Take Seriously but Hold Loosely: perspectives on Secular Buddhism (1/4)

Recently someone compared my writing to that of Stephen Batchelor, the most prominent and perhaps most articulate proponent of the new Secular Buddhism movement. I had to think, at first, what the similarities and differences might be, because I don’t identify myself as a Secular Buddhist – largely because I feel the distinctions between “religious” and “secular” or “traditional” and “modern” are spuriously applied to Buddhism. In fact, I hope that this essay might serve as a middle way between extremes that seem to be forming within Buddhism around these distinctions. Nonetheless, I admit to sharing two fundamental premises which Batchelor has clearly articulated, and which are also, I understand, mainstays, perhaps the two most important mainstays, of Secular Buddhism. These premises are:

(1) The Dharma is about practice, not belief.

The title of Batchelor’s well thumbed-through and dog-eared book Buddhism without Beliefs reflects this premise. Buddhism is something we do, not something we believe. This is by no means to say that the Buddha did not provide a doctrinal framework: he gave us the Dharma, which consists of a large system of interrelated teachings. However, the Dharma falls short of a “belief system,” and instead serves exclusively as a critical support for practice, as I hope to show in my own way in what follows. For this reason, I will submit that the Buddha’s teachings are to be taken seriously, because each one will have an important practical function, or practice function, to be realized as beneficial results. At the same time, they are to be held loosely, as less fixed than belief, because a teaching needs to be meaningful and acceptable by the particular practitioner in support of its practice function. It is the practitioner’s task to make the teaching his own.

(2) The Dharma will inevitably be adapted to modern sensibilities.

The teachings are always going to be interpreted by individuals through the filter of their own culture as well as in idiosyncratic ways. For instance, Buddhists from an animist culture will tend to see behind the teachings intelligent but invisible underlying mechanisms, where Buddhists from a modern culture will look for verifiable physical or mental processes. This is how cultures have kept Buddhism meaningful and acceptable as it has entered new lands, and this is unlikely to cease in the West. Moreover, if we hold Buddha’s teachings loosely, we have license to understand them in ways that are meaningful and acceptable to us. At the same time, if we take the teachings seriously, we will not lose sight of their practice functions, and will thereby tend to preserve the integrity of the Dharma. After all, we expect the Dhamma to shape the cultures of new lands in beneficial ways.

The point of bringing Buddhism into a new culture is not to introduce yet another belief system to take its place alongside alternative understandings of science, philosophy and religion, but to produce an all-too-rare kind of human character, one that lives, acts and thinks something like a buddha. Buddhism has retained its functional integrity remarkably well even as it has been repeatedly reinterpreted in different cultural environments. If we take care, it will do so in ours.

A third similarity between my approach and Batchelor’s is that both of us have currently a primary interest in early Buddhism, the teachings that were articulated before sectarian differences arose historically. I personally have a great respect for most later traditions as they have developed in Asia, but the very earliest stratum of Buddhism gives us a well defined form of Buddhism from which to draw examples, the one closest to the Buddha and the least adulterated by extraneous cultural and religious influences.
I will now motivate these two mainstays of Secular Buddhism in more detail. I will develop the first premise first in terms of practice function or doing (taking seriously), and then in terms of not believing (holding loosely), and will show that this first premise is clearly motivated in the Buddha’s teaching itself. I will then show that the second premise makes sense in terms of the first, look at some general issues of modern interpretation, and assess the overall position of “Secular Buddhism.”

Taking the teachings seriously

In this section we demonstrate that the range of teachings is consistently justified as supports for practice, what we actually do in our lives and the benefits that thereby accrue. We take the teachings seriously because each has a practical function, or practice function, that makes a difference in our lives. Famously, in the Simsapa Sutta (SN 56.31) the Buddha, holding a handful of leaves, declared that if the leaves of the forest represent what he might teach, the leaves in his hand represent what he does teach, for he teaches only suffering and the end of suffering:

And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to nirvana. (SN 56.31)

The Buddha was not interested in teaching speculative philosophy, or what we would not call science, nor in metaphysics, but only in the practice that leads ultimately to awakening. He was very practical.

