Take Seriously but Hold Loosely: perspectives on Secular Buddhism (2/3)

pdf_24x18The previous episode (1/4) demonstrated that the teachings of Buddhism provide a support for practice and have no other function, in particular, no function in terms of philosophical or scientific speculation. When a teaching is taken seriously, its practice function has the potential to be realized and its benefits to be attained. Is taking a teaching seriously the same as believing it? Let’s see.

Holding the teachings loosely

In this section I show how the teachings fall short of belief, but are rather to be held loosely or provisionally. This, in fact, is often important for a teaching to become meaningful and acceptable by a particular practitioner, who can experiment with different personal interpretations to make the teaching his own.

Working assumptions. In the Caṅki Sutta we learn that anything ac­cepted through faith, approval, oral tra­dition, reasoning or ponder­ing may or may not turn out to be true. At this the young brahmin Caṅki asks how, then, truth is to be pre­served:

If a person has faith, his statement, “This is my faith,” preserves the truth. But he doesn’t yet come to the definite conclusion, “Only this is true; anything else is worth­less.” To this extent, Bharadvaja, there is the preservation of the truth. To this extent one preserves the truth. I de­scribe this as the preservation of the truth. But it is not yet a discovery of the truth. (MN 95)

The Buddha then repeats this formula with appropriate substitutions to make it about each of faith, approval, oral tra­dition, reasoning and ponder­ing. Notice that this is a similar list of conditions to those for belief that the Buddha rejected in the Kālāma Sutta.

What this says is that noth­ing is to be simply believed unconditionally, because no matter what, even if the wisest teacher swears on a stack of Nikāyas that it is true, it might just turn out to be false. At no point can we with certainty state, “Only this is true; anything else is worthless.” This would be belief, something fixed or timeless, something we tend to put on the shelf, not to be further questioned, a definite conclusion. Most of us have at least at least some such beliefs, about science, about politics, about religion, about football players, about fashion. The Buddha cautions us that the only thing we might be certain about is that we think certain things are true as a matter of experience, never that they are true. Fixed, immutable belief has no place in the Buddha’s thinking.

Nonetheless, until a teaching is directly realized and fully understood in one’s experience, it can at best be taken as provisionally true, a kind of working assumption as a matter of faith, approval, oral tradition, reasoning or pondering. The truth of the teaching is only later discovered through direct experience. At that point, the teaching itself becomes without further function, a mere propositional approximation of what one has discovered and experienced directly for oneself. Teachings, therefore, at all stages, stop short of belief. They are accepted only conditionally and are ultimately expendable. In these senses, teachings, even while taken seriously, are to be held loosely.

Malleability and reinterpretation. The practical advantage of taking a teachings as working assumptions rather than as a belief is, in fact, exemplified in the truths of suffering and of the cause of suffering in the four noble truths. As we learned, the practice functions of these truths are the understanding and ultimate relinquishment of suffering and craving as factors of of our own experience. It would be a mistake to try to crystallize these truths from the beginning into a belief, precisely because we do not yet understand what suffering and craving are at that point. Any belief about them would have slim propositional content, and would be unlikely even to approximate the understanding that ultimately arises from the practice these truths give rise to. Belief would just get in the way and inhibit the investigation our practice requires. As we investigate something like suffering or craving, we are likely to make a series of distinct intermediate working assumptions before we come to recognize, perhaps after many years of practice, what the Buddha was asking us to see directly for ourselves. We give up even our final working assumptions once these truths are understood, because there is nothing like seeing directly for ourselves. We see that working assumptions are malleable and subject to reinterpretation and modification in a way beliefs are not. This is good, because their malleability allows us to make them ours, to wrap out minds around them, to make them meaningful and acceptable in our own way. Hold teachings loosely is important for the process of discovery, which is the practice task associated with the first noble truth.

