Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
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.
Also see the thread on Newland's book Introduction to Emptiness. Recall above that Newland is on the rangtong side of the debate. Of particular relevance to this thread, from an interview therein:
"Some traditions focus on the idea that emptiness is the absolute reality, the fundamental thing that exists, and that other things that appear are illusions. The practices involve allowing the fundamental purity that is the nature of things to shine out. I think that's a common way to practice in Tibetan Buddhism; you can find parallels to it in other Mahayana traditions outside of Tibet as well.
"And then there is another way of looking at things. It doesn't disagree with that, exactly, but it shifts the focus a little and says, well, nothing absolutely exists. Nothing, including emptiness, exists in and of itself. Everything exists only conventionally because everything exists only interdependently. This is fundamentally true of even emptiness itself. That's what Nagarjuna said; that's what he meant when he said not to take dogmatic views of emptiness. He meant not to reify emptiness as an absolute essence. Therefore, in this view, emptiness is another conventionally existing thing. All things exist conventionally. Emptiness is the name that we give to one particular existing thing: the fact that nothing exists ultimately. And that's a very different way of talking about things."