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

pdf_24x18Sorry for the delay; I changed my mind a couple of times in writing this. So far, in parts 1 and 2, I have argued that the Buddha proposed a middle way between belief and practice function that gives us a lot of flexibility in our interpretation of Buddhist teachings insofar as we retain the functional integrity of the Dharma. I will now conclude with some examples of this process of interpretation. I will soon provide a link to the right → for a pdf of the entire essay, which will provide footnotes.

The Value of an Open Mind

We are a belief-centered culture. Modern culture has been fractured as long as it has been modern, with many internal contradictions along many fault lines – inter-religious, religious-secular, superstitious-rational, religious-scientific, spiritual-material, scientific-scientific and so on – each fault sustained by the dogmatic adherence of certain people to opposing beliefs, each holding the view “this is true and anything else is worthless.” We are at the same time a modernity in crisis, a modernity remarkable for its aggressiveness and acquisitiveness, a modernity suffering from a loss of human dignity, meaninglessness and spiritual malaise, a society in which appearance trumps substance, in which greed and fear are dominant themes and in which substance abuse, mental illness, suicide and violent crime are endemic.

Modernity has greeted Buddhism for the most part with a sense of relief. Buddhism has been widely greeted as kind, rational, unbiased, consistent with science, mystical, profoundly wise, serene, aesthetic. For some of us the entry of Buddhism into the modern space has felt like there is suddenly an adult in a room full of squabbling children. I don’t want to be unfair: there have been all along many adults in the room, but their voices had long been eclipsed by the perpetual squabbling all around them. Buddhism has entered as something apart, and many have been attracted to this charismatic new visitor. The voice of the Buddha tells us of an alternative way of being in the world, one rooted in kindness, harmony, simplicity, virtue and wisdom, a message that, if taken seriously, promises relief from the modern pathology. It is a radical voice, a voice that remains a challenge to most people even in traditionally Buddhist countries and all the more challenge to those in modern societies.

Unfortunately, these old fault lines continue to infect the thinking of many of us modern people even while we have embraced Buddhism, such that Buddhism itself is in danger, with time, of fracturing along these same fault lines, after which also the voice of the Buddha might end up eclipsed by the squabbling of children. We “convert” Buddhists – on the forefront of this epic encounter between an ancient tradition that has been transmitted through unfamiliar cultures, and modernity – must make wise decisions to get this encounter off on the right foot. “Off on the right foot” would mean that Buddhist teachings are made meaningful and accessible to moderns, at the same time that little of the transformative function of Buddhist practice, which has the potential to bring sanity to the world, is lost in the process.

In this section I attempt to provide some of this wisdom to inform our decisions on behalf of a thriving influential future modern Buddhism that makes a real difference in people’s lives and society.

A Principle of adaptation. There is a commodious space between practice function and belief. Practice function is the role of a teaching in upholding Buddhist practice. Belief, where it arises, collapses that space into a fixed view. The space itself represents the open mind, willing to take the teaching seriously, but holding loosely many possibilities of interpretation without insisting on a fixed view. The space comprises our wiggle room as we adapt Buddhism to modernity, as we make the teachings meaningful and accessible, as we make them our own. Belief comes from two significant sources: It may come from within a Buddhist tradition itself in which, over time, a fixed standard interpretation for any particular teaching may have been calcified. Or it may come from within modernity itself as an unquestioned presupposition often at one side of many of the fault lines running through modernity. Adapting Buddhist teachings to modernity may therefore require, at the same time, challenging the views of Buddhist tradition and challenging the views of modernity. It should be underscored that, at a minimum, Buddhism should challenge the presuppositions of modernity; otherwise why would we undertake the monumental task of bringing it here? At the same time this encounter with modernity will challenge, fortunately and at long last, whatever has become calcified in Buddhist traditions, perhaps not revisited for many centuries, to make Buddhism new and sparkling again.

As this is happening, it is fitting that we take each of the teachings seriously by default, at least until such time as we have a very good understanding of what its practice function might be. The alternative is to pare Buddhism down to the point of modern comfort when faced with a teaching we do not understand. This alternative challenges neither traditional Buddhism, nor modernity, and leaves us with a voice barely audible in the midst of the squabble over traditional fault lines. Unfortunately, this alternative has been chosen far too often by many of us “convert” Buddhists in recent years.

