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 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.

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.