Four noble truths. Batchelor frequently illustrates the point that the function of Dharma is in support of practice particularly with regard to the four noble truths, that most central teaching of Buddhism. He points out that the presentation of the four noble truths in the Buddha’s very first discourse, known as the Turning of the Wheel Sutta, and elsewhere explicitly incorporates instructions for practice. The four noble truths are:

  • The truth of suffering, which is to be understood,
  • The truth of the origin of suffering, which is craving, and which is to be abandoned,
  • The truth of the cessation of suffering, which is the cessa­tion of crav­ing, and which is to be realized,
  • The truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of suffering, which is right view, right in­tention, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right, mindfulness and right concentration, and which is to be developed. (paraphrase from SN 56.11)

A significant point about the four noble truths, aside from their highlighting of a conditional relation between suffering and craving, is that they merge fact and value, that is, “is” and “ought.” Stated in their most concise form, they appear to be four empirical propositions subject to verifica­tion, and are in fact referred to as “truths” in the early discourses. Yet, we are given an explicit practice for each of the truths: under­standing, abandoning, realizing and developing, respectively. The truths are justified for their practical value, that is, for their practice function. It has been pointed out that the truths are like a doctor’s evaluation, in which the truths would represent, respectively, symptom, diagnosis, prognosis and cure, and we note that a doctor’s evaluation also merges “is” and “ought” and is justified for its practice function, that of curing the patient. The path of practice referred to here is the noble eightfold path, eight bullet-points of more detailed practice to be developed.

This is hardly an obscure passage, yet Batchelor is right that at least some later traditions often highlight the propositional content, as if our primary task is to believe, not to understand, abandon, realize and develop. Not all Dharmic teachings make their practice function this explicit, but my experience is that a practice function is always present at least implicitly for any teaching, even if the practice function is not at first obvious. Belief by itself gives us no reason to take a teaching seriously, its practice function gives us every reason. The Buddha was very practical.

These things lead to bene­fit and hap­piness. These points about the priority of practice over belief form the topic of the Kālāma Sutta, which warns us against arriving at fixed viewpoints, no matter their source, but instead to verify teachings in terms of the benefits accrued through embracing them, which is to say. in terms of their practice function:

Come, Kālāmas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon repeti­tion, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor as a result of thought; nor upon an axiom, nor upon careful reasoning, nor out of delight in speculation, nor upon an­other’s seem­ing ability, nor upon the thought, “The monk is our venera­ble teacher.” Kālāmas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good, these things are not blamable, these things are praised by the wise, undertaken as a whole these things lead to bene­fit and hap­piness,” then enter on and abide in them. (AN 3.65)

In the passage, the ultimate criterion for evaluating a teaching is practical, that is, whether what we do on the basis of the teaching is of benefit. It is because the teachings have a practice function that we take them seriously; together they make a huge difference in our lives. We eschew intellectual achievements, whether these seem like “common sense” or result from higher scholarly reasoning and speculation, in favor of what is of benefit in our lives.

Faith. So, the four noble truths are about practice; they give us something to do. I should point out at the outset that they are also about faith. Faith is often mistakenly put in opposition to reason, but, in fact, the very reasonable four noble truths give us nothing to do, absolutely nothing, if we do not have faith that they are giving us good advice. Why would we take them seriously if we don’t assume that the Buddha knew what he was talking about, that his doctrine is reliable and that our modern teachers are representing it properly? Without these assumptions the four noble truths are useless in our lives. This is not to say they are not verifiable: If we understand suffering, we will see that it is the shadow side of craving. If we follow the path of practice, we will realize the end of suffering. But we can only verify the four noble truths after we have practiced on the basis of them, generally for many years (if not lifetimes). Until then, our practice is based in faith, faith in the efficacy of the four noble truths for our practice. As one of my Zen teachers, Shohaku Okumura Roshi, once said of Zen meditation, “Zazen takes a lot of faith. Otherwise nobody would do something [that looks] so stupid.”