I hope this does not seem to theoretical. In the rest of this essay I will make this more concrete. I am a modern man, educated in science, without a religious upbringing, intellectual, by nature highly skeptical. At the same time, I have become a very devout Buddhist, and even a monk in an Asian tradition. Although I am still dealing with, and find myself right in the middle of, many of the challenges the encounter between Buddhism and modernity brings, through years of study, practice and teaching I have discovered the value of an open mind. This has provided a means to reconsider and gain valuable insight into what many of my Buddhist teachers have been telling me, and at the same time to better understand and question many of the Western presuppositions I brought with me at the beginning of this endeavor.

I would like, in this section, to take up a short list of teachings that have raised western eyebrows, teachings that westerners have been challenged to find meaningful or accessible. I do this not to put closure on these issues, but by way of illustration of how we might put our commodious wiggle-room to use to make these teachings our own while upholding their intended practice function. This list includes the usual suspects of karma, rebirth, rituals and monasticism, each of which at one time raised my eyebrows. This functional approach to the teachings – asking first, “What is its practice function?” than asking “How do I make sense if it?” – also forms the method behind my introductory textbook on early Buddhism, Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path.

The challenge of karma. Recall that karma is intentional action, but that we are the heirs of our own deeds, that is, our actions produce results or fruits that we experience, often after some time, in correspondence to the ethical quality of our deeds. The ethical quality, furthermore, is carried by the intention – for instance, kindness or hatred, greed or generosity – we bring to the deed. We have already seen above that this fundamental teaching has a profound practice function for ethical practice in equating, contrary to common sense, our own benefit with that of others.

Nonetheless, the teachings around karma are often a challenge for modern skeptics, who ask, “Is it really true?” In fact, if we look at these teachings simply as a generalization subject to empirical refutation or confirmation, we discover that this principle stands up remarkably well in our own experience:

First, if we are mindful, we find it feels good to act when our intentions are really pure, and there is, in contrast, at least a degree of stress or anxiety when we act out of greed or aversion.

Second, for those of us who habitually act with pure intentions, that purity becomes habituated, it becomes a mark of our character. Repeated generosity, for instance, makes us a generous person. As this happens, we develop, with time, an angelic glow and and uplifted spirit. Those who habitually act with impure intentions develop a furrowed brow and dejected mood. Repeated anger, for instance, makes an angry, unhappy person.

Consider Ebeneezer Scrooge, before and after. Although this is a fictional character, the reader should be able readily to find among acquaintances similar real-world examples. Habitual impure intentions even effect one’s physical health, and naturally result in being shunned socially or in retribution; no one wants the company of the the irate or of the dishonest. Scrooge (before) lived in a kind of hell realm right here on earth, trying to find solace in his wealth. On the other hand, habitual pure intentions improve one’s health, make one quite popular socially and result in others doing good in return.

Nonetheless, there are skeptics who question further, “What is the mechanism that makes all this work?” They might imagine some kind of cosmic accounting system to track when we’ve been naughty or nice and allocate future good or bad fortune accordingly, and, in fact, this seems to be a traditional interpretation of the principle of karmic results. But why assume a uniform mechanism? The last paragraph already describes a familiar set of processes that seem to conspire to produce these karmic results: human psychology, learning in human behavior, patterns of interpersonal responses and the mind-body connection. Psychologically we could say that virtue really is its own reward; it is not so much that good intentions bring happiness, rather that good intentions are happiness. This should suffice to establish abundant confidence in the principle of karmic results as a solid working assumption, and to enjoy the support that this gives our practice. We should acknowledge that cases are sometimes described in the EBT (Early Buddhist Texts) of a particular deed giving rise to an seemingly unrelated event, for instance, helping a stranger who is sick, then later winning the lottery a week later. However, these are actually extremely rare in the EBT and I see no reason to believe they are not entirely allegorical.