Moreover, a particular teaching may similarly be critical at one point of practice, and lose its importance, or even its coherence, at a later stage. This explains why the Buddha always adjusted his teachings to his audience and why the early discourses are careful to clarify to whom they are spoken. Consider the teaching that I am the heir of my own deeds, which has to do with karma and the fruits of karma, whose practice function we already discussed above. Although this teaching plays a critical role in the practice function of establishing ethical conduct at the early stages of Buddhist practice, it actually makes less and less sense at later stages of practice, in which the agent of those deeds is recognized as a mere mental construct. In fact, it is taught that karma itself disappears in the fully awakened. At the early stages of practice virtue comes significantly with overriding one’s greed, hate and delusion associated with the agent of karma, in favor of what is really of ultimate benefit for self and other. At the later stages it comes primarily from the almost complete absence of greed, hate and delusion once these are cognitively disassociated from that agent.

In summary, teachings are to be held loosely, such that they make sense to us at the right level at the right time, but but remain malleable, subject to individual reinterpretation and modification within the limits of their practice functions. As we hold teachings loosely, we can turn them this way and that, try to generalize them, test if they maybe apply in a more specific way than first thought, conceptualize them in different ways, all the while deepening our understanding of the various texts that present these teachings. As we approach suffering, what exactly is meant? Is any hint of anxiety or stress an instance of suffering? Are we suffering when we are not aware that we are suffering? As we approach the teaching that we are heirs of our own deed, can we find examples in our own experience, or counterexamples? Is it precisely true in every instance, only an approximate generalization? Does it imply mysterious underlying mechanisms, or is there a natural explanation for why this generalization would be true? In these ways we develop insight, relate the teachings to direct experience and make of the teachings an increasingly powerful influence in our practice. Working assumptions are a lot more work than beliefs, which is perhaps why they are called “working” assumptions, but much more workable.

The skeptic’s choice. As we reflect on the teachings in this way, sometimes we may balk nonetheless. The Buddha gives us an example in the Apaṇṇaka Sutta:

There are some contemplatives and brahmans who hold this doc­trine, hold this view: “There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sac­rificed. There is no fruit or re­sult of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously re­born be­ings; no brahmins or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next af­ter having di­rectly known and realized it for themselves.” (MN 60)

These views deny what the Buddha teaches about karma and rebirth, as well as about responsibilities to parents. Passages like this suggest that his teachings were not without some controversy even in the Buddha’s time. Significantly, the Buddha does not argue that these contrary views are factually wrong, for instance, by citing research on memories of young children of past lives, even though he elsewhere states that he has himself directly experienced the truth of karma and rebirth. Instead, he argues entirely from the perspective of practice function, that is, from how these views are likely to condition the be­havior of such contemplatives and brah­mins:

It can be expected that … they will adopt and practice these three un­skillful activities: bad bodily conduct, bad verbal conduct, bad mental conduct. Why is that? Because those venerable contemplatives and brahmins do not see, in unskillful activities, the drawbacks, the degradation, and the defilement; nor in skillful activities the benefit of renunciation, as cleansing. (MN 60)

In other words, these views would have a negative practice function. Here is the kicker: people of these contrary views cannot win, whether or not their contrary view turns out to be factually true in the end:

Assume there is no other world, regardless of the true statement of those venerable contemplatives and brah­mins. This good person is still criticized in the here and now by the observant as a person of bad habits and wrong view: one who holds to a doctrine of non-existence. If there really is a next world, then this venerable person has made a bad throw twice: in that he is criticized by the ob­servant here and now, and in that with the breakup of the body, after death he will reappear in a plane of depriva­tion, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. Thus this in­controvertable teaching, when poorly grasped and poorly adopted by him, covers one side. He gives up the skillful op­tion. (MN 60)

This describes a purely pragmatic basis for accepting one of two alternative theses on the basis of a kind of cost-benefit analysis, or a means of covering one’s bets that by it­self justifies its acceptance as a kind of loosely held working assumption. The positive thesis should therefore be taken seriously, because it has a positive practice function, taken seriously regardless of one’s skepticism. Our job is to put aside our skepticism, and make the positive thesis our working assumption. The Buddha makes a similar argument at the end of the Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) with regard to realizing the fruits of karma in the next life. It is clear that he recommends that the teachings of karma and rebirth be taken seriously and therefore accepted as working assumptions even by the skeptical. We have already discussed the practice function of these teachings above, and will discuss their content a bit more below.