What we accept on faith is virtually always, in Buddhism, subject to verification. This explains why the Buddha says the Dhamma is “personally experienced by the wise,” not by everyone, only by those who have developed wisdom through practice. This is why the Buddha invites us “to come and see” the Dharma: When he says “come,” he is shouting down to us flatlanders from the moun­taintop. To arrive at his vantage point we need to scramble up hills, struggle through brambles and ford creeks, with the faith that the Buddha is up there telling us to see is worth our while. When he says “see,” we need to focus our eyes intently in the right direction to barely make out what the Bud­dha sees with great clarity of vision, and, sure enough, we can verify it for ourselves, … in the end. Until then our effort is carried by faith.

However, this is not blind faith by a long shot, and it has little to do with belief. It is actually a commonplace faith that informs literally everything we do: cooking by following a recipe in a cookbook, following the directions for assembling a new vacuum cleaner, undertaking a course in chemistry, watching a movie on the recommendation of a friend, brushing our teeth. Ultimate verifiability stands behind this kind of faith, for even though we have yet to personally verify the efficacy of the teaching we are given, we can assume that others who have preceded us have verified it over and over again. Otherwise this teaching would not have survived to be transmitted to us. With practice experience, the Dharma establishes a kind of track record, and this pushes our faith even further.

The function of developing faith in Buddhism is fulfilled by the practice of refuge, the development of trust in the reliability of the three sources of Buddhist wisdom: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha is our original teacher, the Dharma is the teachings themselves and the Sangha are the living teachers who are developed in understanding and in practicing the Dharma. This is not faith in a set of beliefs, such as in a catechism or in a fundamentalism not to be questioned. Refuge is itself a practice whose practice function is to bring ourselves to take the other teachings seriously. Refuge is thereby very practical. The practice of refuge is substantially to recall the track record of these sources of wisdom, but also to develop an emotional intimacy with these sources of wisdom in order to open up the heart and mind to their influence, that our practice might deepen. Simple physical practices like bowing were endorsed by the Buddha from the Buddha at the very beginning and have always been utilized as a support for refuge ever since, much like handshaking is a support for cordiality in Western culture.

The relationship of refuge to the four noble truths illustrates the way one practice function feeds into another in an integrated system of teachings. The four noble truths, when practiced, fulfill the function of ending suffering. The refuges, when practiced, fulfill the function of taking the four noble truths seriously, that is, of instilling life into the four noble truths, as well as into other teachings.

The diversity of teachings. To practice is to exercise the skill of life. It is useful to recognize the similarity between Buddhism and other skills, such as tennis, hang gliding, haute cuisine, ceramics, making a sales pitch, chess, bird-watching or solving non-linear equations. Each begins with teachings and faith in the teachings. For the aspiring master chef, for instance, these might be focused in a favorite cookbook, one that may have been recommended by a wiser cook than oneself, or by its strong track record acquired through repeated personal use. Each instruction in each recipe will serve a practical function, contributing something to the taste, texture or appearance of the food; if we leave anything out or make a mistake in the instruction, the result will generally be disappointing. The overall functionality of the instructions is revealed in the benefit attained, the bright faces, delighted smiles, smacking of lips and positive comments of the satiated. Belief in the instructions is not the point, but rather what we do on the basis of them. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The teachings, practice and benefits in haute cuisine are of a different nature than those of Buddhism, or of any other kind of skill, but the analogy provides a useful perspective for understanding the function of Dharma.

The four noble truths are the core teachings of Buddhism, the teachings that lead to high spiritual attainments and eventually nirvana. Most of the Buddha’s significant teachings are elaborations of the four noble truths. However, everything arises in a context, and refuge is a significant part of the context of the practice of the four noble truths, as we have seen. Refuge is, in this sense, more foundational than the four noble truths. The context of the four noble truths is even further filled out by advice on how to interpret the teachings, which is substantially our concern in this essay. The Buddha seems to leave no stone unturned.

It is important to recognize that many of the teachings support not the specific individual’s practice, but instead the functions of the Buddhist community in which the individual practices. The Buddhist community itself functions to support the individual’s practice by providing role models and teachers, material support for those who want to dedicate themselves to spiritual development, and, ultimately, the means of propagating and preserving the integrity of the teachings for future generations. The teachings around the Buddhist community thereby have even an historical function. Moreover, it is within the community that the individual practices virtue and generosity and learns humility and harmony. The community ideally defines a culture of awakening that both pulls and pushes the individual toward nirvana, through inspiration of those further advanced in practice, and and through the encouragement of all, including those less advanced.