Going further, this principle of karmic results is often conceptualized as merit-making in EBT, earning merits for good deeds and demerits for bad deeds, which further encourages the image of an underlying accounting system, and which thereby adds to the confusion of modern people. Merit-making actually has a very familiar practice function. Suppose we take up some non-Buddhist practice, say, jogging. We normally will want to track how many miles we run each morning and how many mornings we run each week. Why? Because measuring keeps us consistent in our practice, it keeps us from backsliding. Similarly, if we take up a meditation practice, we will track how many hours we meditate each day or week and so on. This is all merit-making does. It is a crude estimation of karmic results, but it makes a big difference in our practice; we actually begin to search intently for opportunities to be of benefit to others and we are unlikely to backslide. Merit-making is a conceptual support that benefits our practice.

The challenge of rebirth. Rebirth often raises skeptical modern eyebrows through the roof. Our task is not to dismiss rebirth out of hand, but to find a way to interpret it, however loosely, that is meaningful and accessible to us. To dismiss the notion altogether is to lose the practice functions the Buddha attributed to rebirth, and therefore to corrode at least some of the integrity of the teachings. Nonetheless, not to dismiss rebirth is often a challenge in terms of prevailing modern presuppositions.

In his most recent work, Batchelor shows, quite impressively, how he has been doing the difficult work of turning the teaching of rebirth every way he can to make it more meaningful and accessible to his skeptical mind. He acknowledges, admirably, that its theoretical validity is subordinate to whatever practical benefit it might bring in cultures in which the notion is already widely accepted. He also refers to the scientific evidence of early child memories of previous lives collected in the work of Ian Stevenson and his colleagues, but correctly points out that this evidence still falls short of verifying the ubiquity of rebirth generally assumed in the EBT, and that it has yet to provide evidence that karmic results may be realized in the next life.

Most significantly, Batchelor observes that, “… all living beings are intimately connected to a complex series of causal conditions that preceded their existence as well as to a seemingly infinite unfolding of future consequences for which each was in some small way responsible. In providing a sense of humility, connectedness and responsibility, this world view encourages people to consider the significance of their existence in the selfless context of the immensity of life itself, not reduce it to the service of their egotistical greed and hatred.” He also recognizes how rebirth is a metaphor for hell, the condition of repetition, where our same old patterns of reactive behavior and our very existence play themselves out over and over again, seemingly endlessly.

Right on! This exemplifies how we can all go about exploring alternative interpretations of an age-old teaching, in spite of the fixed interpretations acquired in most Buddhist traditions, in order to make them meaningful and accessible to us. This goes a long way to provide the larger scheme of things the Buddha set for our practice. Although this account might still feel a bit remote to declare it our own, this shows how we hold a teaching loosely where our initial impulse might be to dismiss it altogether.

Rebirth is more obscure than most of the Buddha’s teachings in that there is little opportunity for verification in our own experience. However, a very fruitful source of rather direct evidence is often overlooked that I invite readers also to investigate. Any parent knows that children manifest well-articulated little charac­ters from the earliest age, and most of us can re­member our own pe­culiar qualities from toddlerhood. One child is terrified of thun­der storms, another of dark places. Paradoxically, infants seem in other re­spects to perfectly exemplify the fabled tabula rasa, hav­ing to discover, for in­stance, simplest laws of physics and the na­ture of their own bodies on their own. But this is misleading, be­cause right behind that come remarkably firmly es­tablished dispositions, a recognizable little character. One child seems particu­larly stingy, another freely generous at the very youngest age.

In a given circumstance, a child may follow a complex script, unique to that character, so precisely that it gives the impression of having been written then re­vised and rehearsed over countless years, centuries, millennia, and cer­tainly not composed anew by a child still not potty-trained and challenged to put his shoes on the right feet. Such dispositions, communicated to us somehow from the past, determine our responses to sensual stimulation, to irritation or insult, to fear; how we order our lives or array the things of the world, how we like to spend our time, what we value. In this life we continue to revise our dispositions, learning new ones, unlearning old ones or revising old ones to produce new; this is how our practice bears fruit.

Just as we have somehow in­herited dis­positions from past lives, it must be the case that we somehow serve as vehicles through which dispositions are transmitted to fu­ture lives. In this way, our lives are embedded in a rich and immense tapestry of human af­fairs, and “all living beings are intimately connected to a complex series of causal conditions that preceded their existence as well as to a seemingly infinite unfolding of future consequences for which each was in some small way responsible.” We can therefore observe this in our direct experience of our own evolving habit patterns.

