Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part Two

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.

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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.