In my quest to go postmetaphysical a few of my several concerns follow: 1) How to interpret states and stages of consciousness; 2) How to practice secular meditation free from metaphysical baggage; and 3) How to share the former in a contemporary, western community with a focus on some form of liberation, or at least alleviation, of human suffering. Stephen Batchelor has been invaluable in this quest. (See our prior discussion of him here.) One of his essays is instructive along these lines, "The agnostic Buddhist: a secular vision of dharma practice." Here are a few select excerpts:

 

It is important to distinguish between those questions that are addressed by the core teachings of the Buddha, and those which are not really of central concern. I was listening on the radio not long ago in England to a discussion about religious belief. All of the participants were engaged in a heated discussion about the possibility of miracles. It is generally assumed that being a religious person entails believing certain things about the nature of oneself and reality in general that are beyond the reach of reason and empirical verification. What happened before birth, what will happen after death, the nature of the soul and its relation to the body: these are first and foremost religious questions. And the Buddha was not interested in them. But if we look at Buddhism historically, we'll see that it has continuously tended to lose this agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalised as a religion, with all of the usual dogmatic belief systems that religions tend to have. So, ironically, if you were to go to many Asian countries today, you would find that the monks and priests who control the institutional bodies of Buddhism would have quite clear views on whether the world is eternal or not, what happens to the Buddha after death, the status of the mind in relation to the body, and so on.

 

So, what would an agnostic Buddhist be like today? How would we even start to think about such a stance? Firstly, I would suggest that an agnostic Buddhist would not regard the Dharma or the teachings of the Buddha as a source which would provide answers to questions of where we are going, where we are coming from, what is the nature of the universe, and so on. In this sense, an agnostic Buddhist would not be a believer with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena and in this sense would not be religious. I've recently started saying to myself: "I'm not a religious person," and finding that to be strangely liberating. You don't have to be a religious [or spiritual] person in order to practice the Dharma.

 

Secondly, an agnostic Buddhist would not look to the Dharma for metaphors of consolation. This is another great trait of religions: they provide consolation in the face of birth and death; they offer images of a better afterlife; they offer the kind of security that can be achieved through an act of faith. I'm not interested in that. The Buddha's teachings are confrontative; they're about truth-telling, not about painting some pretty picture of life elsewhere. They're saying: "Look, existence is painful." This is what is distinctive about the Buddhist attitude: it starts not from the promise of salvation, but from valuing that sense of existential anguish we tend either to ignore, deny or avoid through distractions.

 

"Emptiness" is a singularly unappetising term. I don't think it was ever meant to be attractive. Herbert Guenther once translated it as "the open dimension of being," which sounds a lot more appealing than "emptiness." "Transparency" was a term I played with for a while, which also makes emptiness sound more palatable. Yet we have to remember that even two thousand years ago Nagarjuna was having to defend himself against the nihilistic implications of emptiness. Many of the chapters in his philosophical works start with someone objecting: "This emptiness is a terrible idea. It undermines all grounds for morality. It undermines everything the Buddha was speaking about." Clearly the word did not have a positive ring back then either. I suspect that it might have been used quite consciously as an unappealing term, which cuts through the whole fantasy of consolation that one might expect a religion to provide. Perhaps we need to recover this cutting-edge of emptiness, its unappealing aspect.

 

I like to think of the Buddha's awakening under the Bodhi tree not as some kind of transcendental absorption, but as a moment of total shock. Neils Bohr once said about quantum mechanics: "If you're not shocked by quantum theory, then you don't understand it." I think we could say the same about emptiness: If you're not shocked by emptiness, then you haven't understood it.

 

Now, whether we follow the Indo-Tibetan analytical approach or the Zen approach of asking a koan like "What is this?," such meditative inquiry leads to a mind that becomes more still and clear. But paradoxically this does not mean that things then become more clear-cut, that you reach some final understanding of who you are or of what makes the universe tick. Because, at the same time as such things become more vivid and clear, they also become more baffling. One encounters, as it were, the sheer mystery of things. A deep agnosticism would be one founded on this kind of unknowing: the acknowledgement that, in terms of what life really is, I really do not know. And in that unknowing there is already a quality of questioning, of perplexity. And as that perplexity becomes stabilised through meditation, one enters increasingly into a world that is mysterious, magical in a sense, and not containable by narrow ideas and concepts.

 

But this is not where the practice ends. This is only half the project. What we also discover in this open space, in this mysterious experience of non-self, are the wellsprings of creativity and imagination.... The process of articulating the Dharma goes on and on according to the needs of the different historical situations that it encounters. We could read the whole history of Buddhism, from the moment of the Buddha's awakening until now, as a process of seeking to imagine a way to respond both wisely and compassionately to the situation at hand.