I think that some writers and teachers take the advice to skeptics in the Kālāma Sutta in the wrong way. It is important to pause and reflect here, because it seems clear, at least to me, that the Buddha is providing us with a subtle middle way between two extremes, belief and disbelief. Batchelor, for instance, concludes correctly from the Kālāma Sutta that the Buddha does not require belief in rebirth. But then from this he infers that rebirth need not be taken seriously, and in his later works even feels justified in disbelieving rebirth. However, if the Buddha intended that inference, he would not have made the pragmatic case for accepting rebirth on the part of the skeptic. Batchelor’s detractors, on the other hand, also miss the point of this passage when they state that one must believe in rebirth, sometimes even adding that one is not really a Buddhist if one does not believe in rebirth. The mistake here is that both sides conflate belief with taking seriously, where the Buddha in fact opens a middle way by distinguishing taking seriously from holding loosely. One can follow the Buddha’s teachings fully without believing in rebirth, but one who wants to follow the Buddha’s teachings fully will take the teachings around rebirth seriously, for the loss of rebirth’s practice function is likely to hinder the benefits of practice. The salty flavor of nirvana might be lost without the practice function of rebirth, just as the wonderful flavor of pesto would be lost by leaving out the basil.

This leads to a question that the Buddha does not seem directly to answer: What if we simply cannot accept a teaching, even as a working assumption, as hard as we try, either because it conflicts with some tightly held fixed beliefs that we are not willing to give up, or because it seems otherwise nonsensical, irrational or contrary to observable experience? How can we be expected take such a teaching seriously? Specific examples will be taken up in more detail in the context of adapting teachings to modernity, for this is a common experience for skeptical modern people. But let it suffice for the moment to point out that people, in fact, have a remarkable capacity for accepting inconsistent or strange assumptions, and even the most rational of us do so all the time.

B.F. Skinner, for instance, was a strong advocate of behaviorism in psychology in the middle of the last century, which involves the view that things like thinking, emotion, free will, perception, etc. are illusions that play no role in physical behavior. This once lead me to wonder if Skinner had children – Yes: According to Wikipedia he had two daughters. – and how he handled the various desires, fears, upsets and excitements that children have on a daily basis, once he returned from work where his interactions were no longer primarily with pigeons. Somehow I doubt that he, as a father, was indifferent to his daughters’ emotional states, nor that he tried to convince them they were illusory: “It’s OK, Julie. The bee sting was real, but your distress is not. So we are going to ignore that.” Each of us lives in an objective world and in a subjective world, even if we are convinced philosophically that only one or the other of these worlds is real. We have no choice.

Even physicists are adept of moving from one irreconcilable model of physical reality to another, from the Newtonian world to the world of relativity and back again, when it is convenient. And string theorists, I imagine, inhabit the same world of naive physics the rest of inhabit do when they are driving their cars, fending off an aggressive Chihuahua or eating a sandwich. There are, of course, practitioners of the hard sciences who believe in God, yet never consider the possibility that a NASA space craft might run into God’s nose. We all keep multiple frames of reference neatly separate. Moreover, much of our everyday reality is entirely fabricated, yet we take what is contained therein quite seriously even when we understand it is fabricated. Money and football are striking examples, which exist and become meaningful (quite often hugely meaningful) only to the extent that we agree to pretend that they exist and are meaningful. Holding things loosely, even the craziest things, has abundant precedent and often serves very practical functions.

Vagueness in the teachings. Many teachings do not lend themselves to a single interpretation. The Buddha made use of many rhetorical devices: myth, metaphor, allegory, symbolism, sometimes even literalism. This often leads us to entertain multiple interpretations and may leave us, and must have left the ancients as well, wondering how one is supposed to interpret such teachings. If we hold teachings loosely, this need not concern us, for a range of interpretations commonly fulfills the same practice function. Let’s take Māra as an example.