The astute reader will notice that I have made a case not for the specifics of linear rebirth as it is generally understood in Buddhism, but what is important is that our interpretation fulfills the practice function of giving gravity and urgency to our practice, of making us accountable to the future, of making practice the overar­ching condition of our lives rather than of simply making it another thing we do in our lives.

The greatest danger for us in contemplating rebirth is to adhere dogmatically to a fixed belief: “There is no such thing as rebirth, period!” This closes the mind to the many possibilities it may be necessary to consider as we wrap out minds around this central teaching. Unfortunately, almost everybody in our culture seems to have fixed beliefs about many things. My fear is that Buddhism will shatter on these many fixed crystallized modern beliefs. However, almost as dangerous in this case might be to adhere to the opposite fixed belief whose source is in Buddhist tradition: “There is such thing as rebirth, period!” A prominent Western monk once said that if science ever demonstrates that there is no rebirth, he will disrobe. For him, the teaching of rebirth seems to be working to instill urgency and commitment to his practice, best realized through monastic practice. However, it seems to me, it makes his faith in the teachings rather fragile, making it contingent on external evidence, rather than simply fulfilling its practice function. If he were to hold this teaching more loosely, but rest in its practice function, it would be much more malleable.

Understanding our presuppositions: materialism. Rebirth is described in the EBT as a linear process, in which a death gives rise to a birth that preserves many mental factors, particularly habit patterns, in the process. Generally, as we consider this, many of us balk. It defies common sense. It is unscientific. Science allows no mechanism whereby this could happen. A little more explicitly: the mind is a product of brain function. If the body dies, the brain dies and >poof< the mind is gone. How can it be preserved for the next life?

Behind common sense are always a lot of presuppositions. Einstein is said to have stated that “common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind before age eighteen.” Presuppositions here are tacit assumptions, most commonly instilled at a young age before our faculty of dis­crimination has fully de­veloped, or so widely accepted in our society that we too have ac­cepted them without ever having examined or questioned them. They are, in other words, beliefs; they are, in fact, as instances of unexamined belief, examples of blind faith. This does not necessarily make them false, but certainly makes them subject to examination. In the present case, the presupposition at hand is that of materialism, that all of reality is physical; that what we consider mental, if it exists at all, is a byproduct of physical activity, an epiphenomenon, generally specifically attributed to brain function.

Materialism gives rise to a range of positions about the status of mind. We have seen that B.F. Skinner simply dismissed mind as illusory and not worthy of investigation. Others hold that mind has a kind of reality, albeit one that can ultimately be reduced to brain function, but is nonetheless worthy of investigation. Many of these hold that what appears in consciousness reflects accurately objective reality, aside from emotional responses, dreams, etc., but generally dismiss such things an altered consciousness and mystical states, etc. A large segment of the population seems to regard meditative states and spiritual attainments as just one step away from fairy dust, shape shifting and reading tea leaves.

Where we we stand on these issues is bound to effect how we interpret the Buddha’s teachings, because Buddhism is so much concerned with mind. Buddhist practitioners sit in the middle of their subjective experience in meditation, while right view points out what we will find there. Nonetheless, if we believe in materialism, then we may balk at rebirth; if we do not acknowledge mystical states, we will have trouble making sense of awakening; if we do not acknowledge altered consciousness, we will fail to see the value of meditation. There are such people and they will find little of Buddhism meaningful or accessible, and are not likely to show up a Buddhist temples or meditation group.

Recently I watched a video on-line of an address Sam Harris delivered to a conference of atheists on meditation. Sam Harris is as assertive in his atheism as the next guy, but has taken an interesting turn; he has developed an interest in Buddhist meditation (even writing a book the subject) and he wanted to convey to the audience that meditation can be cleanly distinguished from the horror of “religion” and is even beneficial. His audience would have none of it, responding with moans in many tones and by rolling its many eyes. It is clear that the presuppositions of a large segment of the modern population make meditation, and Buddhism generally, inaccessible. I don’t expect to have more success with this population than Sam Harris, but they provide an opportunity for understanding the kinds of presuppositions that modern people harbor.

