosity and acceptance are part of how one is when engages themselves and others. In his book ‘After Buddhism’ he 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:”

We’ll explore Mr. Batchelor’s ten theses over the following weeks at the Buddha Center.

A secular Buddhist is one who is committed to the practice of the dharma for the sake of this world alone.

Practicing Buddhism as a religion requires that the disciple have faith in the metaphysical concepts of rebirth, of the karmic bank account for past and future lives, and nirvana as a transcendent realm independent of the material universe and beyond its physical laws. Mr. Batchelor offers that a secular Buddhist is one who commits to practicing the dharma for the sake of their own existence from birth to death, as well as the sake of their society and planet. This is a path readily walked by an agnostic Buddhist. They set aside the metaphysical possibilities and concentrate on what can be experienced. They rely on verified confidence by striving to be mindful and aware of the consequences of their thoughts and actions in their immediate existence.

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.

A religiously oriented Buddhist connects situations and experiences of their current life with what may have been done in a previous life. Their job sucks because they did something wrong to their boss in another life. How can they know this to be the case? Dogmatic faith. A secular Buddhist realizes that their job sucks because of their own work habits or attitude. There isn’t anything that can be done to fix the actions in a previous life, but there is a lot that can be done to fix previous actions in this life.

There is no place in the sutras that the Buddha states unequivocally that his new paradigm is not meant to be a religion, nor does he ever unequivocally state that it is meant to be a religion. We can only carefully study the sutras and other legacy texts to get a window into Siddhartha’s thinking. The Buddhist canon abounds with mention of deities, divas, gods and other mythical entities that populated the Hindi religion of Siddhartha’s time and culture. In the texts these beings question, praise and honor the Buddha whose new approach to human existence was causally conditioned by the people whose religion created those mythical beings. The texts were written hundreds and thousands of years after Siddhartha’s death and so it is likely that the mythical beings were added in order to give Buddhism some amount of cultural authority so the populace would be able to first recognize the parallels, then realize the differences.

Spirituality is the ideal . . . dharma is the real. Can a practitioner engage in meditation, compassion and generosity without having any spiritual moments, moments when they are relating or affects the human spirit of themselves or another? My own experience says no.

Meditation is engaged in so that through practice one can gain insight into themselves and the world around them, and to develop a serene and balanced mind. Success elevates the human spirit.

Compassion is engaged in so that the concern for the suffering, discontent, anguish and unsatisfactoriness of human beings arises in the mind. The thoughts and actions of a compassionate person elevates the human spirit.

Generosity is engaged so that the practitioner fully realizes the causal consequences of wholesome deeds. Giving without expectation elevates the human spirit.

Mr. Batchelor’s ten theses of secular Buddhism point to one extreme, while Buddhism as a religion points to the other. By engaging them through discussion and practice the Middle Path can be discerned. Each time Buddhism migrated to a new country and culture there arose an ‘either/or’ situation. In the beginning people were expected to make a choice. In time, sometimes hundreds of years, a middle path that honored both belief systems arose. Over time the same will happen in the West.