The in­famous Māra appears in the early discourses as a kind of fallen deity who is always ready to tempt, discourage, seduce and disarm, to do any­thing to bring the Buddhist practitioner away from what is wholesome, from what leads to nib­bāna or supports the Sāsana. He shows up frequently as a physical being, but generally in disguise, with remarkable persis­tence given that his rate of suc­cess seems quite low in the early texts. In each case, he then typically disappears as soon as he is recognized for who he is.

Now, what might be the practice function of these repeated accounts of encounters with Māra? These accounts suggest it is important to recognize Māra when he is trying to disrupt our practice, for when we do, he goes away and we can return to our practice. I know of no practitioner who has yet encountered Māra in the flesh, but I know many practitioners who apply this advice metaphorically when mental hindrances arise in their practice; they acknowledge the hindrance and let it go. The metaphor is quite apt, because often it actually seems like there is an obscure unconscious part of our mind whose interests often seem to run counter to our own and who seems to be very clever in realizing his interests and hindering our own.

Do we interpret Māra as myth or reality? In terms of practice function it does not seem to matter much, since we are unlikely to encounter him in the flesh, but he does nonetheless teach us a lesson we can put to use in our practice. Karen Armstrong points out that the question of myth or reality is a modern question, of little concern even in the West before modernity. Premoderns were, in this sense, in a better position to hold this teaching loosely. Some modern scholars of religion point out that mythology has traditionally provided a means of talking about psychology. In fact, the Buddha was a pioneer in the use of psychological language, with some precedent in the early Upanishads. Rupert Gethin points to what he calls the principle of the equivalence of cosmology and psy­chology in early Buddhism whereby heavenly realms, etc. actually correspond to subjective states, for instance realized in meditation.

In fact, alongside many passages referring to a flesh-and-blood Māra, we find this passage:

Where the eye exists, Samiddhi, where visible forms, eye consciousness and dhammas cognizable by the eye exist, there Māra or the manifestation of Māra exists. (SN 35.65)

Here Māra clearly becomes a psychological entity, something that arises in subjective experience, not in the objective world. Notice, however, that Māra keeps his name, still giving the impression of independence and contrariness within the subjective domain.

The point is that individually we may interpret Māra as a real physical entity, as a myth about such an entity, as an aspect of our own minds, or – least problematically – as “yeah, whatever.” “Yeah, whatever” is best, since it simply puts aside any particular view on the matter. The Buddha does not seem to have been too concerned about precision in this case. Some of us will prefer one interpretation or another, and this choice will often be culturally determined. Unfortunately, it is difficult particularly in the modern culture to accept “yeah, whatever” as a view. But we might note that even if we interpret Māra in psychological terms, we will have a strong impulse to anthropomorphize our own interpretation, to spin a myth around about that disruptive aspect of our own minds, sometimes even giving it a name as in “Little Timmy is at it again” or “Be gone, little Timmy!” Myth, reality, literal and metaphorical seem cognitively not so distant from one another, even though they may be ontologically quite distinct. In the end, we need not be so precise in the way we conceptualize things, as long as we preserve the proper functional response to potential disruptions of our practice. This is to hold a teaching loosely.

Misunderstanding the teachings. Individually we are likely to misunderstand many teachings at some point or another as we try to wrap our minds around them in various specific ways, and this may lead to harm as we attempt to put them into practice. We rely on our teachers and on our ongoing studies and practice to correct these misunderstandings. More worrisome is when misunderstandings become entrenched in a particular Buddhist tradition and become part of how the teachings are conveyed, even by one’s own teachers, sometimes for untold generations. Alas, this is not uncommon. However, the transmission of Buddhism to the West affords a valuable opportunity for correcting many of those traditional misunderstandings, since we tend to see the Buddha’s teachings with new eyes, and with a healthy degree of skepticism. Let me offer an example.

We have seen that I am the heir of my own deeds, that is, I experience harm or benefit as results of the ethical qualities of my deeds. It does not follow logically that all harm or benefit I experience results from my previous deeds, for some of these may result from non-karmic causes. Nonetheless, this inverse assumption is a common misunderstanding in many Asian traditions. For example, if lightning strikes my house and it burns down, I must have done something harmful to someone in the past, possibly in a previous life.