What is generally misunderstood is that science makes a poor case for materialism. Materialism has never been presented as a scientific theory subject to rigorous empirical investigation. It is a metaphysical assumption that most scientists find appealing. Materialism has its origin in the mind-matter dualism of Descarte in which a non-material mind is the seat of consciousness, self-awareness and intelligence, clearly distinguished from matter, to which scientific investigation was to be limited. As it has happened, the success of science in investigating the material universe in the succeeding centuries has been astonishing, while relatively little is understood of the mind. Rather naturally, as science has begun to become more interested in subjective experience, the hope seems to have arisen that what has worked in the past will work in the future, that mind will yield to the paradigm of material investigation.

The logic of this has always reminded me of the man who drops his keys in the dark but searches for them under a street lamp where the light is better. So far this approach has failed to account for the mind. Although correlations have been discovered between brain activity and subjective experiences, causality is not established. Moreover, there is not even a viable theory on the table of how conscious experience can possibly arise from material processes. Furthermore, the observer effect witnessed in quantum theory suggests that mind intrudes as a causal factor into the material world at a very fundamental level. Some researchers are now even suggesting that matter is reducible to mind, not the other way around. Giving up or at least questioning the presupposition of materialism can open up many new possibilities for interpreting Buddhist teachings.

The challenge of monasticism. The Buddha was a monk. Virtually all the awakened of the EBT were either monks or nuns. Monastics have been responsible for transmitting Buddhist teachings from generation to generation, fulfilling the mission the Buddha assigned it. Entering monastic practice has been a kind of right upheld by Buddhist communities throughout Buddhist history open to those who want to dedicate themselves fully to Buddhist practice free from the corrupting influences of the world. Aside from promoting individual practice, monastic practice serves the Buddhist community in preserving and propagating the higher teachings, and providing the key determining factor in the dynamics of the Buddhist community. Moreover, the monastic sangha is the most enduring (and endearing) human institution on the planet; Buddhism has never succeeded without a monastic sangha, and where the monastic sangha is lost, as in the “New Buddhist” movements in Japan, Buddhism becomes unrecognizable.

So, why do so many modern people balk at the legitimacy of a monastic institution and some would do away with it altogether? Some even want to deny that the Buddha founded a monastic sangha, an argument that is exceedingly hard to make in the context of the EBT.

For one thing, institutions themselves are suspect, as they should be, for they easily move toward corruption and abuse. But a vehemence is reserved in this case that is not enjoyed by the local chapter of the Audubon Society, the corner Stop and Shop or the Social Security Administration. Like it or not, all aspects of society are facilitated by institutions. If you go out on a dinner date, you enter an institution, a restaurant, in which many people are working collaboratively in various roles to provide delicious food and a comfortable context for your amorous intent. If a like-minded group of stamp collectors wanted to organize their efforts, to facilitate access to or trading of stamps, they will probably organize a club. Why should we object to an institution in one case but not in the other?

In fact, as institutions go, the monastic sangha described in the EBT is strikingly amiable. Its primary function is, in contrast to how many think, to make the monks and nuns powerless with respect to society at large, to make them as helpless as kittens, for in this way their interest withdraws from the world, providing the seclusion conducive to practice. Internally, the monastic sangha has well-articulated means to ensure harmony, such that its members are “blending like milk and water, regarding each other with kind eyes” (SN 9.36). It is an institution with little hierarchy and no coercive power. Moreover, the Buddha designed it as a completely decentralized consensual democracy, following rules of governance and monastic behavior laid out in the monastic code of the Buddha. Membership in the monastic sangha was open as privilege to all adult members of the Buddhist community regardless of caste or gender (with some minor restrictions intended to prevent abuse of this privilege). It was designed to provide the ideal social context for Buddhist practice and cultivate a space in which the practice of Dharma can burn brightest. The monastic sangha’s authority lies purely in its role in maintaining, exemplifying, teaching and perpetuating the practice and understanding of Dharma for the benefit of the entire community. Ultimately the monastic community is under the full control of the lay community, for if the monastics fail inspire, the lay community can withdraw its support.