Monastic practice. It should be noted that the Buddha gave abundant attention to establishing the multi-functional monastic community, through an extensive set of teachings called the Vinaya, the discipline, or the monastic code of conduct. The Vinaya is based more directly in elaborate rules of practice or conduct with even less in the way of abstract conceptual content than the Dharma. The doctrine and discipline are related roughly the way science as a system of thought – that is, a set of paradigms, theories and empirical data – is related to science as a discipline – that is, an institution made up of rules of conduct such as not falsifying data or plagiarizing others’ results, standards for certifying the qualifications of researchers, professors, etc. and supported materially by the wider society. The quality of first in dependent on the quality of the second.

The teaching of monastic discipline fulfills a number of individual, community and historical functions at the same time. First, the monastic life affords the practitioner an ideal context for practicing the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path, because of its isolation from common pernicious worldly concerns. Second, the monastic community provides a space in which the Dharma and its practice burns brightest. This, in turn, (a) provides inspiration for the monastics themselves, as well as for the lay community, (b) provides a basis for teaching, learning and exchange of understanding and experiences, (c) spins off practitioners of great attainment who ennoble the entire community, (d) provides the vehicle by which teachings are preserved in their functional integrity and transmitted to future generations.

It is no exaggeration to say that these functions have been essential to the survival of Buddhism. Buddhism would not long endure without the monastic Sangha; it never has. An analogy with the discipline of science is again apt in this regard. Science would not long endure without its disciplined community; it never has. Undeniably there are amateur scientists of great attainment (a young Einstein was once one), just as there are Buddhist laypeople of great attainment, but these are never more than a couple of steps removed from the ordained or certified community in each case. In both cases, the institutional core is necessitated by the radical sophistication of the subject matter, and its consequential vulnerability to misunderstanding and distortion. In each case, sustaining its integrity requires a community of dedicated full-timers.

The Buddha was very aware of the critical function of the monastic Sangha. In fact, the Buddha consistently referred to the body of his teachings as the Dharma-Vinaya, that is, doctrine and discipline, expressive of the comparable weight he accorded the functions of the doctrine and of monastic discipline. Remarkably, the monastic Sangha, carefully constituted and let loose on the world by the Buddha, has endured longer than any other public human institution on the planet, yet another reflection of the Buddha’s genius. The Vinaya, like the Dharma, is about practice and fulfills well-defined practice functions.

Unessential teachings. When we look at the ancient discourses we are struck that some teachings are clearly highlighted as essential, while other notions appear here and there rather casually. These texts were delivered extemporaneously in everyday language, in a cultural context dissimilar to our own, so it is not surprising that much of their content is extraneous. In fact, certain content may be without a practice function at all, and therefore needs not to be taken seriously by the modern practitioner. Let me suggest an example: the appearance of deities walking (or flying) through the world, who often visit the Buddha, sometimes to offer advice, but more often to hear his teachings. I use the phrase “suggest an example” here deliberately because we have to take care that we are unaware of a practice function that is simply not apparent to us at the present time. We may often fail to recognize, over many years of study, the practice function of what reveals itself to be a very important teaching in the Buddha’s very elaborate system of teachings.

Concerning deities, we should first note that in India, now as well as in the time of the Buddha, people rather casually attribute divinity to brahmins, to famous ascetics, to cows, sometimes to trees and to the fires in people’s hearths, and to aristocrats. The latter are often addressed as “deva” (deity) when spoken to by commoners in the early discourses. Therefore, it would surprising if references to them were altogether absent, or they did not appear in the many allegories, similes or background stories to add a little color. Moreover, whereas in most religions deities function in practice as objects of worship, or as personalities that are appealed to for their power over the circumstances of people’s lives, nowhere does the Buddha recommend such practices with respect to deities to his disciples. On the contrary, when the deities do appear, they venerate the Buddha, and sometimes the other monastics, bowing to their feet and sitting respectfully to one side. If these references to deities have a practice function to them, it would seem to be merely rhetorical and quite minimal: they serve to illustrate the practice of refuge, on the part of even the most exalted of beings.