In fact, this inverse proposition is explicitly denied by the Buddha, in the somewhat obscure Sīvaka Sutta (SN 36.21). Even if we overlook the Sīvaka Sutta ourselves, we nonetheless have an adequate basis for recognizing this inverse proposition as a misunderstanding, not through pondering underlying mechanisms, but purely on the basis of practice function, for the inverse assumption would likely result in inhibiting the practice of compassion. In brief, if someone else suffers a misfortune – his house burns down, for instance – it is his own karmic fault, and if we provide him relief, we would only postpone his inevitable payment of his karmic debt. Furthermore, if we choose to do something harmful to him, he must have deserved it, so we are helping him pay off his karmic debt. Even if infallible cosmic retributive mechanisms are firmly entrenched in our interpretation of karma, practice function must trump that interpretation. Sometimes it is necessary to loosen up calcified interpretations.



7 Responses to “Take Seriously but Hold Loosely: perspectives on Secular Buddhism (2/3)”

  1. raindrop12 Says:

    Thank you for your full perspective.
    The only point you make that I diverge from is this: I so far have been able to always make use of each of Buddha’s teachings from the spot I find myself in. Even if the teaching cast doubt in my mind , it still promotes investigation.
    I hold the Buddha’s teachings dear.
    Like I said no matter what my mind makes of what’s been taught I have total trust in the Buddha as an exemplary world teacher of The Dharma.

    I will print out your essay and reflect on each section more fully.
    This is my comment after the first read. I prefer to give feedback as I experience communication with my teacher to always be useful.


  2. dhammadhatu Says:

    I didn’t read the post but the Pali suttas clearly state any adherence to a dhamma that infers reincarnation for the purpose of nurturing morality is defiled (asava) & attached (upadhi) and is not the noble path. In other words, the ‘secular’ teachings in the Buddha’s time for the worldlings (puthujjana) was those that inferred (via misinterpretation) reincarnation. In other words, despite their sloppiness, today’s secular Buddhists are seeking the noble path of lokuttara dhamma.


  3. bhikkhucintita Says:

    I see, you are referring to mundane and supramundane right view. Generally (for other readers) mundane right view refers to karma, the fruits of karma and rebirth, whereas supramundane right view refers to the four noble truths and dependent co-arising. The idea is that mundane right view is insufficient for removing the taints, nor to attain nirvana. (I’ll be darned if I can see how you derive your statement from this, however.)
    As it happens, this distinction is relevant to an example of what I write in the episode above about holding the teachings of karma loosely. There I state that this is a provisional teaching that becomes less compelling with the loss of agenthood for those very advanced on the path (though this probably pertains to no more than 1 in 1000 Buddhists). The nature of the teachings makes this radical shift as we go from the mundane to the supramundane level.
    In looking again at the text of MN 117 I notice another way in which the Buddha may have held rebirth loosely. The Buddha generally mentions rebirth into human, deity and lower realms. However, this passage uses the expression “this world and the other,” not a unique reference in the suttas. This expression, in fact, refers to an older conceptualization of rebirth, found in the early Upanishads, by which after death we rearise in the world of the ancestors, to return after living there for a while to this world. My interpretation of the use of alternative ways of conceptualizing rebirth by the Buddha is that he was not so interested in precision; he wanted us to hold these teachings loosely (but take them seriously!), so he describes them in loose terms.


  4. Vegard Says:

    I wish to express my gratitude for this post and your blog in general. Your arguments and reasoning helps me inch my way from being “interested in Buddhism, but keeping a distance to the religious stuff” to letting down my guard. I see more clearly how having faith is a tool to progressing. And how there does not need to be a destinction between believing and maintaining an intellectual integrity. The most rational may in fact be to have faith, given that the teachings turn out to be constructed to guide me to deeper understanding.

    Again: thank you. And if I have misunderstood your text, or misrepresent your thoughts, excuse me. In that case, a more correctnunderstanding may arise in me as I progress on my path.

    Kind regards


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I sense that you understand what I am trying to convey. Thank you for the feedback. I just finished typing the exciting conclusion and will post it when I’ve read through it a couple of more times.


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