Naturally the monastic institution has suffered some corruption of its original intent here and there in its history. Historically this has resulted, as far as I can see, primarily from the support of governments and wealthy benefactors who demand concessions, or from government interference in the proper functioning of the sangha. It has also neglected to establish, maintain or restore the nuns’ sangha in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions. Nonetheless, throughout Asia – and I can speak of Myanmar from personal experience – it generally functions to this day in the various independent local monasteries, generally in small villages, in the way the Buddha intended. Moreover, these faults in the sangha will be quickly and naturally addressed as the monastic sangha grows in the West, particularly as we leave behind any traditional political arrangements, in the way that many calcified interpretations of Dharma sometimes found in Asian traditions will be reconsidered with fresh eyes in the West.

Understanding our presuppositions: religion. It seems that problem many have with monasticism is that in appearance it has not only “religion” but “religious hierarchy” written all over it. And so many balk, just as we do for rites and rituals, vows, liturgy, spells, mythology and sacred objects. After all, many say, Buddhism is rational (I hope this essay may have demonstrated that it is even more rational than many may have thought), not religious. People can often be quite fervent in their rationality:

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”

“Religious authority, priests, monks, clerical garb, vows, humbug!”

“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”

“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

Once again, let’s try to understand our presuppositions. These kinds of reactions, in fact, have a long history in Western culture, particularly in Protestant cultures. Recall that the early “Protestants” represented a “protest” movement against the perceived corruption within the Catholic church, particularly against its hierarchical institutions which had become instruments for the consolidation of enormous temporal power, while reserving for itself a mediating role and complete dominance throughout Europe in people’s spiritual lives as the means to connect to God. Much of the priesthood had become corrupted by power, and even the monastic order was not immune. The Protestant reformation swept away this institutional presence from the lives of many, such that people could enjoy a direct relationship to God. This process was dramatized by years of social turmoil and thirty years of devastating warfare in Europe as landed aristocracy exploited the situation to “secularize” the power vacuum left in many regions by the dis-empowered church.

Secularization for many, beginning with John Locke, meant that religion became a private concern without an institutional presence in society, sometimes now describes as being “spiritual but not religious.” For many, the role of God in the following centuries faded, particularly with the ascent of science. With the marginalization of God, particularly in European romanticism and psychotherapy, and among the hippies, some inner core within each of us became the source of spiritual energy as well as creativity, under constant threat by social convention and institutions. A product of all this has been a general suspicion of religion. All this is the source of very strong presuppositions, rarely examined by those who carry them and very difficult to see as anything other than common sense.

What does this have to do with Buddhism? Absolutely nothing, and that is the point. The Buddha was born much to early and in the wrong part of the world to know anything about this history of Western ideas. Yet we project the narrative of the last paragraph on the situation in early Buddhist Asia, preferring to see the Buddha as the philosopher of the inner self, telling us how to push institutional life and social convention aside in order to free our inner spiritual energy, and leaving us imagining we’ve expunged religion from Buddhism. The simple and fragile decentralized monastic sangha thereby becomes equated with the monolithic Catholic Church.

Our presuppositions concern something called “religion,” which many find objectionable. “Religion” is not even a concept the Buddha would have been familiar with, for historically there had been no equivalent word in any Asian language before Western contact. Although it has defied definition by scholars, not only do we presume to know what religion is or how to recognize it when we see it, but we are willing to make bold claims about religion: That it is the opiate of the people, or that it is by nature violent, and so on.

The only reasonable definition I know of religion that would include Buddhism is that of Paul Tillich, that religion is the “ultimate concern.” Indeed, we might characterize both Buddhism and Christianity as the ultimate concern for their adherents, and we can acknowledge further that there are a common set of factors that typically adhere to the ultimate concern, which include mythology, ritual, institutional structure, clergy, robes, sacred objects, etc. But at what point does the ultimate concern of Buddhism become objectionable as these various factors adhere to it?

It is not that we object so strongly to organization, hierarchy or authority in general: we have plenty of this in government, in our schools, at work.

It is not that we object to attributing symbolic meaning to things: we do this to flags, military uniforms, corporate logos.