 

All of us have experiences of what it means to imagine and create something. It struck me very forcibly one day…that preparing myself to put into words what had not yet been put into words was to enter a very similar frame of mind to that of sitting on a cushion in a zendo, asking: "What is this?" The creative process seemed very comparable to the meditative process. Awakening is only complete -- in the same way that a work of art is only complete -- when it finds an expression, a form, that translates that experience in a way that makes it accessible to others. That again is the balance between wisdom and compassion. The creative process of expressing the Dharma is not just a question of duplicating in words something etched somewhere in the privacy of my soul. The living process of understanding is formed through the encounter with another person, with the world. You've probably all had the experience of someone coming to you in a state of distress and blurting out their problems, and you suddenly find yourself saying things that you were quite unaware you knew. The process of awakening is one of valuing and connecting with that capacity to respond in authentic ways to the suffering of others. The imagination is the bridge between contemplative experience and the anguish of the world. By valuing imagination, we value the capacity of each person, each community, to imagine and create themselves anew.

 

In the contemporary world Buddhism encounters a culture that places a positive value on the power of each individual's creativity and imagination. It's interesting that in most Buddhist traditions these things are not strongly encouraged, or, if they are, it's usually only within highly formalised settings. I like to think of Dharma practice today as venturing into a world of imagination, one in which each individual, each community, seeks to express and to articulate their vision in terms of the particular needs of their own situation. Buddhism would then become less and less the preserve of an institution, and more and more an experience that is owned by ordinary people in ordinary communities.

 

Of course, there are dangers here. But these are hardly new. Historically, Buddhism has always had to find ways of responding effectively to the danger of becoming too acculturated, of becoming too absorbed into the assumptions of the host culture. Certainly such a danger exists here in the West: Buddhism might, for example, tend to become a kind of souped-up psychotherapy. But there's the equal danger of Buddhism holding on too fiercely to its Asian identity and remaining a marginal interest amongst a few eccentrics. Somehow we have to find a middle way between these two poles, and this is a challenge which is not going to be worked out by academics or Buddhist scholars; it's a challenge that each of us is asked to meet in our own practice from day to day.

Views: 2386

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

uhu

i just noticed my post wasn´t even deleted , hm...... maybe i should be a little more carefull

with (imbibing) listening to all this grateful dead stuff .......am starting to loose my orient-tation....

yours craziest sort of yogiji



max miller said:

i have read it and shentong and rangtong is not very much

at all.

i guess its o.k if you think its all about theory ....: )

anyway take this a synchronizity:

i am still listening to the grateful dead concert i posted on the andrew thread

and just as my post here got deleted because i guess it was too colourfull language

or not academic enough or whatever , hey i don´t mind : )

but this is what garcia was singing at the time

: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HTcet_BgYM

isn´t the universe wonderfull : ))))

whatever IT is it sure got a great sense of humour folks

 



max miller said:

but since we are talking dharma

i will add my discourse suggested by the universe via synchronizity:

you are the eyes of the world

sings grateful dead now

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLDw_gj5e3g

enjoy enjoy enjoy

dancing to and as that : )

uhu

i just noticed my post wasn´t even deleted , hm...... maybe i should be a little more carefull

with (imbibing) listening to all this grateful dead stuff .......am starting to loose my orient-tation....

yours craziest sort of yogiji



max miller said:

i have read it and shentong and rangtong is not very much

at all.

i guess its o.k if you think its all about theory ....: )

anyway take this a synchronizity:

i am still listening to the grateful dead concert i posted on the andrew thread

and just as my post here got deleted because i guess it was too colourfull language

or not academic enough or whatever , hey i don´t mind : )

but this is what garcia was singing at the time

: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HTcet_BgYM

isn´t the universe wonderfull : ))))

whatever IT is it sure got a great sense of humour folks

 

As previously stated, the Axial Age was about a strict dualism. In Loy's essay he discusses the conditions that caused this split: the emergence of abstract rationality from more concrete operations. Another aspect was the rise of individuality, so we might even say that this was an egoic rationality. It was expressed in all manner of hierarchical relationships of domination: men over women, human over environment, reason over body. Loy argues that we need to move beyond this dualistic stage via the “spirituality of evolution” (169). This entails moving beyond a sense of our separate self to a nondual relationships with something beyond it like others and the manifest world. He offers the example of the Buddha as a path in that direction but does not elaborate. And it is here that this thread indeed elaborates on how many forms of Buddhism maintain the metaphysical dichotomies of the Axial Age. So even Buddhism needs a "new story" in his words.

He said: "Shunyata is not 'nothingness' but the formless potential that describes awareness prior to identification with any form" (166). I suggest that this fully present nondual 'awareness' (shentong) still retains the metaphysics of presence, which itself is part, but yet subtler example, of the same kind of dualistic metaphysics above.

Note: I just re-discovered this IPS thread on Loy's ecobuddhism.

