30 August 2017

Secular Buddhism

Anyone who has made any real effort to practice or understand Buddhist doctrine (Dharma) will acknowledge that the traditions of Buddhism can be very complicated, and frequently challenging, both intellectually and in terms of putting them into practice. But I think it's fair to say that for many in the modern western context, there are hangups that frequently interfere with success in either of those endeavors that arise from what you might call the supernatural aspects of the traditions, particularly any even modestly literal view of the doctrines of karma and rebirth, both of which seem to lack any plausible mechanism consistent with modern objectivist, or empirical, or scientific, thinking. These paradoxes have caused many a well intentioned practitioner to stray from Buddhist practice, even though they may have experienced an overarching truth in the teachings of compassion, lovingkindness, meditation practice, and the doctrine that our discursive thought and focus on, and concern for, ourselves and our own well being, are largely based on active and malignant delusions. We may feel that these insights are true, but get bogged down on other things that are incorporated into Buddhist tradition which seem, well, impossible.

There are a couple of relatively new books out that try to grapple with these issues, reviewed recently in an essay/review by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. (See their website, you can read it free). The first is Robert Wright's Why Buddism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, and the second is Stephen Batchelor's After Buddhism

As a "secular" Buddhist myself, I find these attempts to define what it means to be a Buddhist without resort to nonscientific beliefs very interesting and helpful. I do agree with the letter writer to the New Yorker who says (paraphrasing) that Gopnik focuses too much in his essay on the wisdom aspect of Dharma (emptiness, or the illusory nature of clinging to a particular view of reality), as opposed to the equally important role of compassion, which is often most thoroughly experienced in the practice of what in Tibet is called Tonglen, or more generally "exchanging self with others," i.e., recognizing the essential truth that we are all the same in our essential view, and that suffering is pervasive. Without compassion, we are lost. But the good news is that when Gotama taught not to accept what he said on faith, but to try the recommended practices and see if they work for you, he was creating a tradition that sill lives, and still works. Because what is objectively real is that you can in fact learn to drop story lines, and see the present moment as it is, and you can learn to practice compassion. There are simple techniques, and they aren't magic, they're just method. And they work. In those techniques lie the essential "truth" of Buddhism, which we "secular Buddhists" contend is not a religion but a practicum, which requires no faith, but rather trust in a system that has been shown to work over a very, very long time by a large body of serious and dedicated practitioners. 

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