It is not that we object to archaic clothing: judges and college graduates wear robes.

It is not that we object to rites and rituals: the military or a children’s birthday party is full of them. Even the abundant bowing that characterizes Buddhism has its counterparts in shaking hands, in waving and in military salutes.

It is not that we object to vows and commitments. These drive most of our large undertakings, from marriage to getting a college degree.

For many in the modern West the ultimate concern is shopping and, sure enough, virtually all of these features that tend to adhere in “religion” can be found in the realm of shopping.

Liturgy. I still have advertising jingles playing in my head that I learned in childhood. Some Christian liturgy is co-opted during the peak Christmas season.

Mythology. Consumerist myths tend to center around celebrities, sublime beings who live problematic, operatic lives, but spend a lot of money and look great and act cool living them.

Sacred objects. These are even conveniently marked for how sacred.

Institutional presence. Shopping is largely driven by for-profit, limited-liability faceless corporations, which have many levels of hierarchy, are corrupt almost by definition and wield great power..

Clergy. Salespeople (or maybe game show hosts).

Ritual. The whole shopping experience is ritualized and customers become upset if the salespeople don’t satisfy their behavioral expectations.

Respect for the understandings of others. In this essay I have been calling for a radically open-minded way of approaching the Buddha’s teachings. Such an approach that seriously what is of value in these teachings, that is, how they support our lives of Buddhist practice. At the same time, such an approach holds loosely any particular way we might have of making these teachings meaningful and accessible to ourselves, that is, by avoiding getting caught up in fixed view or beliefs. We have seen that the Buddha himself lights this way (I am perpetually blown away by the depth and comprehensiveness of the Buddha’s thinking).

The Buddha’s teachings are very much experientially based, which means that most of us who have no qualms with the veracity of the subjective mind will find them meaningful and accessible without balking. Nonetheless, at certain points we will be challenged by certain teachings as we develop in our practice and understanding. Indeed, there is much in Buddhism to challenge us in many ways. If you find that you balk around rebirth, around bowing, around renunciation, or around any number of eyebrow-raisers, this does not mean you are a failure at Buddhism, or don’t get to call yourself a Buddhist. In fact, it will probably have little impact on your practice for the short-term: We are each, at any giving time, working with a subset of the Buddha’s teachings while many others are likely to be unfamiliar or obscure for many years before we succeed in making them our own. So, we have abundant material to work with. If we balk in one area of practice, we can always focus our attention on another.

We each at a given time have our own private Dharma, larger or smaller than another’s, overlapping in some ways and distinct in others. Our Dharma tends to become more comprehensive with time, as more and more teachings come to inform our practice. But there is also a larger Dharma, one that belongs not to any individual, but to the Buddhist community writ large. This larger Dharma is accessible to us as the need arises through books, through teachers, through Web searches and most importantly through admirable friends who simply exhibit the Dharma successfully in their lives. I want to close with an admonition: Don’t try to reduce the larger Dharma down to your private Dharma. Rather, respect and support the practice and understanding of those whose Dharma might differ from your own. If you don’t “get” rebirth or bows or why someone would become a monk, respect those who do, and never try to diminish their (hopefully loose) hold on those teachings. Someday – and this will surprise you – your understanding may comprehend what at one time seemed incomprehensible. This is how we preserve the integrity of the teachings, even while we adapt them to modern sensibilities.

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

  1. Anagarika Michael Roe Says:

    Dear Bhante, thank you for this beautiful essay; the timing of it could not be better. There has been some back and forth on Facebook in response to a compelling essay that Bhante Sujato posted on Sutta Central. I beleive that Bhante Sujato attempted to trigger a rise from the secular Buddhist community, and he succeeeded. 🙂 Today, a member of Sutta Central posted a link to your essay, and I have just finished my first read of it, and will come back to it many times. With Metta and gratitude. Anagarika Michael


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Anagarkika Michael,
      Thank you for reading this. I am glad someone finds it useful. Have you noticed that I just posted something yesterday that might be relevant? It is a selective review of Batchelor’s “After Buddhism.”
      I am sorry that I do not do Facebook. I had to give it up; it was too distracting. Otherwise I would be eager to follow this conversation.


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