On one of my other tentacles though one of my favorite quotes on the topic is by Loy, from this post:

"Well, this relates to the way we understand spirituality and meditation. For example, we often tend to understand meditation—in Zen especially—as getting rid of thoughts. We think that if we can just get rid of thought, then we can see the world as it is, clearly, without any interference from conceptuality. We view thinking as something negative that has to be eliminated in order to realize the emptiness of the mind. But this reflects the delusion of duality, rather than the solution to duality. As Dogen put it, the point isn’t to get rid of thought, but to liberate thought. Form is emptiness, yet emptiness is also form, and our emptiness always takes form. We don’t realize our emptiness apart from form, we realize it in form, as non-attached form. One of the very powerful and creative ways that our emptiness takes form is as thought. The point isn’t to have some pure mind, untainted by thought, like a blue, completely empty sky with no clouds. After a while that gets a little boring! Rather, one should be able to engage or play with the thought processes that arise in a creative, non-attached, nondualistic way. To put it in another way, the idea isn’t to get rid of all language, it’s to be free within language, so that one is non-attached to any particular kind of conceptual system, realizing that there are many possible ways of thinking and expressing oneself. The freedom from conceptualizing that we seek does not happen when we wipe away all thoughts; instead, it happens when we’re not clinging to, or stuck in, any particular thought system. The kind of transformation we seek in our spiritual practices is a mind that’s flexible, supple. Not a mind that clings to the empty blue sky. It’s a mind that’s able to dance with thoughts, to adapt itself according to the situation, the needs of the situation. It’s not an empty mind which can’t think. It’s an ability to talk with the kind of vocabulary or engage in the way that’s going to be most helpful in that situation."

We recently mentioned The Two Truths Debate by Sonam Thakchoe in another thread, which was used extensively as a reference in this thread and its predecessor thread. I just found this free e-copy at Scribd for those interested.

For some other Thakchoe material see this post and several following posts from another thread.

Batchelor's essay is attached entitled "A Secular Buddhism," published in Journal of Global Buddhism 13 (2012), 87-107. The abstract follows:

"This essay explores the possibility of a complete secular redefinition of Buddhism. It argues that such a secular re-formation would go beyond modifying a traditional Buddhist school, practice or ideology to make it more compatible with modernity, but would involve rethinking the core ideas on which the very notion of 'Buddhism' is based. Starting with a critical reading of the four noble truths, as presented in the Buddha’s first discourse, the author proposes that instead of thinking of awakening in terms of 'truths' to be understood one thinks of it in terms of 'tasks' to be accomplished. Such a pragmatic approach may open up the possibility of going beyond the belief-based metaphysics of classical Indian soteriology (Buddhism 1.0) to a praxis-based, post-metaphysical vision of the dharma (Buddhism 2.0)."

Attachments:

Speaking of 'right view,' note this passage from the above:

"The history of Buddhism is the history of its own ongoing interpretation and representation of itself. Each Buddhist tradition maintains that it alone possesses the 'true' interpretation of the dharma, whereas all the other schools either fall short of this truth or have succumbed to 'wrong views.' Today, from a historical-critical perspective, these kinds of claims appear strident and hollow. For we recognise that every historical form of Buddhism is contingent upon the wide array of particular and unique circumstances out of which it arose. The idea that one such school has somehow succeeded in preserving intact what the Buddha taught whereas all the others have failed is no longer credible. Whether we like it or not, Buddhism has become irrevocably plural. There exists no independent Buddhist judiciary that can pass judgment as to whose views are right and whose wrong" (90).

He follows this by examining his own claim for secular Buddhism.

This is nice:

"As soon as the seductive notion of 'truth' begins to permeate the discourse of the dharma, the pragmatic emphasis of the teaching risks being replaced by speculative metaphysics, and awakening comes to be seen as achieving an inner state of mind that somehow accords with an objective metaphysical 'reality'” (92).

The philological exegesis on 'noble truth' on the same page is pertinent, as it was a later addition in line with an ultimate metaphysics.

Also see the 'complete view' on 98-9, linked to dependent arising and ceasing. Even devoid of 'truth' it is a pragmatic path of steps to be mastered in a certain way and sequence.* There may not be one 'right way' but there are definite parameters for judging right ways. And these parameters are what maintain the practice as 'Buddhism.'

* Like stages of skill acquisition.

However, "the eightfold path is not to be seen as a linear sequence of stages that results in a final goal, but as a positive feedback loop that is itself the goal. [...] This loop I am describing, however, is not cyclical. If it were, one would keep finding oneself back where one started, which would be analogous to samsara" (102). Hmmm, that insidious and continuously (re)iterative twist or fold thingie.

Reply to Discussion

RSS

What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

This group is for anyone interested in exploring these questions and tracing out the horizons of an integral post-metaphysical spirituality.

Notice to Visitors

At the moment, this site is at full membership capacity and we are not admitting new members.  We are still getting new membership applications, however, so I am considering upgrading to the next level, which will allow for more members to join.  In the meantime, all discussions are open for viewing and we hope you will read and enjoy the content here.

© 2019   Created by Balder.   Powered by

Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service