In short, the examination of the practice functions of teachings gives us a principled method of discerning what is really essential in the ancient texts and what is superfluous. But again, we must proceed cautiously, not to dismiss an important part of the Buddha’s message due to possible limitations in our current state of understanding. Doing so might otherwise just possibly end up like leaving salt out of a recipe, unless we know exactly what we are doing.

Karma and rebirth. Karma is another word for our practice. Karma is, by definition, simply intentional action, which is what our practice is. The Buddha, in giving us this definition, seems to have appropriated and reinterpreted a brahmanical conceptual scheme in which karma was understood as ritual action, which, when carefully performed, assured benefit for the one on whose behalf the ritual was performed. For the Buddha, every action brings potential benefit or harm to the agent of that action, and must therefore be taken as seriously as the brahmin takes his ritual. This is why we take the teachings seriously that make our practice skillful. Notice that the same analogy can be made for any skill. For instance, we take a recipe seriously in order to experience the delight of others in the products of our gastronomic efforts. The chef might well understand his effort as follows:

Whatever I do in the kitchen, whether skillfully or unskillfully, to that I will fall heir.

Buddhist practice is fundamentally rooted in ethics or virtue and is not limited to the kitchen, and so the equivalent principle becomes:

Whatever I do, for good or evil, to that I will fall heir. (AN 5.57)

In short, our karmic actions not only shape the world for others, but also shape our personal fortune. What we inherit personally is called the result or fruit of our deeds.

This simple teaching has a profound influence on our ethical behavior. The greatest difficulty in the practice of ethics for humans of all faiths and backgrounds, the reason people are not universally virtuous, is that self-interest and benefiting others come into repeated conflict. Yet, this teaching equates self-interest and benefiting others. It says that good deeds always work to our own bene­fit as well as to the benefit of others at the same time, even though we might not recognize this immediately. Bad deeds always work against our own benefit as well as against the benefit of others at the same time. This simple teaching, when taken seriously, therefore has a profound practice function, promoting virtue and almost every other aspect of our practice. For now we simply note the practice function of this teaching; we will consider how we come to have faith in this teaching in the course of the discussion below.

Although karma and its fruits generally play out in the present life, by introducing rebirth the Buddha greatly extends the scope of this teaching beyond a few decades of a single life, and therewith the scope and signific­ance of all of Buddhist prac­tice. The consequence of taking the teaching of rebirth seriously is that we fully take responsibility for the distant future as well as the near future. Rebirth thereby endows our practice with a meaning bigger than life (at least bigger than one life), endows it in the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi with “that panoramic perspec­tive from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total net­work of relationships,” that comes from realizing that our lives and therefore our practices are woven inextricably into something far grander in scale, a rich and immense tapestry of human affairs. We see ourselves each engaged in an epic struggle with twisted karmic forces (ingrained greed, hatred and delusion) from the ancient past that will project karmic out­comes endlessly into the future … unless we intervene through our practice.

Our practice there­by has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life and there­fore different incentives. From rebirth comes the urgency that impels us to deep practice, even giving up the comforts of conventional life on behalf of practice, and that thereby fully opens up the prospect of awakening. The practice function of the teaching of rebirth is profound in that it provides a means of framing our practice that lends it enormous gravity, effectively as a multiplier of the practice function of the teachings around karma. Once again, for now we are simply noting the practice function of this teaching; we will consider how we come to have faith in this teaching in the course of the discussion below. Also once again, the Buddha’s concern was practice, not belief.

One Response to “Take Seriously but Hold Loosely: perspectives on Secular Buddhism (1/4)”

  1. raindrop12 Says:

    Re: Khama topic in the essay, Take Seriously but Hold Loosely, Perspectives on Secular Buddhism.

    A point about the critical nature of the Buddha’s teaching of kamma that was not noted, is the major cultural impact the Buddha’s meaning and use of kamma had on the cast system and society in general. As stated in the essay volitiinal action is what the Buddha teaches and it will produce fruits of benefit or harm.
    Before the Buddha, people of little means, who could not afford to interact with or pay for ritual offerings by priests were denied the reassurance of the intrinsic value of right action by the “holy” establishment.
    The Buddha shed the proper emphasis on action as being much larger than material. Freeing up people’s motivation and intention. Providing more seeming access to all people’s awakening.

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